Adulthood And Soldiering: Mess Life And Clouds Of War

"One day a lieutenant told me that the army had taken action against the Bengali ‘rebels’ (that is what he called them) on the night of 25/26 March. He gave us gruesome details and I started feeling that the action was morally wrong"

Adulthood And Soldiering: Mess Life And Clouds Of War

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times

Click here for the first part

I hated boxing – in which the PT sergeant told me I was doing well – solely because I did not turn my face or duck down as a boy more than myself in weight and height hit me hard and fast right on my face and head. So, while my persistence and resolute determination was praised by the sergeant and even Major Basit, I was determined to avoid boxing if I could.

One day, while malingering to avoid boxing, they sent me to Abbottabad CMH. From there they sent me to Rawalpindi CMH. Here I was seen by all doctors including a psychiatrist. I believe my pulse was faster than usual. The young officers admitted in the officers ward with me told the nurse, a young bashful nursing cadet, that it was only when she took the pulse that it was faster than usual. This was a joke but she was offended. My life in Rawalpindi CMH was fun. I would often run away to my parent’s house—my father having retired from PMA now-- in the Commercial Market in Satellite Town. Our own house was near completion and they lived in the bazaar temporarily. I remember reading Little Men and Little Women and a number of other books since I had so much spare time. I was not in the least concerned that there could be something wrong with me or that I could be medically boarded out of PMA. This is surprising again considering that I had not decided to leave the army at this stage.

This was March 1971 and one day a lieutenant told me that the army had taken action against the Bengali ‘rebels’ (that is what he called them) on the night of 25/26 March. He gave us gruesome details and I started feeling that the action was morally wrong. I was reading Bertrand Russell and had just developed anti-war views. However, the full significance of what had happened in Dhaka did not sink in that day. I did not read any newspaper and none of my companions knew anything about politics. Soon I returned to PMA, cured of whatever disease (something of the lungs I believe) I had, and we were told that we would pass out sooner than expected as there would be a war. I did not find Bengali cadets behaving any differently than before and remained on terms of cheerful bonhomie with all of them.

In August 1971 we were drilling for our passing out parade. One day we were summoned into a hall and our arms and regiments were declared. Every time a cadet was posted to the Eastern Command a hiss went up from all assembled. The Adjutant got fed up with this and gave everybody a ‘rocket’ (severe verbal reprimand). The hall became quiet and I heard.

‘Gentleman Cadet Tariq Rahman. Probyn’s House. Report to the 1st Armoured Division, Multan cantonment’.

There were noises of admiration and all eyes turned towards me. I responded and sat down feeling elated. I was somewhat incredulous and others admired me openly because 5-Horse or Probyn’s was a very elite regiment of the army. Its full name was the 5th King Edward's Own Probyn's Horse. I learned later that it was formed in 1921 by the amalgamation of the 11th King Edward's Own Lancers (Probyn's Horse) and the 12th Cavalry. I had given 12-cavalry as my first choice but Probyn’s was such an elite regiment that everybody thought I was very well-connected or exceptionally lucky.

I did not quite understand why they had given it to me since my father or anyone I knew had made no special effort to get it. In fact, my father had expressed his preference for the Army Signals Corps on the grounds that one learned radio engineering which could be a useful skill after retirement. My mother wanted me to join any service but was apprehensive of fighting arms though she did not suggest anything in particular. So, it was obvious that my father had not used his influence and I had been given this elite armoured regiment for some mysterious reason which remains unclear to me.

I had done reasonably well despite the dodging but had never got a rank (corporal, sergeant etc.) as a cadet. Moreover, I came from a middle-class family whereas Probyn’s was known for having the sons of the landed aristocracy and the military high command and, of course, Probyn’s own officers. However, I did not think of all this. Nor was I much impressed about the elitist airs  of my regiment though, paradoxically enough, I relished the admiration which others expressed about it. Thus, I walked out in a state of euphoria and we started making the final preparations for the passing out parade. I bid all my friends goodbye.

I had many friends but I will mention only two here. Both were junior to me so they were not passing out with me. One was Asad ur Rahman of the 47th long course from Babar Company. He too was from an English-medium school so that was the beginning or our friendship since we habitually spoke English with each other. However, in PMA our interaction was always hurried and between running for this or that parade or, rarely, in the canteen while gorging on sweets.

Asad’s mother tongue was Persian and I remember how he said: ‘Bale Mama, Bale, Bale’ (Yes mother) one day when he was talking to her. He was also very well-mannered, sophisticated and urbane. On top of it, being singularly good looking, he was often ragged more than others and also found in the extra drill club of which I was a permanent denizen. He was, however, tough and resilient since nothing made him unduly despondent. However, now that I was passing out and a war was in the air, I had our only longer and unhurried interaction in PMA. We walked back together one evening and I accompanied Asad to his company lines. There as we stood chatting about nothing important when the moon rose behind the Thandiani mountains. I had always felt the magic of this moonrise from childhood and stood looking at the splendour of the moonlight on the landscape.

‘Who knows where we will go. We will be posted somewhere soon’, said Asad somberly and very quietly.

‘Oh why?’ I asked him noticing that he was sober and looked subdued though a short while back we talked animatedly.

‘There is going to be a war they say’, he said.

I kept quiet and murmured about these being rumours. But I also felt that the reason we were being passed out before our due date could not be for nothing. My views were not made up so I did not express them.

‘Will you join the armoured corps’, I asked him.

‘No. Infantry’, he answered.

Asad did join the infantry and ended up as a prisoner of war later. His performance in the war was excellent as his commanding officer, Brigadier Sultan Ahmed, has written in his book The Stolen Victory. Later on I and Asad met several times including in the paratrooper’s course which I used to join to do some extra jumps.

Another friend I saw was Adil with whom I remember standing under a starry sky while we were told about learning how to find our direction by looking at the constellations. With Adil too the initial bond was that of English. Like me, he too spoke English habitually and so we tended to talk whenever we could. He too joined the infantry and ended up as a prisoner. He would often send me postcards from his POW camp as did I. As for my Bengali friends from other courses, such as Badrul Hasan, I did not know that they would be held in Pakistani camps nor what had happened to their families. I was, as I have mentioned, quite uninformed and naïve in politics and, while what the young officers I had met in the Pindi CMH had told me rankled in my mind somewhere, the horrors of what I had heard had not really sunk into my consciousness nor had I thought of anything but serving in the army till that time.

Our Passing Out Parade was held on 28 August 1971 and the skeleton in the cupboard of the 45th Long Course (later COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s course) and 7th Graduate Course, the two courses which passed out that day, was that no senior officer or the president himself could be spared to take the salute. Our course does not reveal this secret to anyone but the Commandant of PMA took the salute—or was it the Deputy Commandant? My memory fails me but it was not someone from outside PMA. The parade, however, was every bit as stiffly ceremonial and exacting as all such parades. And when we took steps in slow march becoming officers in the army we felt as if a new epoch in our lives was beginning.

I left PMA: my home was no more; my youth was over. My parents were there and so were my younger brother and sister. I went to meet them in Uncle Naseer’s house. Then we went back to Pindi where my parents had moved into the annex of our big house. This little place, called Zavia, became our home for many years though I rather disliked the fact that the side lawn had to be sacrificed to it. At that time, however, I was very happy but there were only three days instead of the usual ten to spend at home. The army was preparing for war and I had to report to my regiment.

Probyn’s was part of the First Armoured Division and it was then stationed in Multan. I arrived on a hot afternoon and a grinning young man came to pick up my luggage. He was grinning far too widely to be a batman so I thanked him after he had lifted the suit case and addressed him as ‘sir’. Everybody burst out laughing and I was introduced to the senior subaltern, 2/Lt Shaukat. Soon, Matiur Rasool (left the army as a captain), Tariq Azizuddin (later ambassador) and Ashiq Qureshi (later a foreign service officers) (45th Long Course) joined the regiment. A few days later Asad Ali Khan (later brigadier) and Moin Afzal (Anna) (later colonel) (46th) also joined. They were junior to us in PMA but the GHQ wanted as many officers as possible so we got our commission with a few days interval.

I did not like regimental soldiering and, if truth be told, I was not cut out temperamentally for soldiering though I initially I thought I was since I was physically strong and enjoyed the lifestyle I was used to from childhood. I found no sense in the esprit de corps which is the ideological basis of regimental soldiering. For regimental officers the regiment was the best and it was home. For me, the performance of any regiment varied over time. None was the ‘best’ forever. As for the ‘home’ part of it, I believed in friendships based upon good feelings, similar ideas and tastes and not on institutional bonds. As for the performance, it was not always pure defence which, I conceded, could be justified, but just obeying orders even if they were to attack others.

In the case of Probyn’s, I used to point out, this good performance was aggression, colonial conquests and such other terrible crimes against humanity. Moreover, I did not like tanks. I had never even liked cars nor was I interested in weapons. As such there was no excitement for me in commanding or driving tanks. To make it worse, I was never good in remembering names and faces so I found it difficult to remember the soldiers serving under my command in my troop. Indeed, all the lessons for the soldiers, the morning drill, the evening P.T and the constant subordination to ones’ seniors was not my cup of tea.

All this should have made me miserable but, rather paradoxically, it did not. Indeed, I was generally tolerably satisfied and even happy. And, of course, the food in Probyn’s was excellent and I loved to talk to people though nobody agreed with my anti-war views. I do not remember what it was that I did talk to them—and all senior officers too—when the usual good manners were that ‘second lieutenant were to be seen but not heard’. I was heard so much that I am surprised nobody actually made me shut up.

The mess nights were regimented but tolerable. We cycled to our mess which had an impressive array of silver trophies and decoration pieces which made our mess one of the richest and most stately in the army. The carpets were rich and the paintings were priceless. The waiters glided in and out with drinks. The chief waiter, Ajmeri, was a wizened old man who was capable of rebuking second lieutenants if they had had one too many. We were fond of his inimitable nimbu pani (lime and water) which he served as elegantly as if he were in a durbar. Alcoholic drinks were served and, indeed, Probyn’s was supposed to have an excellent bar. However, I did not drink at that time. I found the posing and the snobbish attitude towards people who did not drink among young officers to be so offensive that I did not drink just to spite the other young officers who made it a badge of distinction.

When I told Asad this much later, he was most surprised. It was, of course, a rebuke for all the young officers of my cohort but Asad, always a stickler for regimental honour, merely smiled and told me that I was always odd. While nobody forced anyone to drink, it was the fashion so most people did drink. On dinner nights one was supposed to move around being social and not sit down even when sofas and chairs were available. I was once told that this was to ensure that nobody got too drunk. If ladies were invited, which was very rare, it was considered in bad taste to go around with huge tankards of beer. One could, however, have a small peg of vintage Scotch (chota peg) on the side though provided one did not make a nuisance of one’s self.

As I have mentioned in passing above, the food was excellent. It was so exceptionally good that I should write about it just a bit. We had both desi (Mughlai, Indian and Pakistani cuisine) and English dishes and the cooks were experts at both. The breakfast table was groaning with all kinds of dishes and milk with Rooh Afza. The desserts were exquisite and Ajmeri proudly boasted how British officers would love them. With this kind of food, even if one did not drink, the mess bills were high. Since Probyn’s was a regiment of rich people, nobody seemed to mind but there were cases of people accumulating loans and being severely reprimanded by the Mess Secretary or the CO on account of them. My own mess bill also used to be high.

The joke was that a certain senior captain, having borrowed petty cash to the tune of thousands (his pay was less than one thousand then) was finally produced before the Second-in-Command, Major Amjad (later lieutenant general). The conversation is reported to have gone as under:

Mess Secretary: ‘How come you have run such a huge bill and then borrowed from the Mess Dafdar to pay it? Just what is going on?’

Captain X: ‘Sir, I had too many kebabs’.

Mess Secretary: ‘Kebabs?’

‘Sir, they had to be washed down by whisky so….’.

This story did the rounds but, since nobody was present when this actually happened, I cannot couch for its veracity. But the point that whisky did wash many a kebab down is certainly true. One could observe the operation in progress on most evenings.

(to be continued)