Soldiering With Nature in Dehradun
If I close my eyes and lie back, the sound of the Koels and brain-fever birds take me back in time to a sylvan time of my life - the training period in the Indian Military Academy. Once again, I smell the hot, moist wind bringing forth the smell of wet earth
and heralding the onset of a dust storm. The wind, fury, lightning and thunder cools the summer day and a pleasant evening is promised. Each morning I woke up to the plaintive notes of the Indian Cuckoo which sang the first four notes of the old Ventures favourite
- Popcorn. I lived most of my life outdoors in those days. Food, academic classes and sleep - all other times we were out in nature.
Each day we pounded the drill square, sweating automatons, turning together on unheard cues while bulbuls and orioles sang in the trees overhead. In white shorts and singlets climbing up and down ropes and jumping the "horse" while the creepers on the trellis
fence nearby sent silent whiffs of perfume to entice the bees and butterflies. In putties and solar topees, holding on to the horse precariously for dear life, praying that one fell on green grass and not on rocky slopes. Running slowly, tirelessly, unstoppably
along the long miles of the tea estates flanked by sal and oak forests. In the Tons valley, beautiful Common Peacocks, Pansies and Leopards flew all around as we fired our rifles - strangely they were oblivious of the acrid fumes which stung our eyes.
The forests around Dehradun were our battlegrounds. Here we attacked a knoll, there we defended the stony bank of a "rao". We infiltrated across the passes of the Shiwaliks day and night in search of the enemy, unafraid of the big cats but terrified of meeting
the fearsome elephants of Rajaji National Park. We would break off leafy twigs and ferny fronds to break our silhouette and camouflage ourselves. Long hours in the rain we spent digging and preparing our trenches, but always to the dis-satisfaction of the
DS (our instructor). Just when we got it right, he said the tactical situation had changed and now we would form a fresh defensive position in the forest.
The sal forest, looking identical in every direction, especially after dark. One night, I went to answer nature's call and got lost while returning. As taught, I stopped and tried to retrace my actions when I heard the loud bellowing laughter of my battalion
commander, Lt Col
Farukh Bulsara. "Bull" as he was known had a loud voice, immense courage and a great sense of humour. He would lead some of us into a daring airborne attack to capture Male airport in 1997. A great leader, sadly no more. But I'm digressing. That night his voice
acted as a beacon, if he was there, then I knew where to go.
Forever hungry, we would try to eat the berries in the jungle wherever we went, fortunately without any adverse effects. Then one day, I remember our instructor showed us how to catch, kill and cook a snake - it tasted like boiled chicken. That night we went
on survival mode for 24 hours. I was not worried - my buddy, Shyamo Singh, was from Manipur. Once out of sight, he brought out a sling and some 9mm slugs dug up from the rifle range. He brought down three crows - one each. Together with small fish from the
streams, some dal and rice that we had, we made a good meal.
I especially remember one night - it began with a perfect purple dusk. We lay in ambush just inside the edge of a sal copse, waiting for an unsuspecting patrol to ambush. As it grew dark, we kept one eye closed, the faster to adapt to night vision. A cool breeze
blew carrying the delicate scent from some bushes with white flowers along the Rao bank. Then a small light appeared, golden, small, it began to blink. It was not the enemy but a fire-fly. Then another started flashing nearby, then another, yet another and
more and more. All of a
sudden something miraculous happened. They all began to flash together, in perfect harmony. I was amazed, I almost didn't notice the "enemy" patrol approach. I nudged my sleeping partners awake and we sprang a perfect surprise, I swung our "rattler" to depict
LMG fire. Another fired a bicat strip (firecrackers). Then we grabbed our rifles and charged the enemy. We had achieved complete surprise, ruled the umpire; it was indeed a perfect night.
Our next memory is of Bhadraj. This elephant back peak adjoining the left edge of Mussoorie is a real monster. Laden with packs - in mountains, one is supposed to be self-sufficient in food and ammunition for 72 hours, we trudged painfully up the never-ending
slope. We progressed through a variety of ecozones - the forested lower slopes, the bushy intermediates and grass strewn upper slopes. Every time we thought we crested, the actual top of the mountain loomed even higher beyond. In the dusk we summitted - reported
DS. We sat looking westward at the picture-perfect setting sun over the Shivaliks.
By then we were hungry having eaten all our food,; we were dehydrated having drunk all our water. We were completely exhausted. It was a torment to clamber down the mountainside. It was achieved with much slipping, falling, helping one another and finally we
had enough. We were almost at the bottom, we had reached a spring. We slaked our thirst, stopped to rest and fell asleep immediately. In the dim greyness of first light, I was rudely kicked awake - a DS had found us. He asked us how we reached that place?
We gestured over our
shoulders at the slope behind us - he said, "Don't pull my leg!". We turned and looked behind - our jaws dropped. Dog-tired robots, we had blindly followed the zombie like map-reader down a precipice but by grace of the Almighty none of us were hurt. Till
this day, I do not
know how we came down that slope. There was no way, any alert conscious person would even think of attempting that route.
As we trudged down the oak forested slopes, sun rays filtered through the forest leaves, birds sang everywhere, the wild flowers bloomed all around, the water tinkled as it ran down-slope. Dog-tired I was but in sheer heaven.
Nature truly lives in Dehra.
(Ashwin Baindur can be contacted at