Almost 50 years after his death, a soldier continues to serve in the Indian Army
Shortly after his death, Sepoy Harbhajan Singh appeared to a colleague in a dream and asked that a samadhi be constructed in his memory.
The information came to me from my editor at The Indian Express in Chandigarh. A local cop had tipped him off, but even so, the story seemed difficult to believe. Since I had nothing more pressing scheduled for the day, I set off for Kuka village in the neighbouring Kapurthala district.
It was barely 25 km from Jalandhar, an hour’s ride on my motorcycle. This was 14 years ago, but even today I can recall many of the details of that journey. There was very little traffic once we (the photographer was riding pillion with me) got off the main road. It was the end of October, the air had a slight chill and the paddy stood ready for harvest in the fields.
At the village, finding the Baba’s house was easy. Everyone seemed to know where he lived. The house lay on a narrow earthen street off the main village road, made of brick and concrete surrounded by high walls. I rang the bell and a grey-haired woman in a patterned salwar kameez opened the enormous metal gate. When we introduced ourselves she ushered us in.
She said she was the Baba’s sister-in-law, “My husband is away for the day. Only my mother-in-law is around but she is in bed, her knees give her a lot of trouble and she can barely see.” Not that it mattered, she seemed to suggest, visitors were always dropping in unannounced at any time of the day “especially when he is here on leave”.
She led us straight to his room. I found myself treading softly despite myself. There was a photograph of the Baba in one corner, broad of shoulder in his olive green Army uniform. With barely the trace of a beard, he looked younger than I had expected. On the bed, a new uniform had been laid out. His shoes and slippers lay at the foot of the bed along with a pair of snowshoes. “They are quite worn out,” she said, “the men who accompanied him have promised to bring a new pair next year.” That year, like every other year, a berth on a train had been reserved in the Baba’s name and two soldiers had accompanied him on the journey back from the Sikkim border. They had travelled with him to Jalandhar, where an Army vehicle was waiting for his arrival. It was adorned with four nishan sahibs, the flag that marks any Sikh religious shrine.
He arrived on 16 September, like any other year, and stayed overnight at the Army gurdwara with his regiment that happened to be posted at the Jalandhar Cantonment for the year. The next day, he was driven home in the vehicle that had picked him up from the train station. Mid-November, she told me, the same vehicle would take him back to join duty in the distant mountains.