The colleagues from the Army Postal Services came calling one afternoon. They had come to invite me for their Bara Khana at Baramula. The khana was to commence late in the evening and go on till about10 in the night. Army Bara Khanas are meals in which all ranks join and they eat together. Despite the strict hierarchical system the Army men become somewhat socialistic on such days and freely mix with all ranks.
Initially I was reluctant to travel 30–odd miles just for a khana. But then our Deputy Director, CP Thomas, also got an invite. He rang up to say that we would be going giving me no option. I said my car was all jacked up for the winter and hence could not move an inch but he said we would be using his car. He had a 1964 Herald and was a sheer beauty to drive. I agreed and two other friends joined in. One was Udipto Ghosh of the IAS J&K and the other was Jyoti Mathur, DAG in the office of AG J&K.
As Army bashes generally have booze flowing Thomas said that I would drive on the way up and he would do so on the return journey since he would be abstaining from alcohol. That was fair and we commenced our journey around four in the afternoon Thomas’s Herald was a sheer beauty to drive and the road, a single lane affair, was superb. We were there in under two hours.
Baramoola, as is well known, was a place that the Pakistani raiders had settled down to loot, plunder, rape and indulge in butchery during the raid on Kashmir in 1947-48. It played no mean role in 1965 as this was the most used route for infiltrators who, unfortunately for Pakistani dictator Ayub Khan, got caught by Kashmiris contributing largely to the failure of his Operation Gibraltar. But as we travelled down the road to the town it was as peaceful as one could expect in normal times.
The “Bara Khana” was a leisurely affair. We were introduced to the unit heads over drinks. Thomas scrupulously avoided alcohol. The “Khana” was held, if I recall, under a huge tent and the atmosphere was festive. Senior officers came and met their men and junior officers over either drinks or the seniors tried to force-feed their juniors. I had no experience of such a “khana” but it was fun. The great camaraderie on display among the men and officers was somewhat infectious; one thought it was a great way of keeping up the morale of the fighting forces and their ancillary services. There was nothing of this kind in the civil side of the government.
Around 10 in the evening we bid good bye to our hosts and commenced our drive back to Srinagar. As was the understanding, Thomas took the wheel. We were a foursome and yet there was very little conversation. I think our luck was somewhat out as soon it started drizzling. The smooth road became slippery and the front windshield would fog out needing repeated wiping by a piece of cloth which Mr. Thomas would keep on top of the dashboard.
Once, it seems, he did not find the cloth where he remembered to have kept it and looked for it taking his eyes off the road and what happened next was catastrophic. Instead of taking the bend he drove into it where there was no road and the car took a few somersaults before it came to rest, mercifully, on its four wheels. The engine died but the lights were on. The rear wind shield seemed to have flown off allowing a huge mass of mud to come in and land on us sitting on the rear seats.
The lights revealed to us that we had taken a fall of about twenty feet from the edge of the road. Thankfully none was hurt, we had fallen into a bog with ankle-deep water and this water and the soft earth had, probably, cushioned the fall. The other lucky part was soon revealed and that was we were close to Srinagar.
We extricated ourselves with great difficulty from the two-door car only to find our feet sinking in ankle-deep waters. We managed to wade through the bog and climbed the steep slippery escarpment to get on to the asphalt that we had inadvertently left few moments ago. Mathur could recognize the lighted area and was happy to find his house not too far. We all trudged to his house leaving the car in the bog. It was cold and my woollen clothes, as indeed those of others, were sogging wet; worse, they had mud and muck on them in generous quantities from the bog.
Mathur tried to be hospitable and wanted us to spend the night at his place. That was impossible as, like most of us, he was a bachelor. Wishing him all the best, Thomas and I started out in the forbidding overcast night for our respective homes. A casual glance at my watch revealed it was around 2 AM. Both of us had a common path up to Residency Road. So we did left-right, left right and walked out of Jawhar Nagar, came to Amirakadal, the first bridge of Srinagar. We passed by its market and arrived at Lal Chowk close to which was the Central Telegraph Office. Thomas used to live nearby and hence he cut across to get to his place. I knew Mrs. Thomas would give him hell.
I marched on alone down the Residency Road as I had some more length to cover. Not a soul was in sight; my leather heels hitting the tarmac seemingly sounded inordinately loud. A fleeting thought came to me that in this surrounding loneliness I was a sitting duck. Anybody could stick a knife into me. But, no, those days were different and it was safe; I had company of a few stray dogs that trotted along till I reached the gate of my residence. I climbed up to my quarters. As I shook off the soggy clothes and the boots I mumbled to myself “what a horrid wet and mucky day!”