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I am reminded of a time way back as a young Major; I was detailed to establish a caravan camp for a very high level war game 150 kms from my permanent location. I was detailed as the camp commandant. Our brigade was detailed to establish the operations room, one battalion was told to establish the officers mess, another battalion to establish the same for the officers staying in the caravan camp, one battalion was detailed to establish the langar for all people affiliated to the formation and the support staff of the caravan camp. I do not know if my civilian friends would even understand the magnanimity of this camp, the importance of this camp and the unity which was required to get these diversified people all together to run this camp smoothly.

Had it been just my battalion to do all this stuff, it would have been the easiest thing to do, but getting bits and pieces together, from units which as it is are loggerheads due to professional animosities, so getting a bone china plate from another officers mess was something like planning an attack on china via Timbuktu. Though virtually all the troops, drivers, waiters, nai, dhobi, mochi, etc were under me, but in reality they were under command their own commanders. The issue was complicated further when there were no officers to assist me. JCOs had their own constraints and every order passed by me was rerouted through their respective regiments or battalions, thus delaying and resisting the real purpose for what we had come together. This was initially, but soon things fell into place. Luckily the langar had come from a regiment who used to be part of my combat team, and we struck an instant rapport. I am convinced that when you are going to go in for battle together and covering each other’s back side you trust each other more than your wife if not life.

I had a real challenge at hand. I was going to handle more than 250 jawan’s of more than 40 major and minor, units coming from 20 different places, with complete and incomplete documents for rations and attachment, with hardly any communication with their parent units, with diverse types of vehicles and every one a “laad saab” or part of the pampered lot of the formation they belonged to. The buddies had nakras more than the GOC, the drivers had his own idiosyncrasies, so on and so forth. Noel was in big trouble and the job had to be done, Satrah Mech ki izzat was at stake.

Noel never gives up, Noel never cribs or cries, Noel never complains, Noel takes decisions and fast, and Noel never bothered if he did right and in the correct spirit. I used to be up and about at 4 am; from the layout of the caravans to the depth of the holes of the potty pipes was my baby. The area was a jungle of sorts. I got a tractor on hire from buchoo village; yes I gave him fauji diesel and rum and got the camp site in order in just one day. Had I stuck to the conventional methods of men working with grass cutting swords, genti and belchas, the cows would have come home. My langar detachment was top notch; they established themselves before my tent was pitched up. Luckily I had my jonga to run around but I had to cope with mileage, movement and other restrictions besides being updates on local orders of the local cantonment also. I had a Military Police detachment with me. I soon realised instead of laisioning with the local civil and military police etc they had been placed to police on me. I caught hold of the NCO in charge and gave him a list of do’s and don’ts and told them not to mess with me rather get on their jobs. Message was short crisp and clear, which was they understood.

Now was a challenge to handle the inflow of support staff: The INT staff, the drivers, the buddies, the people from the workshops, the electrical people and the signal people etc. Everyone was a technical chap except me. I used to prepare food for 75 chaps, 25 extra used to land up. I started preparing for 100, 20 used to be sent back to their permanent locations. Due to the fluctuations, either khana used to be short or surplus. Moment it used to be short everyone down the line was in front of my tent. Three days before the actual event while people were still pouring in from all directions, a staff officer from my brigade came inspecting. Let us go and inspect the langar was his first command. I have been getting reports that the food is pathetic, the quantity is less etc etc. As we were entering the langar about 30 people were waiting for their food. There was fanatic activity, atta was being goondhoed, people were fixing the kerosene stove for it to fire, fresh dal was whistling away in the 35 litre cooker, sabzi was being cut, aloos being peeled and hectic activity of mother sister kind was to be heard. It was lunch time, how can you refuse anyone khana. It was a jawan’s birth right. Moment the officer asked koi problem, and out came pouring the frustration of everyone. Sir food quality is bad, and ran his spoon through the watery dal he had in his plate, sir the rotis are either too thick, too small or too burnt etc etc. The list was endless.

The staff officer looked at me, and I said sir didn’t I ask for another langar det day before, you refused. He said yes, sir did I ask you for additional support staff, he said yes, did you give them to me he said no. But you have to manage he said, that’s what I am doing to the best of my ability sir, these 30 men of a unit have landed up just before you came, food is on the boil, atta is on the roll, what do you expect me and my staff to do. He nodded his head and thanked his stars that he was not in my place. Well, I assured the men, kindly wait and bear with me for this meal, I shall produce the best. Well, after the initial outburst and outcry, those people also understood, in fact one unit had brought a mini langar and offered their staff. That’s where camaraderie is all about. Next day onwards the tarka in my dal was the best. The DQ stayed on for the next day, and I requested him, sir, I would like you to taste the langar meal and thereafter you may proceed to the officers mess and he obliged. The tasting tray with every item on the menu made that day was brought in and the remarks written in the langar book was “well done keep it up”. If such khana can be made in such conditions, in peace station khana should be 1000 times better, this he told me verbally. He congratulated me for the layout and camp discipline, and went off. My battle was already won, to hell with the red and blue arrows in the ops room. I gave a shabash to everyone, and thanked all the reps for their cooperation. Men understand very fast and come to know the good intentions of their commanders.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, if your wife decides not to cook, or for that matter doesn’t know how to cook, you have an option to order a meal, go to a hotel of even have doodh bread, but not a jawan who toils day in and day out. By the way if a Road Opening Party has to be in place by 5 am, the langar has to give bed tea at 2 AM, give the jawan packed breakfast and packed lunch, and also some emergency rations like matthi and shakkar paras. The meal might be Khichri or Namkeen poori, but that ROP will be responsible for crores of rupees worth supplies that passes through, and thousands of lives that transit on your trust, as you ensure that the road is clear. Does food take a priority, yes it does, and the khichri and the namkeen poori used to be the best on this side of the Suez Canal and I can vouch for it. On return from the hectic day’s job, the cooks used to take extra care to make something that everyone enjoys and relishes and officers ensured that. A hot water bath, a tot of Rum on issue day, additional chutney, a letter from home, was all it used to take to lift the morale.

Well, at any one given time, there may be an issue about food. If this lasts more than a day then there is something wrong somewhere. Why did I always love food cooked in the langar, and enjoyed sharing a meal with my men, I wonder!!!!!!!!!!!!

JAI HIND

© Noel Ellis