Monday, June 30, 2008

With his charm, Manekshaw won hearts more than wars



The old soldier has faded away. And the battle-hardened eyes of his men glisten like medals. He was always more Sam Bahadur than Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw. He won hearts even more than he won wars. His weapons were a rakish charm as well as valour; the twinkling look as much as the straight baton. Death had a tough time capturing him, and it hasn't been for want of determination. The young soldier escaped from its near-certain clutches twice on the battlefield in Burma during World War II. Indeed, on the first occasion he was felled by a point-blank gun shot in his stomach. Maj Gen D T Cowan spotted him holding on to life, quickly pinned his own Military Cross ribbon on to Manekshaw saying, "A dead person cannot be awarded a Military Cross." Over 60 years later in November 2005, his obituary was revised, and ready to roll off the presses as he lay in a coma. He rose again to fight another day. But now the Last Post has been bugled. Of such stuff is legend. Sam Hormusji Framji Jamshedji Manekshaw, all one man. One man who had handled it all. The raw heat of enemy fire and the white-hot core of the War Room; forging the three services into an integrated, taut, toned fighting machine and managing the bloodied chaos of Partition and then, 24 years later, the waves of East Bengal refugees fleeing the brutality unleashed by their West Pakistani masters; managing the POWs he took in 1971. Yet, though he was honoured with a rank higher than any Indian soldier, he remained forever a jawan. He was so warmly inspirational, and not only for the beloved Gurkhas of his regiment; in every ceremonial parade, all soldiers march with the jauntiest gait when the band strikes up 'Sam Bahadur', composed for him after the 1971 war. I will never forget how we sat at the radio that heady Saturday afternoon of the surrender, feeling the goose bumps rise as he called on Tikka Khan's soldiers to lay down arms. The 'butcher of Bangladesh' had himself been decimated by the Indian army. But it was infamous defeat not victory that provided my first encounter with Manekshaw. In 1962, I accompanied my father to the Control Room of Calcutta's Fort William, and stood awestruck as he bayoneted a map with the positions where the Chinese army had trapped his almost bootless soldiers. Then, three decades later, I summoned the courage actually to spend time with him. I had moved to Bangalore, and he had moved from guns to roses in his retirement cottage near Wellington. We wound our way up the winding Kotagiri road; all the urchins whom we asked for directions straightened up visibly as they proudly obliged. We found him washing his car. "Come for lunch tomorrow,'' he said without preliminaries. We did, savouring his stories and his wife's casserole which arrived grandly on a dumb waiter up from the kitchen on a lower part of the slope. He looked out on to the "wild acres bought by Silloo who was abandoned here in Coonoor when Nehru summoned me in 1962. She paid the princely sum of Rs 18,000 for them, and designed this house. See, each window frames a panorama. My wife has hijacked a corner of my garden,'' he added indulgently. "Why did you call your daughter Sherry?'' we asked. "I did, but I didn't tell her to marry a chap called Batlivala, and name their daughter Brandy!" Still poker-faced, he continued, "My other daughter, Maja, married a Daruwala." He then told us of his late mother's early predicament. Manekshaw's doctor father had set up practice in Amritsar, and he brought his young Bombay-raised bride here. "As the train steamed in, she wept in sheer panic for, there, bathing under a tap on the station, was this huge man with flowing black beard and hair down to his waist: she had never seen a Sikh before.'' In 2003, I met Sam Manekshaw the last time. I lived in Delhi then, and the whole capital it seemed had turned out to greet him on his 90th birthday. The Oberois wheeled in a cake, and Parzor, a UNESCO-funded NGO preserving the Parsi heritage unspooled a documentary on him. Predictably, all speaker paraded the hope of 'hitting your century'. Death ran him out five years too early. It may have won that battle; but Sam has still decisively won the war.

5 comments:

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