Thursday, November 22, 2012


While the country celebrated the hanging of a villain who murdered innocents, I had mixed feelings about the news of Kasab’s execution. It seemed like it was the right path, the only path in fact, and yet one wondered if there could have been a path more right than this. I don’t have the answer yet and so I leave you with my thoughts from the day when Ajmal Amir Kasab was still a gun-toting specter haunting the streets of Mumbai... a story from four years ago that celebrates and remembers those who stared down death so that many could hang on to life through those four fateful days... Until i find my feelings and the answers.

Looking back on the years spent wondering ‘what would I be when I grow up?’, I don’t have regrets about the various windows of opportunity that I might have stared through for a while but then left them behind, unopened… none save one… And that regret was acting up like a dull ache from an old war wound when I saw those images of commandos being air dropped onto Nariman House…

When I was about 13, I moved from my catholic missionary ‘boys-only’ concentration camp to what I hoped was liberation and freedom in the co-educational world of Central Schools (an anglicised moniker for the staid old Kendriya Vidyalaya). While my mates at the ‘missionary’ drew inspiration from the entrepreneurial spirit that had driven their families from post partition penury, to way up the socio-economic ladder towards plenty and prosperity, the boys in KV cared for one thing, and one thing only – life in the ‘Academy’ (the National Defence Academy). That, I suspect, had to do with two things. One, most of them had been brought up on tales of valour in the family and joys of life in the ‘mess.’ And two, you didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance with the girls unless you happened to be preparing for the NDA… because for them, cricketers weren’t man enough and movie stars were mostly pansy dandies… so unless you were training to be an army officer like her daddy, you could forget about asking any of them even the time, least of all for a date.

So after watching “Top Gun” Cruise taking their breath away, I declared that I too would become an air force pilot or, after some heavy duty persuasion from the Gubernator, maybe a commando. I dropped my cricket kit and went running with the boys, cranked out push ups and pull ups, watched “Platoon” and debated about the comparative virtues of the three forces…

That was a wonderful time and we spoke of how wonderful it’d be if we all made it to the ‘Academy’ together until… until one of the NDA hopefuls did not turn up for school. The year was 1989 and news came in that his father had come back wrapped in a tricolour from Sri Lanka. Soon there were others who did not turn up for school. It was a gloomy winter, and when our friends returned, they seemed unrecognisable – gone was that enthusiasm which had fired our dreams. In its stead raged bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal. We heard about how intelligence failures and political ineptitude had left our troops vulnerable and how some of our best soldiers had to pay with their lives because some one else sitting at a desk just wasn’t smart enough to back him up. Later, one of the boy’s uncles was heard complaining about how political indecisiveness and foreign policy misadventures by our political leaders result in the needless destruction of this country’s ‘only heroes’. It was a feeling echoed by others.

The ‘Academy’ never happened. Some of us studied engineering, others management, and all those women who couldn’t see beyond men in uniform settled down happily with power dressing executives and one of them even a psychiatrist. After that winter, none of us spoke of the ‘Academy’ ever again and I have a feeling it wasn’t just us. The IPKF mission did nothing to diminish the valour of our forces, and some like the Marine Commandos (MARCOS) returned as veritable super heroes. But the Lanka operations made it apparent to many Indians, including naïve romantics like us, that irresponsible and unintelligent governance can reduce the best fighting units to mere pawns in a bout of political eyeballing.

Some of my closest friends are serving in the ‘forces’ and they are amongst the people I admire and respect the most. In fact, in the presence of a battle-scarred soldier, irrespective of nationality, I always have this debilitating sense of awe and humility – I almost don’t feel man enough in their presence (and I’m pretty sure it’s because those snooty army daughters had scarred my teenaged psyche in school). And yet, since that winter, I’ve remained disillusioned with the idea of a career in the forces. All that awe and humility was always tinged with liberal doses of pity. For who knows how they’ll meet their end… would it be on a garden chasing their dog and the grand kids, or would they instead get blown up by an IED that had been planted by the very terrorist who they had apprehended and handed over to the cops only for the local politician to have him released in no time.

But all that changed on 27th November, 2008, when I saw these modern day ninjas storming Nariman House in a bid to not take lives but save them. And don’t let the Israeli Defence Minister and Curry King Ghulam Noon’s criticism of our commandos mislead you. Indian special forces like the NSG, MARCOS and the Para Commandos are amongst the absolute best in the world, and I’m not the only one saying this. John Geddes, ex British SAS (Special Air Service – the mother of all Special Forces units) and now a celebrated and battle hardened PMC (Private Military Contractor) wrote pretty much the same thing in one of his books. And thus the regret…

There were brave people amongst the hostages, some of the hotel staff, but while these were heroes by chance, these soldiers are heroes by choice and design; heroes of not just this moment but of this nation. And while I wouldn’t agree with what my classmates had said about our sportsmen and actors, who happen to be this nation’s ambassadors and cultural flag-bearers, there’s no denying that these masked crusaders, much like comic book super heroes who save the day and then disappear without a trace, are the only real action heroes of our times. Looking back, I feel it’s a shame we gave up on the Academy, for lousy bosses notwithstanding, there’s nothing like saving lives for a living, especially if you have the skills to put your own on the line and get out alive. Nevertheless, the SF are better off without us, and here’s to our gallant men in black. May they continue to save our face and lives, and may they live long and prosper… God bless them, and a billion more…


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