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Catching up on a moonscape

Bumping into a friend from college in Ladakh in an Army tent 23 years later

In 1958, I joined the B.Sc. Physics course in Presidency College, Madras, and M.D. Naidu was a friend among my classmates. I dropped out in my final year, joined the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, and was commissioned into the Madras Sappers in 1962.

Naidu was commissioned into the Artillery in 1963 and won the Vir Chakra for his courage in the 1965 war. He was wounded in the abdomen by machine gun fire, but he refused to be evacuated and continued to direct artillery fire on the enemy for three hours, before fainting from loss of blood. This was pivotal to battle success in that sector. He survived, but I was unable to meet him.

I assumed command of a Border Roads Task Force in Ladakh in 1982 where one could drive for tens of kilometres without seeing a human habitation or another vehicle. This was more so in the Shyok valley, where a bridge across the Largiap nullah was destroyed by a flash flood in early 1983.

In June, I went to inspect the site with Major Ramaswamy. We drove in a Nissan Jonga, and when we were returning, it was around 6.30 p.m. but still bright. We had driven for a few minutes when a wheel went over a loose stone, making a loud noise. A little later, the engine sputtered and died, and the Jonga came to a halt. A quick check in failing light showed that the fuel tank was empty. The stone had punctured it.

We had to walk to the nearest camp at the Thoise airfield, about 10 km away. The full moon rose behind us, lighting our way on the rough road. Ramu was excellent company and as we walked, we chatted while the driver was immersed in his thoughts. The silence of the expanses was broken only by our voices and the scrunch of boots.

Distant glimmer

We spotted the glimmer of kerosene lanterns from a tented Army camp just short of Thoise, and realised that we had been walking for about two-and-a-half hours. After another half an hour of walking, we left the road and descended to the camp. At the perimeter, a sentry challenged us. Getting past him took time, and it was about 9 p.m. by then. In the dark camp, we headed for the nearest tent in which we spotted a light.

As we approached the tent, a voice from within asked, “Kaun hai?” I lifted the tent flap, and entered it to explain the circumstances. The light was in my face, my eyes adjusting to the bright petromax light. Before I could make out the face of the occupant, I heard a voice exclaim, “My God! Sudhir,” and he jumped up and clasped me in a warm embrace. It was Naidu.

We then sat to catch up with 23 years of time, assisted by a peg (maybe, two or three) of rum, along with parathas and egg bujjia rustled up by Naidu’s mess cook.

sg9kere@live.com

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 5:13:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/catching-up-on-a-moonscape/article31069427.ece

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