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Sunday Sentiments

  • Soldiers, their sentiments and the rest of us

    Posted On February 28, 2000

    By Karan Thapar

    Sometimes things have a way of turning out quite differently to what you intend or imagine. I suppose that’s what people mean when they say it makes you smile on the other side of your face.

    Last weekend I was invited to Aamir Raza Hussain’s spectacular production ‘The 50 Day War’. I dare not call it a play or even a drama. Those terms are too slight for the scale of what I experienced. It was, quite literally, spectacular.

    The stands were packed. There must have been over 500 people. I was lucky to find a central seat in the second row. That meant I had one of the best views going. It also meant – but I did not know this till much later – that I was seated beside the evening’s guests of honour. Four jawans, each of them Mahavir Chakra winners and each of them badly injured at Kargil and still recuperating at the base hospital in Delhi.

    The story – although, again, that’s not the right term – is the chronology of events at Kargil. The dialogue and even more the commentary emphasises the patriotism, sacrifice and valour of our soldiers. The action describes the near impossibility of the feat they had to perform. For the most part the audience watched and listened in stunned silence.

    It was in the second half that I became aware of how different was the response of the jawans sitting beside me. On stage an Indian brigadier was questioning a captured Pakistani soldier. He was encouraging him to criticise his CO, his country and its interpretation of Islam. Sheepishly at first but then with an eloquence one would not have suspected of a soldier the Pakistani jawan complied. As he heaped scorn, malice and contempt on his army, its generals and, finally, his imams the audience loudly approved. The dialogue was playing to an Indian gallery and it clearly loved every minute of it.

    That’s when I realised that the four jawans beside me were behaving very differently. At first they sat in stony-faced silence. Then, as the dialogue continued, I could hear murmurs as they whispered to each other. Eventually, the one nearest to me turned and spoke out.

    “Yeh zulm hei sahab” he said, his tone barely disguising the suppressed anger. “Koi jawan apne CO ya apni fauj ke khilaf nahin bol sakta. Chahe voh hindustani ho ya pakistani aisi galti nahin kar sakta.”

    His words expressed my own uneasiness except that with his sincerity he had phrased the sentiment I shared far better than I could have. I would have been analytical and wordy. He hit the nail straight on the head.

    The injured Indian jawans had identified with the Pakistani soldier and the attempt to humiliate him had hurt them. They seemed to forget that their own injuries were inflicted by Pakistanis. They saw in front of them a soldier being cast in a poor light and it stirred their emotions. His nationality did not matter. The fact that he was, like them, a soldier is what seemed to count.

    After the play I spoke of this incident to Lt. Gen. Ravi Sawhney, the Director General of Military Intelligence. He too was in the audience.

    “They were right, Karan” the General replied. “Soldiers have a code of honour, a code of chivalry, and the play at times forgot that. I want to defeat my enemy, not ridicule him. And even in defeat I respect him. After all, he’s a soldier as I am.”

    That, I suppose, is the difference between a jawan and the rest of us. Till the four brave men beside me made me think again I was no different to the others in the audience. I shared the collective desire to belittle Pakistan. The men who actually fought and suffered made me realise that if you belittle your enemy you also belittle your victory. Respect your enemy and your victory is worthy of yet greater respect.

    The balls that make for a game of polo

    “Can’t you write something about polo?” Bogie Rao telephoned to ask. Bogie is way up there in the polo fraternity and I was flattered he thought the game needed my attention.

    • “What do you suggest?”
    • “Perhaps you could write something amusing about last night’s Polo Ball?”
    • “But I wasn’t invited!”
    • “Well, you didn’t miss much” Bogie consoled. “There was no champagne and no vodka either. I walked out within minutes.”

    As I chatted to him I discovered that polo today is as much a game as it is a metaphor. The Ball is for those who prefer the latter. Of course, many of them watch the game as well but they are there to be seen rather than to sit and see.

    No doubt my concern would have ended at that point were it not for a strange coincidence. Ratna Sahai sent me a book to review which sparked my interest afresh but this time in a very different direction. However, first a little digression.

    When I have nothing else to do I enjoy browsing through a book with photographs. It’s partly because other people’s photographs can be funny and amusing without being hurtful. But it’s also because they have a way of evoking memories without bringing back disturbing feelings.

    Thus it was when I turned to the book Ratna had sent. It’s called Polo in India and it’s a tribute to Maharaj Prem Singh. Quite frankly, I haven’t the foggiest idea who he is and even less interest in finding out. But a man who can get Prince Phillip and Rajmata Gayatri Devi to write the foreword must have been something.

    The pictures brought back memories of the polo world I remember as a child. Smart army officers, their gallant ladies in chiffons, sunny winter afternoons and an age of innocence and un-commercial charm. There were no sponsorships then, no big bucks, no corporate captains. Just players and fans.

    The pictures are in sepia which makes them richer looking and more evocative. There’s Uncle Wad (although his name is mis-spelt) on a horse with Billy Sodhi and Rao Raja Hanut Singh on either side of him. There are two of Muchu Choudhary wearing what looks suspiciously like the same striped tie. But the one that intrigues me is the double-spread on pages 30 and 31. It has eleven men standing. Ten of them are players in their polo kits. The eleventh is the man in the middle. He’s tall, bald and in a suit. His face is gently scowling against the facing sun. He’s also the only one who is not identified. I dare say they weren’t able to find out who he was.

    I think I can help. He looks like ex-King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan. If I’m right the photograph would have been taken in january or february 1967 when the Afghan royal family visited India.

    Perhaps that makes my point about the change in the world of polo better than anything else can. The bright babes and well-heeled rollers that crowd the game today have little connection with the older, gentler world that I recall. If they were to meet – as they do in this book – they would not even recognise each other.

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