A STORY BY AN Indian army guy....
It was in Kerimarg, near Rajauri, where my Battalion was deployed on the Forward Defended Localities [FDLs] or ‘Posts’ along the Line of Control (LC).
The period was just before the 1971 war.
The Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel K. He had an aversion to anything that was not British. He had been commissioned into the Army when the British influence was still quite pervasive.
On the Posts, the only means of communications was by field telephone. This was notorious for bad speech reception since the WD Cable was laid over long distances. Our Battalion was spread over 16 kilometres and there were deep gullies between the Posts. This increased the reckonable spread of the unit.
It took 6 hours walk on treacherous mountain tracks to reach the Tactical HQ from either end of the Battalion’s Area of Responsibility.
To make matters worse, the WD cable had repair patches at regular intervals, having been cut quite frequently by trees or branches falling on them or by the swaying in bad weather. The cable was also very old and much frayed.
The comprehension of speech was further convoluted as officers had regional intonations while speaking in English; and English was the only language that Lt Col K, the CO, would allow to be spoken since that was the language for officers; Hindoosthani (a mixture of Hindi and Urdu) was for the troops!
The Punjabi officers were the most difficult to understand because, as per the CO, they had this fetish to drop the articles like the ‘the’, ‘a’ etc at will. Thus, ‘CO come, go’ would mean that the CO had come and gone. He forgot that if that were true, then it had an added advantage – one didn’t have to ‘scramble’ the speech for security!
Extraordinary that Lt Col K, a shaven Sikh, found it difficult for him to understand us! Maybe it was because he was of the British vintage, who knocked down gins in the afternoon and got pink in the face. To be fair, I don’t know if he took gin in the afternoon because I confess I never saw him sporting a pink face.
To obviate the problem, it was decided by K, the CO, during one of the rare congregations we officers attended at the Tactical HQ, that all the officers were to listen to the BBC so that we improved our English accent and learnt to make complete sentences. He ordered that we religiously listen to the BBC News, amongst other BBC programmes. All India Radio was a congregation of kalus [native Indians] as far as K was concerned!
We started listening to the BBC since we were quite sure, knowing K, that he would ask us about the programmes we listened to on the BBC. Initially, we were also enthused about improving our accent and so we listened to the BBC conscientiously.
Being Indians and being the stubborn characters we are, no matter how much we listened to the BBC, not much of England washed off on our accent. To be fair, we started pronouncing Bangladesh [which was in the news those days, but only as a concept, it being early 1971] as ‘Bang-la-daash’, Pakistan as ‘Pack-his-sten’ and Lahore as ‘La *****’. Beyond that, we remained the Indian regional characters that we were. The CO was still not happy with our effort since he still had problems understanding us over the telephone!
After a month, we were called to the Tactical HQ for a conference.
The conference went on for quite sometime. It was an important conference since the influx of the East Pakistan refugees was creating problems for India and Mujabir Rehman was being a thorn in Pakistan’s flesh. The CO felt that there could be some sort of a backlash from Pakistan and so we were being instructed on the manner how to ensure that they did not surprise us and how to contain the situation in such an eventuality, without escalating the tension.
BBC, that day, was nowhere on our minds!
Suddenly and totally out of context, the CO looked at Captain Mahado, one of our Company Commanders and asked, “Madho, are you listening to the BBC?”
While earlier during the CO’s discourse, Pakistan held our rapt attention and BBC was in the oblivion, it suddenly became our total focus. K was capable of sending us on a ‘padyatra’ [a long haul around the Posts in a stipulated period of time; the time allotted being immensely less requiring practically moving on the trot].
Each one of us quickly wracked our brains at lightening speed for the details of the programmes we had listened to and the excuses that we could trot out in case K remained unsatisfied.
I, fortunately, had heard ‘Outlook’ just the day previous and was not very perturbed. Majors Shammy Singh and GS Singh looked definitely disconcerted.
“Yes, Madho, I am waiting. Did you listen to the BBC?” asked K, rather testily.
We all looked apprehensively at both K and Madho alternately. Madho was a decent chap but he was a ‘be Indian, buy Indian’ chap. Being patriotic is one thing and facing K’s wrath was another!
“Yes, sir”, Madho answered most blandly. His slightly Mongoloid features gave him an almost Buddha like beatification on his face.
K appeared unconvinced!
“Good. Which BBC programme did you hear last night?”
“I heard the BBC,………………… but the Hindi BBC, sir!”
The anticlimax was too much. I burst out laughing.
Madho returned to his Post. I went on a padyatra.