15 Jul 2015

Jungle & Snow Survival (J&SS) : 1972

In 1972, by the time the Shimla Agreement was signed and the POWs were going home, I was a 22 yr old bandicoot with boundless energy and attitude, with a ‘Ho Chi Minn’ style moustache. I had just returned to Jorhat (43 Sqn) from Agra wearing a red ‘Para’ beret on my head and a ‘Para Wing’ on my sleeve, perhaps a pioneer of a stupid kind – a Para FAC. Both the beret and the wing, christened by dipping in Hercules Rum, had been awarded to me by the Para Brigade Commander with a prophesy, ‘may you try hard enough, and be one amongst us’, reason why I served 70% of my career serving the army wearing an AF uniform.   

When I arrived back in Jorhat wearing a red beret and para wings on my left shoulder, my then Flt Cdr, venerable Lele Sir (whom we unkindly called ‘De De’ and made stupid jokes) immediately confiscated the beret, but I refused to part with the para wing. Though he tried his best to ‘Le Le’, I never did ‘De De’; after jumping out of aircrafts 27 times day and night with the ruddy venerable Para Commandoes, 40 km route marches ending in ‘Basai’ (a village near Agra where every house was a whore joint), I had earned the para wings for unflagging valour and zestful bayonet charges of a different kind.

After the 71 war, there was no way of showing ‘Bahaduri’. Flying the Dak was great fun, mentally / physically challenging.  I was fully enthusiastic to give it my best shot. But instead, I was made ‘Officer-in-Charge’ the ‘Piggery’. It was a great honour to be made the Commanding Officer of a platoon of 22 pigs at such a young and impressionable age. My troops were all undisciplined ‘Sumo’ wrestlers, each around 350 kg, with a voracious appetite for fun, food, fucking and fighting, just like me. But unlike me, they were soldiers with great valour who pantomimed, ‘when you go home, tell them about us, we gave our today for your tomorrow’s dinner’. I was yet to visit Kohima cemetery, or learn about Clausewitz, but my platoon were first class soldiers.

Just as I was training my troops to get into operational status, to fall in line for a guard of honour, ‘De De’ decided to multi task me as a ‘Food Member’. He ordered me to go stay in the kitchen and feed around 250 odd bachelor officers in Jorhat, whose preference for ‘extra messing’ was the troops that I commanded. I was aware of the proverb, ‘he who runs away, shall live to fight another day’. I loved my troops, the ruddy Sumo wrestler commandos who could fall in line and give a guard of honour. I could not harbour the thought of them turning into extra messing. So I ran away and volunteered for J&SS, along with my friend ‘Pitot Tube’ MS Malik of 49 Sqn, six months younger than I.

Lele Sir was very happy to get rid of me and told me ‘J&SS Ja Ke De De’.

‘Mullah / Budda’ Malik, a Rimcolian like me, was a sports person of extraordinary calibre. I was just good for nothing. Besides several other games, he was at that time the Captain of national football team which went abroad somewhere and won laurels.

Budda and I caught a train from Mariani and set out for Srinagar. When we stopped at Patna, I went to ogle at the girls on the platform and to procure ‘Bihari Puris’ with yellow ‘Alu Sabji’. I didn’t see girls or get Puri & Sabji, instead I came running back, gave a kick, woke up Budda and told him, ‘Abe Sale, the entire village is here to meet you’.

At 21 Budda was a very hirsute person, all except on his head. He had a built in 3000 yrds runway on the centre of his head, 00/18. Otherwise he was hairy like a ‘Bhalu’, reason for his sobriquet ‘Budda’ given to him at the age of 11 in Rimc. He was born with the runway 00/18. There was a long line of around 75 people on the platform, all of them born with 3000 yrds runway 00/18 waiting for us !! They had brought Puris and Alu Sabji, a delicacy that genetically propagated care and maintenance units for 00/18 all over Patna.

We changed trains at Farakka, Siliguri, Sialda, New Delhi, went by ‘Phut Phutia’ to Old Delhi, to finally catch a train to Jammu. All trains those days had a steam engine with copious black smoke and soot. I never bathed or went to the toilet en-route. Though we had a first class ‘warrant’, we had no reservations and hence travelled in 3rd class, in front of the toilet that had no water.  It was as bad as the ‘Elson’ of a Dak.

A ‘Shaktiman’ truck masquerading as an ‘Officer’s Bus’ collected us at Jammu and took us to an army transit camp in Udampur. We had our first shower in freezing cold water and a half-hearted crap in dry sanitation with pigs impatiently growling below. I became very sentimental about the troops I commanded back in Jorhat, the ones who could do a guard of honour and even volunteer for extra messing.

Next morning the same Shaktiman collected us and off we went on our tortuous journey. Sitting amongst provision bags, eggs, flour sacks, crates of rum, canteen stores and what have you, I felt snug as a bug in a rug. Shaktimans were built without leaf springs and hence the eggs turned to ‘Dhattikara Bhujia’, very gooey stuff, before we had gone a mile. There was a hefty jawan from 14 Jak Li, going on leave, who decided to use me as a pillow to sleep and I had no choice but to stay still lest the poor bloke woke up and ruined his holiday with a delectable gooey preference of Air Mshl Dattikara, three times daily.

We stopped at a transit camp, where we were supposed to get lunch. But the Gorkha looking Mess Havildar kept saying in Punjabi, ‘Shabji, Hune Aya Roti, Hor Subzi’, but we gave up lunch because it never came. So we set out again and we kept going, through Banihal tunnel and finally the arrow straight road to Srinagar with beautiful Chinar trees on either side.  We were dropped off at Badami Bag where we were met by our orderly ‘Gulam Mohammad’, about 19 years old, very handsome, well turned out in a ‘Bandgala’ and spoke highly cultured Urdu like the Nawab of Awadh, like that old chap Nero, who fiddled with Chess while the British ran off with his Rome (Lucknow).

‘Hujure Alam, Sitarong Ke Sitare, Shahan Sha Sahib’, Gulam Mohammad told me within 2 minutes. ‘I am not your servant, I am just your bloody orderly because I don’t have a choice’. He made us carry our own holdall & camp kit bag, led us to a transit room with two Nawar cots, horse hair blankets and a toilet. The toilet had no running water, the pipes were frozen, but it had a 200 ltr oil drum with ice in it. Budda immediately sat down to fabricate a water heater, two razor blades with a button in between, which when connected to two wires and plugged in, dropped Srinagar electric supply to 50 Volts. It took about 2 days to convert the ice in the drum to near freezing water. If we touched the water or the drum by accident, we would have been summarily executed without a court martial or an electric chair. Though Budda bathed daily in freezing water, I never bathed for one and half months, no matter how dirty I became. I think Budda got used to my body odour mixed with Cuticura talcum powder. Perhaps it reminded Budda of a musk deer.

Gulam’s only service to us was to wake us up early morning and give us an enamel mug with a specially concocted brew, camouflaged as tea, which tasted like goat’s piss. It was made all over the IAF using a top secret, patented recipe, formulated by DGMS (Air) in Air HQ. It was meant to neutralise left over alcohol from previous night, increase patriotism, and to act as a pull through to prevent guns from jamming due to the horrible free ration stuff.   Gulam did turn out to be an excellent tourist guide and also invited Budda and I to his very lavish wedding. My only crib was that he never introduced me to any Kashmiri girls, must have been because I was masquerading as a musk deer.

The J&SS course started the next day with our instructors venerable Flt Lt DK Jain  (OC J&SS), Flt Lt DS Jouhal (CI J&SS), F/L R Kaul and F/O Kanak Singh (Instrs).  They gave us an introductory welcome and a brief of all the terrible things they were planning to do to us, with sadism exceeding Marquis De Sade. There were only a small bunch of trainees (see photo and names below). The most dynamic and illustrious ones, who led the ‘battle of the bar, bar bar’, were F/O KR Singh and F/L DDS Kumar.

Left to right (parent units in brackets)
Standing Back Row :  F/L Tamhane (109), P/O MS Malick (49), F/O Kashyap (NSS),
Flt Sgt Prabhakaran (49), Sgt Oberoi (Packets ?).
Standing Middle Row: F/K NK Rai (19), F/L CK Julius (45), F/L DDS Kumar (8),
F/O KR Sigh (?), F/O HS Ranawat (254 Su), Me (43), F/O SS Rana (27).
Sitting: F/L GK Sud (?) , F/L R Kaul (Instr J&SS), Flt Lt DK Jain  (OC J&SS),
Flt Lt DS Jouhal (CI J&SS), F/O Kanak Singh (Instr J&SS), F/L DS Bajwa (TTW)

Early morning we would catch a one ton that had to be pushed half way between Badami Bagh and the air field.  The routine started at 0745 hrs with a run around the periphery of the air field in flying overalls and flying boots, neither of which were any good for running or for flying, but very good for walking. That is what the course leaders ‘Sud & Bajwa Pvt Ltd’ told the rest of us. We believed them, they were ‘Daddy Cool’, like the baritone rendition by ‘Boney M’ every night at the bar.

Budda was sent off every morning as pacer, to make the instructional staff run after him, while the rest of us walked and took shortcuts to arrive back before Budda and J&SS staff. Right thing to do in survival situations, it conserved energy. I was at a very impressionable age and took to following Keru & DDSK about like a puppy, not only for the morning walk, but to also keep perfect timing with them for elbow bending at night, like a ‘dining in night’, a freaky tradition from the colonial days which the AF was trying to enforce with zest to make us officers and gentlemen. In general girls preferred daddy cools, that is what Keru Said and I believed him.

During the course we learnt how to make a fire, the difference between tinder and kinder. Our fires produced only smoke like the 25 pounder practice bombs which never fell on targets. We were not very good at pitching a tent with a parachute and often were suffocated under it when it collapsed without warning. The ‘lean to’ meant for sleeping in the jungle were equally disastrous, sleep doesn’t come in such contraptions, especially if it was poking one’s ass in pouring rain.

Kanak taught us how to make traps to catch mice and rabbits, but we didn’t catch any, except when Budda ran after a rabbit till it got tired and gave up. He caught it by the scuff of the neck and brought it back to the mess as a pet. The bloody rabbit drank more rum than I did and closed Budda’s bar book though he and his rabbit were teetotallers. Actually I convinced Budda that it was the rabbit who closed his bar book and not me. Budda was a very gullible sweet man who believed everything that I said to corrupt his pious soul.

The J&SS instructional team starved us during day with vengeance to simulate survival in enemy territory. We only survived because of the ‘Param Vishisht Seva’ of the bar man at night, who specially brought for us friend fish and mutton kebabs to remove the bad taste of ‘Contessa’ rum with untreated tap water. Contessa was horrible to drink, but made one feel very good when it was in the tummy.

After a few weeks of all this, the public opinion was that it was better to surrender if in enemy territory, rather than trying to escape J&SS style. Keru in his indomitable style narrated stories of POW camps and how well the enemy treats you with Chicken Peshawari, Tangdi Kebabs, Red Cross Scotch and Camembert Cheese. So I made a mental note that if I ever met Pakis in war or peace, I would volunteer to be a POW just to defeat them by overeating Peshawari and Red Cross cuisine.

One day we were given a lecture by a senior IB officer about Geneva Convention and what rights the POWs had. He told us to state only one’s name, rank, number and nationality. After that he explicitly told us how the enemy would interrogate us if we were caught loitering in their back yard. The ‘IB Jee’ told us that police interrogation methodology usually followed a set pattern beginning with ‘make the bastard sweat’, which basically meant being made to sit in isolation, usually within hearing distance of torture and 3rd degree treatment of some similar bloke. It usually cracks ones nerves and makes one lose self-confidence and makes one want to confess that ‘Gandhi Ko Mene Hi Mara’, even if you were born after 1949.

IB Jee told us that after it would come ‘Statement Lo’, which meant writing down one’s autobiography. IB Jee told us a very witty Punjabi joke about a woman who went to a Thana to file a complaint. The constable took her ‘Statement’, followed by the Havildar and Thanedar. By the time the SHO came to take her ‘Statement’, she volubly complained that her ‘Statement’ was swollen and bleeding !! IB Jee went on, ‘If you don’t confess, the next is File 203 method’, which involved a silly file with some irrelevant trash besides the ‘Statement’, which the interrogator would constantly refer to just to make you think that he knows all about you. ‘If you didn’t confess that you killed Gandhi’, IB Jee told us, they would then switch to ‘Good Man / Bad Man’ method, a team work of two interrogators, one who would be nasty and abusive, and the other very friendly, making you want to confess to the good man, clever tricks of the trade of interrogators.

And finally, IB Jee told us, if nothing worked and you didn’t confess, they would use 3rd degree methods, electrocute the gonads with another electric probe inserted into the cojones. IB Jee was of the opinion that drugs like Scopolamine (truth serum) was all meant for James Bonds from RAW Jee.

After the lecture, I was convinced that Geneva Convention was all gonads and cojones and that if I were to be interrogated, I would confess that I killed Gandhi even before the interrogation began. Keru dreams of Peshawari and Red Cross cuisine in POW camps were better than a confrontation with the likes of a Paki IB Jee.  

The days went by and it was time for the last two weeks of simulated survival training. Jain Sir in his zealous  enthusiasm, decided to make it as real as it could get.

First we were issued a survival pack, an army style felt covered water bottle, a coveted ‘Coat Parkha’ and silly Balaclava each, one Cat E parachute between four of us. We were then taken to ‘Machoi Glacier’ near Sonamarg in the same one ton that tended to  go downhill in reverse while attempting to go up hill in first gear. We were not to be given any food or water for next 14 days and had to survive off the land.

 DDSK immediately opened the survival pack and ate his share of four bars of Amul Chocolates. We did the same before someone else pilfered it. Once on the glacier, we were asked to pitch tents with the parachute and set up snares for our food. Keru made a very large snare with a noose about five feet in diameter.  He said he was hoping to catch a Polar Bear. In his erudite opinion, nothing else could live on Machoi Galcier, neither Yak, Yetti nor the abominable snow man. Thank God we were attacked at night only by Kanak and not the polar bear.

Every morning, Kanak would make us walk around aimlessly over every snow covered hump, carrying our survival pack and parachute, and at night make us pitch camp on some godforsaken hump on the glacier. The only one who had the energy and skill to make a tent with a parachute was Budda, the youngest in the course, because of the DNA in his genes (Bihari Puris and Alu Sabji), the things that produced a runway on his head. All of us would then pile into his tent, one on top of the other, after emulating Keru who would wrap bits and pieces of parachute around his front gun.

‘Frostbite on the tip leads to front gun jamming, the worst thing that can happen to a fighter pilot’, he would say. Though I was a Dak pilot, I wrapped my pitot tube twice over and made Budda do the same, even stuff parachute cloth into the butt end to prevent frostbite on static and dynamic ports. Dak pilots were useless with frost bitten static & dynamic vents, to fight battles and show valour in DZ 49, the one in Mariani, where we paid money to do it to pillows.

There was nothing to eat or drink. Keru ordered us to make Tangdi Kebabs with snow and relish it, or to eat the flying boot. DDSK taught us to do yoga, to start chewing a parachute string like chowmein till about 10 feet of it went into the stomach, then pull it out and start all over again. The bile on the string actually helped kill hunger and thirst !!

Hunger and thirst started to produce hallucinations and lack of zest. We could hear a pressure cooker whistle and the smell of chicken curry that came sliding over the snow drifts, from the large arctic tent that our instructors had pitched over the horizon. We hatched plots to attack and strangle the instructors with a parachute chord just to get at their Pulao with Chicken curry. Instead Keru announced that he was going to bounce Kanak’s birthday party.

So DDSK and Keru dressed themselves like abominable snow men and sauntered across. They were back in ten minutes, totally downcast. I believe Jain ordered them out and back to our camp. ‘I say’, Keru asked me, ‘don’t you transport types bounce parties like we do in fighters ? Bloody jokers, it brings a bad name to the AF if you lack hospitality’, he said, and started chewing on a parachute string.

Six days which looked like six years passed and we were back in the one ton heading for Srinagar, with Kanak and Jain following in a jeep. Somewhere en-route, when we were asked to get down and push, Keru pushed the MTD aside and commandeered the one ton. He then drove like a maniac through the by lanes of Srinagar till we lost Kanak / Jain and their jeep. It was all very exciting like a great escape. Keru stopped at a Dhaba, quickly befriended the Sardar in unadulterated Punjabi and got us all three Tanduri Rotis each with a pile of Bengan Bharta, free of cost.

We were back in Srinagar airfield before Kanak/Mangat fetched up.  We were frog marched into an ARC AN-12 and taken to Sarsawa and kept under arrest on the dumbbell, lest we went bouncing or calling on, begging for roti and Bengan Bharta. Hunger and thirst started to wear down our tenacity and resilience. We started to quarrel amongst each other for silly inexplicable reasons.

After dark, we were put into an ARC truck with our gear and taken to the jungles (several years later I discerned that it must have been the Rajaji Park; at that time I had no idea though I grew up in D Dun). In the dark, the jungles looked menacing, with all sorts of strange sounds and blood curling cries of birds.  We were frog marched deeper into the woods, far from the road, and told to light a fire and make ‘lean to’ shelters. We just spread the parachute on the ground and went to sleep in pouring winter rain, none had the energy to worry about any threat in the jungle other than the Rajput Prince Kanak and his boss Jain.

For next few days we were once again taken for aimless and never ending route marches along jungle trails. Any time we heard helicopters or aircraft we were told to take cover. On the 12th day we were almost dying of hunger and thirst and started to eat jungle leaves and colourful fruits,  completely ignoring Kanak’s teaching that we were to eat only what the monkey’s eat. It made us sicker and hallucinate.

Once we came across a rain water puddle, about 4 feet in diameter, with about one inch of water, with muddy bottom. We lay on our chest and lapped up the water like dogs. It tasted better than Contessa rum.

On 13th night someone heard the sound of trucks and announced that we were close to the highway. ‘If there are trucks, there would be a Dhaba’, Keru announced. Budda and I being the youngest and fittest, were picked by Keru to go on a raid. We wandered about for a while, hit the highway, took a lift in a truck to the nearest Dhaba. Keru exchanged his golden Kada, and I offered my gold chain. The Dhaba owner was so pleased that he gave us a lift in his tractor right back and around mid-night we returned with a cardboard box full of Tanduri Chicken, Ma Ki Dal, and Butter Nan for all, besides two bottle of Kalyani beer each. The celebrations lasted into the wee hours and we were almost back to normal by the time Kanak came to fetch us next morning.

On the 14th day, we were taken back to Sarsawa by a civil truck and air lifted to Srinagar to start the last exercise, ‘Great Escape’. After it was dark, we were taken to an isolated place about 15 km from the airfield and told to reach the main gate of the air field before mid-night. There were civil police patrols and road blocks and soon the team broke up and lost sight of each other. Budda and I stuck to each other and decided to go cross country in the general direction of the air field using stellar navigation, an art that was taught to us in TTW.

If you look up and run, you are bound to fall into every ditch and soon Budda was carrying me in a fireman’s lift. He was a tough guy, the one with Bihari Alu Puri in his DNA. When we were almost near the main gate of the AF Stn, we were apprehended simply because we had run out of steam. We were told that we were the only ones who almost made it – made me feel like one of my instructors, Dilip Parulkar, who almost made it to Afghanistan as a real POW in 71 war.

Then started the interrogation after we were locked up individually in a dark and dingy IB safe house in Srinagar. Remembering IB Jee’s briefing, I kept repeating, ‘make the bastard sweat’ and ‘I killed Gandhi’. I also drew lines on the wall using the clasp of my overall zip, to keep track of time.

After a while they came to get me, stripped me naked and strapped me on a chair in a small room with a bright 100 W bulb.   I saw IB Jee and greeted him, but he responded with loud Punjabi abuse.  ‘Ahhhhh,  you have skipped File 203 and gone straight to bad man without a good man – where is the good man old chap ?’ I enquired. Instead, he hit me on my legs with a Malacca cane, a whack so painful that I screamed. IB Jee had two accomplices who were twisting my arm.

‘Eye Yam One, Two, Nine…., Five Nine, ….Pilot Officer ‘Cyclic’ of Yindian Yair Phorse’, I screamed in a parade ground voice using multi lingual talents of a Mallu. ‘Yunder Zheneva Contrevention, you are not supposed to beat me’, I whimpered trying to think of Contessa rum to take my mind off the torture. IB Jee’s colleague was fooling around with electrodes, which did Geneva Intervention, on gonards and cajones.

IB Jee said many MCs and BCs in pure Paki Punjabi, after which he ordered his minions to attach the electric clamps to my gonads and shove the probe up my cojones.

‘I am sometimes Cyclic, but other times a Gadha’, I tried to placate squeezing my rectum.

‘What is your real name ?’, IB Jee asked.

‘Gadha, that is what my father called me ever since I can remember’, I said truthfully, thinking of James Bond.

‘Which Squadron and what do you do ?’.

‘Sir I am from Jorhat’, I confessed. ‘They drop goats in NEFA, but me? I am the Commanding officer of 22 pigs, each a Sumo wrestler whom I have trained to do a guard of honour’, I said with much pride in the troops that I commanded.

IB Jee started laughing and the charade was over. He untied me and gave me a hug with paternal affection.

Afterwards we had a party with a real bonfire at the airfield, Contessa rum, chicken tangdi kebab, with Gulam Mohammed serving mutton biriyani on a large silver slaver. IB Jee had the last laugh and I was the butt end of all his jokes. ‘Pitot Tube Gadha’, that is what every one called me for the rest of the evening, with much mirth.

Keru was elected a leader extraordinaire, DDSK crowned him with butter nan and poured Contessa over his head. Budda was given instructor grading and posted to J&SS.

Me ?

Well, like my father said, I was a ‘Gadha’, certified by IB Jee, and so sent back to Jorhat to fly Daks. Gadha dropping goats, smelling of Goats piss despite Cuticura.

I did not go to meet ‘De De’, who would have taken my ‘Le Le’. Instead I took a lift in a Dak that was ferrying to Mohanbari. There, KP Kar Sir taught me how to fly Daks. I often went to meet my subjects, the Samurai pigs, and in unison they snorted and gave me a guard of honour.

I was indeed a born survivor, of J&SS, as also other predations of the sharks of ‘Yindian Yair Phorse’ !!!