From Sappier to Surveyor

Ashok Ogra
Major Gen Pran Koul (retd) is a name that is spoken with great admiration and respect by military engineers and surveyors – both in India and abroad.
While he has not participated either in anti-insurgency operations or in actual war, Gen Koul served the nation in mapping and defining the international borders that our soldiers defend. And that indeed is not an easy task considering that we share land border with China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar and our maritime coastline stretches from Arabian Sea to Indian Ocean and into Bay of Bengal.
During his long distinguished career spanning 40 years, Gen Koul has served in almost all parts of India including insurgency infected North East and was member of one of the earlier Indian expeditions to Antarctica.
He has lived his personal and professional life with tremendous dignity and satisfaction. Modest to the core, achievements sit lightly on his shoulders.
He has seen it all and, therefore, when he decided to pen his memoirs ‘The Silence Speaks’ it was bound to make for absorbing reading.
The book is about his parents and other family elders whom he adored; about his teachers to whom he remains deeply indebted for life; it is about his colleagues who admired his commitment and dedication. Above all it is about people he has met and places that he has visited.
Born in a middle class family of teachers in Sopore, Pran Koul is eternally grateful to his elders for instilling in him values that he continues to live up to even today. Values that got further honed while serving in Army.
Generally, autobiographers are given to self-praise and invariably slide into over glorification of one’s contribution. But Gen Koul stays away from that and lets people, incidents and events speak as honestly as possible. His strength lies in bringing people and landscapes to life in flashes of telling detail.
He remembers almost everything that crossed his life’s journey – his school days in Sopore to Srinagar where he earned degree in engineering from REC to Doon Valley where he attended IMA to be a Gentleman Cadet to various places across the country while working in the Survey General of India.
He barely manages to control his emotions when recalling the good old days of our valley: “The society we lived in was well-knit with a cluster of Muslim neighbors on one side and Hindus on the other. Our immediate Muslim neighbors were very fond of me. We lived cordially and shared moments of joy and sorrow together.
He further adds: “This culture of Kashmiriyat has often been threatened. During the decades that the valley was under Afghan rule, its very concept was buried deep underground. During this period Kashmiri Hindus were subjected to unthinkable atrocities, widely depicted by the nineteenth century British Historian Sir Walter R. Lawrence, Tyndale Bisco’ and various others in their writings.”
He minces no words in blaming Pakistan and its handlers in Kashmir for driving out thousands of KPs out of their homes in 1990. His own brother-in-law, Sh. A.K. Raina, Deputy Director, Food and Civil Supplies – Government of Jammu and Kashmir, was killed by terrorists in office.
Notwithstanding the scars of that tragedy he harbors no ill will against anybody and continues longing for his home: “Even today, whenever I have childhood dreams, I wander through the streets of Sopore only to wake up with an acute hangover. The pangs of separation of my birthplace are so intense in my subconscious mind that I am convinced they must have affected my brain, in some way, slowly but steadily”.
The book sheds light on his character and on his qualities of head and heart.
From childhood Pran Koul wanted to don the Army uniform. However, dejection awaited him as he was declared medically unfit by Service Selection Board.
But he decided not to give up so easily: “I was temporarily rejected and asked to undergo a minor surgery for removal of the DNS (Deviated Nasal Symptom), while the other two were declared fit. I had to report to the Medical Board at Bhopal MH after undergoing the surgery within the specified time…… I rushed home. My maternal uncle, SH. T. N. Ticku knew the doctors in Srinagar Hospital very well and got Dr. Abdul Ahad, one of the best ENT specialists of Srinagar Medical College, to perform my operation.”
Post operation he was declared fit to join the army and after completing his training at Indian Military Academy he joined ‘Bombay Sapper’ Regiment.
“I was allotted Platoon III of ‘Alamein Company’ by the CO who asked me to report to the Administrative Office of the Academy next morning. I was not disturbed the first day, thanks to the mouth organ. I made some friends and one of my immediate neighbours was Gentleman Cadet Pradeep Tambay, who is incidentally the younger brother of Flight Lieutenant Vijay Vasant Tambay, the Fighter Pilot whose aircraft, Sukhoi-7, was shot down at Sialkot, Pakistan in the 1971 Indo Pak War. His wife, Ms. Damayanti Tambay, claims that FIt Lt Tambay was captured by the Pakistani Army in 1971 after the crash and is alive.”
The book is a straightforward story. Memory is the seed of his narrative. However, there are passages when we do get to read endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other. This couplet by Zauq which his father would generally sing sums up his approach to life:
‘Laayi hayaat aaye kaza le chali Chafe
Apni khushi se aaye na apni khushi Chafe’
(We are brought to this world by life while death comes
and takes us away,
Neither we come on our own will nor do we go back
from here out of our own choice)
Taking leave from his Regiment to join the Survey General of India was one decision that seemed to have made him emotional: “The train arrived and I was garlanded by the officers and men. A sense of regret dawned on me that I would never get to serve with them again as after successful completion of the course I would be required to converge towards specialized field of ‘Surveying and Mapping’. With a final whistle, the train took me away from my regiment, never to return.”
Reading this book one gets a glimpse of what all goes in defining and demarcating international boundaries. He retired as Additional Surveyor General of India in the rank of a two star general. The Survey General of India is a department of Science & Technology and is assigned the role as nation’s principal Mapping Agency and bears a special responsibility to ensure that the country’s domain is explored and mapped suitably, provide base maps for integrated development and ensure all resources contribute to the progress, prosperity and security of our country.
Gen Koul elaborates: “It is worthwhile to understand that a boundary issue, however petty, has the tendency to be influenced by politics, snowballing into a serious issue, fueled by hype that surrounds it.
This subsequently attracts the emotions of the public, which further complicates the issue and comes in the way of a logical solution.”
Explaining the dispute over Sir Creek he writes that it is over an “estuary, about 96 Kilometers (60 miles) long, which flows into the Arabian Sea. It cuts across the marshy lands of the ‘Rann of Kutch’ region in the Indian State of Gujarat and the Sindh province of Pakistan. The Creek is named after the British representative and is locally called ‘Bann Ganga.”
That is what Gen Koul was and is: honest, truthful, un-pretentious- a man of great ideals and values and high thinking.
‘The Silence Speaks’ is published by Partridge (Penguin Group), and modestly prized at Rs.550. One wishes the author had used colour photos for better resolution.
(The reviewer is a noted management & media professional /educator. He was Regional Director,
Discovery Channel ( South Asia)