Small town India, so charming.
I know it’s probably stupid to sprout such elitist thoughts right in the beginning of a story, but I wanted to be honest. Honest. It was the music. If you’re ever driving down the highway and happen to cross some remote village, don’t listen to the Swades soundtrack. It makes you feel like you’re going to save the “people” from drought or rescue them from caste politics, or win that goddamn cricket match and send back the goras and the music, bah, it just makes you believe. Quit India! Jaya Hin.. Sssh. Ok. This is unfortunate. Reality, as you would’ve guessed, was nowhere close.
I wasn’t going to save anyone. No. I wasn’t going to fix the local water problems or educate the village children or sing subliminal messages during the annual Ramlila performance. I was researching coconut oil. That’s right. This closet singer of the Yeh Tara Who Tara was heading to free the locals from the remote possibility of dandruff and seasonal lice infestation. Cue shenai chorus.
My destination was Ahmednagar, a quaint little town, five hours from Bombay that had somehow managed to become the hotbed for coconut oil research in the country. In our world (where every woman dreams of lush bouncy shiny playful hair), Ahmednagar is like the golden goose, the standout performer with an undeterred consumption of coconut oil, defying the odds of region, religion, caste, cattle and culture. This of course makes it a must visit for anyone interested in the follicle cleaning habits of SEC B, 25-35 year old, married Maharashtrian women who want to move up in life, w/o compromise. DJ please.
Now, this story would’ve been rather drab (I didn’t find the Holy Tail (Pony)) had it not been for a fortuitous coincidence. Go on, you can say it again. Fortuitous. The thing was, Ahmednagar, the charming underdog town of the movies where you can’t help but scream out Bakhtawar! also happened to be home to the Armoured Corps, the combat division of the Indian Army – basically the guys with the keys to the tanks. A conversation back home revealed that a family friend was sweating it out at the academy there, and wouldn’t it be great if I looked him up?
It certainly would be. My mind was still abuzz with pre-perspiration problems of the real housewives of Little India, and a diversion was certainly welcome. I was to wrap up research, wash off the grime, re-oil and meet young Captain Soorthi at headquarters at 21 hundred hours sharp.
Sounds like a perfectly innocent plan no? It was. But as any veteran would reluctantly confirm, on the field, things rarely go according to plan. The remainder of the evening went by in a haze. I’ll try and recall it as much as possible. Rated ‘T’ for trauma.
20:30: I leave my hotel, ready for a night of booze, binge and general brouhaha. It’s always nice when a week of boring research dictation suddenly sees the light at the end of the carpal tunnel. I was quite flexed.
20:50: I get waved past a few check posts and enter the Army Cantt, which as one would expect, looks nothing like the rest of the town. Its always surprising how the base in any city, any little town, looks so polished and pristine, as if it has nothing to do with its host dwelling. A city within a city. Like a bubble. The air is sweeter, the shrubbery maintained, everyone wears shoes. Valid thoughts maybe, but perhaps best suited for another time. On the road, they were sufficient distraction and soon I ended up stuck in the middle of a dark, deserted, beautifully graveled road, with only speculatory stares from passing cadets for company. A frantic phone call followed.
21:00: Young Captain Soorthi arrived, revving his official motorbike, but he didn’t seem too pleased. Odd. His eyes were bunched close, converging around my neck, adding a certain edge to the scheme of things. Finally, the impasse broke: You can’t wear a round neck t-shirt to Nagar man.
Civilians, he mumbled.
Let’s take a moment. From where I come from, this ‘dandy civilian land’, round neck t-shirts are a perfectly presentable way of having dinner, in a small town, with a friend you haven’t met in a few years. I’m doing fine thank you. And what the hell is Nagar? Aren’t we in Ahmednagar? Nagar is like calling a place Pradesh. Jharkhand sounds cooler.
Civilians, he grumbled again.
This was to be the general theme for the evening.
21:10: A couple of quick phone calls revealed we could maybe, perhaps hang out at the ‘Annex’, if the seniors weren’t around, and if I was positioned as a helpless friend who just didn’t know the rules, but meant no disrespect. There was even talk of pretending to be an out of town distant cousin who just happened to be passing by and was being given an unplanned tour. Annex, if you’re interested, is the slightly louder, slightly wilder but more accepting of civilian joints in the place. As in, the army kids and wives hang out there all the time. So I figured I’d be welcome. Civilian camaraderie right? No.
21: 30: We settle down on a nice high table with our first round of large whiskeys and some excellent mutton kebabs. There’s a general buzz about the place. The new batch of cadets had just arrived and was working the tables, mingling with the seniors and professors alike. My friend, the Captain, decided to take a few minutes off to schmooze himself. This was fine by me considering I had the clammy indulgences of Western Indian women to worry about. But just as I was making headway (sweat leads to stickiness that blocks the pores that oil can lubricate and prevent sweat from accumulating so therefore aha) a senior officer happened to cross the table. It was probably my thinking face that seemed welcoming. He paused, then approached and it was clear he was wondering if I was one of the new cadets looking for an introduction.
You, he said, umm, are you, well, umm.
Now there’s a reason why he was confused and yet quite sure that I wasn’t one of “them”. You see language is the centerpiece of the Army way of life. Not just words but more so the body. It’s kind of embarrassing when you’re the only one slouching in a crowd. You get found out pretty quickly. I had to maintain a ‘chest out, back arched’ stance while the kind gentlemen sweetly enquired about my whereabouts, background and training. Luckily, Captain Soorthi swooped in just as we breached the question of battalions.
Civilian, said bugger Soorthi. Civilian, said the Brigadier. And hands were shook.
22:15: I was still reeling from the inquisition, when a group of actual cadets stopped by to meet Captain Soorthi and presumably, me. By then, I was getting used to the G.I stance a bit. Sir, they called me. Sir, they called him. Good Evening Boys I replied. Captain Soorthi wasn’t having any of it.
Civilian, he said. Oh Civilian? They replied. Nice to meet you Mr. What brings you to Nagar?
Another slap on life’s dilemmas. Advertising is a pretty iffy profession to explain as it is, but more so, when you need to justify it to a group of young sprightly cadets, all of who, naively mistook you for a respectable senior officer a few minutes ago. How does one bring legitimacy to the statement – ‘I research the life and times of fruit & nut oil application in the average middle class home of India, but East India is handled by somebody else’ compared to their probable reply – That’s sweet. We ride tanks and hope to save the country one day.
Ordinary Civilian, I mumbled. Civilian, they concurred. Another large whiskey was had.
23:00: The night was on its terminal legs when we grabbed a few chairs, now that some of the seniors had retired. Behind, one heard the cackle of a young flock, maybe 13-15 year olds, some of who, I suspect, had been observing me rather carefully. Army kids, I assumed. Oh those Army kids. I knew some as a child, but they were always so full of their “many travels”. Oh the beaches, oh the hills, oh the desert. Bah. And I was angry when they got to ride in those epic army buses, escorted by those epic armed Jawans, while I struggled to hang onto the rails of our DTC. I swear, I think I saw them sneer from those trucks. In hindsight, maybe that was just the Delhi winter hitting their smug faces. Boom! And here we were again, years later, but they still jeered. At my civilian accent, and my civilian haircut, and my civilian capacity to hold alcohol. I was getting a little loud by then and a little off balance I suspect.
Civilians, they whispered. Civilians! I replied. That’s right! They gasped. We’re almost the same! Excuse me? Yes! No. Army school is not the Army! So? I did P.T. too! Forward march check! Left, right, left! My rant was not well received. Captain Soorthi confirmed. Simon said it was time to go back.
23:30: The car gently whizzed pass the roads of Nagar and then limped across the bumpy ways of Ahmednagar. Sitting back, jumping up, I couldn’t help but wonder how disconnected I was from this world of the Army. As an institution, it had all these rituals and culture that I would probably never understand. But the flip side seemed true too. Speed bump! The Army seemed to be in a bubble, which perhaps prevented it from living like the rest of the country did. Which was kind of ironic. Them and us. It sounds so silly. So unnecessary. But then, you weren’t the aam civilian who got hustled at the Nagar Annex on his one night off from drudgery. I guess, for now, we must go our separate ways, the Army and I. Like real men. Firm handshakes. Gentle nods. Stiff ahums. The world needs more peace after all, and it certainly can’t do without coconut oil. Jai Hind.
23: 31: Just then, as my head hit the car roof on a particularly inspired bend:
Men. That’s what it is. What if the secret to Ahmednagar’s fortunes was no longer it’s women (who were already fans of my hair oil), but their men – the husbands and brothers and fathers and sons, working in the sugar factories and vada paav stalls. Perspiration anyone? Hmm. And whom do these men admire the most?