First appeared in 21 Fools e-magazine
‘The military officer’s is a job which offers you challenge, adventure, excitement, honour, prestige, self respect, wholesome family life, safety and security for the family and to top it all the love, respect and esteem of our great India.’ Brigadier Puneet Rajvardhan Singh cannot forget these words, ever. They are engraved and embossed deep within his self.
From the first time Brig. Singh came across these words, about thirty five years ago, as Puneet-the son of the school master in a remote village in Punjab they have meant more than just another inspiring sentence in the English language. For the twenty one year old in him, they defined his dreams and his strength to fight the uncertainties of life that lay ahead of him. For the seasoned officer in the Indian army looking towards retirement, they mean everything from job satisfaction to life achievement. In essence they present the army man’s life itself.
The history of any country is closely related to its military forces and wars, and in a country as extensive and ancient as ours evolution of the military has been fairly explicit. From the ancient times of Ramayan and Mahabharat to the latest border dispute wars, everything from strategies to the weapons used have changed significantly, but what remain intact is our respect and admiration for these defenders of our borders.
In fact, the corruption and inefficiency of the political systems and politicians post independence has abashed this stratum of the society so much among the countrymen, that today the emotions of ‘freedom’ and ‘patriotism’ are not attributed to these legitimate descendents of our freedom fighters at all. Instead the honour of that remains only with the soldiers of our country.
In his career Brig Singh has seen both the loss of peace and freedom through the lives of the innocent yet affected people living in disputed border villages, as well as the awakening of a whole new nation- Bangladesh to the splendour of independence, but had never appreciated these experiences until that incident occurred in his life.
Then, a Lt.Col commanding a smaller unit, Brig Singh was also an affectionate but strict family man. He brought his children up under the shadow of a strict code of discipline. He was very firm on his lavishly used expression – “A ‘no’ is a NO!” This applied even to his octogenarian father, who was spending the later part of his retired life with his son and family after the demise of his wife. The disciplining of his father was a consequence of the old man’s deteriorating health metrics.
Like many others at his age, Brig Singh’s father was also a store house of bodily imbalances – of insulin, blood pressure, cardiac troubles, cataract etc. The former school teacher’s daily dose of medicines seemed to challenge his food intake, yet the old man still craved for an occasional sweet or spice which his son obstinately denied him. The ritual of the father pleading for some food supplement- be it sugar or salt to his unrelenting son had become so mundane an affair in the household that no one seemed to attach any importance to the elder’s persistent requests, and this made him all the more dejected and despondent over time.
On one of those extremely rare days when there was no one else to oversee him at home, the old man couldn’t resist his temptation to make the most of the opportunity that he had the entire house to his own without even the orderly around to keep a watch. He went into the kitchen, used the chair to get on top of a small plinth and pull out the bottle of pickle from the overhead shelf. Then carefully taking a spoon so as to not leave a traceable mess in the kitchen, he scooped a pickled lime and slurped it instantly, with his twinkling eyes expounding the childlike pleasure and thrill in his heart. After another couple of rounds of the spicy tangy pickle, ensuring that nothing was spilt on the kitchen floor, he placed the bottle back to where it was and replaced the chair to its original position.
But that was not enough. It was after several months that the old man was on his own. How could he allow the freedom to last for such a short period? After the spicy pickle, his heart was then set on the mangoes that the hawkers carried past their house every morning. In spite of his mouth watering at the very smell of it each day, his son had given clear instructions to the hawkers never to stop before their house. So the old man decided to take some time off and go down to the market where he would get some mangoes. He carefully locked the house, and got into an auto rickshaw heading to the marketplace. Once he reached there, he bought two mangoes, quite large in size. The smell was highly alluring. It was then it struck him that he could not carry them home as the smell of the mangoes shall remain in the household and he would be caught. So he started walking back to the house, eating the mangoes on his way one at a time. The extremely sweet mangoes instantly filled his heart with the contentment of having tasted the freedom that he yearned for so long. The juice dripped through his hands spilling quite some yellow on his kurta. But for a man revelling in an ecstasy as his, these yellow marks were the least of concerns. Life was at its best for him at that time, and everything else was behind. “What a bliss! “ , he thought as he walked past those residential compounds completely undisturbed and unnoticed, licking the mango remnants on his hands and smiling of joy at everyone walking by.
Brig Singh who was in his office preparing for a meeting that evening received a call from his neighbour. She informed him that his father had collapsed right outside their house, and that they were in the process of taking him to the military hospital. The military hospital saw Brig Singh face to face with one of those unbearable realities of life- bereavement.
In spite of the macabre gloom in my mind, Brig Singh could not help notice that wide smile on his old man’s face- a smile that seemed to have revisited that face after years. The familiar smile that Brig Singh had long forgotten, though secretly wished for every moment he spent with his father. Then he saw the yellow and red stains all over his father’s kurta and he guessed what could have happened. In his state of senility it was difficult for him to balance a spoonful of pickle or eat a mango clean, but that would not stop him from celebrating the achievement of a long sought freedom.
The value of freedom, Brig Singh learnt from his father, is beyond the mundane considerations of life and death. It is like air trapped in a jar, impatiently looking for the slightest of crevice to gush out into the open. The more you try to restrict it, the greater the urge to break free. Likewise, it is only when you are denied it that you begin to appreciate the value of freedom, and there is no joy greater than that of achieving this denied freedom so much so that even death seems to be heartily welcomed at that moment.
This lesson learnt from his father played a pivotal role in shaping Brig Singh as a military officer. He has maintained ever since that every soldier must realise the value of freedom and independence, for it is only then that they shall understand and appreciate the value of what he/she is protecting for the motherland and her countless children.
As for Brig Singh to be constantly reminded of and guided by this lesson, his office has two portraits right in front of him. The one on the left has Mahatma Gandhi to symbolise India’s achievement of independence from colonial powers, and then his father’s portrait on the right to constantly remind him of the value of that freedom that as soldiers they were protecting for their countrymen.
The true essence of patriotism lies in appreciation of freedom, and the instilling of this value only can motivate our leaders and followers alike to work collectively towards a stronger nation. The freedom to elect our own rulers, to take our own decisions and solve our problems ourselves, the freedom to voice our opinion on the global stage, the freedom thanks to which foreign military is not forced being upon us, the freedom to not catch a cold when someone on the other half of the globe sneezes, the freedom to stand on our own with heads held high and spirits higher.
Value that freedom, it is precious… and as common as it used to be!