Captains on the highway
The two olive-green army jeeps spotted each other on the national highway and pulled to a side.
“What have you done?”, demanded Captain B of Captain M, as the two officers sprang down from their vehicles.
It was a few minutes past eight in the morning, less than ten miles from the newly formed international border. The last war had ended just twenty months previously. Tensions persisted. Would there be another one soon?
The two soldiers were twenty five years old, bound not just by the natural camaraderie of their uniform, but also by having been classed as trouble makers by their commanding officer (CO), a less than charismatic Lieutenant Colonel.
Once, in the canteen committee overseeing food rations, the CO declared, “I am a vegetarian. So, I should pay less. I shouldn’t have to pay for the chicken purchases”.
At this, Captain B, being a Punjabi Sikh who are known for their partiality to bread, put his hand up, “Sir, in that case, since I never eat rice, I shouldn’t be charged for it”.
The battalion went back to splitting the bill equally. The Officers’ Club was close to the CO’s quarters. Late at night, after the CO had switched off his lights, empty beer bottles flew across the fence.
The CO tried to have the captains sent away on deputation as often as he could. Captain M, for instance, was ordered to serve in an infantry unit some forty five minutes away.
On the way, one had to cross a thin, winding canal. The local womenfolk used to bathe in it, exposing their naked bodies to passers by — quite like a scene from Carmen, the French novel with the Bohemian heroine. The jeep drivers had to be reminded sternly to keep their eyes on the road.
After hours, the Captains too would go for an occasional swim, with a bucket of beers chilled in the flowing water.
Theirs was a good life. As a poet wrote to his fiancée in 1907, “To be young is all there is in the world”.
The brigade commander came to inspect Captain M’s unit. One of the men standing in the front row caught the brigadier’s attention on account of a red patch on his neck.
“What is this?”, bellowed the brigadier.
“It’s a fungal infection. We have a few cases”, replied Captain M.
“Hmph. Ok”, harrumphed the senior officer.
Later when Captain M went to the regional medical stores to ask for anti-fungal cream, they balked at the quantity on the request form.
“Why do you need so much?”
“Well, because we have patients”
“How many patients?”
Captain M did not know, but exactitude was not called for. He made up an answer on the spot, “Fifty”.
The authorities did not believe the number could be that high and decided to check for themselves. It turned out to be closer to hundred. They handed over the tubes of cream. They also sent a note to the brigadier, censuring him mildly. He was ultimately responsible.
The brigadier was not amused and had Captain M summoned to his office.
Captain M marched in, saluted, and stood at ease. Feet apart, hands held behind the back.
“I did not give you permission to stand at ease!”, shouted the brigadier.
“Sorry, Sir!”, replied Captain M, returning to attention. Feet together, hands pointed downwards, on either side of the waist.
“Why did you not bring up the matter of the skin infections before?”
“Sir, I had said that we had some infec…”
“No! You had said ‘a few infections’. Not ‘some infections’. I remember! Dismissed!”
When the Captains met at dawn for their daily, mandatory aerobics, M asked B, “What’s the difference between ‘a few’ and ‘some’?”.
Captain B shrugged his shoulders.
Life went on. Naturally cooled beers. Tennis matches. Weapons drills. Rumor of war. Ten-mile hikes through knee-deep snow.
One day, as the battalion was expecting a new joiner, a telegram was received. It was for the soldier who had not yet arrived, “hello stop sorry to say father deceased stop come home”.
The battalion was dismayed. What a horrible way to start a new assignment! When the soldier showed up, ignorant of his loss, he was met with fraternal solicitude.
Everyone expected that the newcomer be accorded immediate leave to carry out funerary rites in his village, far away in the hinterland of the Subcontinent.
“Not today”, said the CO. “It’s a Friday, which is always busy at Divisional Headquarters. I don’t want to bother my boss with this. Then it’s the weekend. I will ask for leave on Monday”
The CO’s word was law, of course. But resentful whispers were to be heard everywhere, especially in the Officers’ Club.
“One of us has lost a parent, and the CO talks about waiting for three days?”
The Captains looked expectantly at the Second-in-Command, a Major.
He too shook his head morosely, “I don’t understand either”.
No one felt like drinking. They dispersed to their quarters early. Captain M took out a sheet of regimental notepaper and wrote to his betrothed before retiring.
Some weeks later, the phone rang at the infantry unit early in the morning. Captain M was asked to return the battalion immediately. Captain B would be sent to take over his duties for the day.
And so the captains met on the highway.
“What’s going on?”, asked Captain M.
“I don’t know. But you have done something unimaginable”, replied Captain B. “Like molested someone or embezzled cash from the troops or God knows what. The CO is frothing at the mouth. He wouldn’t tell me anything, of course. But I asked his driver and apparently he has an appointment at Divisional Headquarters today. Obviously concerning you”
But Captain M could not think of anything more serious than the jointly lobbed bottles. Bewildered, the Captains continued in opposite directions.
When Captain M made his way to the CO’s cabin, the latter shrieked at him, “Don’t come in! Follow me in your jeep!”.
At Divisional Headquarters, the CO entered his boss’ office. Captain M was asked to wait in the next room, where the boss’ Deputy sat.
After salutes had been exchanged, the Deputy said with a grin to Captain M, “What is this, Buddy? Why do you something like this?”
“What have I done, Sir?”, asked Captain M gently.
“This”, replied the Deputy, holding up a sheet of paper with multiple black marks on it. It was the late-night letter, intercepted by the Military Censor. The unsavory incident about the orphaned officer who had been denied leave had evidently been deemed too sensitive to be let through.
It was the CO who was given a dressing down. Captain M was asked to return to his battalion and then to the infantry unit the next day. The Captains met again on the highway, in markedly better spirits.
Decades passed. Captains B and M survived the war and went on to become generals. Pensioners now, and grandparents both, the highway that now connects them stretches for a thousand miles. They keep in touch.
The former Captain M still does not know the difference between ‘a few’ and ‘some’.
Today is his eightieth birthday.
Happy birthday, Papa.