Friday, January 11, 2013

The Tricolour Coffin

The armed forces children are commonly divided into three groups.

First are the ones who say-

"My daddy fires guns and drives a tank."
"My daddy is a fighter pilot."
"My daddy is a marine commando."

Second are the ones who say -

"My daddy is a doctor. He cures your daddy."
"My daddy is an engineer. He makes your daddy's plane fly."
"My daddy is an instructor. He teaches your daddy."

Third are the ones who say -

"My daddy makes sure that the ration and other supplies reach your daddy."
"My daddy manages the accounts and ammunition depots."
"My daddy forecasts the weather."

There is an unwritten law. An unspoken hierarchy. An unseen line that divides them.

Children call it the brave, braver, bravest split.
Adults call it the high, higher, highest (promotion prospects) split.

I belonged to the third group. Dad provided logistical support in the Medical corps. For some strange reason the policy makers decided to call the doctors 'technical' and the administrative officers 'non-technical' instead of admin or logistics. Imagine calling the admin people in an ad agency 'non-creative', yes it's something like that.

"Baba do you go to the border to fight?" I used to ask.
"No beta." He would reply.

That would make me sad. It was fine that he didn't drive a tank or fire guns, the least he could have done was gone and fought a war. What exactly was his job? Why wasn't he doing something brave? Many questions bothered me.

"So you never fought a war?"
"Of course I did. The 1962, 1965 and the 1971 wars." He replied.
"Wow, so you did go to the border after all!" I used to exclaim with a twinkle in my eyes.
"No. I didn't go but I fought the war. We were stationed just short of the border." He clarified.
"How is that possible?"
"It is because we provided all the supplies to the troops that are fighting at the border."
"But it's not the same as fighting it!"

At this point I guess he would understand the futility of explaining 'the chain' to a child and change the subject. He was probably not very keen on revealing that the one time he was closest to the border was in 1971. He was posted to the only sector (Fazilka, Punjab) which lost while the rest on them had won the battles, thereby winning the war. It was also the only time he ever saw the then Army Chief General Manekshaw who came to the sector, stood on the podium to address the troops and said just one line, "You are the ones who lost it for me" (or something to that effect). It was nothing to write home about. I came to know of it much later in life.

So, around two decades back when 'Three Indian Army doctors killed in Somalia' made the national headlines I realised that one of them was someone we knew. Their three children were our friends. Aunty was mummy's friend. This was the first time a hospital and doctors posted with the UN were attacked. It was big news internationally as well. One tiny fact which didn't seem to matter to the journalists was that one of them, the one we knew, was not a doctor. He was an administrative officer. He was responsible for the medical & ration supplies.

Dad came home. Asked mummy to come along as he was to break the news to Aunty. He wanted a lady to be around to hold her in case Aunty did collapse. Vehicles were sent to bring their children back from school so that they could be informed as a family. A coffin was received with full honour in due course.

It changed the way I looked at Dad.
It made me understand 'the chain' and the importance of every link.

It also made me pray.
I prayed for catastrophe to never strike our family.
I prayed if it ever were to strike our family, to let it be a valiant one.
Worthy of a national flag.

This is how we are raised. Amidst sudden deaths, crazy amounts of school transfers, parents posted separately for years, no roots, remote areas, scarce facilities, no fancy playthings etc. Yes there are facilities that everyone envies us for too but trust me, more often than not, they are quite far and few. As the children of the armed forces we have one thing in common.

We would rather lose our loved ones to valour than to anything less.  

It is scary. It haunts. But the tricolour coffin is very much a reality of our lives.

When I looked at today's newspaper headline and Lance Naik Hemraj's mother said 'sar kaat sakte hain woh log, sar jhuka nahi sakte' I knew what she meant.

Note: I know there are some obnoxious brats too but let us take them as exceptions that prove a rule least in the premises if this blogpost.


  1. Amazing! I can't even come close to identifying with this emotion. Salute to defence families!

  2. 'sar kaat sakte hain woh log, sar jhuka nahi sakte'.... I don't have any words to say....
    Tricolour Coffin !...I feel sad....why couldn't I do something which would have given me that honour....
    waste of life....

  3. I can so relate to it... Very well written!!!

  4. Lived this so many times over - it is so beautifully expressed by you though...
    But why would you say:
    "I prayed for catastrophe to never strike our family.
    I prayed if it ever were to, let it be that of a soldier"
    ....more on the lines of "let it not happen to me, but to someone else.."?

  5. Hi Shivani,

    Am sorry if it came across as 'let it happen to someone else'...what I meant was...if there is a catastrophe waiting to happen then let it be in the form of a soldier's death....befitting a soldier. i didn't mean some other soldier.

    Thanks for pointing out. I think I will reword it.

  6. Mads &'s a bond. Close one.

    Anagha...I think we all are doing what we can in our own little ways. Yes they might not be great things worthy of a tricolour, but it all leads to just one thing - making the place where we live a little better, a littler safer.

  7. संयोग है आज गणतंत्र दिवस को यह पोस्ट मैं पढ़ रहा हूँ -सेना कई भागों में भले ही विभाजित हो मगर युद्ध सभी समवेत हो एक इकाई के रूप में लड़ते हैं -बालमन तो बस सभी को एक बहादुर योद्धा के रूप में देखना चाहता है -मगर यहाँ किसका रोल कमतर है? पोस्ट ने संवेदित किया !


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