In the early 1970s, as the saying went, subalterns were meant to be seen and not heard and, when seen, they were expected to be seen training hard with their troops. During our regiment’s annual sojourn to the training area in 1973, we camped in Asan field firing ranges in the Shivalik Hills between Dehradun and Saharanpur. Our camp site was by the bank of the Yamuna near a village called Badshahibagh. For all four of us subalterns, the days were hard and the nights harder. Rigorous gun-drill early morning was invariably followed by a gruelling session of technical training in the battery command posts to master the science of gunnery, ‘Night’ training every evening ensured that we stayed in the training area well beyond the hour when even the nearby jungle fell silent and only the sound of a hyena’s occasional bark could be heard. Under such circumstances, there was no time to socialise with the other officers in the Mess.
The Second-in-Command (21C) of the regiment kept a hawk’s eye on our performance. We dreaded the readings on his stop-watch as he timed each `shoot’. He guided and cajoled us into improving our collective performance as a battery and did not hesitate to rap us on the knuckles when we missed some finer point of the science of ballistics.
Outdoor training was always a pleasure and we particularly looked forward to the ‘course shootings in which we could at last indulge in the live firing of our beloved guns — the sport of kings. One such occasion the three batteries of the regiment were deployed late in the afternoon in a gun area near the famous Shakumbri Devi temple for a course shooting the following day. The 21C suddenly announced that Pritam, the baby among the subalterns, would join the other officers for dinner in the Mess as it was his birthday. After the two of them left, Alok Mehta, Raman and I, the three GPOs, got together for a chat in Alok’s tent. Soon a plot was hatched to have a private party of our own.
The three some turned out in mufti and gathered in Quebec battery — Alok’s domain. Alok, the senior subaltern, ‘borrowed’ a one-ton vehicle from the wagon lines and told the senior Subedar of the battery that we were going to visit friends in a sister regiment which was also camping in the ranges. He also told the senior Subedar that we would return quite late. With Alok at the wheel, we were soon zipping away towards Saharanpur —adrenaline flowing with excitement at our risky adventure and simultaneously worried that discovery would bring severe retribution.
Our first stop was a Sher-e-Punjab dhaba on the outskirts of the town. The korma-masala fare was a culinary delight in comparison to the insipid food of a camp Mess. The next item on the agenda was entertainment. Here the choice was between a mujrah. for which Saharanpur was famous like most towns in Uttar Pradesh, and a movie. The knowledge that the latest rage `Bobby’ was running in town and the thought that almost the whole world had seen it except us faujis trapped in the ranges, made us reluctantly decide to give up the forbidden pleasures of the jingle of a mujrah dancer’s ghunghroos in a kotha, and settle for the charms of the teenage sensation Dimple Kapadia on the not-so-silvery screen of a dilapidated movie hall. Our pleasure was doubly enhanced by the excited late show crowd whistling and showering chawwanis from the balcony — some of them, no doubt, contributed by us, threesome!
On the way back, first the petrol ran out. Mercifully, there was a spare jerrican in the vehicle. Then, the distributor lead came off. and fault-finding took awhile. Finally, a tyre gave way and we were put through a practical lesson in changing tyres on a dark country road. In the wee hours of the morning, we drove into the gun area and found the senior Subedars of the three batteries waiting for us with worried looks on their faces. Whatever speculation they had about our whereabouts — and they were experienced old soldiers who had seen many subalterns — they kept to themselves.
Years later we learnt that the 21C had known all along about our escapade but chose to do nothing about it. How he found out and why he ignored this violation of good order and military discipline, shall forever remain a mystery.