Jeep At The Gate





 

A few years ago, on one of our many walks together, my father had turned to me and said rather matter-of-factly, “If something happens to me, call my old regiment. They will handle everything.”

It was a distressing and uncomfortable moment, but he carried on regardless. “Your contact details are in a file with the Commanding Officer, and it will pass seamlessly to the next so don’t worry about that. You only must make a call and the standard operating procedure will fall into place.”

Then he had returned home and instead of taking the lift he walked up five floors to his apartment, which he did till a few days before he fell ill.


***********


“Why must we go to the park?” the little girl complained.
“Why can’t we stay home with you?”

It didn’t seem her mother was listening to her as she continued all the while to pull the dress over her head, quickly buttoning it up, sitting her down for her socks and shoes, briskly brushing her hair and arranging the hairband into place. Her baby brother already in a pram, ready for the evening walk. 

“Go out for a while, play with your friends,” said her mother gently pushing her towards their Ayah who took her hand and briskly led her away. 
This hour and a half were the only time the young mother had to herself and in these days of stress and anxiety, she looked forward to it. 

So, the three of them headed out towards a large patch of greenery where they met up with other children. While the young ones played on the swings, slides and seesaws, the Ayahs walked the toddlers or sat in a circle on the grass under a large tree and caught up with news. 
Sometimes when they lowered their voices and spoke in whispers it invariably aroused the curiosity of the little girl.
 
“Why are you talking so softly? Is it a secret?” she asked, flinging her arms around the neck of this woman who meant so much to her.
“Little children don’t sit among grownups”, chided her Ayah, “Go play”.

There was something however, about the whispering, the streetlights that did not come on at sundown, the fear of the night that turned into a mangled knot in the pit of the little girl’s stomach despite all the finger painting, plasticine, and sand-pit sessions during the day, organised to keep the bacha-log occupied.

**

Just before the big, yellow sun sank behind the trees, the Ayahs got up dusting themselves and bustling the children together to begin the now inexplicable urgency to return home. Four of them headed to the right of the park and the little girl, her baby brother and their Ayah headed towards the left with three others who lived in identical, nondescript homes, Officers’ Quarter 4A, B, C & D.

The MES (Military Engineering Service) not known for its imaginativeness, perhaps followed a policy that a square block of brick and mortar would make it easier for its occupants to leave without looking back.

As two little boys and their help peeled off into 4D, a jeep could be seen at the mouth of the street, closest to the little girl’s house. Silent, watchful, and ominous against the twilight.

The Ayahs stopped in their tracks, clutching tightly the hands of their young wards. As the jeep slowly approached, the little girl thought everybody had stopped breathing. Even the birds, so noisy and busy preparing for bed at this time, went all quiet. 

Now heading towards them the vehicle stopped at the third house. An officer got off from the front seat and another from the rear. The driver remained behind the wheel. 

They pushed a cranky, sagging white gate open. 
Their shoes could be heard crunching on the gravel drive as they walked to the door which was flung open before they had a chance to ring the bell. 
A few seconds later a long piercing wail followed that remained with the little girl for decades thereafter even though her Ayah practically ran home pulling her along with one hand and pushing the pram with the other.
On the way, almost colliding with the little girl’s mother who was rushing out to her comfort her grieving neighbour, as were the other mothers from along the street.

The following day the jeep stopped beyond the park, at 4E.

In a matter of a few days the jeep had been to three homes out of the eight on either side of the park. 
The drill was the same. The vehicle stopped at a white gate. An officer got off from the front and another from the rear. Usually, the door opened before they had a chance to ring the bell, followed by a shriek, controlled sobbing, or complete silence.

The fear of that jeep was such that a lady returning home one late afternoon with vegetables, in her Standard Herald saw it at her gate and refused to get out, saying, “Give me the news right here. I don’t trust my legs” ...till the visiting officer sent by her husband assured her he was making a courtesy call to check on her and the family.

She then jumped out, hugging the man, her whimpering, frightened children and laughing with tears streaming down her cheeks, invited everyone who came to see what the matter was, for a hot cup of tea.

The mirth in the Ayah circle knew no end that evening and their mood lightened that of the playing children too.

Several weeks later, when one early morning the little girl left for the railway station in a one-tonner loaded with trunks and bedrolls, she whispered to her mother. “We should keep it a secret and not tell anyone we are leaving or else the jeep might follow us”.

Her mother held her tight. Don’t worry the jeep won’t come now. Daddy is safe. 

Babina
5 August - 23 September 1965



************



Two days into my father’s recent hospitalisation I was sitting at the dining table with my mother taking her blood pressure reading when my cell phone rang. 

It was the CO (Commanding Officer) of my father’s old regiment. His voice, tone and concern were so comforting that my immediate reaction was one of relief. 

“How did you know?” I asked. 
“We heard” he responded. 

He assured me of every assistance and reminded me that he was only a call away. Though thanking him profusely, my heart began to sink a bit. 

“Who was that?” asked my mother.
“Col xxx from 193...”

Her face broke into a smile, her frown of so many days melted away. 
“How nice,” she said. “How nice. But tell him your father will be fine”.

**

“Babe Di Mehar” as said Avtar Singh, who in 1971 was a young recruit in the Sikh regiment which my father led into War.
Now in touch every evening sharp 1830 hours after they reconnected at the 50th Anniversary Reunion in 2016.

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