24 May 99 was an even mix of happiness and gloom, as we bid farewell to our first aboriginal (*an officer who was commissioned into and commanded the same unit) Tiger Col (later Brigadier) Hareesh Pankan and welcomed Col (later Lieutenant General) Vinod Gulabrao Khandare as the 8th Commanding Officer. The new Tiger, another aboriginal, had been around as the GSO1 of the same Division where the Battalion was and all of us were in an upbeat mood.
The Adjutant soon announced Tiger’s familiarization program and the onus of conducting him in Bravo Company became mine as the traditional 2 Tiger was away sharpening his pencils for DSSC preparations. The incident of Lt Kalia’s patrol being ambushed in Kargil had already happened, and OP VIJAY was on.
The familiarization visit to all posts went on as per schedule, with the movements in open areas restricted to hours of darkness. Only those who have actually slid down the vertical slope or Rasta to Chattan Post under enemy fire can describe it, or should I say that some slopes are beyond description. It’s an 8 point contact, in which you are hanging on to dear life with all your body parts and hoping against hope that the moon doesn’t come out and make your life miserable by giving the enemy a highlighted target.
The visit to Serial 2 or Bravo company started from a Post called Dogra which was a sort of rest and recoup one, as it was echeloned behind and away from most of enemy’s direct fire. Only challenge to Dogra’s Class A status was Maid Post of Charlie company with it’s maize fields, piggery and hen coop. Dhaniram Sahab was Tiger of Maid due to his recurring medical problems.
Tiger breezed through Dogra on to Don Post, where his ex Signal buddy Pratap awaited as a fresh Subedar. Tea, pakoras, dinner and endless stories interspersed with briefing saw us crossing the midnight mark.
It was early hours of 03 June 99. Now was the trek to company headquarters at Camel, an imposing landmark with an equally imposing and flat Tabletop in between. The patch between Tabletop and Camel was open to enemy observation, but the obscured moon reduced chances of enemy detection. A downslope of 45 degrees led into an area called the India Gate, which further had a bifurcation. Left took you within metres of the enemy to two more of our posts (opposite one enemy post aptly named Kabristan) while the right track led to Camel.
The pace of advance was slow, as the Tiger was familiarizing with the landscape including umpteen minefields of varying vintage. Very soon, we were across Tabletop and onto the track, which had minefield fences to either side.
As the saying goes, you never get to hear the bullet meant for you. However what you get to experience is a series of actions in no particular order, with all of them happening within the next few seconds or microseconds. First feeling of foreboding came when the moon decided to shower his benevolence onto us, both for good and bad. It helped me in indicating the landmarks around to the new Tiger because Tabletop had the best panoramic view. But, it also aided the enemy in spotting us on a well lit shiny path. The next event was a flash on the enemy side, to which our reaction was to immediately duck down while alerting the Tiger’s party of a likely threat by pushing them down. Few seconds passed, nothing happened and we all heaved a sigh of relief to continue our movement hastily. However, an odd sensation in my calf made me feel that I had snicked it against the minefield which was conveyed to the Tiger who was immediately behind.
Tiger lent his cane, which so far was being used as a prodder for stones in the track, and I hobbled on to safety, promptly assisted by the Tiger himself. A quick swipe of the calf revealed some wetness, which led to the assumption that a bullet had grazed my calf. Stream of expletives kept tumbling out as it was anger at oneself for letting the enemy gain an upper hand. The pain came in later, when I was carried piggy back by my buddy to the nearest jeephead, which was 45 minutes away. Not wanting to give the enemy a moral victory, I remember pleading with Tiger not to declare it until the doctor felt it’s a serious wound! How wrong was I to assume that it was just a nick, from a lucky enemy sniper.
What’s that feeling of being shot at or what did you feel, many have asked me over the years. At that point of time, there was zero feeling, not even pain, just a realisation that I might miss the action which was planned soon. Then followed anger, bubbling anger, the way you feel when you lose a race with a traditional rival or when you are beaten in a videogame by a known kaddu (nincompoop).
Did I save the Tiger, many asked? Did I, I too wondered. Maybe, if we had not abruptly stopped and pushed down others, the bullet would have found it’s way on to a more prized target – a CO who had just taken over command on active LC. What would have been the first and second order effects of such an action- only hindsight can help us wonder of such grave probabilities. So, under those circumstances, the field Captain was more affordable vis-a -vis a new Colonel and CO of 850 men, and I guess fate timed it well.
From the road head, a jeep took me on a bouncy trip to the nearest hospital which was another 45 minutes. Our unit Doctor, a Bengali Moshoi met our party at the halfway mark; asked me to move my toes, confirmed that it was a gun shot wound, and told me that I was lucky. You can imagine the scene : 0200 hours in the morning, lying on a stretcher fixed to the side seat of a Jonga, with a pulsating leg, and being told by a jovial Bong that you are lucky..who would believe him. Later (after 2/3 months) I realized that he was referring to the bullet missing the nerve, which would have left me with a lifelong limp or trailing foot. Lucky indeed!
That night saw me moving from Field Hospital to the General Hospital and finally entering the Operation Theatre at 0500 hours or so in the morning. Somewhere in between was a Malayali driver, to whom I presumably told not to convey this news home, as I was worried about the effect on my widowed mom and young sister. Frankly, I don’t remember any of that, what I remember is the bumpy ride to those hospitals and the soothing surroundings of the hospital room as my eye lids got heavy.
The morning of 04 June was seconds and minutes of excruciating pain as the pain of open wound and a cracked shin bone hit me with full force. Only a smiling Major in the next bed with an amputated leg from a drifted mine could give me an insight into the quantum of pain, and made my wound seem miniscule. His cleaning sessions used to be howling matches as the raw nerve ends could not be suppressed with any pain killer. Again, I was lucky!
Well, life just moved on. Even as OP VIJAY went on and many of my coursemates like Capt Vikram Batra went on recapturing peaks with ‘Dil Maange More’, I was on a rearward loop shunting from Jammu to Chandigarh to Kerala. Toughest part was informing my mom about my injury, which was managed over a landline to my young sister who was mature beyond her age. Love of unit personnel, near family, Sainik School types and many newfound hardcore nationalists aided me in that trip. Many autographs, TV interviews, telephonic interactions, and such acts followed and my mom and sister took some time to adjust to this new popularity. I even flagged off a Solidarity rally at my sister’s Kendriya Vidyalaya at Pangode. Often I was reminded of the adage, Gods and soldiers we adore, in times of danger and never before (and after, too!).
The recuperation path was a steep one as the plaster had to come off first which was followed by painful physiotherapy sessions. The sense of missing out all the action, is something which is indescribable, especially when you have spent your life training for it. A shock came in after one month at the Bangalore Command Hospital when they refused to send me back with my crutches as the Battalion was in active field. I had to use the influences of the same Tiger who gave his willingness to keep me in his team, even as a cripple.
So, back to the LC I landed back, in a few months, with a slight limp and unwieldy leg. Tiger placed me as the Assistant Lion or Assistant Adjutant and even started a series of basketball games to get me back on track. Very soon, those games at Base became major stress busters for all team members of Fab14 and a strength builder for me, the erstwhile cripple.
They say, the Battalion is your family and it stays your family till the last breath. Good or bad, it carries you and it’s finally the Officers that make or break such an outfit. Within few months of that gun shot and a compound comminuted fracture, I was declared Shape One and fit for action. 03 June 1999 was just another date as many other important dates were etched by the gallant actions of Team 14. The second COAS Citation which came later, was an endorsement of our achievements.
What have remained with me, of that day and the days that followed are the memories of love and brotherhood of my extended family. And yes, an ugly tattoo etched by that sniper bullet remains on my right shin, to remind me of the lessons learnt from that experience.
Hence the title, a Tattoo by a Bullet….
Badri Vishal Lal ki Jai