Tuesday, September 4, 2012

THE ARMY BOWLS A MAIDEN OVER!

I have no idea why I always loved the Indian Army! Was it because of the life I lived as an Army brat, or the tales my mother regaled me with after she settled down in Kerala? My fascination continued even after I became a 'Lady Wife', which convinced me that there could be no better life than that within the giant arms of this hallowed institution, a life that taught me much, not the least being the knack to get along with all the different species that make up the human race! Mom's tales remained with me over the years, and what better opportunity to put them down on paper than this - a reunion of the very people who welcomed her with open arms as a bashful [???] Army bride? Mom [Nalini] was the first young lady to come into the tight knit 17 Engineer group, Dad [Chandran] being the first to have succumbed to the malady of matrimony. And they had ended up with no official accommodation as he was underage. Mom giggles when she says, “If it hadn’t been for the Anantharamans, we’d have had to make a home on the pavements!” Since Mrs Anantharaman was awaiting the stork, their apartment in the Honeymoon Blocks was Mom’s first nomadic home as a young bride. 21 young officers looked forward to welcoming in their 'bhabhi' by hosting a grand reception in her honour. However, high spirits and young officers being synonymous, when Mom and Dad landed up in their Sunday best for their reception at the Club, there was no sign of their hosts. An hour crept by, and then a couple more! And then suddenly a chastened group tiptoed in, looking dog-tired, barely able to keep their eyes open. Apparently they had not been able to resist placing crackers under the Commandant's chair, and the said crackers had gone off in grand style, setting off an explosion, not only under the chair, but in the senior officer's mind as well. Not surprisingly, the pranksters were taken to task by the proverbial route march! Hours later, almost collapsing in sheer exhaustion, they indulged in small talk with the brand new ‘bhabhiji’, who obviously didn’t have a clue as to why they were looking so bedraggled and worn-out. Thus, the reception was rather a damp squib, [pun intended!], but it did raise laughs ever after! 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' was one of the highlights of the tenure, and the acclaimed play needed myriad gruelling rehearsals to get its comic timing just right. Mrs. Rohini Kumar, the first lady, would herself come and supervise the rehearsals with an eagle eye. Mom had a major role as Maggie Cutler, the eccentric Sheldon's secretary, and at the end of the day, she would be transformed into a nervy young wife who had to go back home and cook and clean, unlike the senior wives who had help at home. As days went by, the sessions became longer and more tedious, and one day, bone tired, Mom broke down on stage, and walked off in a huff, despite remonstrations from the other actors, grunting, “Find another Maggie Cutler.” Back home, she burst into tears as her concerned young husband tried to stem the outburst by telling her not to worry, and to take things in her stride. Poor Dad! Being a mere 2/Lt, there was nothing much he could have done. A brave stand, considering this was the Army where seniors had the last word, after all. The bright spot was that the Deputy Commandant, Col. Jaganathan, took on the role of God-father. He came over to the Honeymoon Quarters, told Mom to pretty herself up and took her out for dinner, where he heard her out patiently. Thereafter, rehearsals were less gruelling, and the play, and Maggie Cutler herself, were a resounding success! The Commandant’s wife and the young officer’s wife thus laid the foundation for a long-lasting friendship. It was same concerned First Lady who pampered Mom when she was expecting her first born, me that is. She recollects how she lay around during her traumatic days of early pregnancy, sick to the gills and nauseous, feeling akin to Chicken Little when the sky threatened to descend on his head! After days of feeling sorry for herself, she was surprised one morning by the arrival of Mrs. Kumar, who took one look at the sorry figure she cut and barked, "No lying around, little girl. Upsy daisy!" Like a veritable mother figure, she got the young lady walking around the whole of CME, having shaken her out of her self pity and languor. The world suddenly seemed a brighter place. And that is when Mom, who had been more of a vegetarian, discovered Chinese food, and gorged on it right through the nine month period! Not surprisingly, I inherited that preference in no small measure! Certain other memories linger on in Mom's mind while staying at the barracks (officially allotted to Dad when he turned 25!) in Dunkirk Lines next to Yerwada Jail, where history had been made by the imprisonment of Gandhiji during the Freedom Struggle Days! Today she laughs with nostalgic mirth, remembering the (ugh!) carry toilets to dispose of waste, meeting lovable eccentrics like Col. Menon, who had the endearing habit of making friends with ladies only if he liked the appearance of their feet, and Mrs. Menon, who made lovely fluffy idlis for Mom when she was expecting! She chuckles when she shares anecdotes about Dad’s lively bunch of batch mates. Bill Kumar, Aju and N.R. Venugopal (16 Engrs) hold a special niche in her heart since they played ‘in-betweens’ during the courtship period of Dad and Mum. Even now there is awe and admiration in her voice (and a hint of tears in her eyes) when she talks about Chou and his daredevil antics, whose prowess on his flamboyant motorbike was proved when he drove blindfold from Dapodi to M.G.Road! Her memory of Rudy Menezes and his repertoire of tongue-in-the-cheek stories could be brought out as a whole book. The young officers once took part in a fancy dress competition where Mom was expected to help them look their parts. One young man, Vijay Kharkar, decided to dress as a nurse, and being boyish looking, decided to put stuffing under his white uniform! Hilarity ensued when the stuffing shifted position during the course of the young lady’s catwalk! These and many such memories made life worth living, and turned into tales to regale folks on rainy evenings and family gatherings! To conclude, Dad (or Sam as he was popularly called) would have loved to be part of this reunion of the 17 Engrs. Who knows, the ‘Dear Departed Four’ may be beaming down from the Heavens above, saying, “Hi, guys, we are there with you in SPIRIT!” (Pun intended) Deepti Menon (Daughter of Sam Chandran)

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