It gives me a good feeling when my Raksha Mantri (RM) finds time to visit forward troops. I recently saw her in the desert sector atop a BMP modified like a chariot. The crew would have been, the Army Chief as the Commander, the Army Commander as the gunner and the Brigade Commander, no you guessed it wrong, poor fellow must be hanging on for dear life as the driver would surely be the senior most Havildar. Can’t take a chance with Brigadier saab’s driving and giving jhatka’s of a life time to the minister. (With no offences meant please)
Be that as it may, I am reminded of the good old days when I started my career from the deserts. Jaisalmer Sector was the place I joined. The then Army Commander was on an operational tour and I was made the official photographer with one pip on my shoulder. My location was in the navigation party led by open jongas of the Motorised Battalion. For me map of the desert meant nothing as I had just come from IMA Dehradun, where I could never make out the difference between a spur and its contours. We all just did “Bhed chal” to reach Bhadraj top behind Mussorie. There maps were green and shades of it. Here I had a khakhi blank sheet of paper with one odd marking of a toba, taal sar, khu, talai, tibba and an odd Dhani (hamlet) after two map sheets. This jonga was modified for carrying many tubes. One could mistake them for missiles. Actually they were stuffed with map sheets and tons of them. That was my abode for the next fortnight and I was off on my maiden desert safari thereafter.
These motorised guys taught me how to join maps in a sequence as every 10-15 odd kilometres the sheet used to change. My CO used to be in the gunner’s cupola and the Army Commander on a Tatra’s seat welded behind. A jeep’s seat was also welded in the rear for all and sundry. This was the Army Commander’s chariot (BMP). Our two waiter’s Gabbar Singh and Jagjit Singh were stuffed into the stick compartment in the rear of the BMP.
Hats off to the waiters, as moment there used to be a halt they used to stick their necks out from the gunner’s cupola in between CO’s legs with some beverage. Our CO had catered for thanda pani, garam pani, neebu pani, narial pani, meethi lassi, zeera lassi, garam chai, garam coffee, cold coffee, frooty, unit soda in three flavours and you name it. There was one officer detailed to keep fetching ice from wherever he could. Our ice supply never ran out. Administration was perfect.
Yours truly had no clue of Mechanised tactics. So I hung on to dear life on to that leading jonga with a “hot shot” camera and clicked away merrily. One of my photos of the BMP tracks on a virgin desert stretch was later used to design the Recce & Sp logo showing the track marks. Well, we did move bound to bound, the Pakistani rangers were following us, there were no border fences that time and we used to take the shortest cut between the border pillars. It used to be a pleasure to relieve oneself on the other side of the border. Somehow it gave a kind of sadistic pleasure and a feeling of satisfaction deep within that we watered Pakistan.
I learnt to read a map, I learnt to bear the heat, I learnt to face sand storms, I learnt to navigate a little, I learnt navigation by stars while moving cross country at night, I understood what a mirage is. I learnt to identify blind wells and how to avoid them. I learnt how to use a magnetic compass while on the move, I learnt to survive on limited water, I learnt to handle start a jonga, I learnt how to negotiate a vehicle in absolute lose sand, I learnt to recover a stuck vehicle, I learnt to enjoy cold meals, I learnt to enjoy the sandy crunch in the meals, I learnt the importance of a “patka” and sand goggles and this learning stood me in good stead later in life as more than half my service I did in the deserts and above all I learnt to use my seventh sense and instincts.
It took us lot of reconnaissance and practice to achieve the mastery of the desert. Yes I also learnt a lot of Rajasthani. I learnt what a KHOJI was. He is a person who tracks down animals in a village. Their expertise was such that they could tell by the footprints of the camel that was it laden or empty. They could identify number of camels in a group by hoof marks & foot prints. They could tell how long the animal was sitting in a particular place by the droppings and urine. They could make out that the animal is tired or fresh by the belly marks on the sand; they could even say whether a particular animal is injured or had a natural limp by the imprint on sand. They could indicate the direction of the move of the animal, was it running or walking. Basically they were the most sought after people. Later in life we used to take their help for navigation to reach our objectives.
Well I transformed from a desert novice to a desert fox many moons later. But it was nice to see our RM on the “Mechanised ship of the desert”. Madam I hope now you will try and understand how life is in the deserts especially while operating such equipment. I hope now you will change your opinion and understand that life in the sandy wilderness is tough too. Will you? I wonder!!!!!!!!!!!!!