‘LET US LEAVE A MARK !’ by Brig Jasbir Singh, SM (Retd) Featured

15 March 2016 by Blog 1868 Views
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On a lazy Sunday morning in early 1966, we were sitting on the steps outside Ranjit Section Senior Dormitory, lazing around and doing nothing in particular! We had just had a hearty ‘Sunday Breakfast’ and the Sun was nice and warm. Life seemed really good and it couldn’t have been better. Then we saw some studious friends, wearing games kit, pass us by with books in their hands. They were seriously walking towards our class (V-A) in Education Block, to prepare for the forthcoming Indian School Certificate (ISC) Examination. Absurdly, we yelled at them and poked fun at their outlandish intentions to go to class on a Sunday and study! ‘They must be quite mad to go to class on Sunday ’, said Fatty Grewal[1], smiling broadly and shaking his head from side to side. One of the ‘studious’ cadets must have heard Fatty’s comment, for he stopped and said, ‘Fatty Grewal, you will never learn! Yes, we’re going to class to study. Unlike you, we will do very well in the ISC Exam and leave a mark for others to follow. We will make everyone proud of us, just you wait and see’. The ‘studious cadet’s’ remarks induced an instant peal of laughter from us, followed by loud jeers.


After the group of cadets had gone past us and proceeded towards Education Block, I enquired, ‘What did he mean by saying ‘they’re going to leave a mark? Why don’t we do something outstanding, that will be remembered for many, many years to come?’. Again there was a round of bawdy laughter followed by more jeers. Fatty looked at me intently and said, ’Khalsey, I hope you are OK? Forget about leaving a mark. All you have to do is look at this fellow’s bloody legs’ he said pointing at Unni’s legs. ‘You will see the terrible marks !’ he said while laughing. Turning to me again he said, ‘In any case, you can be sure that no one is going to remember your stupid handsprings ’. There was another round of raucous guffaws.


Our group from Ranjit Section was well known to shy away from academic pursuits, and as a result we generally performed rather badly in periodic Phase Tests. On the other hand, we would normally perform well in games and other extra-curricular activities. However, we could even perform adequately in academics, if we had a challenge or had seriously decided to do well in our studies. Academics were not on our minds very often, though we rarely failed in any subject. Sometimes things did not go well for us; our mischief was discovered and we even got caned. But, we had learnt to laugh off our travails and remain happy! A few weeks earlier, we had engaged ourselves in a crazy adventure to fabricate and launch a home-made, liquid fuel rocket!


Some friends, the studious ones, tried to dissuade us from undertaking the ‘stupid’ venture. They had insisted that if we wanted to persist with our crazy venture, we should think of doing a solid fuel rocket, as it would be easier to fabricate. But, as usual we had brushed aside their genuine concerns and said a solid fuel rocket was more like Diwali fire-works cracker. Hence it was below our dignity to fabricate and fire such a cheap object!


After months of planning, reading books in College Library and drawing intricate designs in exercise books, we thought we were ‘Mr Goddard’ himself and grandly finalised the design of our ‘liquid fuel rocket’. The last part of our venture was a clandestine raid on Mr Boparai’s Aero-modelling Club, to procure Balsa Wood for making the air frame and Nitro-Methane fuel for the rocket engine, which we presumed will send our rocket into space. The engine was made of aluminium canisters stolen from the photo lab - cover of Kodak film rolls. The firing mechanism was a match box which Unni pick pocketed from Thople the butler. Finally, the time came to test our ‘rocket motor’, before the projectile was formally launched. We had solemnly carried our ‘rocket motor’ to an isolated spot near the tennis courts, to test its ‘combustion chamber’. At the test site we filled liquid fuel in the rocket’s fuel tank. As all our preparations were complete, our gang took up positions to watch the ‘test’ and applaud. Manu Dutt was commissioned as official photographer and given my ‘box camera’ to take photographs and record the event for posterity! Since Unni was the chief instigator and designer of the propulsion unit, he was elected to fire and evaluate the engine performance, whether it was capable of reaching the Troposphere!


Since all mischief in general was instigated and supervised by me, I would call myself the self styled Space Launch Director. As the scheduled time approached, the rocket engine, aluminium canister, was fuelled with the very atrociously pungent Nitro Methane and Unni ceremonially struck a match. I loudly began the count-down, 10-9- 8-7- 6-5-4-3-2-1...FIRE! The bystanders had readied their hands to clap. When Unni touched the lighted match to the well fuelled Combustion Chamber, there was suddenly a ‘big bang’. The Combustion Chamber exploded! Our months of careful preparations literally went up in flames. The spectators forgot about the intended applause and ran helter-skelter to safety. Manu Dutt was not one to be left behind; he forgot about taking any photos and ran off with my Agfa Click III ‘box camera’. The explosion sprayed some burning fuel on Unni’s legs, naked below his PT shorts. As the hair on his legs went up in flames, Unni lunged to a side with a massive leap and sprinted madly away from the hallowed rocket test site, swatting his bottom and legs, alternately, to put out the fire.


After the rocket test had ended quite un-ceremoniously, we all dejectedly trooped back to our dormitory. On the way I heard gay laughter because of poor Unni’s fate. Both his legs were charred black below the knees, and the flames had left the legs scarred at many places and singed the hair on his legs. After the challenge from the studious cadets preparing for the ISC exam, I repeated, ‘Let’s do something spectacular and leave a mark’. Reluctantly, the others nodded their heads and asked almost in unison, ‘Do what?’ That was the time the very industrious Unni came up with a brilliant suggest on, ‘Let’s dig an underground room, where we can hide our tuck and other precious things.’


‘That is a very good idea’ said Fatty. ‘It will surely leave a mark, but where should we dig it?’ I had asked softly. After debating heatedly, we not only selected the site for our venture but also agreed on a design and plan of action. We christened our project as the ‘Shoe’, because of its proposed shape. The selected site was close to our dormitory, in a hidden location and overall it was relatively secure. The site was located in hedgerows behind Ranjit Section Senior Dormitory, on one side of the path leading to Mr K Kumar’s house. We remembered this secure location, as we had used it earlier to cook up the ‘Witch’s Brew’ and for many of our nefarious activities. For this operation, we did an engineering assessment as well as work study and realised that it would require enormous manpower for the digging as also to spread the soil around in a manner that it was not discovered. So we decided to rope in practically all our friends, each with a specific task. Fatty and Kajla were to procure the digging implements surreptitiously. Tota, Soli, and Tinda were to help spread the mud. They were to makes holes in their pockets, fill their pockets with mud and go for walks all the way from Ranjit to the Mandir trailing mud, so that no one would suspect that we had been digging the ‘Shoe’. HS Vaid the ‘Giraffe’ was to stand as a watch tower and warn us of any approaching threat, by making sounds like an owl.


Our next hurdle was to procure a pair of garden shears, khurpi, pick-axes and shovels. This problem was solved by Fatty and Kajla, who struck up a friendly conversation about birds & bees and about flowers and trees, with the gardener. While his back was turned, Unni and Tinda made off with the required tools. Later the gardener complained to Subedar Limbu, our drill and PT staff. When we were questioned, we had appeared shocked and pretended complete innocence, ‘Limbu Shab, ham kaishe aisha waisha kar sakta hai ?’, we commiserated in a Nepali accent that usually infuriated Sub Limbu. ‘Tum Sala Lok, very Badmash hai. Ham AO shaab ko complaint karega’, he threatened and waved his stick at us. However, we could not fool old Bhim Singh, the school’s ‘Head Mali’, who knew we were involved in some mischievous activity, but he did not know what exactly we were up to! We kept the tools hidden in the ‘Cooler’ for a day and then after dinner on the next day, we solemnly gathered at the site to begin our dream project. With the garden sheers we neatly cut a small hollow in the large, thorny, hedgerow and enlarged it internally like an igloo, so that the entrance of ‘Shoe’ would remain securely hidden from all curious passers-by. Precisely at the centre of the igloo we began to dig the ‘Shoe’. On the first night, we were indeed very enthusiastic and dug rapidly in shifts. All around us there was a smell of freshly dug earth and by midnight we were tired, and lay down to rest.


We had gone down about four feet and it was becoming difficult to bring up the dug earth to the surface. Once the dug-earth was on top, the ‘spreaders’ took over and spread the mud all the way to the Mochi shop and Mandir. But, we knew this was only temporary solution and we would very soon have to find a better method of earth disposal, if we didn’t want to be caught out by Bhim Singh and his team of ‘malis’. After dinner on the next day, when we went to the ‘Shoe’ to dig, we were full of good spirits and humour. We found another hollow beneath the hedgerow into which we could safely fill with earth that we dug from the ‘Shoe’, where it would not be noticed. To our great glee, we found that some bandicoots were helping us to dig after we left and had gone to bed! Our digging work proceeded at top speed and within a week, we had prepared the basic hideout. Since it was dark within the ‘Shoe’, the resourceful Fatty magically produced a stub of candle. However, we decided to light the candle only during times of an emergency, and that too not more than two minutes at a stretch, because we had realised that depletion of oxygen in the ‘Shoe’ was leading to breathlessness and nausea.


One night, while we were digging underground inside the ‘Shoe’, Paltu[2] (a bearer in Pratap Section Middle Dorm) who was going home to Servant’s Quarters of Mr K Kumar’s house, heard us laughing loudly. He got off his bicycle and inquisitively begun to peep under the hedgerows. Apparently, Giraffe (Vaid) had failed to give us a warning, or probably his owl calls had sounded funny like mating calls of Peacocks! We realised that Paltu would become a dire threat to our project. So Fatty acted instantly.


He jumped out of the hedge and loudly yelled ‘Boooo!!’ [3]. A very scared Paltu promptly run away and mounted his cycle. He had pedalled furiously towards Mr K Kumar’s house, like the proverbial bat out of hell! Next day Paltu told everyone in Pratap Middle Dorm, that there were some terrible ghosts in the hedges behind Ranjit Senior Dorm and cadets should be very careful on dark nights. ‘How will we know we’ve seen a ghost?’ cadets of Pratap Middle Dorm had asked Paltu incredulously. ‘Well, ghosts laugh loudly when they see humans ’ he had said confidentially. ‘If you go too close, they loudly say BOOOO, to warn you to run away and disappear ’, Paltu said very seriously.


So, some cadets from Pratap Section may have grown thinking there were ghosts behind Ranjit Section Senior Dormitory! It took us about 10 days to complete digging the ‘Shoe’. We then nicely camouflaged the entrance in the hedgerow, to prevent other ‘prying Paltus’ from finding our prized hideout.


During one of our raids on the Canteen, we had managed to procure a large tin filled with Lacto Bon Bon sweets. The tin was hefted underground and hidden in the ‘Shoe’. In the morning when we left for Doon School to write the ISC Exams, each cadet from Ranjit Section was given a couple of sweets from the large Lacto Bon Bon tin, for good luck. It is another matter that instead of using the Bon Bons to bring luck in the exams, Unni went and offered his share of Bon Bons to a pretty girl from Welhams School, who sat in the adjacent row of seats. Though she willingly took the sweets, the girl paid scant attention to Unni [4]. During our adventure filled days and right in the middle of the exams, Unni was besotted by this girl named ‘Sita Ramaswami’, who sat alongside him in the exam hall, in Doon School. He desperately wanted to reach out and talk to her. So, when we got back after our ISC exam paper, we collected in the ‘Shoe’ to resolve this ‘very important and earth-shaking’ problem. After a long discussion, it was decided that we would write her a love letter on behalf of Unni, and he would only have to give her the letter. After a lot of thinking and scratching our heads, with both good and crazy inputs from all ‘Shoe-makers’, we drafted a love letter. It was a crazy, first time experience for us all. That night, we violated our self imposed restriction of not keeping the candle burning for more than a few minutes. It took us nearly an hour to compose the quarter page long, flowery and ridiculous sounding love note. By the time we emerged from the Shoe, we were all coughing badly and suffering from an awful head ache. I frankly think the head ache and nausea had nothing to do with the candle. It was caused by our unusual mental exertions for composing and writing the ridiculous love letter.


On the next morning, we were very excited and reached Doon School a little early. The Examination Hall was empty and there was a blank answer booklet placed on all the examination tables. We looked on as Unni carefully placed the letter within the pages of the blank answer booklet on the girl’s table. Later, we got busy with the examination and seriously tackled the Mathematics paper - for which we had hardly studied! After the examination, without any expression whatsoever Sita Ramaswami pocketed the letter and marched out of the hall with her friends. Unni kept on looking at her walk away without even a nod. He appeared like a squirrel who lost his nuts! We forcibly pulled him into our One Ton truck and returned to RIMC. Back in school, we prepared for the English paper on the next day. It was our last exam and we tried our best to lift Unni’s spirits with stupid stories of what all chaos we would create during the coming vacations. But, we were quite unsuccessful in our attempts. On the next morning, we trooped into the Exam Hall and were handed our English Question Paper. I had just started writing in the answer booklet, when I heard some sounds from behind me. On turning back, I saw my friend Unni sitting unmoving with a sad expression. He was reading a small chit he had discovered in his answer booklet. Apparently, the girl had done the same thing as our friend– she had arrived early at the hall and slipped a reply into our friend’s answer booklet! The reply simply said ‘Hi, thanks for the Bon Bons. Bye’. That much for the first Bon Bon love affair of our peer group! Later, nearly all of us had similar Bon Bon experiences, when our turn came to fall in love. The funny thing is that love or no love, we all passed the ISC Exam, including Unni who actually did quite well, even though we had not touched a book and did not belong to the studious category. Nearly every day we would go to the hedgerow and descend into the hidden entrance of our ‘Shoe’. We would climb down over the four steps we had cut in the earth and get to the bottom of ‘Shoe’. Once we were at the bottom, we would feel very safe and secure sitting about eight feet below the surface. In the darkened space, we would seriously discuss various ‘important’ topics, such as Overall Section Championships, menu at the Mess, pictures (movies) running at the theatres in town etc. We neither had the time nor inclination to discuss about cadets, our teachers, staff or any such irrelevant issues. Sometimes, of course we would discuss the benefits and hazards of dating or befriending girls like Sita Ramaswami. Unni would argue eloquently against the motion, and harp on the issue that love is not to be. Afterwards, when we were past 19, I think he fell in love with every girl he saw!


Looking back after almost half a century, I find it really amazing how roof of the ‘Shoe’ held out and did not collapse on us, 15 year olds! With a juvenile lack of knowledge, we had neither erected props and nor did we have any supports to hold up the roof of heavy, earth. It was an ‘Engineers

Nightmare’ and a ‘coffin’ waiting for a disaster to occur! Many years later, as Commander of a Brigade during Kargil operations, I was briefing the Chief of Army Staff (COAS), when the enemy shells began to hit our reinforced concrete Command Post. A section of the roof collapsed and I suddenly remembered the ruddy ‘Shoe’. I think I said ‘Shoe is safe’, right in the middle of the briefing and the COAS must have thought that I was crazy! In 2010, I went to school for the Rimcollians Reunion for the first time since we had passed out in 1966. During the Reunion, Unni and I went behind Ranjit Senior Dormitory to look for ‘Shoe’. We stood at the place where the entrance was located.


There was a small depression in the ground, but no ‘Shoe’! We sat there for a while and looked around us. Old memories came flooding back. Ranjit Section Senior Dormitory was in its old place, so was the Mess, the College Office and Parade Ground. Old Mr K Kumar’s house could clearly be seen at the end of the road. Near the College Office and War Memorial we could see some ‘Malis’ tending beds of colourful flowers. The gardens were surely looking better and more colourful, than they had been in our time. Our gaze returned to the depression, it is nearly a flat piece of ground now, and there is no jungle or hedgerows, not even a bush. Though Fatty has disappeared from the horizon like so many others, but I sadly noted, ‘Fatty old chap, we finally did not leave a mark as the bloody Shoe has disappeared’. Sitting there as senior citizens, Unni and I decided that during our next visit, we would plant a sapling of ‘Red-Silk-Cotton Tree’ (Simbal Tree) with a mysterious plaque saying ‘The Shoe’.


Despite many winters that have passed (as Mr Bandopadhya, our English teacher would often say), we remain incorrigible, as ever. On that day in March 2010, we had laughed happily at the thought of some perplexed cadets would one day read the mysterious plaque and wonder what ‘The Shoe’ meant! We even reverently hope that some future cadets will launch a flurry of juicy rumours linked to the ‘The Shoe’. One day, a mighty ‘Simbal’ tree may tower over the country-side to mark the location of ‘The Shoe’. It will highlight the tremendous spirit of adventure that lives in the minds of all cadets of RIMC. The mighty tree will announce to all that, after all ‘we did leave a

mark!’. Boys of RIMC never grow up in their minds and the spirit of adventure and mischief lives on, even after ‘many winters have passed’.


Foot Notes


[1]        ‘Fatty’ Daljit Singh Grewal was not really a fat boy. He was actually a lean, tall, gifted sports man and an extremely energetic fellow, the most mischievous amongst us. Many of the sobriquets that boys invented for each other in their peer group had nothing to do with anything real (like ‘Tanga’, ‘Mamu’, ‘Tota’, Tinda etc), except in some cases like ‘Lambu’, ‘Hook Nose’ etc that had something to do with appearance – the names were given in fun, and mostly stayed for life !!!


[2]        After we left RIMC for NDA in 1966, Paltu was promoted to Mess waiter.


[3]        The same technique had been successfully used during ‘Biscuit Raid’, when a raider suddenly found himself ‘face to face’ with the Catering JCO in College Bakery Store.


[4]        Seating arrangements in the Examination Hall (at Doon School) was along adjacent rows, for Welhams Girls School, RIMC and Doon School respectively.