Hustle Up

This is a true story. I’ve heard it so often; I can recite it verbatim just as my father told it.

He’s been retired for thirty years, my father, exactly as long as I’ve been married. Retired as an Infantry Brigadier General from the Indian Army after which he continued to work as the Security Advisor at the Indian Tea Association. In fact, at 84, recovering from a massive heart attack, he still thinks he does… his poor bosses at ITA just don’t know how to get rid of him.

Like every old-fashioned gent (not many of them around anymore, sadly), he has a handful of stories, which come out every time there is a group of people, a few drinks, and fried peanuts. They are taken out lovingly from his little repertoire, told, polished, embellished, and then put away till the next time. My sister and I had to go through it all with our friends as we were growing up, there was no escaping. And now, our children must as well, no escaping for them either.

This particular story always started thus…

‘As a young Captain in 1962, just before India’s skirmish with China, I was required to take out biweekly patrols in the area around the regimental barracks. In freezing sub-zero temperatures, walking in the Himalayan snow in our white camouflage parkas, leading a group of men older and more experienced than me, it was not my favourite job at all. Especially since on our return the very first day, my men seemed rather disgruntled and distracted.

That evening, after dinner at the Officers’ Mess, I walked over to the barracks to speak to my Company as was norm. To pep them up for the morrow. I was still trying to endear myself to them you see. There is no bigger challenge for a fresh-faced young officer than to win over the respect of the band of men he commands.

It was still snowing outside, and I got the feeling that someone was walking behind me, almost pushing me to walk faster. I knew there was nobody, probably just the wind, and my own boots crunching on the icy snow. Going in, I found my men still distracted and aloof, even as they stood up to attention and saluted my presence.

After asking them to stand at ease, I enquired if all was well (as my major had advised me to do). At first no answer was forthcoming, but on probing, it transpired that nobody wanted to bring up the rear on the next day’s patrol. Each man had his own incongruous reason, and I could tell they didn’t know me or trust me enough to tell me the truth.

So, pulling rank, I called out the order anyway, bade them goodnight and left. I felt the same presence on the way back to my room, and quickened my pace just a bit, glad to be back indoors by the fire and the company of my fellow officers.

The next day, as I had expected, the NCO who was to bring up the rear tried to get out of it, muttering about avalanches. I told him we were heading north, which was more flat land, and he had no option but to comply. As we set off, there seemed to be a fair amount of jostling, which was very unlike Regimental conduct. Calling a halt after an hour, near some rocks, I asked what was going on. By now, they were almost all ashen faced and visibly disturbed.

The sergeant told me, that whoever was at the end of the single file, got pushed from behind and urged to walk faster. “Jaldi Chalo”, a guttural accented voice said, meaning “hustle up, walk faster”. There was nobody behind the last man. This had happened yesterday too. At first the men had thought that C Company was playing pranks on them, but not so.

Each of the seven men had heard this and seen nothing. It was only me, in the lead who had seen nothing and heard nothing.

Sceptic that I was, I was convinced now, that it was indeed me who was being pranked by my men. So, without dismissing their story, I said I would bring up the rear and asked the sergeant to lead, handing over the compass and the map. The man in front of me was a kindly private, with many years of military service under his belt. He kept turning around to check on me, I barked out “eyes front”, just to show everyone who was in charge.

We had moved for just a few hundred yards or so, when I felt a cold touch on the nape of my neck. Turning around, I saw nothing, just the snow fall, alarmingly thick and furious. I continued to march on, wishing we were moving faster. We still had a few good kilometres to cover. And then I heard it, clearly, as if someone had leant in close and whispered into my ear, “Jaldi Chalo, Sir” (Hustle Up, Sir). This happened two or three times.

“Sir”, I thought, he knows my rank? He must be a real person. I turned around, flailed about with my stick, feeling quite sure there was a person behind me. We couldn’t see him because of the poor visibility caused by the weather. The stick just whooshed in the air.

“Who’s there,” I shouted, in my bravest voice? “Who is it?”

D Company had come to a standstill by now, and the men were watching me beating the air with my baton. There was no amusement or ridicule in their expression, instead, it was almost awe or respect. I wasn’t really scared at that point as I truly believed there was someone out there. This changed over the next hour, as I was pushed, cajoled, threatened, in that same breathy deep voice. Over the walk back to the barracks, I convinced myself it was a benevolent force. Sometimes, walking next to me, but mostly behind.

Recounting this, over drinks at the bar that night, I was surprised no one laughed. Instead, the old cook was summoned from the kitchen. He told us that in the late Forties, just after Indian Independence, a soldier had died on that same route, and his body had never been found. Since then, legend had it that he helped usher patrols to safety in bad weather.

This was the first time our regiment had met our very own Caspar, the Friendly Ghost.

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