I never saw my grandfather. My father barely saw him as well. He passed away when my father was two years old — one stormy, cloudy day in 1957, thousands of miles from our ancestral village in Lahaul (Himachal Pradesh), in a far-off land of erstwhile French Indo-China (Laos) on his call of duty with the UN peacekeeping force. A decorated officer of the Indian Army and only 39 years of age, fate had been too cruel too early!
One of the earliest impressions of my life is running in the lawn of our house with one hand over my eyes, looking up at a jet plane and shouting, “Dadaji’s plane, Dadaji’s plane”, as it flew above leaving behind a trail of white. Grandfather had been in the Army but my first association of him with the world, rather my world, was always with planes.
At the age of 28, he had been awarded the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) in the 1947-48 military operations in the Ladakh sector. He not only crossed the dreaded Zojila Pass in the dead of winter in January 1948 under the very nose of the enemy, but was able to raise and train the local militia which later became the Ladakh Scouts. However, his moment of reckoning came at Khalste. A river separated him and his lone Sepoy from hundreds of enemy soldiers and foreign intruders. Vastly outnumbered, he took the daring call of running across the wooden bridge under intense enemy fire, throwing kerosene oil on it and burning the bridge down. This delayed the enemy advance by weeks, allowed reinforcements to come in and finally, pushing the enemy back. That historic run across the bridge became the fountainhead of inspiration when we were growing up.
He was the first graduate of Lahaul-Spiti valley, having got his degree from Punjab University, Lahore. My father told me the story about his appendicitis operation, which he had to undergo without anaesthesia, which is incredulous in today’s world. But then again, he was no ordinary man. Gallantry medals for saving Ladakh or his double-barrel gun which he kept as a souvenir after overcoming a Pathan mercenary in a hand-to-hand combat, we did not need to look for heroes in comics and television series. We already had one at home.
It is said that a few days before he died, he was stubbornly insistent on returning the few dollars he owed to his colleagues. On being told that nothing would happen if he returned the money later, my grandfather said anything could happen in life anytime and he would want his debt to be cleared immediately. Did he have a premonition about his death? We would never know except that in this story, too, he passed down a lesson. Don’t take undue favours and if you do, repay them with a bigger one. In the grand scale of life, a marginal credit balance is always preferable. Grandfather had a strong sense of what was morally right and wrong. There may even have been an eccentric streak — which is often needed to insert a bit of moral mortar in the human spine.
It is 75 years since his stand at Khalste. Today, a grand “chorten” (memorial) built by my father and uncle stands in his memory there. Taking our family’s next generation there was not only an occasion to celebrate his short, super-impactful life, but also where we stopped in our tracks to reflect on the legacy of his towering persona, and the responsibility which comes by being associated with it.
— The writer is an
HP-cadre IAS officer
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