Our Soldiers Speak

Stories of valour, hope, love and courage, tinged with a hint of nostalgia


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Rescue Mission

The sun was on the horizon and bone-chilling winds whistled through the valley. The year was 1966. My grandfather, Lt Inder Singh Chugh and his friend Lt Bhaag Singh were on the road, a few kilometres away from their post in Leh and Ladakh. Loud bursts of laughter filled the silent valley as they drove down the slopes -- they were thrilled to be on their way home.

Suddenly incoherent wails echoing through the valley startled them. Getting off their vehicle, they warily walked towards the source of the cries. Looking over the edge of the hill track, they saw a crumpled jeep about 60 metres below. An unknown jawan was clinging to the edge of a sharp rock, holding on to it somehow, about eight metres below them.

Assuring him that he would be rescued, they quickly discussed their plan of action. Not having ropes or any other material that could help them in their mission, they decided to use their six-metre-long turbans -- tying them together in a firm knot. Lt Singh hitched one end to the jeep, holding on to it tightly, and my grandfather fastened the other around his waist before climbing down to the terrified man. With his free arm, he grabbed him by his belt and yelled to his tall, well-built friend to pull them with all his might.

It turned out that the victim was a jawan from another regiment, who was on his way to receive his senior officer. Many things could have gone wrong that day, but fortunately everyone was safe in the end. Heroes don't always come in fancy costumes. Sometimes they can look like your Nanaji.                                                                                                                     

-- Roopdeep Kaur, Amritsar



A Golden-Hearted Soldier

I was in Pune on 31 August 2013 when news of the passing of Capt J. K. 'Jojo' Sengupta came in. I had no idea he was suffering from terminal cancer. It seems he had smilingly insisted on being shifted from the intensive care unit to a room in the army hospital so he could depart with his loved ones around him.

I had longed to meet Jojo for years -- my elder brother was his National Defence Academy (NDA) buddy -- but could not. Now he looked serene, as if smiling, his eyes covered by dark glasses. Hundreds of veteran officers, and spouses from all over India, joined his funeral. There were no tears; just abiding respect for a great soldier.

Jojo had become 'profoundly blind' after an injury in the 1965 Indo-Pak War. But he turned his handicap with grit and courage to empower the less fortunate.

Born on 17 October 1942, he excelled at both NDA and the Indian Military Academy and was commissioned into the 16th Light Cavalry, in 1962. On the morning of 21 September 1965, Jojo stood on his commander's seat seeking enemy tanks when splinters from a Cobra missile smashed his periscope lens. The glass shards penetrated his eyes, ripping up his face and fracturing his jaw and left arm. Captain 'Wendy' Dewan remembers blood streaming down from Jojo's eyes, but he said, "I can't see but I'm fine; how are the boys and the tank?" He learnt at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland, USA, later that his optic nerve was severed and that meant "100 per cent blindness". 

Powered by his optimism, humility and humour, he started civilian life in 1967. Jojo took up a Tata Oil Mills dealership soon after and later was allotted an Indian Oil dealership in Siliguri. In 1977, he got married to Rita Biswas, a teacher. He never omitted to mention to friends and family how she brought greater focus, happiness and harmony in his life. They were blessed with three wonderful children.

Jojo went through a transformation in the 1990s, plunging into work for the differently abled. First, he founded the North Bengal Council for the Disabled in 1990 and by 1998, together with Rita and some friends, he established the Prerana Educational Centre. Flourishing today, it has 145 physically challenged students. Their aim was to highlight the strengths of the differently abled, while helping them integrate into the mainstream. He also reached out to the rural handicapped, ensuring that the community-based rehabilitation programme became WHO-certified. It currently benefits about 3,000 people.

What can you say for such a man that one hopes future generations will draw inspiration from? He was handsome, personable, blessed with a family that doted on him. He loved life and led with excellence, empathy and compassion. He made blindness seem like a weapon that could be used for the greater good. And, with his life he showed how the human spirit can triumph when fate closes all doors. 

--Maj Gen R. S. Mehta, AVSM, VSM (Retd), Mohali




A Fighter Pilot

In April 1973, I was posted to a squadron at Chandigarh. One evening, as part of a wartime simulation two of us, each flying a MiG-21, headed towards a valley in the Himalayan foothills, where the Sutlej flows into the Punjab plains. I was the leader of the formation, with Flt Lt T. M. Asthana, flying abreast at 500 yards on my left. We were all set to attack the 'enemy'. 

At a height of 300 metres above the ground, heading north at a speed of 800 kilometres an hour, I turned to check the rear of Asthana's MiG-21 for 'enemy-aircraft', an air-combat strategy. Turning around, I spotted a vulture in front of me, barely 15 metres away, too close to avoid collision at that speed.

The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was the vulture turning its long neck as if to see what was behind it. When I came to, I was in a shallow dive, barely 150 metres above the ground, flying at a speed of around 900 kilometres an hour, barely a second away from hitting the ground. I hurriedly took control of the craft and levelled off. Astonishingly, I was now facing south -- somehow the aircraft had turned around. But that wasn't my only problem.

I had lost vision in my right eye and was not sure if it was still in the socket! The blast of air, viciously tearing through the half-shattered canopy left me in acute pain. With minimal vision in my left eye I could only decipher ground features from a lower height. My helmet visor was shattered as well and my oxygen mask dangled over my chest. I was shocked to find blood all over my chest. I knew I needed urgent medical care, but ejecting over the countryside was out of the question. Since the MiG-21 was otherwise 'flying-fit', I decided to head back to Chandigarh, following familiar ground features.

On reaching the airfield, I waggled my wings at the control tower to indicate RT (radio-telephone) failure, a standard procedure. I hoped they would inform all other aircraft to stay off the area. After two failed attempts at landing, the aircraft bounced off the runway almost 50 feet into the air before it finally touched down.

After stopping at the end of the runway, I removed clotted blood and feathers from the mouthpiece-microphone and called the tower for medical aid. Just then another MiG-21 came to a stop on my right. Sqn Ldr A. Y. Tipnis, who became the Air Chief Marshal later, jumped out with a startled look. Asthana had informed him and the control tower after seeing my aircraft pitch up without any warning. Calling off the simulated exercise, Tipnis headed back to keep an eye on me as I tried to land. Later in the hospital he asked, "How did you do that?"

I got 36 stiches around my right eye but regained my sight gradually. By the beginning of 1975, I was fit to fly MiG-21s once again. In April 1974, I was awarded the Shaurya Chakra by President V. V. Giri, for my effort in saving a very valuable fighter aircraft at great risk to myself (its cost was Rs1.5 crore in 1973). I was humbled by the award but had only answered to the call of duty.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
-- Gp Capt Tejwant Singh (retd), Gurugram




The Acknowledgement

"Show me your hand," the lady asked me. I was hesitant.

"Show me your left arm," she said once again, firmly.

I slowly held it out. "Nothing serious, ma'am," I said. There were scratches, one quite deep, on my left forearm. Our helicopter had force-landed and I had hurt myself in the struggle to exit.

This was Shillong, 1970, and we were seated at the Raj Bhawan reception. Tall, turbaned waiters moved around the room serving tea, samosas, sandwiches and pakoras.

"Govind, would you have it attended?" Shobhaji, the lady of the house, said, looking at the aide-de-camp (ADC) who was by her side. His Excellency, the Governor, had entered the room with a broad smile. We were relieved to see that he was alright.

That morning we had flown the Governor of undivided Assam, and his gracious wife, to Kohima for the Independence Day flag-hoisting ceremony. On our return the engine developed a snag. We had managed to avoid the thick virgin forest and land, but the huge piston engine craft had listed, turning on its side like an elephant.

Taking precautions to avoid an engine fire we jumped out to help the VIPs. We found a taxi driver among the curious crowd that had gathered, but government vehicles picked them up halfway to take them to safety.

After returning to the Air Force base we were asked to go to the Raj Bhawan. So, there we were, enjoying the hospitality of the first couple.

"I was reading a book and didn't suspect a thing," the Governor said.

"I was looking through the window … at the thick green patch," his wife added.

"Luckily, it was a forced-landing, not a crash," the captain answered.

"You aren't eating anything," our hostess said, adjusting her shawl. As if on cue, the waiter extended the tray and offered me pakoras.

I was curious about the book that had kept the Governor engrossed. "Oh, it was an upanyas in Hindi," he said. "I was keen to finish it before reaching Shillong." The drive back to the base in the limousine was like a dream. In the next few days, the court of inquiry investigating the incident kept me busy. Then, one fine day, I was called to the local field post office to receive a delivery. It was Swikarokti by Samaresh Basu, the book that had kept the VIP occupied.

"To, Flying Officer Murthy, from Braj Kumar Nehru, in remembrance of an interesting experience," the note said.                                                                   

--Wg Cdr S. S. Krishnamurthy (Retd), Mumbai



Healing Love

I first met former paratrooper Shyamraj E. V. through his wife, Maj Sivapriya. She had come to discuss their daughter Saanvi, a class I student, at Army Public School, LBS Marg, Lucknow, where I was headmistress. The more we spoke, the more I admired her. And when she told me about her husband, I knew I had to meet him. 

A few days later, Shyam was at the school. I listened in rapt attention as he spoke. He had joined the Parachute Regiment -- an elite force within the army -- and six years passed rapidly, until 4 October 2002, when his life changed during Operation Parakram, at Kupwara in Jammu and Kashmir.

On the fateful day, there were 15 commandos in an army vehicle, and the last thing Shyam remembers is a deafening explosion. "I woke up 15 days later and all I could hear was the sound of silence -- no shooting, no parade, no commands. Just the beep-beep of machines in the ICU," Shyam said.

Lying on his bed at Srinagar's base hospital, he was in excruciating pain and found he was unable to move. Then, Shyam was gently informed that he had suffered a spinal-cord injury -- this meant he was paralyzed. After five months at Delhi's Army Research & Referral Hospital, battling two cardiac arrests, a urinary tract infection and bed sores, Shyam was a shadow of himself but was hopeful he would recover. Transferred to the military hospital in Pune, he saw others like him in wheelchairs. "That is when it hit me that I was a disabled soldier. Suddenly, I lost all hope," he recalls.

But then, Sivapriya, a nursing cadet, entered his life. "She motivated me, helped me keep faith and brought back hope into my heart," he said. "The day she proposed, I was ecstatic, but shaky. Look at me, I told her, pointing at my wheelchair. Sivapriya explained quite simply that I may have had a disability, but our relationship did not. We got married in January 2007 and two years later, we were blessed with our daughter Saanvi. Our joy knew no bounds."

Tears rolled down my cheeks as Shyam concluded his story. But he sat smiling, choosing instead to comfort me. I had struggled with my autoimmune disorder and believed I had been brave. However, looking at Shyam, and how the lovely Sivapriya had healed him with her love, I was a woman transformed.                                                                                                                            

-- Saima Khan, Lucknow