Rambo and I

It all happened on a day when my immunity to honking in Delhi traffic dropped momentarily.

I was driving to my office in Subroto Park. As usual at 9 am in the morning, the traffic on the airport road near Dhaula Kuan was moving at a snail’s pace. Everyone on the road seemed to be in a great hurry. Scooters and motorbikes were moving like free electrons in the little spaces between the bumper-to-bumper moving mass of buses and cars. The car behind me seemed to be in greater haste than all others. The driver’s hand seemed to be glued to the horn in perpetuity. Unfortunately, there was no space to allow him to pass.

It just happened that the planets were not aligned favourably for me at that instant on that day. In fact, I am certain that they had conspired to make me feel ragged by the blaring noise. So, otherwise always unmindful of the etiquettes of the drivers sharing the road with me, I responded with a comical gesture. I rolled down my window, and with my hand, signalled the car behind me to go over my car.

Did I infuriate the man behind? May be, I did, because I saw an enraged being in the rear view mirror of my car.

Sometimes weird thoughts come to one’s mind when one gets ragged. It was one of those moments for me. “Why wasn’t he born a few minutes earlier than he did?” I wondered, “He would have reached in time everywhere, all through his life.”

A crooked smile broke on my face.

Did the man behind see my smile? Did it add fuel to fire? From what followed, I have reasons to believe that my spontaneous, silly and uncalled for action and the smile, which in retrospect, I feel I could have avoided, had caused a volcanic eruption. He had seen my face as I looked at him in my mirror. But like a child, I was oblivious of the consequences of stoking a fire.

I saw the first ominous signs of what was to follow when he overtook my car on the first opportunity. He was a hulk of a man with long hair that covered his entire mane. A metallic hairband––like the spiral binding of the notebooks I use––secured them. He wore a thick gold chain around his neck with a heavy looking pendant––Hanuman or some other deity. His left ear lobe had a large diamond stud.

He must have been a member of the Gold Gym for many years. In the slow moving traffic I got a glimpse of his muscled biceps revolting to break free of the tight sleeves of his black round-neck tee shirt. I couldn’t miss the large tattoo depicting a dagger peeping out of his short sleeves.

He removed his large sized Ray Ban goggles as his car crawled past mine and gave a stare that crucified me. Almost! Then his eyes turned into slits as if he were taking a dim view of my actions. He must have been watching many of those western classics, the Clint Eastwood kinds, I thought. We were a few feet apart and separated by two toughened glass panes, yet I heard the crushing sound of beetle nut between his teeth.

Was he planning to chew me? Hallucination!

I avoided his gaze and hoped it was all over.

Far from it, it was just the beginning of, should I say, an ordeal.

Massive fenders and the picture of a not-so-benevolent Hanuman on the rear pane of his car seemed to say, “Boy, better don’t mess with me.” They looked intimidating when he stopped his SUV in front of mine near the main entrance to the Headquarters of the Western Air Command at Subroto Park. Everything on his car’s number plate was obscure except the number 1111––it was a VIP number. I got a glimpse of a tattered tricolour lying limp by a flagstaff on the bonnet of his elephantine car.

VIP

I needed no more introduction of the man who stepped out of the car and stood, arms akimbo, by its side gesturing me to come out. He was wearing cargo pants with camouflage print.  A broad black canvas belt was a formality around his slim waist. The bottoms of his trousers were casually tucked in his more-than-ankle-high boots.

He was a Rambo of sorts.

I quickly evaluated my two options––to fight or, to flee.

Talking of the option to fight…

Attacking first, I had once knocked out an opponent taller than I was. But that was as a schoolboy. Much later, in service, I had trained hundreds of paratroopers and the Garuds of the Indian Air Force. More than a dozen years later, some of the close combat techniques that I had taught my pupils lay embedded in my mind. But I doubted if my fighting abilities at sixty would match this menacing man’s in his late twenties. The red juices of Banarasi Paan oozing from the corner of his mouth and sliding down his lower jaw confirmed that he was not what he appeared to be. He was certainly not a Rambo. He was a youngster, managing his affairs using his appearance and perhaps, his connections. Yet I didn’t want to risk the seven implants that I had just got to regain my ability to bite and chew. At over Rs 2.2 lakhs paid to CLOVE Dental, my mandible had suddenly become precious. It was in my interest to avoid a physical fight.

Needless to say, to be able to conquer the enemy without fighting is the Art of War.

Talking of the option to flee…

I recalled that once Bruce Lee was asked by an interviewer, “What would you do if you were actually cornered by a goon?” The legendary actor and Kung Fu master had said something to the effect that he would find an escape route and run away. The Western Air Command with its gate manned by armed guards was just about fifty metres away. But this man stood like a wall in my way. Besides, having overused my knees during my days as a paratrooper, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to outrun him, even if I could dodge him once.

The time was running out, as I opened the door of my car gingerly; I did not want to be trapped in my car. Was there a third option?

Even at that moment of extreme peril to my being, my mind took an errand to an incident, some forty years ago. We, as first term cadets at the National Defence Academy, had failed to produce a variety entertainment programme, in the given duration of time, for the send off party of the graduating seniors. So a cadet sergeant had taken us to task. An hour of intense physical activity (front rolls, push-ups and crawling in the battalion area) under his supervision had made us all realise that there was an actor lying dormant inside of all of us.

It was a Eureka moment; it was another moment of reckoning; it was time to awaken that actor in me.

Without a second thought, I ran into this guy who was preparing to pounce on me, and held him tightly (as different from hugging warmly). “Long time! When did you return from Siachen?” I asked. And then without looking him into the eyes, I continued, “Are you posted in Delhi now? Army Headquarters? How is Pammi? …And the kids?”

Then I held his limp hand and shook it firmly and let off a second volley of questions: “You ass, you don’t feel like staying in touch. You are in Delhi and you haven’t even called me? If I had not seen you today and waved at you… (a pause for effect)… you would have gone away without meeting me. Very bad!” I admonished him with fatherly affection.

The giant looked absolutely dazed. My stun-grenade had had the desired effect. Before he could regain consciousness, I emptied my last magazine of rubber bullets on him: “Why are you looking so puzzled? Aren’t you Chow? Major Chowdhury? …(another pause for effect)… Son of Brigadier Chowdhury? Don’t you recognise me? I am Group Captain Chordia? Ashok uncle, your dad’s NDA course-mate.”

It must have been a stupendous performance, a great monologue indeed.

The body language of the man suggested that he was still in absolute confusion. “Sir, I am not Major Chodhury,” he said meekly. My father is a primary schoolteacher in Greater Noida….” It was my turn to listen to him. I released him from my embrace and gave him an innocent look.

To cut the long story short, we parted with another hug after about five minutes. It was definitely a genuine and much warmer hug this time. And, in those few minutes that we spent together, he told me that he was one of the the general secretaries of the youth wing of one of the major political parties in Uttar Pradesh. He was a property dealer and ran a construction business too. He offered me his services (including his political affiliations), if I needed in the future.

Epilogue

Six months later…

I received a telephone call. “Sir, I am Manoj… Manoj Sharma. Do you remember me; we met on the airport road when you mistook me to be Major Chowdhury? Can you help me with getting some documents attested by a gazetted officer? I promise, they are genuine.” I willingly obliged my young buddy with that little favour.

(Author’s Note: Although fictionalised, this story is based on a real encounter.)

A Garud Legacy

The unusually heavy rainfall in the southern Indian state of Kerala has led to the worst floods in a century. Almost all the river dams within the state were opened to let go of the excess water. More than 300 people have died and over 7 lakh people have been rendered homeless and are living in camps managed by the Indian Navy and a large number of charity organisations including the Gurdwaras.

Armed forces, the National Disaster Response Force, the Indian Railways and scores of other organisations have been toiling round the clock to provide succour to a people in distress. The helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) have been dropping food packets for marooned people. They have been evacuating people to safe locations.

The print and electronic media, the social media included, are replete with news in pictures and videos on the mayhem caused by the floods. They also talk of the yeomen service being provided by all the agencies involved––uniformed men rescuing people in boats; helicopters dropping food supplies….

One such picture (and the video circulated by the India Today Group) that has caught my eye is that of Wing Commander Prashanth, a Garud of the IAF. He is seen rescuing a child in a daring winching operation by an IAF helicopter. “Well done Prashanth! Well done Garuds! The country is proud of you. Keep up the spirit! Keep up the good work!”

Garud child rescue prashanth Kerala

I see that picture and the video with a sense of déjà vu. In fact, that picture, and the video, have sent me on an errand a dozen years back in time.

Around 2005, Garud (IAF’s Special Force) was still in its infancy and I was the Commandant/ Chief Instructor for a brief period. The Garud Regimental Training Centre (GRTC) had just relocated from Air Force Station, Hindan to our new (permanent) location at Chandinagar, an abandoned airbase in the middle of nowhere. New infrastructure––classrooms, firing range, training apparatuses, messes and dormitories––was coming up. The existing facilities were in a dilapidated state.

We had to make do with the available resources till conditions improved.

Although it sounded oxymoronic, I had ordered Shramdaan (voluntary service) to clean up the thick undergrowth that had come up due to years of neglect. The entire station was at work through the afternoon. Men were scything the grass, lifting stones and clearing the paths. After about an hour of hard work in the sun, one of my officers spotted a dry well without a boundary wall. It was fairly deep, maybe 30 to 40 feet. Despite the broad daylight it was difficult to see the bottom.

It was imperative that we secured the well to avoid an accident. As we began piling stones and logs of wood to form a temporary barricade, one of the officers observed some movement at the bottom of the well––it was a dog that had fallen in and was showing signs of life.

Using nylon ropes meant for slithering, we lowered a basket containing bread and milk for the wretched animal to eat. Scared and hurt (due to the fall), the pariah dog declined the offerings. Left to itself, the fellow would die, so I suggested that we hauled him out. It meant that one of us would have to go down on a rope to the bottom of the well and physically bail him out.

There was an air of apprehension: One, the dog might bite its rescuer. Two, there could be insects and/ or snakes. And three, there could be lack of breathing air and, worse still, there could be a poisonous gas.

“Sir, after all it’s a dog,” someone murmured. “We can let him be there.”

I did not want an opportunity to test our skills and abilities to be baulked by doubts. “It is a dog today; it’ll be a human being tomorrow.” I stressed that it was a rare opportunity to rehearse a possibility. There was a need to rescue the poor animal. The questions and the doubts dissolved in the ensuing discussion.

In my assessment, there was no risk at all if one took the necessary precautions but I didn’t want employ a reluctant messiah for the task. So without ado, using a nylon rope and an improvised harness, I got myself lowered into the well. Not fear, but an eerie sensation gripped the crowd as I proceeded. Once at the bottom, I grabbed and held the dog in a tight embrace and howled orders to pull me out. In less than two minutes, the it was rescued. That incident marked a modest beginning.

The Garuds today are carrying forward the legacy.