No old hat, this!

Hindustan Times | Apr 30, 1999

In The spring of 1989, 20 military observers from India joined the United Nations. Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia. Of the lot, Chetinder and I were the only Sikh officers. From the time we walked into the officers mess of a South African Defence Force infantry battalion in Katima Mulilo, a small town in the Caprivi Strip by the bank of river Zambesi in Phantom country, we both were something of a novelty. In and out of uniform, our turbans marked us out and we found ourselves topping the popularity charts, particularly with the ladies! Dubbed ‘Indian maharajas’, we were on everybody’s guest-list.

Remarks like ‘Your hat is very nice’ were commonplace. We got used to questions such as `Do you wear your beret even while sleeping?’ There was always a lot of explaining to do regarding the intricate process of ‘tying’ a turban. It was not easy for them to understand that, unlike a hat, a turban is not a rigid structure. I have always matched the colour of my turban with my shirt, so I would be asked how many turbans I usually carried or whether I had a magic formula to quickly produce any of the many gorgeous colours.
An incident occurred during the Raising Day dinner of the South West Africa Territory Force battalion at Omega — the 201 Bushman Battalion, comprising the Namibian bushmen who were fierce fighters known in folklore for their poison-tipped arrows. Halfway through the evening, a retired South African major — an officer of the battalion — demanded to know why I was wearing a hat in the mess when the rules did not permit it. Nicknamed ‘Vickers’, perhaps because he could single-handedly carry a heavy machinegun of that name during his stint with the battalion in the Bush war, the gentleman insisted that I take off my hat.

After a few months, I was called to Windhoek, capital of Namibia, by Force Commander Lt Gen Dewan Prem Chand. The duties of a military observer had been exacting, but left us with plenty of time to spare.

At Windhoek, I was appointed editor of the UNTAG journal. Once again, my turban was a big draw. In Namibia, the turban was not such a novelty after all; however, it was a form of headgear that adorned the heads of women! The women from Gobabis in the Kalahari desert -bordering Botswana in the Gods-Must-be-Crazy countryside – wore multi-coloured turbans in the shape of a battleship. The Herero women wore short, wrap-around turbans with high, pointed ends. Their turbans were obviously designed to keep the heat of the desert sun out. But mine appeared to be designed to attract attention!

As in the Caprivi Strip, I was swamped by invitations. It was impossible to go to the marketplace without being besieged to pose for photographs. If I went to a restaurant, children would pull out their autograph books. A pretty young lady wanted to know how a turban is tied. I graciously invited her for a live demonstration. Another sweet young thing wanted me to gift a turban to her when I left Namibia. So, although I enjoyed making new friends and exchanging notes on the Indian and Namibian cultures, all the attention was rather embarrassing.