I was commissioned into the 4th Battalion (The Prince of Wale’s Own) The Baluch (as it was then spelt) Regiment on the May 6, 1966, from 36th PMA, the last Long Course to pass out of the Pakistan Military Academy before the several short courses also known as ‘Dhol Sipaya’ courses after one of Madam Nur Jehan’s great and inspiring songs that she sang for our soldiers during the ’65 war with India.
The battalion was still in the FDLs in Sialkot, in the Philora Wada and Philora Nikka villages, a few miles, and due North from the cantonment, and I arrived there on the May 16 after ten days joining time, in the Duty Dodge, picked up by the Senior Subaltern, Lieutenant Khurshid Akhtar Sabri, now passed on (RIP).
My first introduction to Azam Ali who was to be my batman for the next six years took place as I was conducted to my 180-Pounder tent which contained a chair, a table, and one charpoy. He came to attention as only Azam Ali could do, gave me a vast smile and executed the worst salute I had ever seen! I asked him his name and he answered ‘Saab, No 2436392, Sipahi Ajam Ali’. Yes, ‘Ajam’ Ali.
I was soon to find out that Azam Ali came from the people called Rangars of the Rajput tribe generally, and were classified in the army as SBs or Sindhi-Balochis. There were precious few Sindhi-Balochis in the Army then so 99 per cent of SBs were these Rajputs, migrated to Pakistan at partition from the areas around Delhi: Gurgaon; Rohtak and Hissar mainly. Incidentally, 4 Baloch was made up of 50 per cent PMs (Punjabi Mussalmans) and 50 per cent SBs.
They are related by Rajput blood to the famous tribe of Qaim-Khanis, great soldiers particularly cavalrymen, from Rajasthan, many of whose number rose to high ranks in the Pakistan Army, to name a few: General Yusuf Khan former VCOAS; Maj. Gen. Bashir Khan; and my senior friend, the peerless, now Late and lamented Maj. Khurshid Ali Khan’s younger brother, Maj. Gen. Sikandar Hayat a fine gentleman himself.
A word or two, though I digress from the subject of this piece, about Khurshid, or Khrusch, who I first met in Wah with my older cousin, his course-mate in the 18th PMA, later Lt. Col., and now Late too, the great officer and winner of the Sword of Honour and the Norman Gold Medal, Saeed Afzal Durrani. Khrusch was always a rebel and spoke his mind no matter where he was. He got dispirited after the East Pakistan fiasco and resigned his commission with just a few months to go for his pension to be granted to him. When asked to stay by his well-meaning friends, even commanders, he refused and demanded immediate release losing in the bargain what little pension was to come his way.
His father had left him six acres of land on which he subsisted, travelling by bus and third-class train. He did try to run a bus, but being a soldier of the old school (and not a businessman!) lost all of the borrowed money, every penny of which he returned over the years! Khrusch later became a writer and researcher on Sindh and its indigenous peoples like the Kohlis and Bheels and contributed to The Star, then edited by my good friend, the courageous Zohra Yusuf, now Chairperson of HRCP. ‘Dawn’ had this to say of this remarkable man.
But back to my buddy Azam Ali. Loyal to a T he was/is a lovely man, but a Rangar down to his toenails, still speaking the old language particularly with me. There are many anecdotes of the six years we spent together. What showed his mettle most was his impeccable keeping up of my uniform; making sure I was never late; and being always there when needed. But most of all his raw courage and care.
A year after joining the battalion, I was sent to command a Platoon at Kheri right at the head of the Phukliyan Sector across the Chenab and Tavi Rivers, and about 15 miles straight into Indian territory which ran on both sides of this sector. And bang straight ran into a problem. During the rainy season, crossing the Chenab used to take 30 to 40 minutes (I kid you not) by the fascinating but rickety old pole-driven ferry. Add to that the 40 minutes from Sialkot; the wait for the ferry if it was on the other side; and the 40 minute ride on slippery, rain-soaked foot deep mud tracks to the Platoon HQs and you came up with something like four to five hours that the fresh rations had been in the burning July/August heat.
Result: while the vegetables survived; the meat almost always spoiled on the way, to be fed to the many dogs in the area. So I took to hunting hares for the pot during night-time with my .22, a spot un-sportingly, for the poor things caught in the headlights were easy pickings. But I was doing this for our food, not collecting trophies.
It so happened one night that I shot one and Azam’s ‘Numberi’ — meaning they were recruits together: 2436365 Sepoy Mohammad Ashraf leapt of the Dodge and ran to collect the hare. He stumbled and his M-1 rifle’s scabbard got stuck in his belt and his bayonet cut him deeply in the calf. So deep that the bone showed.
We got him back and while the Nursing Orderly was dressing his deep wound both Azam and Ashraf looked at me in the gas-light. As one they said, ‘Saab aap ja kay lait jao’. I had barely reached my tent when it hit me: the sight of so much blood made me swoon, young chap that I was, but these two looked out for me. What men.
Another: When I got married and came to the dining table for breakfast, I saw my wife in tears. Azam had apparently told her there were only two eggs and Saab eats two, “Sir, aap kay liyae anda nahin hai”, he told her. She told me: “It’s him or me!” He was told off before she walked out on me!
There’s more on this good man, but later.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 25th, 2014.