Every now and then, the distant sound of guns would send a rumble and shudder through our tiny basha, nearly toppling the lantern. Outside, the drone of the trucks and tanks to and from the Front would carry on and on. The crunching sounds of the gravel would make it seem as if the soldiers were just outside.
Then, one day, “Ma, Ma,” I whispered. “It’s stopped. I can’t hear the trucks!”
Ma awoke with a start and jumped out of her bed. Peering through a sliver of glass where the black paper had peeled off, she tried to see what was happening. The stillness was unnerving. We had actually grown to find comfort in the constant hum of rolling tanks. It meant our soldiers were still outside.
“What is it? What is it?” asked my brother. Sssh!
Oh God! What was the matter?
Someone appeared at the window and gave us a terrific fright! It was Parminder Singh! “Memsahib, come out quickly. The siren will go off any minute.”
At that very second the siren began its wail.
Scrambling for shoes and torches, listening to that terrible sound, which somehow always incapacitated me, we rushed out.
Prabhu had Chippy on a leash.
The bitter cold and this late night haul didn’t seem to dampen his spirits at all. He rushed towards us, pulling Prabhu along. Parminder literally pushed us into a trench and we landed with quite a thud. Chippy jumped on top of us.
“Get the dog out,” raged Ma.
Overhead, the fighter planes screamed through the air.
Chippy began a mad digging spree. With all this fresh soil, he just couldn’t resist.
Dig, dig, dig.
The three of us desperately tried to get out of the hole with mud all over us.
” Don’t worry,” said Parminder trying not to laugh, “The Pakistanis are such lalloos, they will run when they see our pagal kutta.”
We sat next to a hedge, under a tree, watching the Pakistani planes roar by, leaving trails of smoke.
Our own planes chased them across the black but star-studded skies. It was such an unreal feeling — almost like watching a war film.
“Kill him!” we screamed. “Kill the bloody fool.”
“Bloody fool” was allowed only for Pakistanis.
One could call them “Bastard” when one turned 15. Ma, of course, called them that all the time.
No one wanted to go in as the lanterns threw such terrifying figures on the wall. With the sunshine streaming in, these very rooms were so cheerful.
So we waited for dawn.
Chippy was fast asleep in the trench while we sat on our veranda drinking Prabhu’s tea.
A familiar Jonga drew in.
“Daddy! Daddy!” we rushed out. My father jumped out before the vehicle could stop and enveloped us in a big warm parka hug.
Was it only a fortnight ago? I had chanted over and over,
“No more Algebra, No more Geometry,
No more sleeping in Sister Christine’s dormitory!
No more forks, no more spoons,
No more sitting in dull class rooms!”
“Okay, okay, five minutes of quiet please,” Ma had begged.
But my brother had begun,
“Old Macdonald had a farm,
Eeyaa eeyaaaaa yooo!
And on that farm…”
The driver had grinned into the rear view mirror, enjoying himself. He had never got a chance to drive the Colonel Sahib’s Jonga, earlier, as he was too junior. But now, with the others away at the Front, he was driving the Colonel’s Sahib’s family from Bakhloh to Pathankot where they were to catch the train to Delhi.
War was in the air and it was safer to be far away in the Plains.
“Why don’t you look out of the window? See if the one-tonner is behind us? Have a sandwich, but just shut up for a while.”
Ma had seemed not quite herself since my father had left Bakhloh with the Regiment.
We ourselves were leaving Bakhloh a month later, on a chilly November morning.
My brother, Ma and I had got into a jeep with Ashok Khanna, my favourite Second Lieutenant of the Regiment and the driver. The one-tonner who followed us was loaded with our trunks, bedrolls, Parminder, Prabhu and Chippy.
As we drove towards the gate of our long, winding drive, we looked back at the beautiful bungalow, which had been our home for a year. The orchard, the chapel, the apple blossom-lined drive, the stables of the White Colonel Sahib which the Brown Colonel Sahib had used for his chickens.
The Officers’ Mess! What fun we had on the rare occasions when we children had been invited to the Mess. All dressed and so grown up. I was allowed two Coca Colas on those evenings.
“The glasses are tiny!” I had complained. And those salted peanuts with onions that only a Mess cook knows how to do just right. Perpetually chapped lips and salted peanuts! What a heavenly combination!
With the melting of the snows the lilac rhododendrons had appeared. The cherry blossoms lay scattered everywhere and the bright yellow butterflies had brought in spring.
And with spring came the Holi party.
It had been some party. We children ran around with little pouches of gulal, smearing it on each other, squealing and screaming. Every officer, followed by his wife with no exceptions, was invited or pushed in for a dunking in a huge tub filled with dark ominous purple water.
The Regimental song:
“Mere sapno ki rani kab aayegi tu?
Yeh rut mastani. kab aayegi tu?
Chali aa, tu chali aa…”
was sung with such gusto and emotion by our parents that it caught us children by surprise.
Titch, the shortest officer in the Regiment, had got up to dance as everybody sat on the grass and clapped.
Anil Yadav, the handsomest, had followed.
Some eyebrows were raised when one of the new Young Wives had got up to circle a 10-rupee note around their heads.
This was the wife who had recently arrived at a Mess party in a green chenille salwar kameez and red sandals. I remember the Second in Command’s wife turning to the Adjutant’s and whispering, “I leave you to transform this young thing into an Officer’s Wife.”
Had there been enough time?
Then, getting into cars or strolling up the hill to our house, The Gun House, with beer and rum bottles in hand, they had demanded lunch. Ma and Prabhu churned out omelettes and chips and more omelettes and chips! Thank God we had all those hens.
This very Lieutenant, who now sat so seriously in the front seat of the Jonga escorting us to Pathankot, had in a hoarse drawl sung all the popular film songs.
He was quite special, was Ashok Khanna.
When we went to the Mess he would ask me in a voice as warm as pudding, “Ma’am, what can I get you? A Coke or is it a juice?”
He was a lot of fun too.
During the Regiment’s Raising Day Dinner, when Ma was the imperious Queen Of Sheba demanding a ride on a new motorcycle parked outside, he had driven it in through the hall of the grand Mess into the ante room over beautiful carpets and polished wooden floors and the brought it to a dramatic halt before her.
However on Sundays, when I went hurtling down the hill with my feet on the handlebars of my red bicycle, my eyes shut tight and the breeze ripping through my hair, he would stand in his shorts, on the Batchelor Quarter lawns and yell, “Open your eyes you stupid girl!”
“What is it to you?” I would yell back in my chi-chi best.
“Some poor Regiment driver is going to get court marshalled for knocking down the CO’s daughter. OPEN YOUR EYES!!”
Now nearly out of Bakhloh, down the hill past the empty barracks, the Parade Ground, the Quarter Guard. Bakhloh, it seemed, had turned overnight into a ghost town. The men had all gone! Had they known? Had the grown ups known that Holi and kept it from us?
Pathankot had always meant the point from where you went up or went down. Up to the Mountains or down to the Plains. Pathankot was the place where you got things, which were not available in the Canteen.
But this time, Pathankot also meant War.
There were military vehicles everywhere.
The railway station was crowded with soldiers, soldiers and more soldiers. Trunks, bedrolls, haversacks, guns. And the endless sound of boots.
Ma, my brother and I sat on a bench on the Pathankot Station platform waiting for the train to arrive for Delhi. Parminder Singh held an excitable Chippy on a leash; Prabhu and the Jonga driver made a ring around us.
Ashok Khanna brought Ma some magazines and then he took both us children to see the engine.
We had played a game of identifying the Regiments by the berets the soldiers wore. It seemed as if everyone was there. The Marathas, the Rajputana Rifles, the tall Military Police men, the short and smart Ghurkhas and our Sikhs.
Once in a while, Ashok spotted another officer he knew and then there was much hugging and shaking of hands.
“We’ll show the bastards,” they said again and again. There were many families like us going home to the safety of the Plains.
The women, dressed in saris and shawls, their arms wrapped around themselves, would come up and chat.
“Sudha and her boys left last night. Daljeet is at the Front.”
“Brigadier RP has moved his Brigade to Chamb.”
“I’m going to my parents. God knows how long this will go on.”
“Lucky you! I’m going to my in laws.”
“My husband said that the Pakistanis are so ill prepared. They won’t dare.”
“You know Yahya is such a drunk, he is never sober enough to give orders.”
“Arre, he doesn’t need to give orders. He gets his orders from the Americans.”
“Niazi, of course, is busy raping the Bengalis. Imagine! Doing that to your own people.”
At this point Ma would ask Parminder to take us to see if the train had come in.
“What is raping?” I had asked Ashok Khanna. He had looked quite flustered.
Patriotic and enthusiastic young boys with paper flags around their arms had come around offering tea and dry fruit to any one in a uniform.
“Bloody civilians!” muttered Ashok helping himself to a packet of cashews. “They’re scared shitless. Once it’s all over they’ll forget us.”
“Arre Sir, enjoy it while the going is good.”
Chippy had begun to tug at his leash, whining and wagging his tail. In that sea of olive green uniforms he recognised my father.
Everything had become quiet and everyone had disappeared. It was just the four of us again.
Ma had finally smiled after frowning and eating cardamoms for over a month. She soon replaced these with cigarettes.
“Don’t go to Delhi,” my father had said.
“Whaaat?” I remembered we all had screamed, quite excited.
“I can arrange a basha. You know, a barrack. One of those temporary accommodations, an hour away from where we are positioned. I’ll get permission. I’ll do something. The local Brigade Commander’s wife is also there with her three children. There’s going to be no bloody war.”
“Coming, or not coming?” he had asked.
“Coming,” said Ma.
“Coming! Coming!” we both had shouted.
The decision was made and we were off.
My father strode ahead with my brother and Ma followed with me. The Lieutenant herded the men, the dog and baggage.
“Where are you going?” asked several wives.
When we told them, they laughed. “Lucky children,” they said, hugging us. “Going off with your Daddy.”
It was most important I learnt: To stick to your Daddy. As he himself said, “Here today. Gone tomorrow.”
We had settled in our new basha in Damana, a Cantonment nestled along river Ravi, only 12 kilometres from the Pakistani border. Bachelor Officers had previously used our accommodation of three interconnected rooms with a bathroom. Our kitchen was the Mess kitchen, a good 50 feet away.
It was a bright and sunny winter and we spent the entire day outside, on the Mess lawns, making New Year cards, wrestling with Chippy, playing Monopoly and eating oranges.
At sunset the Black Out would keep us indoors.
The most appropriate game to play was Dark Room. The Brigade Commander’s children with their Orderly and we with Parminder, managed to scare each other with much screaming.
Prabhu did his bit by appearing at the window pretending to be the ghost of an Officer who we had been told had been shot in his bathtub. Chippy could always be counted on to add to the mayhem.
On the third of December, we were having a dinner of baked beans and fried eggs with the radio on. Prabhu sat on his haunches making toasts on the heater. Preparations for dinner were always hurried as even Prabhu wanted to be near us, not 50 feet away in the Mess kitchen. Long Indian meals were reserved for lunch.
During the day things were different and at night…well, things felt different. Parminder Singh stood at ease, watching us eat. He was also trying to convince Ma to put in a word for him.
“Memsahib, if there is war, I must fight with the Regiment.”
He couldn’t possibly go back to his village and tell them all he had done during the War was to look after the Colonel Sahib’s family.
Prabhu was preparing his own brief.
“Okay, okay,” he said. “I am just a cook. But I am a Military cook. I will cook for them at the Front.”
Lieutenant Ashok Khanna was already at the Front. He had spent the entire Jonga journey from Pathankot to Damana working on my father. He had begged him to detail someone else to look after the families.
Outside, the trucks and jeeps droned on and on. Every quarter of an hour the guard went by “Hoshiar! Beware!”
Then suddenly there came a sound. Nothing, absolutely nothing, like I had ever heard in my life.
The pounding of guns. It seemed one long moment of terror.
The basha shook and the windows rattled. The lantern rocked on the dresser. As if that was not enough, the siren shrieked. The three of us pushed our chairs back in a hurry causing the heater to topple over in the confusion. Chippy yelped. What was happening?
The siren screamed on and on.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. We could only hear ourselves panting. The reassuring sound of crunching gravel began. They hadn’t reached us.
Our soldiers had kept them out.
The guard came by. “Hoshiaaar!” he called out.
“Abe ulloo ab kya hoshiar?” muttered Prabhu picking up the heater and the scattered toasts.
The Brigade Commander’s wife called out if we were okay.
Yes we were fine.
The War had begun.
My father came back. Ashok Khanna did not.