Monday, 18 July 2011

TALES FROM THE ARMY (CONTINUED)


THE VULTURE

This incident that I am going to narrate is a bit strange and may not agree well with many people. However, I thought that I must not hold back telling this story just because it may not get the aesthetic approval of some people. I'm also sure that some others may find this quite interesting and out of the ordinary.

This happened while I was the RMO of 9 Parachute Commando battalion. We were located in the quaint cantonment of Bakloh nestling in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. It was an old cantonment, which was literally perched on a fairly steep hill facing the plains of Punjab. The scenic beauty of the areas surrounding this cantonment defied description. The hills were heavily wooded and had a pristine character about them. There was an omnipresent delicate aroma of pine oil all over the place because of the abundance of pine trees in the area. As part of the rigorous training of a commando battalion it was an imperative for all officers and men to be proficient in the use of firearms. Actually, it was not only proficiency but we were expected to be sharpshooters with our personal weapons.  Being a doctor did not give me any leeway to get any exemption from attaining this level of expertise with a firearm because the doctrine of commandos did not differentiate whether one was a doctor, specialized engineer or any other such professional when compared to a regular fighting soldier. So it was necessary for me also to spend time in the firing range so that my skills in using my firearm were honed to perfection.

Being surrounded by unpopulated hills it was fairly easy to create firing ranges for various kinds of weapons in the cantonment of Bakloh. It was mandatory that at least once, if not twice in a week, for all officers to utilize the firing range. The standard routine was that we reached the range by about 7:30 AM and kept on firing and maintaining our weapons till about noontime. Of course, there were breaks in between. By noontime the whole practice used to be over and the arrangements in the firing range where wound up. Since there was nothing more to be done in the office it was more or less a regular affair that after the practice was over we used to laze around in the firing range for some time while demolishing a few bottles of beer and relaxing. After an hour or so we used to troop back to the unit.

On one such day of practice we finished firing just before noon. The arrangements were wound up and the troops returned to the unit. We were four officers including me and we decided to have a few beers before getting back to the unit. I distinctly remember that it was in the month of August and the weather was really salubrious. We were sitting on a small hillock sipping a beer and indulging in the usual banter of young officers, which normally centered on the ‘villainous and negative attitude’ of the commanding officer and the other senior officers. Then one of us noticed a few vultures circling around in the sky fairly close to the hillock on which we were sitting. It was very obvious that they had seen and/or smelled carrion rotting somewhere in the vicinity and that sooner or later they will descend for their lunch. Since this was not an extraordinary spectacle we never paid more attention to this.

But as they say, alcohol can cause personality changes in people. It seems to have been the case with one of our colleagues who suddenly came up with an idea of shooting down one of these vultures circling high overhead. Although initially the remaining three of us dismissed this, this officer pricked our vanity by challenging us for a game as to who will be the first one to drop one of the circling vultures using our weapons. Suddenly the idea became quite appealing to all of us and we picked up our weapons. All four of us fired aiming at the circling vultures. Even though we did not know whose shot it was but, all of a sudden, one of the birds dropped to the ground. It was an eerie and peculiar sight to see this happening and one had to see it to understand. The bird which was soaring in the thermals with its huge wingspan suddenly folded its a huge wings and started plummeting to the ground. We heard the sound of the bird's body hitting the ground somewhere nearby. Each one of us claimed that it was his shot that dropped the bird. We toasted to the good shot with our beers and soon forgot about the whole matter.

After about 30 minutes or so the guy who had initiated this issue suggested that we go and see where the bird has fallen and also as to what was that animal that was lying dead nearby which attracted these birds of carrion. We trooped in the general line of direction where the bird had fallen. As we neared the place we could smell the stench of rotting carcass that we soon found to be that of a donkey. The bird that one of us had shot was also lying a few meters away from the carcass. We were about to turn away and walk back when the same bright friend of ours asked us to wait. He suggested that we skin the bird and see how it looks like. In the commandos all of us were used to carrying our commando knives every time we went out for various activities. These knives were razor sharp on one side and on the other side had a serrated edge. This gentleman went near the dead bird and, apparently unmindful of the putrid odor, started skinning it using his commando knife. I must hasten to mention here that this gentleman was an expert hunter and was quite used to skinning birds and animals that were his victims. Therefore, he accomplished this task without much of fuss. After taking out the entrails and internal organs and cutting off the feet and the neck what remained looked very similar to a big chicken. The areas around Bakloh had an abundance of jungle fowl and it was not an uncommon practice for many of us to try and bag a few of them for the pot whenever we could. Seeing the skinned version of the vulture, which looked very similar to a large jungle fowl, we decided to take this to the officers' mess. It was more or less a combined decision by all four of us. I was the only one who was married at that time and therefore, was not dining in the officers' mess.

The other three officers dutifully delivered the skinned carcass of the vulture to the cook in the officers' mess. They told him that this was a jungle fowl shot while they were on the firing range for weapons practice. The cook had no reason to disbelieve the statement because as mentioned earlier, it used to be a frequent practice for officers to bring in game birds. He was asked to cook it and serve the dining in officers in the evening. The cook made a curry of this meat and it was served during dinner that day. The three officers who knew what the bird was did not partake of the food giving some excuse or the other. While eating this curry some of the officers mentioned that the meat was very tough and stringy. One or two even mentioned that there was a bit of foul odor coming out of the meat but they discounted it stating that it could have been due to some delay in cooking this bird.

Everything went off well for a couple of days more when it was weekend and as was the custom all officers and ladies assembled on the Sunday morning for breakfast-cum-lunch, fancifully termed “brunch” in the Army. During the conversation one of the officers mentioned that a jungle fowl curry was served a couple of days back for dinner. The three officers who were dining in the mess and who knew the truth about this ‘jungle fowl’ kept silent with a straight face. The commanding officer, who was also present along with his wife, then casually asked me as to who shot this jungle fowl. I could have, perhaps, made up a story and told a lie that it was one of us.  Somehow I did not feel like doing so and told him and others present about what really happened. Most of the ladies present were appalled and started making appropriate noises of disgust accompanied by supporting facial expressions. The commanding officer and the other senior officers were quite tickled by this and started laughing loud. One of the officers who ate this curry at dinner a couple of days before came to me and asked me, “Doc! Tell me what you just know said is not true.” He appeared quite upset about the whole issue. I said that unfortunately all what I told was true and that he had the 'privilege' of eating a vulture made in a curry form. His expression changed for the worse and he excused himself and went to another room in the mess.

We did not notice anything untoward for some time when one of the waiters came running to me to tell me that the officer who had excused himself was vomiting in the bathroom. I, along with a couple of other officers, rushed to the bathroom to find this officer retching and puking his entrails out. He started swearing at all of us in between his vomiting bouts stating that it was grossly unfair and incorrect that he, who belonged to a noble family from Gujarat, was made to eat the flesh of a bird which eats putrefying flesh of dead animals. Our efforts at consoling him and calming him down were not very successful. He continued vomiting to such an extent that I, as the doctor in charge of the unit, had to finally sedate him with tranquilizers to stop his vomiting. He recovered in a couple of days and no one spoke about this issue ever again in the mess. This officer subsequently rose to the rank of Major General and retired after an illustrious career. I met him on a couple of occasions when he came for parachute refresher training at Agra when I was commanding officer of 60 parachute Field Ambulance and he was commanding a parachute battalion. During one of those visits, I invited him for dinner at my place. While the dinner was being served he asked my wife, “Bhabhijee! I hope this time it is proper chicken and mutton being served not what I was duped to eat by this husband of yours in Bakloh years back.” My wife told him that he need not be apprehensive at all about this matter. All three of us had a good laugh at this.

Well, I believe that it is a matter of aesthetics; religious beliefs and perceptions that make us eat, or do not eat, certain types of food, particularly non-vegetarian food. In this officer's case he vomited after a couple of days when he came to know that he had ingested the meat of an abhorrent variety. It was purely a psychological effect because after 48 hours nothing could have been left in his body of whatever was consumed. It also proves that ‘one meat is as good or as bad as another’!

1 comment:

  1. jai hind sir,i have a question ,can doctor who join para sf can be inducted into 6 man squad....like medicaland .like other infantry men....

    ReplyDelete