“NO one else will ever again live the kind of life that I have lived. Or see what I saw. That world has vanished, forever blown away by the wind, which, as the Chinese proverb says, cannot read.” Lt General (Retd) Baljit Singh concludes his book From My Memory Vault with these lines taken from the biography of the British writer M.M. Kaye. With a tinge of sadness, he goes on to describe how on the day of his retirement, he received the last salute in uniform from a smart ceremonial guard and how in a brief ceremony, the flag was lowered from his residence at 12 noon on July 31, 1992, after he arrived home in a regal four-in-one horse-drawn coach.
The subtitle of the book, Reflections of a Veteran Soldier , would mislead the reader into thinking that the content was about military operations. Since the book has been written by a much-decorated veteran who has participated in all the major military operations of independent India, one would expect to find details about the Sino-Indian war, the India-Pakistan wars, and the operations of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), among other things, but the writer mentions these events only in passing.
The book is more an account of his explorations of the wild, his admiration of India’s flora and fauna, his encounters with wildlife, his love for Mother Nature—the beautiful mountains and the bewitching sunrise and sunset—and the painstaking effort of the armed forces to conserve nature, even in the thick of battles, an aspect of the Indian Army the common man is generally not aware of.
Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, who has been decorated with the Athi Vishisht Seva Medal (AVSM) and the Vishisht Seva Medal (VSM), was commissioned into the artillery regiment in July 1956. He was absorbed in the general cadre and promoted from the rank of lieutenant colonel to command an infantry brigade. He served three tenures in the Military Operations Directorate and retired after a distinguished service of 36 years. He actively promoted nature conservation within the armed forces.
The book opens with a description of him going home in a horse-drawn tonga, wearing a subaltern’s uniform, after being commissioned into the Army. On his arrival, his mother bemusedly says: “I simply cannot believe that you are a Commissioned Officer now and that you will draw a princely salary of four hundred and fifty rupees each month....” From here on, the author hand-holds the reader through his 36-year-long journey in the Army, displaying a breathless enthusiasm for life. The journey is made even more enjoyable by his equally enthusiastic and nature-loving wife.
Live life to the hilt
The book illustrates how even in the most adverse circumstances, one can live life to the hilt if one understands that the real pleasures of life are not in the material trappings but in enjoying nature’s bounty. Nuggets of Indian wildlife and animal behaviour abound in the book.
For instance, Baljit Singh recounts with great flourish an incident that occurred at an Army depot in Assam where large quantities of certain consumables such as bottles of rum and bags of sugar and flour often mysteriously went missing. When he visited the depot to find out how the stocks were disappearing, he was told that this was the handiwork of wild elephants.
Baljit Singh did not believe this explanation and decided to stay on to see if it was true. Once night fell, herds of elephants with calves in tow descended on the depot. The adult elephants collectively leaned on the walls, doors and windows until the structure collapsed under their weight. Soon, the calves, as if on cue, walked into the area where the provisions were stored and handed out the rations to the senior members of the herd, and a rollicking picnic followed.
Close encounters There is a poignant narration of the death of a sarus crane. The author says his father shot a sarus crane mistaking it for a goose. Since sarus cranes pair for life, its mate hovered over the spot where the bird had been killed and gave up its life after four days.
His other close encounters with wildlife include the time when he suddenly stood facing a tiger in the Kanha National Park and, in what seems like a page out of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, he woke up from sleep in a truck, which was his makeshift home parked under a tree, to find a python dangling in front of him.
Baljit Singh’s passion for nature is evident when he talks about his posting to Punjab at the height of the militancy in the wake of the Indian military operation codenamed “Operation Bluestar” in 1984. His main preoccupation there became changing the status of the hare as a pest to that of a protected animal so that its wanton killing could be stopped. He wrote to Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi about this and even petitioned him. Rajiv Gandhi included the hare in the list of protected animals under the Wildlife Protection Act.
Another interesting episode pertains to stopping the mindless killing of blackbucks in the Point Calimere Sanctuary in Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. Then there is this interesting detail about how he got animals and birds translocated when the Bhatinda Cantonment was being developed. His descriptions of the Kanchenjunga, bathed in the deep amber glow of the morning sun; his chance encounter with the tiger; the romp of musk deer freed from a snowdrift in a narrow gully in the snow-covered mountains; the red panda making eye contact with him; and the barn owls stretching their necks and rolling their eyes from their shelter; are enjoyable and leave one asking for more.
The best part of the narrative is the visual picture he paints with his description of nature and the various sights and sounds. However, the narrative becomes slightly jerky when the author, while talking about his various military operations, changes the topic quickly as he jumps from one place to another.
The reader struggles to make the connection. A smooth transition in the narration would have made the reading a more enjoyable experience.
For instance, his description of different physical exercises and some duty-related details fail to hold the readers’ interest for long because they are sporadic. If one is expecting to read blood-rushing details of battles, sniping and shooting, the book will disappoint.
The book seeks to portray another aspect of the armed forces, as the preserver of nature.
The Army has made conservation a part of its duty since its personnel have to traverse the hills, the countryside and the forests during strategic operations.
The real beauty of the book lies in its exploration of nature and the passion to live no matter how adverse the circumstances.