Monday, October 27, 2014




This happened long back when I was in IAT Pune.

I saw army soldiers cutting grass and clearing up weeds and wild bushes on the campus.

I mentioned this to the OC Adm at tea time.

“These bloody civilian maalis (gardeners) are not doing their job properly, so we have decided to use service manpower to get the campus cleaned up before the VIP visit,” he said.

I was amazed.

Since the “powers-that-be” were finding it difficult to take effective charge of the indolent civilian gardeners and make them do their job properly, the easiest solution was to deploy obedient soldiers to get the job done.

“The civilian gardeners are being paid salaries, aren’t they? But since you can’t get them to do their job, they easiest option is to deploy soldiers – so why not deduct money from the lazy civilians’ salaries and give it to the soldiers?” I wanted to say, but I held my tongue, since it was of no use.

Of course, navy sailors and air force airmen were not deployed to cut grass.

Maybe in the early years of his service, the navy boss had probably seen the infamous “Topass Mutiny” of 1970 and so he decided to be prudent in detailing sailors for menial tasks like grass-cutting.

(The infamous  “Topass Mutiny”of 1970  occurred when some sailors in the Western Fleet refused to clean latrines, after the abolition of the Navy’s Topass branch. The Topass performs the more menial tasks for the crew. The Topass Mutiny led to the repeal of the unpopular decision to abolish the Topass branch)

And, of course, detailing air force airmen for menial tasks was unthinkable.

But the evergreen soldier was the jack of all trades and could be deployed anywhere and everywhere, to do anything and everything.

A few days later, the gardener attached to our department came to see me along with his brother.

His brother was a soldier in the infantry (army) and was in his mid 30’s.

The soldier was being released from the army at this young age.

He wanted my help in getting a job.

I helped him out – it just required a phone call to one of my classmates who was an entrepreneur.

I thought about it.

The civilian gardener was better off than his soldier brother.

Firstly, the civilian gardener would retire at the age of 60, when all his familial commitments were competed, unlike his soldier brother who was left to fend for himself in the “civvy street” in his mid 30’s when he had school going children to look after.

Secondly, with successive pay commissions, the “status” of the civilian gardener had been raised – “Class 4” had been abolished, and he was now in “Class 3” – and, accordingly, he got a higher pay scale too.

Thirdly, the civilian gardener would never be transferred and he would spend his entire 40 years career in IAT Pune. Besides stability for children’s education and a good family life, easy availability of housing advance for civilians enabled him build his own house in the village nearby and claim HRA (House Rent Allowance) thereby supplementing his income.

I realized that in case you want to join government service, it was better to be a civilian than a soldier, and this was applicable across the board.

It was this incident that sowed in my mind, the kernel of the fiction short story I wrote a few years later, which I am posting below, on the occasion on “Infantry Day”, with a hope that soldiers are treated better by society.

(67 years ago, on 27 October 1947, infantrymen from the 1st Battalion of the Sikh Regiment landed at Srinagar airfield in Kashmir valley to chase away Pakistani invaders. The enemy was thrown back and the valley was saved. It was the first glorious action undertaken by the Indian Army in the post independence era. Therefore, October 27 is celebrated as Infantry day throughout India)

So, dear reader, as an ode to the soldier on infantry day, let me pull out from my creative writing archives, a story I wrote almost two years ago, in January 2013, and post it once more for you to read:

THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD – A Soldier’s Story by Vikram Karve

The Soldier sat on the footpath near the gate of the Accounts Office.

Abe Langde … Hat Wahan Se (Hey you one-legged cripple … Move from there)” a street-food cart vendor said, Yeh Meri Jagah Hai (This is my place).”

The soldier winced.

Then he looked down at his amputated leg.

Yes, he was indeed a cripple, a langda.

When he had joined the army he had two strong legs.

And now he had just one leg and one stump.

He picked up his crutch, pushed his body up and slowly hobbled a few steps away and was about to sit under a shady canopy near the street corner when a traffic policeman shouted, Ae Bhikari … Wahan Mat Baith (Hey Beggar … don’t sit there).”

Main Bhikari Nahin Hoon … Main Fauji Hoon (I am not a beggar … I am a soldier),” protested the soldier.

Phir Border Pe Ja Kar Lad (Then go and fight on the border),” the policeman said with sarcasm.

Wahi to kar raha tha (That is what I was doing),” the soldier mumbled to himself.

As the soldier tottered on the street on his crutches he talked to himself. 

He had been a fool to be brave. 

He should have played safe. 

At least he wouldn’t have lost his leg. 

And he would not have been discharged from the army as medically unfit.

Now he was being made to run from pillar to post for his disability pension because just because some clerk had “misplaced” his documents.

The soldier was exasperated.

In the army he was expected to do everything promptly and properly in double-quick time.

But these civilians were just not bothered.

First the paperwork was delayed due to red tape.

Then there were some careless typographical errors in his papers and his documents had to be sent back for the necessary corrections.

And now his papers had been misplaced.

It was sad.

Nobody was bothered about his plight.

The civilian babus comfortably cocooned in their secure 9 to 5 five-day-week jobs were slack and indifferent and did not give a damn for the soldiers they were meant to serve.

Civilians expected soldiers to be loyal unto the grave without offering loyalty in return.

“What is the big deal if you lost a leg?” one cruel clerk had remarked mockingly, “You soldiers are paid to fight. And if you die, or get wounded, it is a part of your job. You knew the risks before you joined, didn’t you? If you wanted to live a safe life why did you become a soldier? You should have become a chaprassi (peon) like your friend.”

Tears rolled down the soldier’s cheek as he thought of this.

Others were not so cruel and heartless, but their sympathy was tinged with scorn.

Indeed, he should have become a chaprassi like his friend who was now helping him get his disability pension.

Both he and his friend had been selected for the post of peon in a government office.

But he had been a fool – he told everyone that it was below his dignity to work as a chaprassi and then he went to recruitment rally and joined the army as a soldier.

He made fun of his friend who took up the job of a peon and boasted with bloated pride about being a soldier.

And now the tables had turned and the peon was having the last laugh on the soldier.

The peon was secure in his job while the soldier was out on the street, crippled for life and begging for his pension.

And now his friend wasn’t even called a chaprassi – they had upgraded all Class 4 to Class 3 and his friend was now designated as “assistant”.

His friend would retire at the age of 60 after a safe, secure, easy, tension-free career without any transfers or hardships.

If a soldier got disabled, they would throw him out.

But if a civilian employee like his friend got disabled, they would never throw him out.

And, by chance, if his civilian friend died, his wife or son or daughter would get a job in his place.

Nothing like that for the soldier. 

A soldier had to fend for himself.

The soldier felt disheartened.

He looked at his amputated leg and he deeply regretted his decision to join the army.

Indeed he had made a mistake.

He would have been much better off as a peon, chaprassi or in some other civilian job.

The soldier also felt a sense of guilt that he had made fun of his friend.

A few years ago, the soldier had laughed at his friend because he was a mere chaprassi, a peon.

Today he was at his friend’s mercy.

The soldier had to live on the kindness of the man he had once ridiculed and scoffed at.

It was a terrible feeling.

More than six months had passed and he was still anxiously waiting for his pension and dues.

His friend had given the soldier, and his family, shelter and food. 

And now the peon friend was trying to help the soldier by running around from office to office using the “peon network” to trace the misplaced papers.

The soldier felt sorry for his hapless wife.

His ill-fated wife was at the mercy of his friend’s nasty wife who openly derided her and made her displeasure quite clear by making scathing comments about the soldier, his wife and their children.

His friend’s wife kept on complaining and making snide remarks about how they were sponging on her hospitality like parasites.

The soldier’s wife hated the peon’s wife but she had to suffer the humiliation in silence and bear the daily insults – it was terrible to be at the mercy of someone who detested you.

Today the friend had asked the soldier to stand outside the gate and gone into the accounts office alone.

He had gone in alone because last time the soldier had spoilt everything by refusing to a pay a bribe to the accounts officer.

The soldier had even threatened the accounts officer that he would report the matter.

The accounts officer was furious: “Go and report. Nothing will happen. Now I will see to it that your papers are not traced until you die. What do you bloody soldiers think? That you can threaten us? This is not the army. This is the accounts office. Haven’t you heard the saying that the pen is mightier than the sword – now I will show you.”

Today his friend had gone inside to negotiate.

The clerks had told him not to bring the soldier inside the office as the egoistic accounts officer may get furious on seeing the soldier and everything will be spoilt.

Once everything was “settled”, they would try and trace the “misplaced” documents and he could take them out to obtain the soldier’s signature and re-submit the papers for clearance of the disability pension.

The soldier waited anxiously in the hot sun for his friend to come out. 

Angry thoughts buzzed in his mind.

“Ungrateful, corrupt people – all these civilians,” the soldier muttered to himself, “we sacrifice our life and limb for their sake and they humiliate us, even ask me to pay a bribe to get my own disability pension.”

“Patriotism, heroism, idealism – no one bothers about these things anymore. I made a mistake by joining the army. Yes, I indeed made a mistake by joining the army. But I made an even bigger mistake trying to be brave. What was the point of showing courage, initiative, daring and going beyond the call of duty to nab those guys? How does it matter if a few militants sneak in? Who is bothered about these things anyway, especially out here in the city? They don’t even know what is happening out there. Had I looked the other way, no one would have known, and I would not be a one-legged cripple – a langda. And even then, I wish they had shot me in the head and I had died. That would have been better,” he mumbled to himself, feeling very bitter, frustrated and helpless.

The soldier thought of his wife, his children, the bleak future awaiting them.

How long would they have to be dependent on the mercy of his friend and his nasty wife?

He felt sad, very sad, as depressing thoughts of despondency and hopelessness filled his brain.

He wondered whether his disability pension problem would be solved today.

It was taking long – his friend had gone in at 10 AM and it was almost 12 noon now.

The sweltering summer sun was hot and the soldier felt parched and weak.

He had drunk just a cup of tea since they started their journey to the accounts office in the city by bus from their friend’s home in the distant suburbs early in the morning.

Suddenly the soldier felt faint, so he walked towards the compound wall of the accounts office, took support and slid down to sit on his haunches.

At 12:30 his friend emerged from the gates of the accounts office. 

He was happy – the bribe had been paid, the documents had been promptly traced. 

Now all he had to do was get the soldier’s signature on the papers and he had been assured that the soldier’s disability pension and all his dues would be given within a month.

He began to look around for the soldier and saw him sitting strangely, propped against the wall.

The soldier’s eyes were closed and it seemed that he had fallen asleep.

Something seemed amiss, so he briskly walked towards the soldier, bent down and touched the soldier’s shoulder.

The soldier fell down to his side.

The friend panicked. 

He thought the soldier had fainted so he started shouting for help.

The traffic policeman, the street-cart vendor and some passers-by rushed to help.

The policeman told the vendor to sprinkle some water on the soldier’s face but nothing happened.

The policeman rang up the police control room for an ambulance.

“I hope he is not dead,” the friend said with trepidation.

“I don’t know. But it looks like he is totally unconscious. What happened? Who is he? He was muttering that he is a fauji – is he really a soldier?” the policeman asked.

The friend told the policeman the soldier’s story – the full story.

“Sad,” the policeman said, “very sad – the way they treat our soldiers.”

The ambulance arrived.

A paramedic examined the soldier and said, “I think he is dead. We will take him to the hospital. There the doctors will examine him and officially pronounce him dead.”

The enemy’s bullets could not do what these babus did with their red tape. It is so sad. The enemy could not kill this brave soldier, but the these babus  killed him,” the policeman commented.

“Yes. The accounts officer was right,” the distraught friend said, “the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.”

Copyright © Vikram Karve 
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This story is a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

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