“Let’s meet for dinner?” asked Mukesh; he had come to Chennai on business. Mukesh and I went to Business School together. He came from a martial family which migrated from West Punjab during Partition. Tall and handsome, he looked like an officer from the Presidential Bodyguard. I suspect he might have wanted to join the army too like his Brigadier father; but a road accident made his fitness a tad lower than the exacting army standards. I remembered him as the soft-spoken Greek God from our class!
Mukesh had dinner with my family at the lawns of the Madras Gymkhana. He was the same soft-spoken guy, but now with a Yul Brynner look! After some years in senior management, he had moved on and become a much sought-after corporate trainer. We talked of this and that, and the conversation somehow drifted to his brother, Arun. Arun Khetarpal was the most highly decorated hero of the 1971 War. Barely out of the Military Academy, twenty-one year old Arun was posted as a Tank Commander in Shakhargarh, where the bloodiest battles were fought. In the Battle of Basantar he stoutly defended the Indian bridgehead from his tank. He destroyed many tanks and captured many positions; but his squadron was badly outnumbered when the Pakistani Cavalry launched a counterattack. He pressed on, until his was the only Indian tank left. Already, his Driver and Gunner were badly injured and his Radio Operator was dead. Arun himself was wounded and his superior ordered him to abandon the tank. He disregarded the order, and used the firepower in his crippled tank to keep knocking down more enemy positions — until a direct hit from a Pakistani tank killed him. But the enemy counter-attack was broken, and Basantar was secured.
I knew the story only too well, but my son (who was born 2 decades after the war) was spell-bound by Mukesh’s narration. Yet, even I was astounded by the sequel. Many years later, Brigadier (Retired) Khetarpal received an invitation to go to Pakistan, visit his home town and meet old classmates. At Lahore he was the guest of a Pakistani officer— a Brigadier Naser. Brigadier Naser treated the elder Khetarpal with great deference and attention, and was the most gracious host. In India (and Pakistan) the tradition of Khatirdari is important and Brig. Naser practiced it meticulously, even towards a soldier from a hostile nation. (Contrary to vulgar opinion, not all Pakistanis are “bad”— good men exist on both sides of the border). Why, perhaps all soldiers share a common bond!
Brig. Naser had made Brig. Khetarpal’s nostalgic trip very enjoyable; it was now time to return to India. On the eve of his departure, Naser hesitantly approached Brig. Khetarpal.”Sir, I do not know how to say this…. Your son died by my hands. On that fateful day, I was the squadron commander on the other side. He caused severe losses and I had to stop him. It was my salvo that killed him. Only later we realized how young he was and how bravely he had fought. I salute him and I salute you, who made him a soldier”. Brig. Naser was an honourable soldier: acknowledging his adversary’s bravery was a sincere way to reach out to his father, another soldier. The elder Khetarpal was speechless. The next day he flew back to India.
When Mukesh finished this part of the story, our conversation stopped still for some moments. He was calm, but I was almost in tears. Imagine being forced to abandon your ancestral home because of Partition; and then imagine having to sacrifice your son in the war; and just as you relive the joys of your homeland your respected host says he killed your son. Only a true soldier can courageously face such twists of fate with calm. I salute the soldiers of our armed forces — it is their quiet sacrifices that have made us secure.
Glossary: Khatirdari – Urdu word meaning showing utmost hospitality to guests— An Indian tradition that brings honour to both the host and the guest. Equivalents can be found in other Indian languages like, for example, Virundombal in Tamil