THE GLASS EATERS
Paratroopers and Special Forces personnel all over the world are notorious for their idiosyncratic behavior and extreme unpredictability. This, coupled with extraordinary physical fitness, esprit de corps and a no-nonsense approach to every problem make them stand out from the rest of the Armed Forces. In the Indian Army also this dictum applies. The system encourages this kind of individualistic, and sometimes even aberrant, behavior especially among officers of the airborne and Special Forces units. Perhaps these become the bedrock of the operational efficiency of these elite units because these foster a self-image in the officers that they are something different from the rest of the Armed Forces. Such a feeling of superiority is vital for success in the kind of difficult operations wherein such personnel are employed.
Even amongst these specialized personnel there is a bit of class differentiation between regular paratroopers and Special Forces soldiers who are also fully trained paratroopers in addition to other specific training peculiar to their vocation. So it is but natural that Special Forces troopers consider themselves to be at the top of the food chain. In the rigid hierarchical pecking order of the Army these troopers were at the apex.
It was with great trepidation and apprehension that I joined 9 Parachute Commando Battalion as RMO in the early 1970s. I was not even a paratrooper at that time. It was imperative that I had to successfully complete one month's probation to be accepted in to the battalion. This probation was, and is, a mandatory requirement before anyone who has so volunteered is accepted into the fold of airborne troops. As mentioned earlier the special forces boys considered themselves, and rightly so, to be something more than the regular paratroopers. And here I was who had to first become a paratrooper and then hope to become a commando. So the going was really tough and it was made tougher by the superior attitude displayed by officers in the unit. The rigors and struggles and travails that I had to undergo to pass this probation and later on complete the ‘commando course’ will form the pith of another piece of written work. Therefore, I leave it for that.
Soon, I did complete my probation although I am sure that in many of the physical tests I might have looked quite ridiculous in the eyes of my probation officer who used to be all the time supervising my activities with an eagle eye. Granting of the maroon beret, which is the trademark of paratroopers all over the world, followed this. I was then dispatched to Agra for the initial training and jumps. When I returned back I had to undergo a severe commando course of 40 days duration. By this time I was physically quite hardened and was as good or as bad as any other young officer in the unit. I was also legitimately quite proud and excited that I have passed the rigorous tests and have now become a qualified Special Forces commando. It was only much later that I realized that I was the first doctor to be so trained in the Indian Army.
I was officially accepted into the unit in a small ceremony held in the office of the commanding officer. And I was told that my formal dining in in the officers' mess would soon be conducted. Sure enough I was given the official invitation to attend my dining in party in the officers' mess along with my wife. It was early March and the hilly cantonment of Bakloh where we were located was quite nippy in the evenings. Being a formal officers' mess function we had to don our winter mess dress, which is called in the army as ‘the blue patrols’ because of the navy blue color of the tunic. By the time my wife and I arrived at the mess as the guests of honor for that evening all other officers and ladies including the commanding officer and his wife were already present in the officers' mess. We were received with due courtesy and escorted to the anteroom. The commanding officer was all grace personified. I was asked as to what I would prefer to drink. In those days, rum was not served in officers' mess. And even though Scotch whiskey was becoming more and more difficult to obtain, that was the drink of choice during dining in of officers. Therefore, when I was asked my preference of a drink I said that I would have a scotch and soda. This was promptly brought to me and the commanding officer led the toast to felicitate me on my successful induction into the Special Forces.
The peculiar traditions of the Indian Army, most of which have been taken from the British Army, entailed that the officer who is being dined in was a guest in his own mess for that evening. Hence it was mandatory that the other officers should look after him and his wife during that evening. Since I was the guest of honor for that evening I expected that once I had finished my first drink it would be refilled expeditiously. But even after a few minutes of my finishing the first Scotch and soda, which was offered to me I found no one taking any initiative to refill my glass. After waiting for a few more minutes I sauntered across to the bar where most of my fellow junior officers had congregated. They were all enjoying themselves and none of them cared to ask me whether I needed another drink. And I was not supposed to ask the barman to refill my glass because, as mentioned earlier, I was the guest of honor that evening and not a member of the mess. I was getting quite perplexed and a bit angry when the second-in-command and the commanding officer also joined us in the bar. I then told the commanding officer,
“Sir, why am I not being offered a second drink?”
“But Kenny, you've not finished your drink. How can we pour another one when you are not finished.”
I looked at my glass once again and found that it was empty and bone dry. I held it up to the commanding officer and said,
“Sir, this glass is empty.”
He had a look, took the glass away from me and showed it to the second-in-command. The second-in-command then told me that the glass was not empty. I was getting more confused and was starting to doubt whether even the first drink given to me was spiked and that I was seeing things. I did not have to ponder about it much because the second-in-command said,
“Yes Kenny, I agree there is no drink in the glass but there is the glass. You have to do justice to that!”
I was about to ask him what he meant by that when without much ado he promptly broke the rim of the glass he was holding in his hand and started chewing the broken piece of glass. I was aghast and my jaw dropped. As if on cue all other officers but the commanding officer started doing the same. They seemed to be apparently enjoying this. I cannot fully describe what my feelings were at that time. I was petrified with the prospect of chewing the glass because, as a doctor, I was fully aware of the dangerous consequences of even a small spicule of glass piercing through the intestines which could lead onto dangerous if not fatal peritonitis. I decided not to do this and told the second-in-command,
“I'm sorry Sir, but this is madness. You guys don't know the complications that can happen if even one small piece of glass gets through to your intestines. I don't think I'll be able to do this.”
“Well Kenny, you cannot be dined in unless you follow our example. So, go ahead. Nothing will happen to you. After all don't you know that glass is essentially made of sand? Don't bother. Break a piece of the glass in your hand, chew it and swallow it down with some whiskey.”
I do not know what became of me at that time because I decided that having come thus far and having endured nearly unimaginable physical stress over the previous five months, I was not going to be denied the final formal entry into the special forces just because I was afraid to eat glass. So, with grim resolve I bit down on the rim of the glass I was holding in my hand. To my unpleasant surprise I found that it was extremely difficult to break the rim of the glass. So I used more force and finally the glass broke. But unfortunately the sharp broken edge did not show any mercy to my upper lip. It was cut at two places fairly deep and blood started flowing out of the cuts. By now I was far too gone into the exercise for me to worry about anything. I had the broken piece of glass in my mouth and started chewing it for all I was worth. The mess waiter and some officers thrust a few napkins into my face while I was chewing.
All the time vividly remembering the complications of a piece of glass entering my intestines, I chewed and chewed till the time my jaw muscles started aching. By that time the piece of glass in my mouth was pulverized into sand that was giving a tingling sensation to my teeth. The glass I was holding in my hand and from which I had taken this bite was removed and a new glass full of scotch and soda was thrust into my hand. Gratefully I took a deep swallow and unmindful of the severe pain caused by the alcohol touching the raw areas of my cut upper lip, twirled the liquid in my mouth and gulped it down. To be honest it basically tasted of my blood mixed with the sandy residue of the glass piece. The moment I did this there was a big shout from the officers and each one started congratulating me beginning with the commanding officer. I was then escorted back to the anteroom where all ladies were sitting. I can never forget the look of utter disbelief and consternation of my wife seeing my dripping blood from the lips yet laughing away along with the other officers. Later on many times she told me that it was a horrifying scene for her. I was then asked to perform the mandatory six ‘Para Rolls' that were taught to us at the Parachute Training School. Once I did this on the large carpet of the anteroom in front of all the ladies and officers, my induction to the Special Forces was full and complete.
I never indulged in this horrifying activity of glass eating ever again in my life. But surprises never stop. Years later, I was witness to another such glass eating episode in another special forces battalion in which some ladies also participated. I do not know whether such customs are still extant in the Special Forces battalions. Maybe this was caused by the extreme desire to be someone totally different than others. I for one have to only close my eyes to experience the taste of blood, sand, and whiskey, which was a mixture I swallowed on a cold evening in Bakloh. Of course, now I reminisce about this incident with a bit of pride. Perhaps, that pride is well deserved!