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The warrior cats

Two Black cats sitting together and looking at camera. Studio shot

Two Black cats sitting together and looking at camera. Studio shot  

When a feline rekindled memories of life in the Army

“Come quickly! Come and see,” called out my wife from our terrace. We stood watching a crouched bundle of tight-knit muscles and mesmerising green eyes, clothed in a jet-black coat. She named it “17 Div”, at which we both exploded in joyous laughter. Somewhat perplexed, 17 Div wisely chose to mewl tentatively and won our hearts.

For both of us, his assigned name brought very happy memories of 1963 when from an Army encampment on a hilltop near Gangtok, I would witness rich streaks of multiple tints across the sky above Kanchenjunga at dawn and dusk and share with her the charms of Sikkim through a letter daily. Embossed on the upper right corner of the letter paper used to be a jaunty, black cat, whiskered and spine-arched into a hemisphere as is the wont of these felines in moments of affection and aggression.

A tradition

The Army has traditionally chosen animals and birds of our rich wilderness as emblems of its divisions: elephant, eagle, ibex, cockerel, tiger and so on. When Brigadier John Smyth was ordered in 1940 to raise an Infantry Division from scratch at Secunderabad, he settled for black cat as the emblem. Jackie Smyth led 10 volunteers of the 15 Ludhiana Sikhs in France during the First World War and emerged as the sole survivor from the suicidal mission.

In 1963, I was the lowliest Staff Officer in 17 Division Headquarters and my job was to accompany the General Officer Commanding to the outposts. We would be on dirt tracks three days each week; in the bargain, I would pick up fresh material for letter writing. Shortly, our marriage was arranged for the last week of December. One of our precious possessions is the wedding gift, a circular silver salver engraved with the cat emblem as also the signatures of all my 14 colleagues.

It had to be the umbilical context when 16 years later, I was given command of a Brigade of the Black Cats whose operational writ encompassed the upper half of north Sikkim! About a decade earlier, I had chanced upon the reprint of a 1960s best-seller The Only Enemy, autobiography of John Smyth which at last provided me a clue that the credit for the emblem belonged to Francis, the General’s wife.

And our story comes full circle whenever 17 Div mewls outside my wife’s window for a meal. Hope this text carries to Jackie and his cats up in Valhalla.

naturefan3@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 3:19:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-warrior-cats/article31765596.ece

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