By Colonel I S Chanam (Retd)
The sky became clear of clouds around 8 am that morning in November 1963. The Air Force helicopter took off from Leh airfield carrying a Major General, GOC of the Division guarding Ladakh region and two senior officers, to visit Daulat Beg Oldi post mannedby troops of Ladakh Scouts. After landing at Daulat Beg Oldithe helicopter will return to Leh, its base. The general and the two senior officers will return on foot. The helicopter cannot safely take off from that very highaltitude ofDaulat Beg Oldiwith additional load of the three officers.
The three officers, the general, a colonel commanding Delta Sector, under which Daulat Beg Oldi post falls and a lieutenant colonel, commanding officer of Signal Regiment of the division , will come down the Himalayan slopes on foot. Daulat Beg Oldi is in the sector where recently there was a faceoff between the troops of Chinese and Indian armies. Several miles downwards isfoot track. Thereafter it is mule track. When the steeper slope approaches the foot of the mountain ranges, the mule track connects to fair weather jeepable road head. From here the headquarters of Delta Sector is about ten kilometres only.
I was a second lieutenant then. In Delta Sector Headquarters, located at Thoise, Nubra Valley, we were only four officers. The commander, Colonel Reddy, the BM(brigade major) Major Chatterjee,self, a signal officer posted to Ladakh Scouts, and Second Lieutenant GM Bharati, OC (officer commanding) of a MAHAR platoon(machine guns).LieutenantBharati was on leave on that day. So the task of riding up the local ponies up to the head of mule track fell on me. Otherwise Bharati being junior to me by six months would have taken the honour of this task. Delta Sector being smaller than a Brigade, DQ and other staff officers were not posted then.
Riding a pony can be a pleasurable experience in normal circumstances. In the high altitude, in the rarefied air, where one has to halt a minute or two to take a deep, long breath after every five hundred yards of walk, riding a pony in speed is not an easy task. The pony just refuses to run. The ponies hired for this occasion were not ponies meant for running rides. They were load carrying slow walking ponies. I was not only riding a pony, I was pulling three other ponies for the three senior officers, who would be scrambling down the Himalayan slopes. All of them on higher side of forties in age, the general in fifties: no longer in their youths. I just could not afford to reach the end of foot track late. I had to reach there in time whether the ponies refused to run or not! My right hand held the bridles of the three ponies in addition to a walking stick which I used generously to whip the one I was riding to make it run. My left hand held the bridle of the pony I was riding. The three poniestried not to run as much as they could. It was a very strenuous effort I had not anticipated. After this ordeal I have not liked riding a horse any more.
While climbing up the mountain slope pulling the three horses along the winding mule track, at certain bends I glimpsed three persons coming down. Tired, sweating heavilyand arms strained excessively I struggled against the urge to get off the horse and take some rest.
At the end of the foot track, the three senior officers gladly mounted the ponies. General Budh Singh, MC, the GOC, was very generous in his appreciation for having brought up the ponies. The General won MC (Military Cross) in the Second World War while in the British Indian Army. He was a distinguished officer.
At the foot of the mountain slope, across a water carrying rivulet, the commander’s driver waited with commander’s jeep. From there the three officers rode off in the jeep. I took charge of the four ponies once again. They were to be taken back to the Headquarters.
The BM, Major Chatterjee is a meticulous officer: intelligent and ambitious. After doing successfully Defence Services Staff College course at Wellington he became a BM. A future potential general. The previous day he browsed through his carefully updated diary, to ascertain what brand cigarette the general smokes, what brand of drinks, which pudding the general is fond of. He re-confirmed these informations from the ADC of the GOC. Accordingly the mess staff, the cook and the Officers mess havildar were briefed for the occasion.
Outside the officers mess, on the lawns, below the spreading branches of a huge tree, the sitting arrangements were made. Soon after the arrival of the general the mess waiter served beer. It is usual to partake beer or gin and lime in the afternoon before lunch on such occasions. When the waiter walked up to the general with a jug of chilled beer on a silver tray, the general said, “Let’s wait for the subaltern “.
This waiting for the subaltern (young officer who rode up the ponies) might nearly upset the whole plan of looking after the general. Visit to the post, walking down the foot track, riding the ponies along the treacherous winding and narrow mule track had consumed up major part of the afternoon. Soon evening will set in
The young officer towing the three ponies tooklong to arrive at the officers mess. Colonel Reddy, the sector commander suggested to the general, “We can start with some beer while the youngster fetches up?” The General replied, “He must be quite thirsty riding the ponies for such a long distance. Let’s enjoy his company and wait till he arrives.” Who will over rule a GOC! The senior officers waited on. The ponies though tired ran faster now as they were heading homewards, to watering and fodder. Ten kilometres is not a small distance for ponies to cover in a high altitude area. They needed some walks in place of trots after every one kilometre or so.
From afar I could see two local boys, the pony owners and Major Chatterjee standing at the entrance to the officersmess. Their strange gesture caught my attention. It appeared they were signalling me to rush up at faster speed. I whipped the ponies to a gallop. Hardly I reached where they stood, when Major Chatterjee pulled me down from the pony before I could alight, dusted me off all over and asked me, “Set your tumbled hair. You look like a joker and hurry inside. You kept everyone waiting”
“Good afternoon sir. Sorry I took longer. These Ladakhi horses are real slow” I apologised. Colonel Reddy quipped, “The way you beat them with that walking stick of yours, I am worried the pony might die before reaching its home.”
Beer came. Never was I so thirsty. Beer never tasted so good except at Wellington, after a round of golf at Staff College golf course and at College of Military Engineering at Pune after ten miles run for BPET (Battle Physical Efficiency Test)
The General sat at the head of the table. Grey hair people detest. But grey side locks gave an air of authority and dignity for the general. Being the junior most I sat at the opposite end of the dining table.“Chanam, when did you go home and see your parents?” asked the General. It was November of 1963. China- India war took place the previous year end. Leave was out of question in 1962. “Sir, in June last year after passing out from IMA (Indian Military Academy), I went home for a few days”, I replied. “That is one and a half years now. Why have you not gone on leave for this year? Did your CO (commanding officer) refuse to grant leave?” asked the General. “I didn’t ask for leave. I just didn’t remember to ask for leave,” I replied. It surprised all those present. They all must have finished sixty days of annual leave and some casual leave.
The General told the BM, “Inform the AQ (lieutenant Colonel, senior most staff officer for administration at Division HQ at that time) to reserve a seat for lieutenant Chanam in the plane going to Chandigarh tomorrow. The CO ofLieutenant Chanam should send someone to handover railway warrant and leave certificate at Lehairfield. He will travel with me in the helicopter tomorrow to Leh.
The next day I flew over snow-capped white expanse of the Himalayas from Lehairfield to Chandigarh. From there by train I proceeded on leave for sixty days.
It is now 2013. This happened fifty years ago from today when I was a second lieutenant after the India- China war. I retired from service twenty years ago. The fatherly love, kind gesture of Major General Budh Singh, MC, the GOC of 3 Himalayan Division has remained enshrined in my heart all these years.
PS:- Delta Sector HQ later became a brigade HQ.