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Field Marshall KM Cariappa: Coffee with the Commander

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In a tribute to Field Marshall KM Cariappa, who was born 117 years ago on this day, an army wife recalls her first coffee and conversation with the Indian Army’s first and last Commander-in-Chief
He was the first Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army after Independence, and of course, the last as the appointment ceased to exist after him. Field Marshal KM Cariappa shall always remain a legend in the annals of our Indian Army. I hold the small rosewood paper weight with two ivory elephants gleaming white in the centre that he gave to me as a souvenir to remember him by and go back in time.

We saw him for the first time in the ASC Centre (South) Officers’ Mess, Bangalore then, in 1974. He always stayed there when he came from Mercara where he stayed alone on his sprawling estate. He was a very tall and gaunt man with a ramrod stately bearing, bushy moustache and a stern face.

Sometime later, we happened to be touring the South and stayed for one night at Mercara. On an impulse, I asked my husband if we could meet the General in case he was there (he became a Field Marshall later). “Why not?” The result of the phone call found us rushing to dress up and driving in the pouring rain. We had only 40 minutes and he drove in a frenzy looking for landmarks and heaved a sigh of relief as we turned into the driveway of “Roshan Ara”, the General’s villa, with two minutes to spare. Being late would have been an unpardonable sin with unimaginable consequences for the poor Major!

As we got out of the car, a manservant materialized from the porch holding a big umbrella for us and said, “This way, please, Sir. The General is waiting for you.” The General was standing in the verandah. He gripped my husband’s outstretched hand in a firm handshake and smiled at me: “Welcome to my house.” He stepped aside with typical, old-world courtesy to let me enter the room before him. The room was filled with antiques and mementos. A sandlewood chariot drawn by seven horses with figures of Shri Krishna and Arjun in a huge glass case dominated one corner. He poured a drink for my husband from a bottle labeled ‘Especially bottled for General KM Cariappa”, and coffee for me.

The men talked in general and he answered my questions with great care in his gruff voice. At one point, I asked him why didn’t he write his autobiography? His eyes suddenly clouded with pain. He leaned towards me with great intensity and in turn questioned me in his highly Anglicized Hindi: “Meri autobiography? Uddeshy kya hoga? To what purpose?” His bitterness over Indian politics spilled over and he spoke in mixed English and Hindustani: “I had told Nehru long ago, and repeatedly, not to trust the Chinese. I had warned Menon in no uncertain terms. They paid no attention. Bilkul nahi.” He loved the Indian soldier fiercely and grieved over the carnage at the ‘62 war.

Then he shook his head as if to free himself from the unpleasant memories and invited me to sit next to him, “Come, I’ll show you some old photographs.” For me, it was a journey into the not-so-recent past. I remember him holding out an enlargement of himself, King George VI and the Duke of Windsor. “Notice the sloppy George, droopy and unkempt. Now see the Duke. How trimmed and smart he is.”

The difference between the two brothers was really remarkable. I could not stop thinking how Wally Simpson was responsible for altering the entire course of a period of the history of a country.

The glasses were refilled. I was given some more fresh coffee. He put an old 78 RPM record on a still older gramophone. The needle rasped constantly and the words were indistinct. It was a patriotic song and the General wished it to be played in every school during prayer time so that the spirit of nationalism could be imbibed in the children when still young.

We had planned for the protocol, a regulation visit of twenty minutes, but he waved us down every time we tried to get up, till it finally lasted for a hundred and twenty minutes. “By the way, you both are having breakfast with me tomorrow at nine.” It was more of a command delivered as we rose to leave. He did not get up as he sat with his aching leg stretched out in front of him and begged to be excused for his bad manners. In the softly lit room littered with history, the historical figure seemed to have an aura around him as he looked up at us, his stern expression softened by his smile as he bade us good night.

We reached the “Roshan Ara” sharp at nine the next morning. This time I could clearly see the sprawling estate with its tall trees and the huge mansion set in the middle. Once again, the same manservant ushered us in. The General had just finished his bath and had entered the room. Wordlessly, he nodded to us and went to stand in front of the portraits of his mother and father in a silent prayer. Then he moved in front of the tall, silver statue of the Army Jawan standing conspicuously on the mantelpiece. It was a moving prayer to the soldier invoking him to guard his country with courage and dedication. Tears welled up in my eyes as I saw the veteran sentinel of the country, standing immobile, saluting the statue. I was sure, in those moments, General Cariappa saw in front of his mind’s eye not the symbol but columns of disciplined soldiers, standing alive, throbbing with life and doting with adoration upon every word of ‘shabash’ he gave to them.

Then he shook hands with my husband and returned my greetings warmly, talking at the same time as he led us into the dining room. “I pray to my parents, thanking them to have brought me into the world and giving me so much. I thank the jawan for looking after my country and pray to him to do so always.” Once again a feeling of ‘déjà vu’ crept over me, of having stepped into some historical romance, familiar yet intriguing, as he pulled a chair for me to sit next to him. He picked up a bell, more like a gong, standing by his plate. The servant entered the room silently, even before the peels could die down, and wished us. The General commanded in his highly accented Hindi, “Bearer, nashta lao.” I thought how this generation, though patriotic to the core, was seeped in the British ways because of their education in England and constant association and interaction with the British. They even spoke like them.

The General ate his porridge from a huge, floral English bowl, a gift from royalty long ago. It was broken into two and was neatly joined together with araldite. He smiled as he found me looking at it and explained that he was sentimentally attached to it. The idlis were steaming hot and so was the coffee. He invariably talked about the Army, politics a nd philosophy and of Sai Baba of whom he was an ardent devotee. He sent me some papers about him later.

Afterwards he took us on a tour of the house. I still remember the big, brass four-poster in the guest room with twin, magnificent cut-glass Czechoslovakian table lamps on both sides of the bed. He smiled with pleasure when we commented upon their elegance: “Both of you shall stay in this room when you visit me next.”

Once again time flew and we were leaving. The General put his hand in the big pocket of his bushcoat, fished out a handful of cardamoms for me. I thanked him and gave them to my husband to keep them in his pocket. And it was then that he handed over to me the rosewood paperweight with ivory elephants in the center, wrapped in cellophane, “To remember me by, young lady. I have enjoyed talking to you as you are a student of history and it has brought old memories back to me. I thank you.”

He advised us to visit the Cariappa Museum in the town which housed most of his collection during the service.

I folded my hands in greeting. I wanted to say many things to him. I wanted to tell him that men like him brought glory to the country and sustained the nation. But I did not say anything.

Years have passed as I hold the icon in my hands, but I can still see him clearly, standing under the morning sky in which bits of white clouds floated lazily, a tall, ramrod figure, head held high and a hand raised in the final greeting as we drove away.

Field Marshall Cariappa may be no more, but his spirit must be keeping a silent vigil over his beloved country forever.