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Country’s contemporary history told through one man’s story

NewsCountry’s contemporary history told through one man’s story

What doesn’t the book dwell upon? We are acquainted with tribals and politicians, with prime ministers, generals, air marshals and admirals and of course school masters such as Guru, KK, RP and R.D. Singh.


New Delhi: Shiv Kunal Verma entered the hallowed premises of the Doon School in January 1972, wearing a pair of olive-green trousers and was promptly stopped by “Uppal Surd”, who quizzed him about the colour of his trousers. Kunal proudly replied they were his father’s which had been cut up by his mother. With the collective wisdom and the power of deduction that had been honed in Uppal’s case over the previous four years, this senior from Hyderabad House promptly said, “Your Pop is in the Army?” and bestowed on Shiv Kunal the sobriquet “Fauji”.
The name stuck and his life has taken many an interesting turn since then; from initially being with Tiger Tops in Ladakh and Nepal to working as a journalist with India Today and the Associated Press, to subsequently becoming an acclaimed filmmaker, who shot the superbly crafted Salt of the Earth on the Indian Air Force to being a celebrated military historian and author. His latest offering ‘Industani: Six Degrees of Separation’, now breaks new ground and is undoubtedly a classic and in a class all by itself.
From the moment one flips open the book, Shiv Kunal takes you on a mesmerizing ride through various events in his life, both professional and personal. There is no doubt that he has had a mastery over words which was evident when he was selected to edit the Fag magazine while still a “B Former” (Grade IX) in Doon School. The book gives a ringside view into some critical events that have shaped the destiny of the country, and invariably the narrative is set against the breath-taking expanse of a diverse landscape, be it in the streets of Delhi to mountain and jungle trails, or the flora and fauna of our country. The book transports the reader to the most exotic locations describing them with in their full spectrum of colours; from the depths of Lakshadweep and Andamans to the icy heights of Ladakh and Kanchenjunga, from the mighty Brahmaputra as it enters India in Arunachal Pradesh to the deserts of Jaisalmer. The entire spectrum of the book is like a rich tapestry.
What doesn’t the book dwell upon? We are acquainted with tribals and politicians, with prime ministers, generals, air marshals and admirals and of course school masters such as Guru, KK, RP and R.D. Singh who says to him, “No matter what the provocation, you never let your side down”, words which not only influence but define Shiv Kunal’s actions in later life. The book is rich in colour, context and anecdotes. There is always a connection and doors constantly open, giving the reader an insight which has perhaps never been exposed before.
The book is written in three parts; Book-I covers his early years; the family, his education, exploring Nepal and Ladakh with Tiger Tops and his stint as a journalist. Book-II takes the reader into the world of Project Tiger, the filming of the JRD Tata-sponsored Salt of The Earth and the Naval films, while Book-III dwells on the period when he made Aakash Yodha, Standard Bearers (the film on the National Defence Academy), Making of a Warrior (Indian Military Academy) and then the subsequent switching of tracks as he produced the outstanding magnum opus, the Northeast Triology and his subsequent foray into Value Education while also taking military history to schools through the seminal annual Welham Boys’ Military History Seminar.
Being an Army child, Shiv Kunal, like the rest of us, with his family simply follows the drum: life revolves around the father’s various peace-tenures, mainly revolving around Wellington in the Nilgiris to Mhow in Central India. Since both sets of grandparents were in Dehradun, all field area postings see the family in the Doon Valley where apart from the Doon School, he initially studied at St Joseph’s Academy. A year is spent with the US Army at Fort Benning in Georgia, and once Shiv Kunal steps into the adult world, it is a happy coincidence his father is also commanding a brigade in Ladakh and then a division in Jammu. The late General Ashok Kalyan Verma was commissioned into 2 Rajput and later commanded 18 Rajput during the 1971 War with distinction, winning the Battle Honour for Akhaura and taking the bridge in the all-important Battle of Ashuganj. He was also the Colonel of the Rajput Regiment, and no wonder then names like Colonel Brahmand Awasty, General Ravi Eipe, General Thomas Matthew, General Milan Naidu, General V.K. Singh and General K.H. Singh are all part of the narrative at some point of time or the other.
The personal aspect of the book only serves to set the backdrop of this superbly crafted book. For millennials, who now form a major part of our population, Shiv Kunal’s life serves as a major lesson in the country’s history since the early 1980s; while trekking in Padam in Ladakh in 1981, he comes across a French tour operator who was carrying two US Air Force maps which he exchanged for information on how to traverse the Umasi La pass that had been crossed the previous day by Kunal. The map of Jammu & Kashmir had USAF markings and “had drawn a straight line from Chalunka (later Point NJ 9842) to KK Pass, effectively placing the entire Siachen glacier in Pakistan’s control”. He had shown these maps to his father, who was commanding the brigade at Kiari and this set in motion “the race to occupy Siachen” as it corroborated an earlier tourist map, which had been obtained by Colonel Narender “Bull” Kumar from a German rafting expedition. Siachen, of course, then again reappears in the almost book three decades later, but then this is a review, not a spoiler.
With his unbridled passion for wildlife conservation, Kunal talks about his photo feature for India Today in November 1983 about how “Srinagar had become the biggest chink in the fight against the poaching of animals”. Due to J&K’s special status, the Indian Wildlife (Preservation) Act of 1972 had bypassed the state; “pressure was also put to exempt the state from treaties such as CITES. The scale of killings were mind boggling and methods barbaric,” he wrote then. Mrs Indira Gandhi, after reading the story called him to her office to brief her personally and told him, “I’ll do what I can, but you’ve done great service to your country.”
Given Shiv Kunal’s understanding of military matters (he is the author of 1962: The War That Wasn’t and 1965: A Western Sunrise) and his involvement in the Punjab in the mid-1980s, his opinion carries weightage, he calls “Operation Blue Star” a “botched up operation and a disastrous exercise in planning right from the word go”. He writes that, “Lieutenant General Sundarji had “blatantly taken a stance contrary to that of his own boss and DGMO and told Indira Gandhi that he would clear up the complex in a few hours if she ordered him to do so. The moment General Sundarji pulled the rug from under the COAS’s feet, military logic had been compromised and each subsequent decision would be guided by political rather than military compulsions.”
One of his notable assignments with AP was covering the Sikh riots in Delhi, following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, which is covered in graphic detail: “the burning men inside the cabin made no move to escape and I realised that not only were they dead, but their skulls were showing, the hair and the skin having been peeled off. It was gruesome.”
He recalls visiting Rashtrapati Bhawan and meeting the ADC to the President, Lieutenant Benu Jamwal from the Navy and a childhood friend of his since their parents were posted in Staff College, Wellington. Benu’s father General J.S. Jamwal was the GOC, Delhi Area and even though Shiv Kunal had documented advance warning about the planned Trilokpuri killings, the general refused to take action, saying bluntly: “There are no troops in Delhi under my command.”
The Bhopal gas tragedy was a turning point in his life, for his disillusionment with the way the media sensationalized things came to the fore repeatedly. He remembers and writes about things in graphic detail: “the terrain ahead looked like it was covered with about two or three inches of snow. Even the couple of trees and shrubs were covered with white powder.” There was an eerie silence. That was the day Raghu Rai had taken one of the most haunting images of the tragedy, “where the half buried face of a young girl was visible before she was fully covered”. The unknown girl with her eyes wide open in eternal sleep would define the tragedy forever.
They are endless moments, perhaps the one that will make most readers smile relates to the legendary master, Mr Gurdial Singh who taught geography. Striding past the tennis courts in 1985 during the Doon School Golden Jubilee Celebrations, he was being chased by a whole lot of reporters with tape recorders and mikes in hand. “Catching up, they asked him the million dollar question: ‘Sir, you have taught Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Piloo Modi, Dinesh Singh… What was the common factor that defined them in school?’ Guru had taken his time before answering: ‘Well… well… they were all duffers’ before he majestically strode off.”
Industani holds the reader in a vice like grip from the very beginning till the end, and the story is incredible. Magic realism, a style of writing which paints a realistic view of the world while also adding magical elements was earlier confined to fiction, but Fauji’s book, though in the genre of non-fiction, has clearly changed the frame of reference. For the younger generation, most of whom as I said are today millennials, this is a remarkable narrative of the country’s contemporary history even if it is essentially one man’s story.

Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd) is a retired Army officer.

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