It is not surprising that it took the PM of this country to pass orders to stop using the Red Lights in this country. I only saw everyone who had this privilege continued using it unabated till the time it was officially withdrawn from them. Who would like to give up this small privilege? Not me, but poor me many a times did not even get a mode of transport fit for my rank. That I shall discuss subsequently. Will this have any effect on anything? Will things change? Will as the PM says I as an aam aadmi get any privileges? I have my serious doubts but well begun is half done sir, at least someone realised that the colour of light indicated the “area” affiliated to the colour of the light. One could use it after paying its owner a price mutually fixed including the “dalali” without which nothing moved in this country. I just hope it won’t be there anymore.

I remember as a 2Lt and a young Capt I was many a times detailed as a LO to all and sundry who visited that God forsaken place called Jaisalmer or JA-SALE-MER as we used to affectionately call it. Initially it used to be fun, as it was good riddance to the rigors of the unit routine but soon one realised that friend you are so often detailed not only because you do your job seriously but some people are royally trying to screw you. The task started from receiving a General at the airbase. I was lucky to make friends fast with the folks in blue and became a familiar figure with the ATC staff. They had so much confidence in me that in case of emergency they expected me to land a few flights too. Well, good old days they were.

A mess detachment needed to be deployed in the MES IB for the General plus a Ceremonial Guard besides a “sahayak” as he was known in those days. There was this MES guy called Gambhir Singh as the IB in charge who would not move irrespective of the colour of light on the car or the rotating red lights of a chopper. One mess detachment had to be at the air field under an L shaped tent for the Gen Saab to get off and take a leak. The tricky part used to be putting up a squarish kanat with a funnel adjusted to the correct height of the visiting dignitary or else it would appear to have drizzled in Jaisalmer looking at the sprinkle on his shoes. The ATC guys and gals detested this part, as all this “Maikma” used to come up right in front of the ATC and they always used to crib that they are being made witnesses to indecent exposure. From that height and their powerful binoculars they could see that there used to be no balls as attachments.

Our waiters didn’t know whether to hold the tent or the tray covers as the rotor downwash used to make sandwiches take off to pilots sitting in aircrafts ready for ORP (Operational Readiness Patrol). Buggers never thanked me though. The pilots of the helicopter and our dear Generals used to appreciate the crunchy veg sandwiches. I never had the heart to tell them that the crunch was not from the freshness of the cabbage leaves which were placed in lieu of salad leaves but from the sand particles from the dust storm the chopper had raised thus sand got sprinkled abundantly.

Well the story begins before the VIP visit as invariably a black Ambassador Staff car with a red light was made available to this one starrer a day prior to the visit. I used to switch the damn red light on even during mid day when the sun is the brightest and the temperatures used to be in the range of 42-50 degree C. The roads used to be lonely; the only thing staring at you was a passing camel with a sarcastic smile, trying to say that look you idiot, save electricity and switch the damn light off.  The poor camel didn’t know that this light runs free of cost. What a privilege it used to be! I used to dream one day that I too should have one.

The worst used to be when one had to go and check are re-check the MES IB in that scorching heat and the unit used to give a DR (motorcycle). They ensured that out of the 27 odd jeeps and jongas in the paltan none could be spared for yours truly. Worst was the sun protection one had to wear as special equipment issued which was a Second World War helmet. It used to be well covered with camouflage cloth cut away from my discarded combat dress, covered with a net and patched up with brown, green and khaki garnish cloth. The camouflage was important as any Pakistani flying aircraft may notice 2Lt Noel Ellis has left the unit and needs to be raided. No one realised, that the helmet was the first thing that fell off as there were four sandy patches to negotiate before reaching the IB. One never reached without sand inside the most interior parts of your dress besides one became hard of hearing as the sand clogged in your ears from the fall made you deaf too. One never had to use make up, as the thin powdery layer of sand ensured one was ready for a shoot anytime. I wish I had shared this secret with Dimple Kapadia when she was shooting for Rudali.

I remember very well that this lal batti culture was prevalent in the Army too. Every CO of the fraternity I belong to had a Number one gypsy, Number two, open gypsy, hard top and a reserve jeep. All had lal battis. I remember accompanying many of the “Old men” from various recces and training events way past mid night in the deserts. The damn flicker of that batti did not let you doze off even if one was three pegs down, on a lonely desert stretch followed by a broad four lane road with no traffic. The irony is that at the Cantt gate the vehicle was stopped & checked for the occupants thoroughly.  Though in addition to the red light, a long board with the appropriate appointment also used to glow below the wind shield, “COMMANDANT” in my case. A pennant (flag) on the side indicating that he is the top man didn’t make a difference to any villager, cow on the road or a truck driver who happened to pass by. But heavens used to fall on the driver, the Technical officer and the Adjutant if that Lal Batti didn’t glow. I used to be often admonished for not ensuring that the damn red light “not work” in fauji parlance as I held the two latter appointments several times.

Well, the lal batti may be band for now, but the people who misuse this lal batti need to come down to mother earth and behave themselves. Here I am talking about the politicians who have welcomed this move. I know in my heart that even without this lal batti the fleet of vehicles that surround them will devise a new method of bulldozing their way through. I know for sure that traffic lights will be manually controlled for these people. I know ambulances’ will still be delayed or halted for the VIPs without lal batti’s to go through. I know that there will be no change whatsoever in the attitudes and nature of people performing duties for them.

I have a suggestion for them; please start using a yellow flag, a huge one at that to indicate who is passing by. My uniformed and veteran fraternity will get the pun as they have buried a lot of it in the deserts where the yellow flag flew. Dear Netas please do something to improve your image and functioning without red lights and fast. Make do with lesser vehicles in your fleet, give space to me the common man. Will their dimag ki batti ever glow, I wonder!!!!!!!!!!!


© Noel Ellis