I went to Jasol to meet my grandfather, Zorawar Singhji. The great stables in the House were now nearly empty, not entirely of animals but certainly of spirit; even the few animals that remained appeared to have lost condition. Far fewer people lived in the House now in any case, and with the bustle gone, there reigned over it a certain stillness, a brooding silence that carried in its hollows the echoes of time.
I was immensely saddened and went up to meet grandfather but with no joy in my heart. He was sitting almost slumped, in a patch of sun, in his “fulgar”, his shaven head covered not with his usual turban but a skull cap of his own design, thinly padded and with ear flaps for protection against the cold. We talked of this and that, of the elections that had just concluded, of the changes that were taking place in Sindh.
Then he asked: “When do you go to Delhi?” I replied that I would transit through it on my way to the regiment.
After a bit, when I got up to take leave, he repeated, “When you go to Delhi, inform me.” And then I remembered, it all came back, and as I fumbled for a suitable response, he smiled wearily, adding, “You will go, that I know. I only hope it is not left for too late.”
My joining leave was short, but to Khuri I had to go and was very glad that I did, for that world of my early years was in position, it was intact, my grandfather, Mool Singhji, very much still his robust, hearty self, meeting change square, riding above it. But his spirit had wilted somewhat, and his magnificent frame too, now not what it was, not as upright as it had always been.
He was sitting in a makeshift arbour spinning the mixed yarn of goat and camel hair, then so much a part of our leisure lives, of our daily occupations. Not given at all to sentimental expression, he asked me to sit next to him, then said: “Come again soon, my body will not last long now.” He brushed aside my remonstrances, adding, “I know, you don’t understand or accept. But change is beating me now, moving faster than I can. You will see that, but mark my word, people will come to know of Khuri because of you.”
I was to see them again, both of them, but each only once more. My paternal grandfather, in Jasol, when I met him two years later, complained of feeling the “cold much more these days”, also of too much coughing. “Yamraj is announcing his arrival with these signals. That is why I tell these fools, ‘Why do you want me to stop smoking my hookah? Why now? And how many years will that add to my life?’”
After a pause, “Do go and get me some grouse, and partridge, too, it has been some time, my teeth ache for that taste.” I brought him a full bag. He looked at it, looked up at me for he was sitting and I standing, smiled his usual, somewhat cynical smile, then said: “You will not change, always more than you ought. I am old now Jasu, who will eat all this grouse and partridge now? Look at the House!” But his cook was waiting and took them all.
As I left, he added: “Don’t forget Delhi.” I did not see him again.
In Khuri, my maternal grandfather was already ill when I reached. His body had shrunk, he could not eat and, of course, would not go even to Jaisalmer for a doctor. “How many days are you here for?” he asked. I responded, “At least three or four.”
Instantly he said in relief, “Good. Now Jasu, you organise this. My sons are all sentimental fools. Take a few men and camels, go around, collect enough firewood so that my body is burnt properly, there is not much time, I hear the sound of ‘his hooves’.” I had the needed firewood collected, it is always so scarce in the sands. Satisfied, he saw it being brought camel load after camel load because of which he then bid me farewell easy of mind. About a month later he too was gone. Some great gateway of my life – of links, identity and roots, of consciousness and connectivity – closed shut.
My commissioned service in the Army of just about nine years, 15 December 1957–22 November 1966, has no place in this narrative. I joined in what I term as the “golden age of cantonment soldiering” in India.
We soldiered as we imagined fabled cavalry must have done at one time, therefore, we too, must follow suit: “Cavalry, Sir, is to lend colour to battle, to add style to what is otherwise just an unseemly squabble”; “Officers, Sir, are to lead men into battle, not muck around all the time on piffle like inspections and parades and all that...”
An officer at Jhansi railway station, aping the “mythical” Brabazon to the flustered and hapless station master, after being informed that the train to Delhi had gone: “Gone?” the officer asked in a gimlet-soaked drawl, “what do you mean gone? Get another, instantly, go and get another train, now.”
I realised soon enough that all this was empty posturing, this living as caricatures; that the Army had better awaken to reality. I sought a formal interview and asked for permission to resign. I had barely two years of service.
“Why?” a rather jovial, bon-vivantish colonel commandant asked. He was a great raconteur and he truly couldn’t grasp what I meant when I said: “To write Sir, I need leisure to do so, and I am losing time.”
Astounded he asked: “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one! You are mad! The maximum leisure is here in the Army, not outside. Look at me...I have all the time I want, so much that I don’t know what to do with it.” I did not succeed then, but I was not deterred from my objective either.
As a reflex, I volunteered for all the impossible seeming missions, the many reconnaissance in the Himalayas that were then being ordered. I wanted to see, to experience, to feed my senses. This led to long spells in the mountains, glorious excursions, with the eternal silence of the mountains as my constant companion.
“Chinese forces cross Indian border,” screamed newspaper headlines. Within twenty-four hours, if I remember right, “Throw them out, says Nehru” followed. The year was 1962. The regiment, too, was ordered to the North-East. I was to lead the advance party.
Nobody could tell me what I was to do after reaching, or what our role, task was to be. My orders were simply to reach such and such place, with tanks at the earliest: opposite Dhubri, as I loaded the tanks on rafts, the Brahmaputra in spate was like a sea, the opposite bank of the river lost in the mists of distance. This was independent India’s first mobilisation.
The rest is history, for reflection and comment subsequently. 1962 was traumatic, it left an imprint so deep, we are unable to shake free of it still. A short engagement with Pakistan, in Kutch, followed; the regiment moved again to Fazilka in Punjab. Then came 1965 and Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar. The regiment was again in Punjab. That ceasefire set a pattern, but I had even more serious reservations about Tashkent. Can nobody see? I kept asking.
In 1966, I resigned. When asked to give reasons, I stated clearly: “To join politics.”
I had no pension, I did not want one, and, of course, no other “terminal benefits” from the Army. My service with it was the great benefit, and what the Army gave me, taught me, left with me is my priceless pension. With such an upbringing, such varied learning experience, the enthusiasm of a naïve innocent, and with multiple chips of arrogance on my shoulders, I entered India’s public life.
I struggled for another fourteen years, again single-handedly, before I reached Delhi. I wrote in my diary then: “All of this, in retrospect, seems so inevitable, and now that I am finally here, so natural, it is as if this is where I have always been, where I must be. I felt so totally at ease then with myself and with my environs, too. This is where I belong, this is my metier, it is for this that I have been struggling uptil now and preparing all my life.”
I was ready for the new challenges, this or any other. I was on the “dehlij” (doorstep) of grandfather Rawal Zorawar Singhji’s “Dilli”. It would still take a great deal more effort on my part to reach Delhi.
Excerpted with permission from A Call to Honour: In Service of Emergent India, Jaswant Singh, Rupa Publications.