As a teenager, life was pretty good in Gurgaon. Mornings would be dedicated to college and then evenings and night at the call center, working. Never realized in the three years of college life that having a girl-friend was as important as college or studies. Then One day I went to AIIMS to meet my friend Aabha, some more friends joined in and we all went to Ansal Plaza, the only so called Mall in South Delhi. It started to drizzle on our way back. Aabha and Raj took an auto and Prachi decided to pillion ride on my bike. I was a monster in riding a bike. In 12 mins we were at AIIMS. I guessed Prachi, whom I had met for the first time, will be furious at me for driving so fast. But all she said was, can we go again. That was the start of a friendship with her.
Post-graduation from college was the moment of truth to decide what next. One person had a huge influence on my decision – Col. Samir Kanjilal, our Hostel warden. An Army officer on his study leave, who used to teach satellite communication to engineering students. He doubled up as a disciplinarian at the boys hostel. Under him we saw the brats transforming into a cohesive unit. He inspired me to the core. So when I had to decide my career, I walked up to him. “Sir, I have got admission into a US university, but have also cleared my SSB for Indian Army, I as well have the option for a corporate career open. What should I do?” Col. said, “Jyoti, go for the Armed forces, even if for a short service. You will be a winner for life.” So be it, I was at OTA, training to become an officer for the next one year.
From college days, the friendship with Prachi had blossomed into something more than that. In the academy we were not allowed to keep mobile phones. My younger brother Shakti used to smuggle one in and I used to have long chats of how life was in the academy. Sometimes fellow course-mates would oblige me with their phones. Soon, it was time of passing out parade. Being a first generation Army officer has its merits and demerits. My entire family turned up for the passing out parade.
My first posting was in Meerut, and coincidentally she was pursuing her dental education over there. I was elated. After a short break at home, I landed up in Delhi at my Uncle’s place.
The new officer is generally expected to come alone to the regiment. 34 Medium (Maratha) Regiment, is an artillery regiment of the Indian Army. It carried medium range guns, hence “Medium”. 34 is the sequence of the unit seniority in the army and Maratha is the troops in it. A regiment or battalion is the smallest functional unit of the Indian Army and is commanded by a colonel. I was commissioned to this unit. The 34 Med regiment officers had planned an elaborate plan to welcome me at the railway station. Someone would decoy as my Sahayak, another would act as a driver of the Gypsy who had come to fetch me at the station, etc. They waited for few hours and left. Due to last minute change in plans I landed up uninformed in the regiment in the afternoon of 1st October 2005 driving a car. All my welcome plans went for a toss and unknowingly I rubbed many officers unpleasantly. It was the start of a great time coming over for me!
I was allocated a tent to be shared with other men, with a common toilet. There was no furniture. Almost immediately a Jawan came to inform that I was expected in the evening Parade at 5pm sharp, which was hardly 10 mins away. I reported at the parade ground on time in my new smart uniform. But, something else was in store. The officers were pretty annoyed that their welcome plans had been foiled. Maj. Praveen walked up to me. “You jangu (slang term for a newly commissioned young officer), change into PT dress in 5 mins and report back.” I did as instructed. An NCO (Non Commissioned Officer, a senior jawan who has a leadership role but is not an officer) was instructed to take me to the BPET route where one has to run with full battle gear and a weapon and I was told to compete the 5km run in 25 min. Shocked and trying to understand the reason for this treatment, I continued with my run. The day ended after series of duty checks throughout the night. When day break happened, I sighed a relief. The next evening, after a non-eventful day at regiment with the men, the same parade time approached. My heart raced as I was ready in my PT dress and was hoping that everything was normal. I was determined to clock better time in the run that day. Today Maj. Mony, third in seniority in the regiment, and other officers looked pleased as I completed my run in time the previous day. Just when things looked good, Maj. Mony walked up to me and said, “Hey, there is a girl who has come to meet you.” The Parade was about to start and the entire regiment was waiting for the CO to arrive. I was lost wondering who would have come to meet me at the regiment at that time. On reaching the gate I realized it was Prachi who had come to see me with a big smile on her face. Sweat running over my face, looking both confused and happy, I greeted her. I was instructed to head straight to the officer’s mess with her and after spending some time, see her off as the Parade was about to start. The Commanding officer would come any moment.
I did exactly the same. A gypsy took us to the mess. Prachi could not understand why I was so nervous. Anyway, once I reached the mess, the staff there did not recognize me and found it rather strange that a youngster accompanied by a young girl was coming in CO’s vehicle. They obliged Prachi with some lemon water. Stammering, I said “Please do not come to meet me here again. I will come to see you sometime but now you must leave.”
After seeing her off I was back in the regiment. All officers were standing in semicircular fashion right at the main entrance gate of the regiment. Capt. Uniyal immediately called out, “Hey, you Romeo, come here.” My appointment in the unit was Gun position officer of Romeo battery, however here the Romeo had different connotations. “It’s been 3 years since we have been stationed in Meerut and never has even an old woman come to meet us. And you! Second day in the regiment and you have your girlfriend coming to meet you?” Before I could utter an explanation, I heard “Go run the 5km today and if you don’t make it in time then, I swear you will never be allowed to meet her till we are in Meerut”. I ran as if there was no tomorrow. Once I was back in regiment after the run, everyone looked pleased. The matter ended there.
The constant runs and physical exercise schedule bestowed on me had made be the best runner in the regiment. So when the inter regiment BPET run was organized between our Maratha and a Sikh regiment, it was battle of the fittest. It was quite a sight, with 1000 men lined up with full battle gear and their weapons to run. War cries were shouted and flag off happened. Towards the end of the route, I realized we were falling behind the khalsa’s by narrow margins. That is when I struck upon an idea and shouted, Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Ki Jai to summon all our troop to give their last bit of strength and win the BPET for the regiment. It had an electrifying effect on the men. They all ran like bulls and we 34C Maratha medium regiment came first in the BPET which had never happened in the last 3 years in Meerut. I was treated like a hero by the men. The officers were still not sure what really happened.
Subsequently, I shifted to the officer’s mess after 1 month of stay with the men in the tent. As part of a new officer’s grooming, one has to call on a senior officer’s house. It was my turn to call on Lt. Col. Manoj Gupta, 2IC of the unit. He was rather a very strict officer who used to treat others with a lot of disdain. Since I was unaware of the calling on process what followed was a comedy of errors.
Firstly, I was the duty officer of the day. So after checking my duty at various locations in the cantonment area, I had to get back to the mess, change in civil dress and then proceed for the call on. I got delayed. Secondly, not having the address of the officer whom you have to call on is another sin. So after enquiring with few people enroute, I finally managed to reach Col. Manoj Gupta’s (2IC) residential complex. There I saw some kids playing and walked up to them to ask. “Do you know where Manoj Gupta Uncle lives?” One of them pointed to his house.
When I rung the bell, a lady opened. I said, “Hello Madam. She smiled and went inside. Col. Gupta came to usher me in, a good 30 mins past the scheduled time. After initial discussions about my educational and family background, Col offered me a drink. I refused. “I am to check duty later in the evening, so it won’t be appropriate to drink”. But Gupta sir insisted. After gulping down a few drinks, I was getting ready to move out. It was 9pm. That’s when he said, “Would you like to eat something?” Mrs Gupta was amused. “I have to teach the kids as they have their exams tomorrow.” She went into the study. What I saw next was amazing. 2IC sir was making parathas for me in his kitchen. Relishing them with loads of butter, I quickly rushed back for the regiment.
The next day I was given a Hero’s welcome in the mess that afternoon. I did not understand why! Later I realized, all officers were called for a meeting in the morning, and obviously I was not invited for it. The meeting was called by the 2IC. He spoke about how I was a misfit in the Forces and the entire comedy of errors which happened when I called on him. Col Gupta was furious as he never made parathas for any officer in his life. He did not mention making parathas for me though, to the august gathering of officers in the morning meeting. The officers sat there listening to him with a straight face. However, once back at the mess, they were happy with me as no one dared to teach Gupta sir, who everyone was so scared of, a lesson. And there you have a young lieutenant, “Lt Joe” – that’s how I was nicknamed from then on amongst the regimental officers – who had literally got him in tears. He was making onion parathas after all.
There were many such funny and interesting incidents at Meerut and my time flew in that posting. Despite hectic schedule and short stint of few months at Meerut, I used to take out time to meet Prachi on and off. Soon my regiment moved to J&K and as part of advance party, I moved along with them. That was the end of the stint at Meerut. So the Journey from Jangu to Joe had been completed and another phase in my military career full of adventure and valor awaited us in the valley. That’s for another day.