Lt Col Noel Ellis(Retd.) Writes about Food(in the army) at 15,000 ft, Kashmir and Jaiselmar

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I was born in B Company, 5 Platoon on commissioning into my battalion. We were in Jaisalmer of all the God-forsaken places where a goods train of water used to come from Jodhpur many-many moons back or else one had to do dry cleaning. Anyways, by the time Bhindi used to reach us, it would be bhindi dry, Palak used to become palak fry, cucumbers were already crushed to a salad, lauki used to be lauki juice, dal used to be all stones, and any curry made used to be full of the golden sands of Jaisalmer. The day the train used to get late the whole supply chain used to go for a six. Luckily they found the mystical river called Saraswati, which had its underground connection till Sangam at Allahabad flowing deep below Sanu about 20 kms from Jaisalmer that we started getting the purest form of drinking water. Well, all this I am telling you to make you understand that times were harsh, communications were bad, train services were few, bus services were negligible, roads and rail tracks were invariably covered with sand, thus commuting was a big issue. Hence getting any sort of supply, dry or fresh was dependent on the “Majboori Express” the only train running between Jaisalmer and Jodhpur. Let me narrate a few stories of those times and then we shall talk about the video gone viral about the BSF jawan. By the way there used to be just one battalion of BSF stationed there in 1985.

Somewhere at Indo Pak Border Rajasthan

My CO was very particular about the food, we the Second Lieutenants’ were the official tasters for the langar. Invariably one was the duty officer or was detailed to check guards for a snafu done. Maybe sometimes when one forgot that the toothpick stand of white metal in the mess which looked like a wild boar ridden with bullets was presented by Col Thorat or Thimmaya, I still can’t remember, though our senior subalterns tried their best by giving us additional guard checks. We used to love checking khana, as the officers mess khana was made by a Cook “Nair”, and it was more inclined towards the Gods own country taste. I preferred the desi langar khana, and mostly it used to be Dal Soup. A glass filled with dal, and about an inch of tadka with caramelised onions floating on them. It used to smell marvelous and used to be tasty like hell. My fauji friends will be able to relate to it I am sure. For a youngster like me, food of any kind and at any time was most welcome. This much was sure, we all took great interest in everything our men needed and the food was always one of the highest priorities as far as welfare was concerned.

There was this old Punjab Regiment Sardar chap called Parsan Singh, a Naik at that time and a driver by trade. His personal stove, a pure brass piece, was always impeccably clean and glittered like gold. I one day asked him why does he keep a stove in the first place and then the way he used to rub and shine it with sand, it would become invisible in a few months time. This man was a “pahalwan” basically, and his diet was way beyond your and my imagination. He used to make a special tadka, that too in pure desi ghee from his pind on this stove over and above the tadka which the langar used to put in the dal. Well, his barrack was next to the langar and we always found time to socialise with him while his stove was brewing this tadka. With a jerky Ram Ram he used to offer a little bit out of his degchi of dal. Let me assure you folks, I haven’t had anything like that ever in my life. The dal used to taste like manna. His mukki mar ke payaz along with it used to be ultimate.

This man had another issue and that was drinking tea. Mind you, you may be on a recce in a One tonne, three ton or a BMP, the moment the vehicle stopped anywhere in the wilderness, out used to pop a hand from behind the drivers cabin, in that typical kaanch ka glass and he used to say in chaste Punjabi, “Saab Ghutk Cha pee lo” (Sir kindly have a sip of tea). The terrain did not matter, the bumps were passé, the jolts didn’t bother his concentration, Parsan, his stove in a bucket, and holding on to a degchi with soottar (cotton waste), the pot was kept on the boil, and Saab always got the hottest of tea in the coldest of winter. Parsan Singh, I can never forget you.

I also had one deputation with the PINJAs (means brother in Tibetan). One day while on a long-range patrol of about 21 days, I was fed up of eating that damn tinned tuna for breakfast lunch and dinner. One fine day, as it had snowed heavily the previous night our departure got delayed. I entered the langar arctic tent and there I found something cooking. I told them why don’t you give this stuff to me to eat? They said Indian Army walas don’t eat this. I said I can eat anything which moves but not tuna. They reluctantly offered me that concoction. It was the tastiest Khichri I had ever eaten, made of Sattu, bichoo-booti and yak meat. This was at a pass called Ya Ye La, 15000 feet above sea level, about 45 kms ahead of Chushul towards Chumatang. Friends it was the most delicious, freshest, tastiest, appetising, yummy, lip-smacking meal I have ever had in my life. From that day onwards I too became a pure pinja as I ate yak like them.

Well, let me tell you about another deputation of mine whereas a company commander I was authorised a cook. We had been pushed out from downtown Srinagar into the anti-infiltration role, and I was close to a lake called Ganga bal. Well, my troops were Nagas, Gorkhas, Assamies basically the hilly tribes. I being a pure Non-vegetarian had a ball with them. On returning from a ROP, we used to get pigeons, all courtesy their catapults. Well, if luck favoured us while going through a village, one odd hen or a rooster was bound to be eliminated if not a militant. The best part was when these bakkarwals and gujjars came up. The leopards and tigers used to injure their animals. They had no choice but to abandon the lame animals. Invariably they used to hand them over to us, and I and my company used to have liver fry quite often. The moment there used to be a commotion in the gujjar camp, my cook used to be the first person to start sharpening his knives. I told him one day, it is a militant attack, he said no worries sir, we shall bar-be-que him too. Hari Prasad god bless you, you made the best of khana for me, even my wife will certify that.

Let me narrate you another anecdote. I was sitting outside my log hut, basically, a cattle shed and watching a “barasingha” and its little one crossing the river. I was basking and causally asked hari do we have bread? He said yes, so I said make bread pakoras for me. Abhi lo he said, and within minutes I had a hot cuppa tea and a few bread pakoras for breakfast. The taste seemed odd but I hadn’t tasted bread in ages so enjoyed it and went off on my routine. By the evening it was hell for me. My combat pants were going up and down like the breach block on rapid fire. My loose motions had reached that proportion. I was in pain; the nursing assistant gave me all sorts of medicines. Next morning it was time for the drip to be put. I asked Hari was the bread old, to which he meekly replied Nahi Sir, it came when we were moving to this post. I asked how long back we established this post, and the typical Gorkhaa answer “hujoor ek mahino ko lagi”. I said bloody hell and told him to show the bread to me. Friends it was green with fungus, but it was officer’s rations and how could he discard them. Sincerity, thy name was Hari. Well, I became Ok moment I smelt liver being fried in the langar.

Well, I rather not comment on the BSF video. Yes, there is something definitely amiss there. Is it the morale? Is it the man management? Is it the welfare? I leave it to them to answer, but I can assure you, we never went hungry, even when we had to live off the land. God bless our Army, they take good care of the men. Will BSF start introspecting and learning from this very important issue raised by this havildar? I wonder!!!

JAI HIND!