Headed for the Silver Reunion of my regiment at Babina, the dice is loaded. Boarded a shagged out coach of the Shatabdi Express to Jhansi, the destination is Babina (an acronym, Briish Army Base in Native Asia). Babina is also one of the poorest districts in Uttar Pradesh, though it feels like Madhya Pradesh. It’s the district where Rahul Gandhi has his humble meals in a humble village home of Bundelkand ( of the once famous Chandravanshi kings who gave us Khajuraho and Orcha, why is it that, illustrious kingdoms in the past are impoverished areas today, e.g. Pataliputra is modern Bihar). Was expecting the blood red German Coaches. Instead stuck with an early 70s was it the 80s coach. Lots of officers from my Armored Regiment and their families are travelling today. My neighbors on the train are (children of General Sanjeev Loomba, my first squadron Commander) Sahil and Shayla Loomba (and her husband Rohit).
We are off to a good start, all food oriented persons and our conversation skews towards unheard of food places in Delhi, Sahil a doctor with St Stephens Hospital surprises me with his repertoire of fantastic places in North Delhi, Ganesh In Karol Bagh (he clucks sympathetically, I haven’t heard of It), you have to have the fish and keema naans. Then Mezbaan , Zaika and Chacha Kebabs in Kamlanagar and A-1 Bakery behind Bungalow Road. I make copious mental notes. Rohit gets up from his slumber and adds a few places in South Delhi, fortunately I know all. I was beginning to lose the faith you know. Breakfast arrives.
I have to declare, I enjoy Train food especially breakfast more than the plane food. I am regular on aircrafts and I nod distastefully when they serve breakfast in air. Here I was enthusiastically looking forward to the cutlets with peas and limp fries, cold omellette and bread with a dubious sauce. It’s probably because I do it once in a while. I love it , somehow the childhood memory and the novelty of the semi warm breakfast on the train has not worn off yet. We are served, there are three variants, and we have all three . That’s, cutlets and bread, omellete and bread and upma vada. The waiter understands, this is the high rollers table and knows a handsome tip will be given. So he passed on the extra breakfasts of the regular train travelers to distastefully nod no to breakfast, to us.
We arrive and I have a crew for the next 2 nights and 3 days, Driver Lance Dafedar Devendar from Meerut and 10 Armored Regiment and Sowar Pradeep Chauhan my Buddy from Pataudi and my Regiment The 15 Armored Regiment. We have a smart Gypsy Jeep, while some get Toyota Innova’s and hired Tata Indica’s I am happy with mine. Immerse into a warm afternoon at the big tent at the Officers Mess, The relief is the Cold beer and the warm snacks, I switch to a gin and lime with the typical army mess style pickled onions (actually the right way, which many Michelin starred bars and restaurants miss out). The conversation meanders. Everytime a white haired, or bald, or apple shaped old timer walks in there is some cheers and laughter. Really almost like a convocation of old Turkey Buzzards. I remark we will appreciate some people in the course of the next few days and also depreciate a few. Laughter all around.
Lunc is lserved, Biryani and Bone Curry, the tradition continues, we (me and my good friend Raghu) taught this to cooks in the late 80’s nearly 22 years ago and here at the reunion we have the same lunch after an intense liquid diet.
The next big gig is the The Big Feast or Barakahana, quite honestly a relic of the past, designed for the British officers to interact with local Risaldars and the Risalas (todays JCO and the local subunits)The Cavalary which is todays armored regiments were raised by local fiefs providing a standing cavalary unit in return they got the right to collect taxes..
The food in the army is of a certain type with a certain taste. You eat it more out of hunger than desire. Especially with traditional recipes changing. I personally like the halal meat curry as compared to jhatka meat, with rice. The Jhatka always has bone fragments. The atmosphere is festive mostly rum is drunk. As a special case, the Commanding Officer, a youngster of mine when I was in the Unit (that’s how they call it), snapped his fingers and summoned whisky for me. Which a lot of people benefitted from including, Sahil, Rohit, and Vivek Law( amongst others). All children of Officers I had served with.
When someone remarked, you often see Samil with all the younger guys , I responded they are often smarter and I tend to learn more. Incidentally, Vivek Law, runs one or some of the channels for TV 18. So the food at the Barakhana was nothing much to write about. Also, the puritanical methods have changed for out sourcing some stuff to local caterers, who treat it as a wedding party and botch it up. So the traditional stuff you expect at the Barakhana or the JCO Mess party, go missing. Like hot pakoras, boiled eggs and sometimes egg pakoras stylishly called scotch eggs, liver fry, keema kaleji , spicy potato chips freshly fried with lots of red pepper, have just vanished. Even the food at The Officers Mess has changed for semi- western -continental -jankapuri style -caterer with a stylish names of unknown dishes. My advice stick to your grain and the basics, that’s pure and that’s puritanical, which still can be maintained and revived.
Walking in the evening on a lonely road with small loud speakers lining the road is almost an eerie experience listening to golden oldies like Jim Reeves and sometimes ( the organization my dearest wife Praveen works, Big 92.7 Fm ) broadcasted from Jhansi and transmitted on a lonely road in Babina seems like a communist country in Eastern Europe or Mao Zedong's era in China.
On the wonderfully done up Regimental Dinner Night with the works in the offing, I fell ill (too much of a good thing). My good old squady Katy sir(squadron Commander), ferried an Army Doctor to my room and got me medicines. The next morning Col HS Bedi and his ever so gracious wife offered to take me back on the chartered aircraft parked at Jhansi (from Alchemist Airways). We took the hours flight and were out of the Delhi airport in jiffy. A private plane experience absolutely unique for me.
Apart from the food, where would you find such affection anywhere and in any organisation. Your Old boss, bringing a doctor, another senior colleague taking you back in a private plane. Your youngster the CO, looking after what you are drinking. Dearest Friends Raghu, Rajiv Chaddha, Parry and Manish being by your side and making you feel 24 again. Almost magical even if it was for 2 nights and three days.