I had met Brigadier S. Bhattacharya at a cocktail party a couple of weeks back. A large, bluff man, very army. We must meet, was the last thing he told me.
True to his word, the invitation came. Brigadier and Mrs. Bharacharya invite you to dinner. That was last night, deep in the Colaba Cantonment, an area that must be constantly laundered and spruced by a battalion of uncomplaining jawans on fatigue duty. The dinner was on the lush lawns of the brigadierís house, chairs all around, two bars laid out in two corners, a large bath-tub of British Army vintage, now used to keep the sodas chilled.
Most of the guestss has already arrived. Army officers, who, thought in mufti, could not be mistaken for anything other than army offiers, their wives, the cream and butter of Punjab, friends, relations, Preeti Sagar, the singer, Nana Chudasama, the ex-sheriff. I was resigned to settling down to another army evening, where they talk of Mhow and Poonah and Wellington and everything else unders the sun except politics and war. But this time it was going to be a different evening.
Brigadier Bhattacharya was the commandant of the J & K Rifles, before his Bombay positing. He had served in Kashmir and in Jubbalpore, which is the training center for the regiment. There is a hostel run by the army in Jabbalpore, where the children of the men killed in action in various wars were kept, looked after, cared for and brought up. Both the Brigatier and Mrs. Bhattacharya had become attached to the children, and, when they had left Jubbalpore, promised to bring them to Bombay for a two-week holiday.
They are here now, 45 of them, between the ages of four and 14, having boat-rides in the harbour, visiting the museum, the beaches, Esselword, all that Bombay has to offer.
The dinner last night was for them to meet us. And they presented a concert for us: a five-year-old Gorkha, with the sidest smile I have seen on any face, leading a kukri dance, a bhangra, disco-dancing, a lot of singing - We Shall Overcome and several regimental songs of their dead fathers.
It was a most heart-warming evening: the army officers took the younger children around, including a four-year-old who had recently joined the hostel and was looking a little lost the lonely, Mrs. Bharracharya hovered over them, a combination of mother-hen and school mistress, the Brigadier sang with the children. There was only one minor incident, when a five-year-old swung a perfect right hook into another five-year-old, but the guests quickly intervened and tempers were cooled.
The children belong to several regiments. Their fathers have died on many fronts, on the Siachen Glacier, in the Kashmir intransigence, in Sri Lanka, where the troops were despatched. The army looks after them now, it pays for their food, their clothes, and their educationís. The Indian Army is one big family, it looks after its own. The children have lost their fathers. But now the whole army is their father. I could see it last night.