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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Diesel Smoke



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The unique bond between a man and his steed is as old as time itself. More accurately, it goes back to the time when man first domesticated animals and, in addition to new source of food, found a better way to move around than walking. Very soon he realized that fighting from the back of a horse, camel or elephant gave him a distinct edge over unmounted opponents. The speed, reach and elevation of mounted soldiers became a war winning factor. Some horses are almost as well known as their illustrious riders. Alexander’s Bucephalus and Rana Pratap’s Chetak, are legendary for the bond they shared with their riders. By the beginning of the twentieth century, newer technologies resulted in living flesh and blood steeds being replace by mechanical ones made of cold hard steel. Yet, strangely, the steel mounts still seem to have a soul, one which bonds irrevocably with that of his rider.

The mechanical steeds of modern day may be a trifle more demanding and unforgiving than the unquestioning loyalty and devotion of their equine ancestors. Yet they have also been known to rise to the occasion in displays of almost intuitive sense of timing. They respond to prayers and entreaties, rising to impossible levels of endurance and resilience that would be difficult to attribute to merely a machine. How else can you explain a squadron commander’s tank in the middle of a corps exercise, with it’s gear shift linkages broken, completing the exercise with one crew member sitting on the engine deck shifting gears with a crowbar?

One such steel monster with a soul, and a mind of its own, was known to the world as ZX1638, (the military equivalent of its license plate number) or simply ‘Sohla Athatis’ (the digits as spoken in Punjabi ). It was the very first tank assigned to me (or was I assigned to it? It was never clear) on commissioning into my regiment. Being a troop leader in addition to a tank commander, I had two more tanks to call my own, but my own tank was special. After all, I expected to ride into battle on it, if and when it came to that. I couldn’t claim sole proprietorship for it, as there were three other claimants for its attentions – the crew consisting of the gunner, operator and driver. As ours was a pure ‘Khalsa’ squadron, all three of them were Sikhs – sturdy, rustic, with a sense of humour that was irrepressible as it was irreverent. The biggest upstart among them was Prabhjit – short, stocky with an indifferently tied turban, he was the driver and also my ‘sahayak’. This meant that both of us – Solah Athatis and I – were on his charge. Apart from being responsible for the tank’s tools and fuel accounting, he was answerable to the Squadron Senior JCO for me being present at all parades at the right time and in the right rig.

It was our job as it’s crew to keep Sohla Athatis battle worthy and ship shape at all times, and as a newly commissioned officer I was expected to be as much hands on as the rest of the crew. There were lists of daily, weekly, monthly maintenance tasks that had to be carried out, in addition to any running repairs that the 18 year old machine frequently required. A major part of our working day was thus spent on tending to the tank. Things went smoothly for a couple of months, without me having an occasion to worry about the roadworthiness of my tank or my own routine. Till Prabhjit went on a spot of short leave, leaving me and Solah Athatis in the care of a temporary replacement. I suddenly found it difficult to show up on parade in time – my uniform would be missing, or my motorcycle keys would be untraceable. But my problem of tardiness paled into insignificance before the larger issue that faced us. Sohla Athathis suddenly started ‘misbehaving’. The annual technical inspection was coming up in a couple of weeks, which meant all the tanks had to be re-painted, and put in a mechanically sound condition. Sohla Athathis was to be taken to the workshop a few kilometers away for carrying out some maintenance tasks, but the reticent tank refused to start. Everyone, from the most experienced driver in the squadron to the technician from the workshop tried to cajole, threaten and bully the obstinate machine, but to no avail. It’s air bottles were exhausted trying to start it pneumatically, and the batteries were nearly drained in attempts at electrical starting. Intriguingly, the mechanics couldn’t find any fault with any system, except for the fact that it just wouldn’t start.
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We had a troop conference to figure out what could be done. After much banter and lewd jokes, as was the norm for such momentous gatherings, the collective wisdom of the troop was to do nothing and await Prabhjit’s return. Since there was just about enough time between his rejoining and the inspection, we concentrated on getting the other two tanks ready. Then Prabhjit arrived, grinning from ear to ear and glowing with the special gleam that spending even a few days back home gives a soldier. We all watched in amazement as he got into the driving seat of Sohla Athatis and with a few deft strokes, managed to get the engine roaring within seconds. The matter was soon forgotten in the hectic run up to the inspection. Years passed, both Prabhjit and Sohla Athatis completed their respected service and left the regiment. Eventually the regiment itself got converted to newer, more modern tanks. Then I too hung up my spurs and moved on to the civvy street. But the special relationship between Prabhjit and his tank continues to intrigue me. To my mind there was only one explanation. It doesn’t matter whether the mount is flesh or steel. It’s the special bond formed between it and its rider which causes soul of the rider to reach out and wrap itself around the living or lifeless steed. Willing it to think it’s thoughts, act as per it’s cues. And conversely, the mounts also change the riders forever. A little bit of the sweat, blood and living breath of the steel monsters that I rode for 20 years remains with me to date. The whiff of diesel smoke mixed with dust, be it from a truck overtaking my car on the road, still triggers memories of nights spent sleeping on the comforting warmth of the engine deck in the middle of nowhere in the desert.

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