Monday, June 30, 2008

And the heroes don't come easy

"Hey! I made it to Manekshaw house," I screamed as if it was as important as being in Gryfinddor at Hogwarts. Though, I did not feel like Harry Potter. Instead, we, at Manekshaw house in Army School, Guwahati, situated in, perhaps, the greenest cantonment in India -- Narangi, swelled with pride, as the new academic session began. I repeated in my head: "Sam Manekshaw – the last man standing".

In the northeastern corner of Arunachal Pradesh, the only hero we knew was Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw and how he stood for Bangladesh – how he defended Assam and other north-eastern states. Then in the evening, wielding our Leo guns – sometimes even broken twigs from the trees to enact imagined war sequences from the Bangladesh. So that everyone gets to be Manekshaw, we would take turns.

If that were not enough, in our childish adaptation of a war, we would often mix up Manekshaw and Colonel Boogey from Bridge on the River Kwai. In a manner, perhaps more innocent than crafty, we would also imagine Manekshaw coming all the way to the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh and take the sweet revenge of 1962.

With the pantheon of gods, goddesses, actors, rockstars, leaders, laureates marching across the sands of time, Sam Manekshaw remained like a constant – inspiring and waking me up. When my parents moved to Guwahati, a bigger urban whole, I would often think of Manekshaw. But in Guwahati, other kids wouldn't know about it, so it was just me and my cousin reading Commando graphic novels during our summer holidays and our plans doing something similar with Manekshaw in the centre. This project never materialized.

Amid the mundane enquiries of Geography and complicated calculus of school education, we would just relive the moment of Manekshaw's glory. Somehow, joining the army seemed to me like the best profession in the world. Somehow this idea of being a soldier who never quits till he is dead, appealed to me. It was not an overrated jingoistic assertion that I want to fight for a particular construct called India, but a way to connect with the larger whole called India with my own beliefs.

I changed schools, and joined an institution run by Indian Army. There was Manekshaw House to start with. There were students who knew about Manekshaw. For most of them, he was the star attraction of the Indian Army but for me he was an unsung hero. I took this opportunity to rediscover him amid the school competitions. It was not conscious decision but there was always something in my mind: that I belonged to Manekshaw house.

It has been eight years now. Someone whispered to me that pen is mightier than the sword and then, another one, the meek shall rule. I am in Vadodara, 400-odd kilometers from Manekshaw's hometown. "Sam Manekshaw? Army General right?" said a friend looking at the news headline. It did not surprise me.