Sunday, April 26, 2009

In the belly of ...

The beast snorted, slewed sideways. It paused for a moment, dipped its head, then took the slope at the charge, a storm of dust spiralling from its tracks. Its roar filled the field as it topped out, then died to a rumble as it lurched forward over the ploughed earth. A cloud of chaff rose from the stubble of the harvest, whipped into our eyes with the wind of our passage. The horizon danced. Sunlight and hot air mingled with the tumult of our progress.

Sprawled on a blanket atop the beast, I held on to a convenient spike and pulled the trailing edge of the headcloth tight across my face.

*** ***

It weighs nearly 50 tons when fully loaded, carries more than a ton of fuel and almost a ton of ordnance. Scaly with armour round its bulbous head and shoulders, swollen with the racks of fuel tanks, bristling with guns and aerials and stippled with smoke grenades, the most obvious analogy is a modern dinosaur, a crouching T Rex that mangles the earth it passes over. These are seriously impressive machines. Those tons of metal are driven by a V- ** engine that generates close to 1000 HP with the turbo-charger, enabling the tank to take 30 degree gradients uphill and travel at up to 60 kmph on a paved surface. 50 tons at 60 kmph. Although braking distance is short on a tracked vehicle, think of the momentum.

Yet when I saw the row of garages waiting in the sun, the snout of a barrel poking out of each archway, I was most forcefully reminded of the stables in Mussoorie. Mounts eager for a morning gallop. Not for nothing are the old cavalry ranks still current in the Armoured Corp – enlisted men are still sawars and the JCOs are rissaldars. They have a similar relation with their machines, too. The young Major who took me around said that the same men are assigned to the same tanks throughout their time in the regiment. They had to abandon a couple of tanks recently – stuck in mud while fording a river during a field exercise – and the crews moped for weeks. The fresh-faced Lieutenant with us obviously loved his tank, too. On a couple of occasions when the Major was trying to get a gadget to work, the youngster could barely keep from showing his impatience, like a teen who can’t understand why his parents’ generation can’t handle a patch for the computer.

(I’ve been asked not to mention any details of the unit or the particular make of the tank. Security concerns. For the same reasons, no photographs.)

A tank regiment doesn’t have companies, they have squadrons of 12 to 14 tanks, backed by a HQ squadron that handles all the rest during active ops – supply, reconnaissance, repairs, the works. Every man in HQ squadron, the cooks, the clerks, the technicians, they’re all fighting men, only they don’t fight from tanks. They have some A-vehicles of their own, armoured personnel carriers that can carry a section of force apart from the 3-man crew, but a significant difference is that they carry carbines and SLRs. Tank crew carry only pistols. Simple reason – there’s no space inside a tank to stash a carbine, let alone swing it.

Space. Who would have thought that the innards of such a huge beast could be so cramped? When I managed to clamber down into the gunner’s seat I could barely turn around to look at the magazine behind me. The equipment is interesting – night vision scope, aiming screen, the actual gun controls like a submarine periscope – but any incautious movement brought me into contact with hard sharp surfaces. I tried to imagine the belly of the beast during desert ops. Outside temperature 50 Celsius, inside closer to 55. Noise level above 100 decibels, plus the report of the gun. Bouncing like dice in a shaker. And through it all, acquire target, select ammo, load, track and bear, range in, centre, fire. Rinse and repeat. While the tank commander next to you handles his radio, a machine-gun and directs the driver. Who sits in a separate compartment out front in the hull of the vehicle (commander and gunner in the turret). And this could go on for hours. 72 hours, says the Major. Three friggin’ DAYS in there. Whew. And I thought the definition of hell was an old jute mill on a night in June!

After the tour, the ride. My bald top was first encased in a headset, then came the swish part - getting to wear the black headdress. That thing is so uber-cool, even an old fat man looks kind of dude-ish in it. It isn’t swagger, though. Both headset and bandanna are essential to keep out the noise and dust. (Wonder what it was like 60-odd years ago, outside Alamein and Tobruk?) I offered to stand behind, but the Major smiled and firmly waved me up. I was placed atop the turret, a blanket under me for padding against the sharp edges of the body armour.

The giant started up with a snarling roar. As it moved forward over the cobbles, I still had no inkling of what was to come. Then we wheeled out of the garages and … out of focus! A lurch, a change of gear, a roar, a pivot. Thrown one way and then the other, holding on for dear life, I understood why standing behind would have been a Very Bad Idea. Down a muddy slope, up again onto an embankment, the barrel tracking left to stay clear of the hedges. I looked fearfully at the ditch beside our path and hoped the driver was competent. A fall in there would be bad enough without 40-odd tons of tank following me down to nestle lovingly between my shoulder-blades.

Despite the roar, once we were on the track our progress was almost peaceful. With the height and the occasional pitch and sway, it was like being in an elephant’s howdah. Babul branches whipped across us, a terrified buffalo calf ran mooing to its mother, the sun glinted off a pond. Then we went off-road, into the exercise area, and again the world fractured into a series of jerky frames. The Major, kind soul, offered me the chance to drive. I firmly declined. An 8-speed gearbox and 2 steering levers could be interesting, but not when a million dollars’ worth of machine is involved.

Back in the stables, I clambered down (stirred, not shaken), untied the headdress and whipped the thick layer of dust off my jeans. A bird trilled in the sudden silence after the clamour. More experiences lay ahead – trying out the gun simulator, seeing the various mechanical systems in tubular (stripped-down) versions, three sequences of shooting practice (9 mm. pistols, which I’m normally wary of, but by the 3rd round I had a very nice grouping, yay!), checking out the maintenance vehicle – but for me the high point was that headlong rush through the countryside astride the roaring snarling pitching behemoth.

But I’m glad I never have to work within the belly of the beast.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Thirst for knowledge

Some things about Blogger that we haven’t worked out and want to know. Kind souls in the (sparse) audience will please put up their hands before they answer, volunteers will pass you the cordless mikes.
Does anybody else have this problem about Blogger rejecting formatted Word documents? I copy, paste, hit publish – then there’s an error message and about 5000 characters of code in the box before the real post starts. How do I get around this? It’s a pain highlighting and deleting every time.
The other thing – I shut off my blog for a while, made it by-invitation-only (and invited no-one - to the few blessed souls who actually asked for invites, I love you all and you can rest assured there was No Discrimination). SiteMeter showed zero hits. Fine.
But now, there’s this blog I read on Bloglines. And there was something I wanted to comment on, I clicked on the title link, and I get this message that I’m not invited. How does that sync with what happened on my blog? Because SiteMeter shows visits from feed-readers and there were none while my blog was fenced off. Or does SiteMeter only work for Google Reader? Will some wise soul please explain?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Travels with a voice recorder, Pt 1

Half past ten on a Friday night in Delhi. Just finished two helpings of soup – I was sick as a kitten in the afternoon – and crawled into bed atop a pile of pillows. I’ve been upgraded to a room in the corner, which means windows on two sides, and these two sides are like two different worlds. The front looks out on Sansad Marg, Parliament Street, and there’s a buzz and rumble of traffic on that side all through the day and most of the night. When I last parted the curtains the building opposite was lit up even at half past nine, floor after floor of neon-lit desks visible through the glass like those cut-away doll houses in museums. Must be either news or IT.

The other window … in the afternoon when I checked in, the sky was bronze turning to silver in the heat, the trees were washed-out skeletons in the glare and a group of kites wheeled in tight circles high high above the NDMC building, almost in a different dimension. When I woke from a healing sleep the fading sunlight struck through the branches of the jacaranda outside, creating an orange picture-frame on the wall above the bed. The lawns of the Jantar Mantar turned an unreal dark thirst-quenching green as the headlights came on in the traffic below. Now, late at night, the floodlit Samrat Yantra looks like a huge red shoe, the one where the old woman lived in the nursery rhyme.

A mile beyond the pool of light, a group of buildings stands against the night sky, transplanted from the Krypton landscape. All it needs is a hologram of Marlon Brando as Jor-El. The stairwells are lit up like fluorescent spines, but the huge neon sign on top of Le Meridien just reads “Le MeI”. Correction, if I tilt my head to the left I can see “Le Mer”. The sea? In THIS city? The building that blocks out the rest of the sign is also the darkest, so the illusion is (if not complete) pretty good. But the view palls after a while, especially when Al Pacino and Johnny Depp are waiting for me (you know which movie that was?). Good night.

* * *

I wake for a while around 3 a.m. and can’t see the lights any more, Le Meridien has switched off the neon sign, the buildings are a mass of Ice Giants against the night sky. A surreal moment when the blinking lights of an international flight glide down the sky and … vanish behind the dark mass. Sleep-fuddled, I count ONE thou-sand, TWO thou-sand, THREE thou, all the way up to seven before the lights appear again, closer to the tree-line, maybe only a minute from touch-down.

The dawn comes surprisingly early. Padding around in my bare feet (the hotel’s bathroom slippers are really slippery on the wooden floor), making coffee, popping things into the suitcase as I go to and fro, I haven’t really noticed when the sodium vapour lamps perched 60 feet high have faded. But morning has broken well before 6 and I can see a strong breeze bending the tree-tops. All except one tree that’s still bare like a candelabra, rooks’ nests in its armpits as it pushes out the first green shoots of the year. Stupid tree to wait till April when it’s pushing 40 Celsius, all your shoots of spring will soon turn from salad to crispy noodles. I can see more of the Jantar Mantar now, and a lanky man doing contortions on the grass.

Suddenly a flight of pigeons erupts like a puff of gunsmoke across my line of sight. Drawn to the window, I can see an avian promenade at eye-level. Even the kites from yesterday are stretching and doing warm-up flights below my window, making those ridiculous mewing sounds that no self-respecting bird of prey should admit to. Lazy bums, too. I saw a pair of seagulls in Barcelona make a light snack of a fat pigeon, and here these kites are like ineffectual traffic policemen elbowed aside by the bumbling streams of pigeons that all but crash into the mass of the NDMC building. I try for some shots of the fatties in flight, but of course they must choose this moment to sit on my window ledge and look smug. Well, I have news for you – I have a train to catch and you aren’t Aamir Khan, I can get shots of a zillion other pigeons. Time to call the front desk to have my bill ready.