As the sun sets over the horizon, casting a soft golden glow on the road, they reached the brigade located on top of a small hillock called Chakki Bank beyond Pathankot. They were to be housed in a ‘cottage’, if that’s what the two-room house urgently spruced up for their stay could be called. This was a famous brigade, as its units had earned a great victory in the famous Battle of Basantar during the 1971 war.
One of the heroes was Lt Arun Khetarpal, whose gallant acts had shone through the war and who had gone on to become the youngest officer to be awarded the Param Vir Chakra posthumously. It was perhaps most fitting that years later, Robin felt greatly inspired and drawn to the bravery of this war hero in particular. The Armoured Corps is the arm of the military that goes to war in tanks. Since this was an armoured brigade, it had a large number of tanks and other such vehicles, including a few Centurion tanks that still had deep scars from the war. They had been hit by enemy fire but had miraculously escaped destruction. They, however, were not alone.
Several officers and jawans who had fought the war from the tank units had sustained injuries too and were serving in the brigade. The relationship between the men and their machines had outlived the war and was perhaps deeper than many of the human ones they had built during their lifetimes. Located very close to the Pakistan border, Pathankot was one of the biggest military stations, bustling with activity. Often, massive trucks towing huge artillery guns could be seen moving up the road or practising gun drills. Tanks would trundle by, throwing up clouds of dust and smoke.
On most days, the cantonment itself would be teeming with soldiers in their battle fatigues and armed with rifles, in trucks, jeeps or on foot. Every now and then, the tranquillity would be shattered by a screeching formation of jet fighters—low-flying MiGs—almost touching the rooftops before soaring skywards. They usually took off at dawn from the nearby airbase, where Robin’s uncle was one of the flight commanders. Whenever he was leading, he would make sure to announce it by flying so low that it felt like one could just extend one’s hand and touch the aircraft! The shops in Pathankot were loaded with goods that the soldiers required, like jackets, sweaters and boots. There were many makeshift eateries as well, called dhabas.
In fact, one of them, Frontier Dhaba, was quite popular with the officers and their families because of its tasty fare, especially the chicken and meat dishes. Thousands of trucks passed through the town every day, carrying all kinds of stores, including grains, steel bars, metal sheets, paint and petrol to the remote towns of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, and returned loaded with apples and other fruits, in addition to the wooden logs from orchards and forests far away.
The national highway was sandwiched between the foothills and the border—at some places, the border was so close that, with a little help from the army, one could see the Pakistani posts and watchtowers. It was also on the route to Vaishno Devi, Amarnath and other temples, as well as to holiday destinations in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Fortunately, the residence of the Thapars was away from the busy town, in a well-laid-out military station on top of Chakki Bank. The view was majestic from their little abode.
The snow-clad Dhauladhar range on the horizon and the numerous pine-covered hill slopes were straight out of a picture postcard. The colour of the sky was a clear blue, the kind of hue only seen in the hills. Right in front was a kinnow orchard on a gently dipping slope, which went down to the almost-dry riverbed cutting across the road to the hill station of Dalhousie. The family had settled in well in their two-room cosy cottage next to the gardens of the officers’ mess. One lazy evening, as Virender was enjoying a cup of tea sitting next to a window in his house, he noticed some tank transporters. They were unloading the main battle tanks known as ‘Vijayanta’ (also known as Vijyant). It was the first indigenous tank of the Indian Army and so had an appropriate name, which meant ‘victory in the end’ or ‘end with victory’. As he was admiring the beautiful machines, the name touched a chord within him. It didn’t just have a certain ring to it, but the meaning also beautifully captured all that a parent could hope for his firstborn.
Excited by the idea, he immediately suggested it to his wife, asking for her opinion. Tripta, too, liked the name. It fit perfectly, and so no time was wasted in going through the rituals of a naming ceremony. Hence, the young and playful Robin, to the joy (and relief, for having found a name they both liked) of his parents, became Vijyant Thapar. Little did they know that their decision would turn prophetic a few years later when a young Vijyant would join a unit whose motto would be ‘Forever Victorious’. Life in the cantonment was hectic. Inspections, visits, training sessions, regimental functions, get-togethers, parties and picnics kept everyone busy.
Madhopur Headworks on the Ravi River, Pong Dam, Kajiar and Palampur, with hills covered with pine trees, were tremendous places for a break. Sadly, progress had bypassed Pathankot and it seemed time stood still in this ancient town. It was disorderly and unkempt. The main streets, courts and bus stands were all shabby, noisy and dusty. They were crowded with tractors, vehicles of all types and human beings. It was hard to see how it functioned at all. There was utter disregard for rules and authority. But the situation had changed over the past few months. Emergency had been declared even before the Thapars had shifted to Pathankot.
As a result, the traffic became orderly and the streets emptier. Banks, the railway department, courts and public offices began to function more efficiently. But soon after, the entire country underwent political upheaval. Life in the cantonment, however, was relatively unaffected by these events. Until one day, most unexpectedly, Virender received his posting order to his parent unit, which was deployed in counter-insurgency operations in another corner of India. They had barely settled down when he was asked to move to Nagaland. Since Robin was barely a year old and Nagaland was not a family station, it was decided that Tripta and Robin would move to Shimla, her ancestral home, while Virender would shift to Paphima (near Kohima). This was when the family faced their first separation, which was to become a regular feature later.
Once the summer capital of India, Shimla was beautiful, with its magnificent mansions, villas, soaring deodar trees, gardens and lovely weather. Tara Cottage, where Robin and Tripta lived, belonged to her sister and was a huge colonial mansion surrounded by mighty pine trees. Soon Robin started taking his first faltering steps, and it was clear that he was an outdoorsy child who enjoyed seeing and exploring all that nature had to offer much more than being cooped up inside. Growing up in one cantonment after the other didn’t just keep that interest alive, but also encouraged him to keep going after new adventures. This was a time before mobile phones. Even landlines that had the facility to make STD calls were a luxury. So, just like every other family living separately, Virender and Tripta would write letters to each other. These would take several days to reach due to the remoteness of Virender’s location.
Around this time, fortunately for the Thapars, a new rule was issued for personnel posted in Nagaland. Families could now join the officers for a period of three months. As Robin was now ten months old, Tripta decided to go. They took a flight first to Calcutta (now Kolkata). On his maiden flight, Robin was a source of entertainment for the passengers and hostesses. By the time they landed, he, too, had become so enamoured by the plane that he refused to get down and ran back to the last seat. He had to be chased by the air hostess, who caught him and gently put him down on the tarmac. They then took a connecting flight to Jorhat, in Assam, accompanied by a battalion officer.
Thereafter, a jeep took them to Tuensang in Nagaland. When they reached, Robin ran into his father’s open arms. The joy of the journey paled in comparison. Nagaland was at that time a land of mystic beauty in the isolated North-east. It is still full of jungles and bamboo groves, with the loveliest orchids around, which are also infested with leeches. Once, the ever-curious Robin pointed at a flower and asked for its name. Upon learning that it was an ‘orchid’, he started calling every flower he laid his eyes on ‘orchid’.
The state and the areas across the border with Burma were inhabited by various warrior tribes. There were thirty-seven tribes, distinguished by their signature attire—the shawl. Well known among them were the Konyak, the Sema, the Angami, the Lotha, the Ao and the Tangkhul, among others. Kohima, of course, still enjoys international recognition as the advancing Japanese armies stopped here after a fierce battle in World War II. The cemetery here commemorates the soldiers who were killed in the war. A rock face has these famous words inscribed on it:
When you go home, tell them of us and say—for your tomorrow, we gave our today.
The family was given a room in the officers’ mess. The initial permission for their stay for three months was extended by another three on compassionate grounds, which was followed by another month until the original order was forgotten altogether. However, their luck ran out at some point, and they had to move out to the nearby family station of Jorhat, where they were given a makeshift accommodation. A small building was refurbished for them. They would come over to stay in the mess occasionally. A ‘field house’ was set up with some help from the unit.
Some pots, pans, plates and cutlery, curtains and basic furniture were provided. Ever since they had got married, Tripta and Virender had to rough it out in such makeshift homes to be together. Many officers’ families had to do the same. Hence, they chose to be positive, never complained, and made the best of their stay. Virender was mostly busy with operational matters, so Tripta made friends with their neighbours, a Sangma couple. Taking a leaf out of his mother’s book, Robin made friends as well, albeit with a local puppy and rooster, which had been spared the knife because of its unusually beautiful feathers. When he got bored of his friends, he would kick around a football for hours.
To the annoyance of his mother, Robin would wake up early in the morning. So, he had to be dressed and fed and sent out with a jawan, who would gladly take him to play. They would take a leisurely round of the headquarters, exchanging greetings with the soldiers they met. Then they would go to the cookhouse, where, more often than not, the cook would be frying steaming-hot puris for breakfast for the personnel. One puri would be given to Robin, which he would nibble on till he met his dog, who would happily consume the rest. Occasionally, they would stroll up to the nearby short range, where troops would be firing rifles. In the evening, the officers and the ladies would get together for a round of rummy and drinks before dinner. The record player would play songs by the Carpenters and other artistes.
Sometimes, one of the officers, especially young Capt Clement, would lift little Robin and say, ‘That’s my boy!’, making him giggle. In the mornings, the sight of the low-flying Dakotas going for supply drops to far-off posts would fascinate him. One day, he looked skywards and started yelling, ‘Aeloplane, aeloplane!’ To the surprise and slight disappointment of his parents, Robin’s first word was neither ‘mama’ nor ‘papa’, it was ‘aeloplane’!
In these open and enchanting surroundings, a blissful year went by quickly. On Robin’s first birthday, the three of them watched some brilliant military fireworks near the village of Changki. Robin spent most of his infant years amid soldiers and guns, and it was evident that he liked it all. In the meantime, his father was promoted and ordered to command a unit from a different regiment. He was heartbroken. Like any infantry officer, he wanted to command the unit in which he had been commissioned.
It is a sentiment peculiar to infantry officers, who, as they say, are born in the regiment and are part of it till they die. It’s like a close-knit family. But orders were orders. Virender moved out to take over his battalion, which turned out to be an exciting, satisfying and challenging experience. This time the family moved together and reached Barrackpore in West Bengal, where he took over the unit as the commanding officer.