As I enter a picture perfect army cantonment, amidst a misty winter evening, I hear this number streaming inside the auditorium. 83, the film, is going great guns on the Christmas eve in a quaint military station with top guns and shotguns in company (‘shotguns’ is a term devised for young or junior officers, in army parlance, to keep their morale in place when it is not).
The curtains come down and some shotguns leave the auditorium on a high note, planning to hit the officers` institute to wine and dine as their lovely ladies have laid down tools. Why should boys have all the fun? Winter and festivity make a beautiful couple and Mary should not be in the kitchen, on the day the world is celebrating her child. Though, I missed the film I did not wish to miss joining my brother officers for a session of scotch and soup. I slipped into the institutional dress code and turned up for the rendezvous, quick. The guns` gang was in high spirits (pun intended) and so were the ladies.
Amidst the bonfire and barbecue, my cheroot was looking around for a light when I bumped into a Jack quietly standing near the bar drawing deep drags from his tab. He was sporting dark glasses on a dark blue suit with brogues. He bobbed a greeting, I returned one and asked for a light. He glanced towards the bar orderly who promptly produced a lighter. I did not exactly like his attitude with all those sunglasses in an indoor bar at night and the disdain with which he preferred the orderly to lit my cheroot than he himself. The Indian Army customs deem all officers as equal in an officers` institute, irrespective of their ranks and being both a soldier and a storyteller, I was curious to understand his backdrop which prompts him to behave thus. So, I chose to introduce myself to learn more about the solitary Jack.
‘Colonel (Col) Crishnamachari Cringle; pet name “Chris”,’ he extended his hand.
‘How are you doing, Col?’ I opened the conversation.
‘All Sir Garnet,’ pat came his reply.
‘You seem to be well read, Col. I have not heard this idiom in ages,’ I was impressed.
‘Not exactly, Sir. I am a villager who uses flowery language to confuse others of my humble background, ho, ho,’ he laughed out loud.
‘Interesting. So, what do you think of 83, the film? I asked.
’83 is about cricket and underdogs, Sir and it carries a part of my life less ordinary,’ he took a closer look at his scotch.
‘I see. What is your poison, by the way?’ I took a seat.
‘Black Dog, Sir. Would you prefer one?’ He offered.
‘Of course, why not a Black Dog while we talk of underdogs,’ I winked at him.
‘Cheers, Sir,’ the orderly placed the crystal glass and left us to warm up.
‘You were saying something about your connection with 83, the film,’ I sat puffing my cheroot.
‘Oh, yeah, yeah, Sir.’
He had not done away with his dark glasses and that had me uneasy. It’s all in the eyes, you see and I am more comfortable looking into it than the other way round.
‘Let me share a story with you which I have not lost in the mists of time, Sir. It may seem a tall story to you but listen to this,’ he begun his tale.
‘My father left the Indian Navy as a sailor. He was a 1971 war veteran who could not make it to the officers rank despite deemed commission worthy. With a dead dream in his heart, he took up a lowly job in our hamlet and I was brought up in a little village on the banks of the river, Hooghly,’ his voice was powerful and carried well.
‘The year dot, in the summers of 1983, India entered the finals of the Prudential Cricket World Cup. I was a 7 year old patriotic cricket buff. You would agree that Indians have always considered Cricket as a part of the patriotism curriculum and I was no exception. I was desperate to watch the match forgetting all this while that I was growing up in a hamlet where TV sets were as unavailable as electricity. The antenna was only visible on the rooftop of one house in that little village of mine and we earnestly begged our privileged neighbour to oblige us. As a magnanimous gesture, the patriarch of that household opened his doors to us, unprivileged, children and we assembled on his floor to watch the “Dev`s devils” take on the mighty West Indies on June 25, 1983. Doordarshan was relaying the match and we sat watching it on the black and white TV of our portly neighbourhood uncle, clapping all along. Despite the disappointing Indian team score and the ensuing tension in the air, the naughty child in me kept fooling around with his friends. As if he was the manager of Kapil’s eleven, it irked uncle. He lost his cool and gave me an earful. I left the telecast midway and went home crying. My father was seated on a cot with his friends outside our home, listening to the live radio commentary of the same match when he saw me weeping inconsolably. He did not utter a word after hearing me out. He gently caressed my hair, hugged me and put me to sleep. The Prudential Cup Cricket Finals of 83 was over for both of us’ Col traversed through the time, pulled out his smartphone and showed me this childhood picture of his.
‘Six months down the line on the Christmas eve of ’83, my father bought home the first colour TV of our village and invited the same portly neighbourhood uncle of ours to switch it on as a formal inauguration. I was over the moon when my father held both my hands, looked into my eyes and said – You kept mumbling that whole night of June 25, ’83. After that indignation, all you dreamt of was a TV set and I would not have allowed my son`s dreams to die at the hands of some obnoxious privileged fellow. If you believe in Santa here`s your Christmas present, Chris. Go, tell the village that you are not an underdog,’ Col Chris held back his tears and asked the orderly for a refill of his black dog.
‘Hmmm. Nicely worded story but is that it? That’s your connect to Underdogs, Christmas, Cricket and 83, Chris’, I chewed on my cheroot.
‘Is it not peculiar, Sir that sword and words have the same letter and the same effect, if not handled properly?’ Chris was caustic. ‘You know, Sir that’s where the story of a team of underdogs end and that’s also where the story of an underdog begins. Around a decade later, I was holding my train ticket to join IIT, Kharagpur, when the postman rang twice. I would not have been sitting with you in this Defence Officers` Institute had that postman delayed my joining letter from the Indian Army. No wonder, I love uniforms – that postman wore one, too,’ I was so invested in his engrossing story that I could not go to the John.
‘You cracked the coveted Joint Entrance Examination and left the iconic Indian Institute Of Technology for soldiering? Unbelievable! Gave up a dream life for the Indian Army? What about it?’ I was incredulous.
‘38 years back I met a Santa who fulfilled my dream despite a bag full of his own dead dreams. I loved him and I loved his uniform. Can you imagine how overwhelmed was he to see me fulfill his dreams. Could I have paid him back better?’ Chris took a long slug of his scotch and continued.
‘You joined Army to fulfil your father’s dream? Is it not unjustifiable to both Indian Army and you, as a professional soldier?’ I began to judge him, cruelly.
‘Sir, Soldiering was in my DNA. It was my calling. IIT was my accomplishment. It was not my scene. There’s a difference between a life lived on accomplishment and a life lived on love,’ Col sounded too good to be true.
‘Why would you Sir me, Col? We do not know of our seniority levels, yet.’ I was somewhat irritated by his splendid story.
‘I would, Sir. I do not have an eye but I see,’ he paused to remove his dark glasses.
‘You have the typical soldierly sense of humour, Col,’ I did not hear him fully and looked for another cheroot in my pockets.
Off the hilly trails down that army cantonment, the owl hooted and the dog barked. As I lit my cheroot on that chilly night and looked up, I saw a grotesque face with only one eye. It horrified me.
‘Facing the hail of bullets in the range of those cold cruel mountains of Jammu and Kashmir, I lost my men and my eye in a military operation. We drubbed the enemy, no matter what and looking back I feel it was probably fait accompli. Half of everything is luck – the other half; fate. The Shaurya Chakra (one of the six gallantry awards of India) replaced my eye, I reckon,’ Col Chris ruminated.
I forgot to light my cheroot. Bugger was a ball of fire. It was a tête-à-tête of a lifetime. In those rolling hills, patches of forest and a small cantonment town tucked into folds of hills, meeting Col Chris was serendipity for me. My sojourn seemed worth every penny. You seldom get to meet such fine men. Men who choose to serve their motherlands than serving themselves. IIT would have made his life but he gave it all up and more for the ashes of his fathers and the temples of his gods. Despite his disability and disfigurement, for me, Col Chris was a prepossessing man. For me, the sentries who smartly saluted me on my way in were the elves to the Santa called Col Chris Cringle. These brave soldiers make our Christmas.
“When all the wars are done, a butterfly will still be beautiful. Remember this line, Sir. You said that in your short film on the war I fought,” he placed the peg of Black Dog on the peg table.
“Ruskin Bond said that, Chris, not me. Bond, you and I have all suffered wars and that’s why we value the butterfly more than anyone,” I dropped the disclaimer.
‘Do you still feel that I should have opted for IIT over Indian Army, Sir?’ He smiled wryly.
‘Stars can not shine without darkness. You did good, Col. I am both proud and grateful to you’ I smiled back warmly. The Col was as brave as a bulldog. Not a big deal as this is one trait which soldiers are known for but not everyone knows that not every combatant possesses it. You may not respect soldiers but you must respect a brave soldier because when the shit hits the fan, some guys stay and some run. Col Cringle stayed.
We downed the last of the bottle of Black Dog and laughed. Col Crishnamachari Cringle and his ilk were not the underdogs. They were the Krishnamachari Srikkanths and Jimmy Amarnaths of my country who went onto prove the world that they are the dark horses. They are the Santa, the gifts to our nation and I raise a toast to these war horses.