“Where are you from?”
Any other person would probably say that it’s usually a no-brainer question for them, but really, whenever this question is put to me, it boggles my mind. I take a minute to slow down and tell people that I’m from Poona. Since my parents decided to settle in Poona and have been there for the past six years even as I personally kept moving, I guess that does make me a lad from Poona? Or, maybe not. In many ways, my life has been puzzling, amusing, sometimes bizarre and even slightly frightening at times, and yet, it has been so incredibly rich, but let me not bore you with these flowery musings!
I was born to an infantryman from the Sikh regiment and his wife who is now an Image Consultant. Even though both my parents hail from Bihar, I was born in West Bengal and raised all across the country. However, just as all ships find their anchor, I relate very much to the Sikh community because it happens to be my father’s parent regiment. In fact, even before this Bihari boy could pronounce his name, he was chanting the Sikh jaikara, “bole so nihaal!”.
Etiquette and more particularly, sartorial etiquette was of prime importance while growing up: shirts, trousers and jeans, cleaned and pressed, always, go together. A tee-shirt is only part of your sports rig or weekends. Much to the amusement of my peers who are mostly alright with just about anything, I live by these rules to date.
Not bragging or anything (okay, maybe a little bit), but growing up, all the FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), some including places that ‘civilians’ only see on Instagram or have never ventured to, were my vacation getaways. One of the best places that I had the pleasure of being at was Sikkim. My father was posted by the eastern LAC (Line of Actual Control) in the beautiful town of Lachung. My mornings would start by picking strawberries and helping the Mess Havaldar with sprinkling salt around the mess. Sikkim has dense vegetation and high altitude, and also has a lot of leeches. To kill the leeches before they stick on a human, we would sprinkle salt around to keep everyone safe. I would then go study for a bit and would have to finish my holiday homework before I was allowed to do anything else. I would then join the troops in the evening to indulge myself in some sort of physical activity. Ever played cricket 2700 metres above the sea level? Again, not to be boastful, I have!
Past dawn, you could actually see the snow-peaked mountain tops starting to glow in the dark. Late evenings would be spent in the mess, tucked-in shirts, a Bukhari on fire and a mess havaldar who adored me. Havaldar Pooran Singh would often save me the tazos from the Cheetos packets consumed in the Officers’ mess, and that’s how I found one of my most special friends. In fact, coming to think of it, most of the special bonds I formed was through learning mundane things. From learning to polish my shoes until I saw my reflection in them, to learning to make a ‘proper’ cold coffee, I owe it to all the people I met in the organisation while growing up. These people also came to become some of my most trustworthy friends, but let’s save that story for another time.
If and when my father was posted away, all those places became my summer vacation getaways. One summer found me basking in the deserts of Jaisalmer, and in another, I was fishing by a lake in Congo. Even when I was in the mountains of Sikkim, I was probably learning survival techniques or was running a mile or two with the troops. I was always learning something, and now that I think back, I can’t be anything but grateful.
Moving around every two years was something I took time to get used to. My father’s profession allowed me to experience cultures and places I could have never imagined. From staying indoors after 8 PM in Siliguri because of the fear of elephants to waking up to the sunshine literally falling on my face in Colaba, I’ve seen a great part of the country. However, the movement only complicated one of the simplest things one can know about themselves—where they belong.
In fact, to tell you something, I was never used to answering this at all. Growing up, the kids never asked each other what part of the country they were from. It usually went like, “What unit is your dad from?”, “61 Cavalry”, or “11 GR”, would usually be the answer.
Instead of our birthplaces, our parent’s regiments became our identity.
One of the most memorable memories pertains to the time when we were in a small town of Rajasthan called Suratgarh. It was right after the 2001 Parliamentary attacks and my father was part of Operation Parakram, which was an intense mobilisation of the Indian Army and the Pakistan Army along the LOC. Since families were not allowed at FOBs, we were staying in the cantonment in a small town 8 hours away from Jaisalmer called Suratgarh. My father was away for most of the time, so I only remember him in bits and pieces from then. I remember this one time when I was probably 5 or 6, it was around 3 in the afternoon and a few jeeps pulled up outside our house. It was a rather unusual scene to see all the jeeps covered in camouflage and all the occupants in proper fatigues. The paghs of the Sikh soldiers were also covered in camouflage, and a radio operator sat in the background with an antenna that disappeared in the horizon.
Sitting in front was a bearded guy whom I failed to recognise. He seemed as tall as my dad but I wasn’t sure. He started walking towards me and hugged me. It was indeed my dad. I don’t know how a child can describe the feeling of not recognising his father because he didn’t get to see much of him. Often he would grow a beard in the deserts, and time and again, as a child I wasn’t able to recognise him.
It was difficult to come to terms with it, but it was only later that I realised that he had promised this life to the nation first, and we came second. It takes a while to digest it, but you do get used to it.
Amidst the desert and extreme temperature in Suratgarh, we had the most beautiful garden. With flowers of each kind in front of the house, we also had a small vegetable garden as part of the backyard. I was given a fee of Rs. 2 a week to water the vegetable garden, and I did that as diligently as I could. In the garden staff-member, I found a teacher who took me under his wing and taught me how to use the khurpi in the most efficient way. Sepoy Baljeet Singh from Charlie company also became my best friend. He also taught me Punjabi and the recipe to make the best dal tadka ever. Still comes handy when I’m away from home!
Adapting to a new city was never a problem. It was the settling in, and then the part when we moved away that would get us. Black wooden and metal boxes scattered all over the house, carefully marked with woollen clothes, and summer clothes, boxes full of utensils, boxes full of books, boxes that were turned into furniture, we had a box for everything, except, I never found a box big enough to contain all of my childhood memories.
So, where am I from?
I was born in West Bengal, both my parents are from Bihar but I have never stayed there. I was born and raised in Chennai, Suratgarh, Jaipur, Pathankot, Wellington, Siliguri, Delhi, Mumbai, let me take a breath, and now finally (maybe) setting up base in Poona. I have seen some of the highest skies, trailed some of the deepest oceans, I might just come up with the most obscure trivia or might cook you up the most delicious Indian Army-style tadka, you might recognise me from the way I dress up and do my hair or might never be able to see how I have dealt with uprootedness.
Growing up as the child of an army man, I think I can do almost everything for you. The answer to “where are you from?”, though, I guess we’ll never know!
All Photos: Dhruv Singh
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