Rammed on the Red Road

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The most enjoyable part of my job while I was in Kolkata with 12 Bengal NCC (Air) Squadron as an instructor pilot in 1960 was my freedom to go and fly with Bengal Flying Club at Barrackpore.   On week days, my cadets were generally not able to come for flying as they were all college students and had classes to attend.   My boss Squadron Leader Bob Rattan was quite happy to leave me alone to handle the flying part of my job and he never questioned my visits to Barrackpore.   Apart from the Bengal Flying Club I also managed a fair bit of flying with No 11 Squadron (Dakotas) as a co-pilot and with Calcutta Auxiliary Air Force Squadron as an instructor on Prentice and Harvard.   For me therefore a trip to Barrackpore was always welcome.

My allotted house was in New Alipore; a small two-storied house that I shared with one Squadron Leader Ghosh from the ADM branch.   He was a kind helpful and gentle soul somewhat older than I was.   Strangely however, his Air Force nickname was ‘Goonda’ Ghosh.  How this had come about is something I never found out.   I felt shy to ask a senior guy why he was called a goonda!   In any case, he and his wife were the ideal senior neighbours that we could have had.   I had a pretty young wife and I really mean Young.  Leena was just over 17 at that stage!  I also had my recently widowed mother staying with me.   Whenever Air Force duty took me away from home, the Ghosh family were always there to support them.

My unit was well provided for with motor transport.   We had a car, a Jeep, and two trucks.   Like most brash young flight lieutenant with an access to an MT, I loved driving the Jeep around.     In the NCC environment, enforcement of regulations was somewhat slack.   By the letter of law, the car and the Jeep should have gone back to the unit garage for overnight parking, but I found it convenient to leave it outside my residence.   My MTD (Motor Transport Driver) found it more convenient too as it saved him a trip to the unit lines and a long bus ride home.   It was also more convenient for him to come directly to my home rather than reach the unit lines an hour earlier in the morning and then come to pick me up.  I had a civilian driving licence for a two-wheeler and I did not have a Service driving licence of any sort.   That did not prevent me from driving my Jeep or the unit’s three ton truck when I felt like it.   I was Young and Exuberant.  The only precautions I took were, firstly to ensure that the official driver was onboard and secondly to ensure that I was dressed in uniform.

One day in late March of 1960, I found a flurry of activity in Squadron Leader Ghosh’s flat.   A number of safaiwallas came and cleaned the house up.   Even a small length of red coir welcome matting was spread at the entrance of the staircase.   I was curious.  I asked my neighbour what was up.   It appeared that the transit VIP room at HQ 1(Operational) Group Rani Kuthi was under repair and the formation HQ was being visited by (then) Air Vice Marshal Yashwant Malse.    The Air Marshal was not keen to stay at the VIP transit room available at Fort William.   He was also socially close to Squadron Leader (Goonda) Ghosh.   It had therefore been decided that the Air Marshal would be hosted by my neighbour for a couple of days.   What I had seen was the preparation for this visit.

That evening when I returned from the office I saw our esteemed visitor talking with Goonda standing on the road just outside the house in front of the entrance.  He was dressed casually, and I mean really casually:  a pair of bedroom slippers, a pair of khaki trousers, and a sleeveless vest comprised his entire attire.    Squadron Leader Ghosh was casually dressed too, but at least he had his shirt on.   It is a good thing that I had seen him in framed photographs in many offices.   The few Air Vice Marshals that the Air Force had in those days were all recognizable to the rank and file.  He looked at my jeep just as I had got down from it.   He looked at me and raised a crooked finger to signal me to come close to him.    His eyes gave me a once over and then he asked me what I was doing in a service Jeep.   Perhaps he had found it odd that a mere flight lieutenant was being dropped home in a service vehicle.   Goonda stepped in and introduced me to the Air Marshal.    He then looked at my Jeep to confirm that it had the NCC markings on it and immediately dropped his critical stance.    We talked for some minutes standing on the road side on matters inconsequential.   At last the Air Marshal turned to end the conversation and enter the house.  Goonda and I looked at each other.   He turned to follow his guest as I turned for my own door.   As if on an after thought, the Air Marshal turned around and said, ‘I hope you are not running around in your Jeep by yourself’, and he disappeared into the gate.    I was a bit perplexed as I did not understand the reason for the old man’s injunction, but of course little fellows need not wonder about the thought process of the great ones!

The next day was a Sunday; a flying day for the senior cadets and a Parade day for the younger cadets.   It was in any case a full working day for me.    My MTD came at 05:15 and we were on our way to Barrackpore in another fifteen minutes.   The weather was inclement; low clouds and a slight drizzle.   The morning sun was finding it difficult to penetrate the cloud cover and overcome the misty drizzle.   Mindful of the cryptic remark by the visiting Air Marshal, I sat on the left seat and allowed the MTD to drive.   From my home in New Alipore, our normal route took us to Diamond Harbour Road near the Mint and then on to the Red Road via the National Library and the Zoo.   As we turned left in to the Red Road, a decrepit empty three ton truck came hurtling down the Lower Circular Road (AJC Bose Road) and attempted to turn right into the Red Road. (A note for modern Kolkattaiyas:   The entry ramp for the high level AJC Bose Road did not exist at that time).    The truck was too fast.   It found me on its path and the driver panicked.   He tried to avoid me by tightening his turn further.    Fortunately for me, he managed to miss me but went into a tail slide spin on the wet smooth tar of the Red Road.    It was a frightening sight.   The truck was spinning at a high speed completely out of control and it was directly in front of my Jeep.   My MTD braked hard and eased to the left to avoid the truck but in vain.   The spinning truck drifted and spun into the front right side of the Jeep before coming to a halt.   My Jeep was quite thoroughly broken though the truck stopped without any visible damage to itself.

My MTD was quite smart.   He jumped out of the Jeep as soon as it stopped, ran to the truck and pulled the dazed driver out of his seat before the poor fellow could collect his wits and try to run away.    The drivers mate now came down to support him.   Both the truck driver and his mate were young fellows and both were dazed by the event.    I do not think the driver had ever experienced such a spin before, and I am sure his training as a driver would not have included advice on skid control.     A slanging match now started between the truck team and my MTD and my MTD held his ground until a pair of traffic cops on a motorcycle and a side car appeared on the scene.

In pre-partition India, Traffic Police in Calcutta was a highly respected force.   They were hand-picked and specially trained.   Dressed in white tunics and topped with London Police type hats, their deportment in public and their interaction with the citizen were impeccable.   In 1960, they still had a reputation to uphold.    These two cops went about their business efficiently.   The two drivers were segregated and individual statements were recorded.   The two drivers individually identified the other driver.   Then the senior of the two cops came to me for my statement.   He turned out to be one Traffic Sergeant Sengupta.    He presented me with a printed report form that I had to fill up.    At the end of these formalities, he picked up the registration papers of the truck and the driving licence of the truck driver, wrapped these up in a piece of news paper as a packet  and handed the packet over to me.    ‘Sir’, he addressed me deferentially, ‘The truck will tow you to a repair shop identified by me.   I shall come with you to the repair shop.   You can then direct what repairs are to be done on your vehicle.   The repair shop will carry out those repairs on priority – nonstop – until those are completed.   All payments for the repairs will be made by the truck driver or the truck owner.   Please keep these documents with you.   You may return these to the truck driver after you are satisfied with the repair work done.’   I was really impressed with the speedy justice handed to me.   My main headache about getting the Jeep repaired was over.

It was not yet six in the morning and Kolkata on a drizzly Sunday morning was half asleep.   The cops ordered the truck driver around.   The truck was repositioned in front of my Jeep, towing ropes were organized and attached.   The cops led the way on their motor cycle and side car and I was towed in the Jeep down the Russa Road to a small hutment workshop in Bhawanipore’s Uriya Para.   Only a few dogs were on the very narrow lanes.   Shutters were still down on almost all hutment workshops.    The cops obviously knew the lay of the land.    They stopped in front of one particular hutment and knocked on the lowered shutter.    After a few knocks, a man in a lungi and a bare body appeared through a narrow opening rubbing his eyes.     Without any preliminaries,    the cops pointed at my Jeep, ordered the sleepy man to ‘fix it up’ to my satisfaction and gently waved the baton in their hands for emphasis.   The mechanic muttered some thing about payments.   The senior cop cut him short, pointed at the truck driver and said that all payments will be made by that man.    The truck driver nodded and the mechanic was satisfied.

The metamorphosis of the environment was magical.   A few shouted instructions and a number of sleepy heads appeared around the narrow opening.    The front shutter of the workshop was opened up.   The Jeep was pulled in and work began.    The senior cop walked over to me, picked out a small scrap of paper and wrote out a telephone number of his office desk.   ‘If there is any difficulty in getting the work done please call me at this number’ he said as he handed me that scrap of paper.    He then gave me a smart salute and went away with his mate.

By about eight thirty, the Jeep was fully dismantled.    All the dismantled panels that were distorted were under a process of rebuild at different spots.   It seemed to me that the mechanic in charge had farmed out a lot of work to other mechanics in the area.    I did not know how they worked these cooperative ventures and sorted out the bills and payments, but that was hardly my headache.   I had a fair load of a separate set of headaches completely earmarked for me.   A service vehicle under my care had met with an accident.  Of course its repair work was in hand, but should I not report the incident or at least keep my bosses informed?   In my mind, I thought of my bosses in plural advisedly.    The vehicle was on allotted strength of my unit,   but the unit was not responsible for second line maintenance and repair of MT.   Authority and financial control for MT repairs rested with the NCC Group HQ at Fort William.    The Group Commander was a Colonel from the Army.    

 The colonel sahib was from the infantry.   In the sixties, if an infantry man found him self promoted to the rank of a full colonel he would be less than joyful, for it would mean that he was nearing the end of his career progression.   The bright sparks who would go on to be generals generally skipped the rank of a full colonel and became Brigadiers directly from the rank of a Lt Col.    There were no field commands in the rank of full colonels in the arms.   Full colonels were therefore found mainly in garrison posts or on staff appointments at formation headquarters and also in extra regimental appointments like the NCC.  Some such colonel sahibs therefore acquired and sported an attitude to the service that had sharp edges.   I hasten to add that I had no personal knowledge of this particular colonel sahib, never having had the opportunity to interact with him till then.  

By about nine in the morning I was somewhat tea-thirsty.   I walked down from Uriya Para to Russa Road, had a cup of tea, found a public telephone call booth and called Bob Rattan.   He was not very enthusiastic about reporting the incident in view of the fact that repair work was taken care of.   However, as an after-thought, he asked me to keep the Group Commander informed verbally.   I then rang up the Colonel Sahib.   He was at his breakfast and was not happy to be disturbed on a Sunday morning.    I gave him a summary of happenings of the morning.   There was silence from the other side.    The silence elongated and I became somewhat concerned about the connectivity of the line.   ‘Sir?’ I said tentatively.    The Colonel Sahib now responded in a very low and flat intonation.   ‘You have not spoken to me.   I have not heard you.    It is the end of the financial year and there are no funds under the vehicle repair head.   I will not accept a vehicle being off road.   You are an officer.   You were present during the incident.   Now use your Maaloom and initiative and get the vehicle back on the line immediately.   I do not care if the truck driver pays for it or you repair it out of your own pocket.   Just get the bloody vehicle on road immediately.  Is that clear?’

The Colonel Sahib put the phone down after leaving me in no doubt about what his thoughts were.   It did not affect the situation in any way.    I was in any case about to achieve what the Group Commander desired me to do.   I felt a tiny bit sad and disappointed, a feeling that I could easily shrug off mentally.   The day wore on.   By the time the repair work and the paint job were done it was pretty late in the evening and I went home directly.    The most direct loss for the day was the loss of three sorties of flying that the three nominated cadets did not get in my absence.

Normally, my story would have ended here.   But as I write this tale a little more that half a century ago, many questions bubble up in my mind for which I have insufficient answers.    The story reminded me that fifty years ago even a young twenty five year old Flight Lieutenant in uniform was taken seriously and treated deferentially by the man on the street.   Does it still hold good?   Only a current day young officer of equivalent age and seniority would be able to tell me.   The story also reminded me that half a century ago our metros had traffic police that was alert, able, honest and decisive.  Is it so to-day?   I would want to believe that it is, but my current experience on the roads makes me a bit less sure.   And then, how about the points made by the Colonel Sahib?    Is managing budget heads for locally controlled expenses still a hassle?  Is it still July or August by the time funds actually reach units causing disruption of works and purchases for the months of April, May and June?    Do the funds get exhausted by January making the dry months longer?  Or, some times are the units flooded with funds arriving late that have to be spent by March with inadequate scrutiny or control?     I hope not, but I really do not know.   I would love to be educated by the modern generation.

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One response »

  1. For your concluding para. I can say. Things are almost same with uniform. But due to quantity it may bit vary. As I am a civilian, but prefer crew cut hairs. So I am getting some extra attention from police and other civilian. I still come across many cops (including traffic) who are respectful to civilians and military persons. Ratio is almost same but yes numbers are changed.

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