This is a more personal post than the usual. My father passed away
this week in India.

My brother and I were remembering the many ways in which he touched
our lives, as he had doubtless affected so many others.

baba-crest

Baba was an old-school father, in an era when fathers didn’t spend
much time with their children. But when he did, he liked to show us a
magic trick like cutting off his own finger, or a mathematical
puzzle. He showed me how to use his slide rule, a Faber-Castell
Aristo with beautiful red and green markings in a leather case.

Very rarely, we talked about important things.

He wouldn’t hurt a fly, literally. If he caught a creature inside the
house, he would carefully open the window and toss it out. Even when
a cobra came out of the grass in the monsoons, he would not let us
hurt it. Raised in a strict Maharashtrian Brahmin household and then
in the College of Engineering in Pune, he was well-read but hadn’t
seen much of the real world before entering the Indian Military
Academy in Dehradun. In the officers’ mess they had arranged
yellow flowers on the tables for the cadets to eat, which he
discovered were boiled cut eggs.

I had always wondered how a peace-loving, creative and bright mind
like his had found itself in a rigid, top-down military bureaucracy.
After getting his engineering degree, what had possessed him to become
a commissioned officer?

I did ask him once. He said he had been bored working for a public
works department in a town in Gujarat and for the state-owned oil
company ONGC. Besides, he said, one of his childhood buddies from New
English School in Satara had entered the National Defence Academy and
loved being an army officer. So, he decided to sign up, too.

I wanted to know how it had turned out for him.

The career of a Bombay Sapper

Like many regiments in the Indian army, the Bombay Engineering Group,
a.k.a. the Bombay Sappers, is much older than the country, having been
raised even before the British Indian army, in the days of the East
India Company. These are combat engineers whose business is mines,
bridges, and similar technical work.

From his home base in the Bombay Sappers, Baba was often sent to
faraway places. His postings read like a travelogue of the Indian
subcontinent, a lot of it in the Eastern and Western Himalayas:
Nagaland, Tezpur, Shillong, Mussoorie. He was often an instructor for
project management or technical subjects at some institute or
another.

However, his official obituary from the Bombay Sappers has a few gaps
during classified assignments. One of these gaps is for a few months
starting in November 1971, the period of combat operations in the
Bangladesh Liberation War.

I had to dig a bit to find out what he did during the war.

An engineers’ war

Indian troops invaded East Pakistan to help the Bengali rebels, forced
the Pakistan military to surrender, and created the new nation of
Bangladesh. If ever a war was justified, it was the Bangladesh war.

Embedded within the invading Indian army brigades were engineering
units. The engineers “shape the terrain” in battle. They plant or
clear mines and lay down or demolish road surfaces or bridges,
enabling their own side to make progress while hindering the enemy.

East Pakistan was criss-crossed with rivers in loamy and marshy soil.
It was difficult to move equipment and material. Many roads, bridges,
and ferries had to be built and destroyed around the clock, often
under enemy fire. Military historians called it an engineers’ war.

Baba was part of 268 Engineer Regiment, and he mentioned to me one
particular bridge across the Kabadak river that had been destroyed by
the Pakistani defenders. I was able to find a contemporary picture of
it:

jhikargacha-demolished

The 268 Engineers had to rebuild the bridge temporarily using
prefabricated parts carried into battle.

I was able to find a picture of the rebuilt bridge. The broken
sections of the original bridge lie undisturbed below.

jhikargacha-demolished

The new bridge is a simple, continuous type of “Bailey bridge” that
spans the river from end to end, but this river was too wide, and the
engineers had to support it in the middle by building a pier made of
steel cages.

My father designed a “distribution beam girder,” a rigid structure
made of steel plates, to distribute the load on to the new pier. He
got it made from a shipbuilding yard in Calcutta. They produced it
overnight, and the army transported it and assembled it on site.

Baba’s comrade-in-arms, Major SS Rajan, who commanded the 268 Engineer
company that built the bridge, took the picture below.

girder-on-crib-piers

You can see Maj Rajan directing the bridge placement on top of the new
steel structure. Supported in this way, the bridge could span the
river successfully.

A life accomplished

The war was over fourteen days after it was declared, a complete
and rapid victory.

Maj Rajan, who retired as a Colonel, told me this week that my father
had designed the entire custom structure by himself and that it had
worked the first time. “He was a brilliant man,” he said.

I am sure it must have been a great feeling to have been useful, to
have served your country and to have done it well.

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