October 29, 2007

Lost in Lansdowne

The last three weeks have seen me travel to two distinctively different places. Both have this whole glorious past thing going and yet the sense of history is totally different for either. Both the places, Taj and Lansdowne, bear testimony of people who came from foreign land but for entirely different reasons and yet both ended up ruling and influencing us.

Nestled in the Garhwal Hills, Lansdowne is a sleepy little hill station that acts as the home of Indian Army’s Garhwal Rifles. A British General was so impressed by the valor of Garhwali’s during the Afghan War that he championed the cause of raising a pure Garhwal Regiment. So finally in the 1887 the Garhwali’s, who used to be a part of Gurkhas up until then, got their regiment.

I couldn’t figure it out for the love of my life as to why in the god’s name would someone make a base way up in the hills? Agreed that they got a beautiful thing going up there but still… the Garhwal Rifles have had a glorious past of almost 120 years and have participated in every major war since then. They have been thrice awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military gallantry award during the Raj. In 1987 The Garhwal Rifles decided to put all it’s achievements in the form of a museum. It’s one of the best museums that I have seen and that’s largely thanks to the participation of
the Army. The museum has medals dating way back to late 1890’s, guns from the Afghan war, original plan of Lansdowne and many such items. In the recent past they have won an environmental award for preserving the natural beauty of the place; they also have a man-made lake.

The trip was like a walk down memory lane for me. My father served in the Army and I grew in such areas. My brain started working overtime the very moment I entered the mess where we were put up. The mess was called Roberts and had a wooden staircase leading to Room #8. The high ceiling, the damp smell, the three chairs resting in the verandah offering a breath taking view of the hills… it was straight out of some book. The moment I saw the three easy chairs I could hear Meryl Streep’s voice in my head, ‘
I once had a farm in Africa.’

Sudhesh of course thought that perhaps I’d finally lost my head but I quickly regained my composure as I continued to soak in the place. The Roberts mess was built in 1909 and if that wasn’t enough then the main mess, The Garhwali Mess, was constructed way back in 1892. It looked postcard perfect. Only hitch I couldn’t enter it for I wasn’t dressed for the place.

This was the first time I had gone to an Army infested place since 1994. Most things were the same but many things had changed. There was a certain sense of loss that enveloped me as I saw the current crop of officers and troops. Don’t get me wrong but they were so not right. This is a strange dichotomy that plagues the Army. On hand they can’t continue to live in a fools paradise, cut off from the world, that housed them since the British times and they can’t ignore the influence of things not-so-army as well. Thanks to the Internet and cable TV there is a great sense of interaction with the outside world and this is perhaps taking it’s toll on the common soldier. There was a time when the Army was self-contented in its small world of the cantonment that encased them but not any more. I saw Officers, Jawans and Other Ranks everyone flashing a cell phone and on one occasion I noticed a driver continuing to say goodbye on the phone as the officer waiting for him to listen to him!

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