(….. continued from here)
While at Ferozepur, I had frequent attacks of malaria while the others mysteriously enough were unaffected. Once on hearing that I was down with ague yet again Major Jaswant Singh jocularly asked the Lord and Master of mine, whether this was a bi-annual or quarterly feature. That wil give you an inkling of how many times I was down with malaria. My first-born was not yet one at the time. How could I have managed without the help of these wonderful souls?
There was very little of me to start with, small that I was, with the officers of the unit frequently pulling the L & M’s already long legs, asking him exactly where the ration went. With each each attack of malaria I became weaker, and fresh bouts became harder to cope with. The aftermath of Operation Bluestar ensured that the unit was constantly away on duty. On one of the rare (and lucky) occasions that my husband was present in the station, I had one of my attacks. Shivering and running a very high temperature I was left with no option but call Jaswinder Singh and tell him to get help. As Jaswinder himself was needed to take care of my baby son, I asked that our friend Maj T’s helper be requested to go to the office to convey the news of my situation to the L & M.
Jaswinder promptly hurried over to get Pal Singh. But do you think Pal Singh went rushing off on hearing the news? You’d believe so if you are the type who think all those sardarji jokes are true. Pal Singh first came to find out how bad things were and finding me shivering uncontrollably, asked where the blankets were kept (it was summer and the blankets were all in steel trunks), opened the boxes, took out the blankets and gave them to me, brought a glass of water for me and asked me if I needed anything else and then left to inform the L & M. I heard later on that he had been working in the vegetable garden, but left everything and ran over to help. I met Pal Singh some years later at Siliguri when he was the Mess Havaldar.
Drinking at all times of the day and night was Amrik Singh’s weakness. There is an unwritten rule, one that these sahayaks are reminded of time and again, that they will not enter the officer’s residence in an inebriated condition. Amrik Singh succeeded in concealing his drunken condition before we finally cottoned on to it. One day I was combing my son’s hair having got him all ready after his bath, when I heard someone clapping. Surprised, I turned to find Amrik Singh standing near the dining table with a wide grin on his face and clapping approvingly at my son. Guessing rightly that something was amiss from the vacuous nature of his grin, I tactfully sent him on an errand and closed the door behind him.
Yet another day, he did not turn up for his duties at all. The men who were to do the whitewashing were already on the scene. The curtains had to be taken down, the furniture moved and I had a little baby on hand. Where was Amrik Singh? I had no idea. I sought help from my neighbor’s sahayak., who found the absconder fast asleep in his room in a drunken stupor at 11 a.m. He was in no condition to be of any assistance. Repeated warnings did no good and so he had to be sent away, a pity because he was otherwise a helpful, cheerful and a simple soul.
Then there was Seva Singh with a permanently depressed face, but a hard worker. The young Balwinder Singh, an eager beaver type, who preferred being a sahayak to doing unit duties, got a bit drunk on Diwali and tried bursting crackers carelessly with his hands, making me worry about the safety of my children. He accompanied our luggage to Kerala. Without knowing a singe word of Malayalam he managed to get things done using mime. One thing I remember about him is the way his jaw dropped when I got a vacuum cleaner. He thought it was atrocious that I should spend so much money to buy what was after all nothing but a machine to do sweeping. Then there was Basant Singh who was quieter than a mouse but so efficient in his duties and always ready for a game of cricket with the children. He rarely ever smiled in our presence, though with the children his lighter side was shown more frequently.
Years later, my husband was posted to the Sub Area in Danapur. There entered Sukhdev Singh, a young sardar whose efficiency in his work went way beyond his slight frame. Our house was next to the highway. Whenever it was time for the L & M to leave for office, he purposefully walked out and in his old army issue olive green trousers and white vest, stopped the vehicles that would otherwise not have, with an imperious wave of his hands, thus giving his Saahib right of way.
Once, the sons and I were returning to Danapur, from a visit to my brother, in Delhi. The train we boarded would halt only for a very short time at Danapur. Some times it so happens that those in a hurry to board the train prevent those getting off from alighting. So, the L & M sent Sukhdev Singh to board the train at the station prior to it, to assist us in alighting with our luggage at Danapur. I didn’t know that. As I sat in the AC coach, I saw a sardar open the door of the coach and walk in confidently with a hockey stick. Some hockey player, I thought to myself. Looks familiar though. (You must have got a fair idea of how good my eyesight is from this). A little while later I saw my son talking to him and that’s when I realized it was indeed the same guy. He it appeared had come well prepared with a hockey stick to face any eventuality and to make sure, Memsahib and children got off the train safely. Needless to say things went smoothly with a hockey stick wielding sardar making way for us to get off the train.
Sukhdev Singh accompanied our luggage when it was sent via truck to Trivandrum. Since he had never seen the sea, we decided to take him for a dekko to the Shankhumukham beach. He was simply awed by the roaring sea and the waves beating the shore. He stood staring at it in wonder and a little dread. My children whooped with joy as the waves rolled in one after the other, begging us to be allowed to go in still further into the water; but Sukhdev, the courageous sardar who would have marched fearlessly into the battlefield anytime, stood behind my 14 year old senior son, holding on to his shoulder for dear life and peeking over his head at this majestic spectacle of the blue sea throwing up one huge wave after another, non-stop. He would venture no further. The L & M and I were amused to see the fearless Sukhdev thus. Taking his eyes off the sea for a moment, he innocently asked Saahib in all seriousness,
“Ye samunder kabhi rukta nahi hai Saab??” (Doesn’t the sea ever stop Sir?)
Before the L & M could answer the question (probably equally seriously) I cut in and keeping as straight a face as possible told him,
“Kya kare Sukhdev, Fauji ko chutti milta hai lekin, beechare samunder ko koyi chutti dete hi nahi!” (What to do. Soldiers get leave, but no one gives an off to the poor sea) making not only the L & M and the children but also Sukhdev Singh too to laugh out.
After soaking in the sea air for some more time, we returned home, not forgetting to take Sukhwinder to Aryanivas for a crisp masala dosa.
My eyes moisten when I remember them, they who served us selflessly, with love and devotion. These strangers who came to our lives were any day better than ones own relatives back in our hometown, who had to have a reason (the most important being buying something from the army canteen) to look you up. Need I say more?
By the way, Baldev Singh did teach me to make authentic sarson da saag. The taste lingers…..