military matters

Expecting the unexpected

It was early 1980s. I was to board a flight from Calcutta to rejoin my regiment in the Northeast. No sooner had I checked in at the airport than a Havildar from a local unit walked up to me and handed me a note. Before reading it, I remembered “Expect the unexpected”, one of the oft repeated maxims from our pre-commission training days.

Colonel K Thammayya Udupa

Colonel K Thammayya Udupa

It was early 1980s. I was to board a flight from Calcutta to rejoin my regiment in the Northeast. No sooner had I checked in at the airport than a Havildar from a local unit walked up to me and handed me a note. Before reading it, I remembered “Expect the unexpected”, one of the oft repeated maxims from our pre-commission training days. “Maybe due to some realignment of the stars somewhere, my leave has been extended by another 15 days,” I thought. I went through the note eagerly, only to realise that I was being assigned a duty even before my leave was to end. It was a message from our adjutant. A forensic expert, required as a witness in an ongoing court-martial, would be travelling in the same flight. And, after landing, I was to help him reach the transit camp 65 km away. The Havildar left after introducing me to the forensic expert. We sat down and even before I could make any small talk with him, he had dozed off. In the aircraft he was seated right behind me and I could hear him snoring throughout the flight. 

I met him again after we had landed. We collected our luggage and were off in the jeep my unit had sent for me. My attempts to have a conversation with him again came to nought as he promptly dozed off as soon as the vehicle started moving.

On reaching the transit camp, I gently nudged him. He woke up with a start, rubbed his eyes and let out a bloodcurdling scream. His eyes were locked on to his suitcase. Expecting the unexpected, I asked him, “Is there a cobra lurking there?” He screamed even more, nodding his head in a manner which was neither “yes” nor “no”. “Cockroach?” I asked. The screaming and head-bobbing continued. I helped him alight from the jeep and whispered to the driver, “Get a doctor”.

Our guest, by now slightly less hysterical, speaking telegraphically, dropped a bombshell, “Suitcase...not mine. Picked up wrong one, airport. All documents...court-martial tomorrow...in my suitcase.” The driver quickly returned with a nursing assistant. I told them the problem had been identified and there was no need of any medical intervention. But the nursing assistant wanted to ply his trade. He raised his left hand and ordered, “How many fingers are these?” Before the bewildered gentleman could react, he said, “No, just walk from here to there as straight as you can.” I had to cut him off rather rudely.

I called up my adjutant as well as the officer who was waiting for the expert about the unexpected turn of events. I informed the adjutant that we would visit the airlines’ city office. In those days, the airlines staff would return to their city office from the airport after the departure of the Calcutta flight. So it was pointless to travel all the way back there. The adjutant assured me that he would contact them and coordinate.

It was an hour’s drive to the city. I was keeping my fingers crossed. Our guest was making himself conspicuous by his steady snoring. The story did not take any further unexpected turns. The owner of the suitcase our guest had picked up had informed the airlines staff that his suitcase was missing and a similar looking one was lying unclaimed. The airlines staff, before locking up and returning to the city office, had promised to sort out the matter. It was just past midnight when I handed over the expert, with his own suitcase, to the concerned officer at the transit camp.

As per the calendar it was the day I was to rejoin the duty. What an unexpected manner it was for my leave to end! Or, was it an unexpected way of getting back on duty?

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