Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Veteran)
My relationship with Jammu goes back almost 60 years. What can humans remember from the time they are aged all of three years. My family and friends laugh at my ability to recall details of my days when I was a mere infant but there is nothing I can do about that because pictures of the past are stuck firmly in the mind. Of Jammu, there are just too many.
There was no railway from Pathankot to Jammu then, in 1955-56. My earliest memory is of the journey from the Army transit camp at Pathankot with my parents, cuddled in my mother’s warm lap and seated at the back of an Army 7 ton vehicle. It was raining and the water in the numerous nalas was overflowing. Jammu was a sparsely populated city but we were headed to one of the satellite military locations at Damana where my father was being posted as Brigade Major (BM) with the famous Brigadier (later Lt Gen) Harbaksh Singh (of 1965 fame). Damana was located with the Ranbir Singh Pura canal next to it. Our house was virtually on the canal; a mud baked, thatched house with no power but a huge compound. My elder brother was admitted to the Presentation Convent. It was the best school and all fauji children studied there; admission was guaranteed. I was too small and perhaps too unintelligent to be given a chance at education. So I whiled away my time in my own world. The RS Pura canal was our home’s refrigerator because its water was ice cool at most times. My mother would put milk bottles, vegetables and even butter in a plastic cover and then place it in a jute sack (probably a sand bag) and have Inder Singh, my father’s loyal World War II buddy, tether the sack to a stump on the bank and immerse the sack into the water. The more ingenuous was my father’s technique of cooling his beer bottles,in a sack with a stone attached to it because cool water would flow at the bottom of the current in the canal. Once in a while the canal would be shut down for maintenance I suppose and those were bad days in our house because our provisions were not cool enough and my father’s weekend beer with his headquarters mates was incomplete.
How did children get transported to school in those days? The Army was poor in funds so there were no school buses authorized. The kids from Damana used to go by ‘tanga’ (the horse drawn little buggy that the new generation knows nothing about). I am not even sure what the distance was but there were about 10 kids in my brother’s tanga and Ram Singh the tanga man would tie them up because they all fell asleep while going and coming to/fro. Between Damana and Jammu was a huge khud and the tanga had to negotiate the down slope very carefully. I have tried searching for that khud or depressed road today but never succeeded. Even once in three months outings in Jammu were by tanga, with my parents. A very famous Kwality restaurant existed somewhere near Jewel theatre, I think. I recall that the best ice cream served anywhere in India could be found at Jammu Kwality; a particular ice cream called ‘My Fair Lady” was a hit with kids and adults.
The iron bridge over the Tawi River was perhaps the only connection between the segments of the city. Pedestrians were not permitted on the bridge and had to walk on a most dangerous pedestrian walkway on both sides and the path was barely 12 inches or so. I was mortally scared of this walk and clung to my mother as I saw the water of the Tawi swirling below.
It was hot as hell at Damana and there was no power. We did not even have a petromax but for my father’s homework (BMs are very busy people) there was a battery powered light; the battery was recharged every two days. We sat in the compound cooled by the evening ‘chhirkao’, or sprinkling of water on the parched earth; all seating was on ‘sarkandamundhas’. At night we had cobras that fought with each other on the tarpaulin ceiling beneath the ‘chhappar’ of the roof of our four room hut. One day a cobra fell into the room where I slept with my parents. I was petrified by snakes, then.
In 1957, my father’s tenure as Brigade Major was over but luckily his unit First Garhwalis, moved to Jammu. We had our shortest move ever, from Damana to Jammu. The GOC of the Division I learnt much later was first Maj Gen PP Kumaramangalam and then Maj Gen SHFHJ Manekshaw. I never knew that the Tiger Div was such a high profile one which produced two successive Chiefs and later a third in Gen Krishna Rao. We were now staying somewhere near the Tawi bridge and the river flowed about a kilometer away from the house. We were in luxury as the house had cement walls and asbestos roof. Evenings were spent on shikar with my father who would walk us a distance and shoot ‘Tilyar’, a delectable table bird. Shikar was not banned then and all good faujis had BSA 12 bore guns. Once in a while a picnic was organized by the unit. The most common spot was the Akhnoor bridge; the same iron bridge which was the objective of the Pakistani armour in 1965. I have been able to discover the exact spot of these picnics during visits to Akhnur in the recent past.
The Army had many sports competitions in those days and for us children there was no better occasion for entertainment and to munch some nice Army snacks besides sipping ice cold Vimto and Orangeade made by Army units. No television, no video games and no internet, we did more roaming around in the open air. In a particular event, the Division athletics (probably at the stadium of the Tiger Division), I got away from my mother’s gaze and decided to take a walk. No time and space restricted my mind so I walked and walked, past parked vehicles and troops. I was told later that I was missing for over two hours by the time I was found and restored to my mother.
Jammu being close to the border has always been vulnerable to espionage activities. I was exposed to the needs of security very early in life because every evening the night password would be conveyed by the Havaldar Major to Inder Singh in whispers and then to my father in whispers again, lest some Pakistani spy gets to know it. It fascinated me that they all spoke in hushed tones at this particular time in the evening. So I also joined in conveying things in whispers. That was the beginning of my security training.
My first ever trip to Kashmir was also undertaken at this time, probably in a JKSRTC bus and it met with an accident enroute, nothing too serious though. I distinctly remember the dripping roof of the Jawahar tunnel. Adoos was the favorite for the most delectable cold coffee and my parents could not get enough of Suffering Moses.
When it was pack up time in 1959, after almost four continuous years in the City of Temples, none of us were happy to leave. Jammu had grown on us and we had grown used to Jammu. Ram Singh’s ‘tanga’, Kwality’s ice creams, Presentation Convent’s annual days, Division sports of the Tiger Division, the RS Pura Canal (our ever present refrigerator), long journeys by bus and back of Army trucks; all this is a maze of memories which gives Jammu a special place in my heart and the head.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Veteran)