23 Days That Changed My Life

“Let’s put you on the national stage, and you never know you could be part of the commentators’ team for the RD Parade,” said the voice at the other end of the phone. Had I heard that right? The thought of someone suggesting that I might perhaps some day be a part of the DD telecast on 26 January was simply preposterous!

I had met Brig. and Mrs. Arjun Uppal briefly, for maybe less than five minutes, and couldn’t recall trying to make an impression, or having made one. So, when Mrs. Sonika Uppal called me on Valentine’s day, it was quite literally a bolt from the blue. Then, some 20 minutes later the Brigadier called, and I was invited to emcee the Integrated Tri Services Fire & Manoeuvre – ‘Exercise Bharat Shakti’.

Scheduled to take place at Pokran on the 12th of March 2024, the Tri Services IFME was conceptualised to showcase India’s indigenous capability to produce its own weapons, logistics and tech-support for the Forces under the aegis of the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’. With the Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi as the Chief Guest along with the Hon’ble Defence Minister, Shri Rajnath Singh – I knew, this was going to be like nothing I had ever done before!

Two days later I found myself driving west from Jodhpur towards the mighty Thar. At the halfway point when I halted by the side of NH114 for a quick cola break under a sprawling neem tree, I felt a sudden wave of nervousness. It struck me that I didn’t have a clue as to what to expect! It took all of my inner reserves and more than a few deep breaths to gather my tumultuous thoughts before continuing with my journey.

Five hours later, I was sitting in the guest room at Jaisalmer, waiting for the Commander to brief me about this massive “theaterisation”. The theatre of operations in this instance was the PFFR Sec ‘C’- my workplace from 17 February to 12 March 2024. Or as I call them, the 23 days that changed my life.

For those who are unaware, as I was, “theaterisation of armed forces is the integration of the army, air force, and navy under a single unified command structure for a specific geographical area. This means that all the assets and resources of the three services in that area are placed under a single commander responsible for planning and executing all military operations. A theatre of operations is a specific area in which military operations are conducted. The term can also refer to adapting military forces to the specific challenges and requirements of a particular operational environment, such as a desert, jungle, or urban setting.”

My day began at 0500 hrs. I would head out from Jaisalmer Military Station between 0640 to 0700 hrs. Typically, we were seated at the MCT (a mobile control tower set up on an ALS vehicle under a camouflage net) above an area with a little ridge and plain ground beyond, overlooking our “stage”. I have to admit that it made me feel like a storyteller weaving the events in the arena.

Work hours got over by 1900 hrs, sometimes later, and I was back at the guest room by 2100 hrs. One evening, we left after 1930 hrs. At some point, the vehicle took a wrong turn due to poor visibility – the heavy vehicles plying on the sand had left a crazy dust storm in their wake. Oh boy! I had a taste of panic as we drove around literally in circles in the desert. No matter where you looked, the topography was the same and the landmarks were hard to find. Nights in the desert are pitch black, not even dark, and no GPS connectivity meant that I could see myself spending the night in the TATA Safari Storme SUV. Thankfully, a Gypsy detailed with one of the Armoured units passed by and guided us back to the road head, and we were safely back to Jaisalmer by 2200 hrs.

Rehearsals with live ammunition and fire compound the risk to life and material manifold. So, our instructions were to follow the directions of the Team in charge of the live firing led by the dynamic Col. Deepak Vats, and the aviation pilots who were liasoning with those on ground. I remember when I heard the first rounds fired by the Pinaka missiles and the MBT Arjun tanks – my heart began to thud and it took a while to get used to the sound.

I was curious, excited and a little nervous because everyone around me, including the three officers who were a part of the commentators team, were all well versed and super accomplished and had been recommended by the Ministry of Defence. I, on the other hand, was the unknown underdog. Clearly, the onus was on me to ensure that I went back home with my self esteem and self respect, both – in one piece! I had to constantly remind myself of the Phillip Yancey quote “God is tilted toward the underdog.” Only this time, it seemed impossible!

My first briefing itself had me questioning my decision. I did not possess the bandwidth to accommodate details of weapon systems, missiles, vehicles, tanks, or aircrafts. I could barely tell you the make and the model of the car I drive, so imagine my state as the Commander and the COs began briefing me with a 30-page script! I was completely out of my depth, and kicking myself for having agreed. “This is not your cup of tea”, said a voice in my head, as I found myself shouting back at it, “Neither was polo, or writing, but here I am seven years later!”

It was not just me, everyone’s confidence took a beating every now and then. The worst was when we received instructions to reduce close to 40 mins from the planned theaterisation of 70 mins. Our faces and spirits fell, yet Atlas never shrugged. Instead the Commander gave a rousing speech about ‘mental mobility’, after which he worked around the clock with his team of officers, indefatigable and ever smiling. In the end, he bargained for 50 mins, culling only 20 mins from the proposed 70.

It was indeed a test of my ‘mental mobility’ quotient as well. Nearing fifty, I was clearly one of the oldest, most physically unfit and uninitiated members of the team; I could have well been the weakest link in the chain but I was going to be damned before I let that happen. So on my second day, I drove into the city of Jaisalmer with its bustling bazaar nestled around the Golden Fort, and picked up a pair of sports shoes. Next morning, I draped my saree and gingerly stepped into the shoes. Unsure about the look, I decided to ignore the mirror for that day. But boy, I sure was loving the ease with which I was able to scale those formidable dhoras (dunes)!

As my style statement became breezy chiffons and sports shoes, I recalled Kipling’s lines – “And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!’”

I remember when my husband came to visit on the day of the final dress rehearsal. He looked rather sceptical upon seeing the ladder I had to scale clad in my saree. So, he inquired , “Will you be able to get down this ladder?” Before I could answer, a voice boomed, “Don’t say that, Sir. She is up and down that ladder in a saree with such ease, a younger lady won’t have been able to manage!” It was Col. Bundela who came to my rescue and left my husband smiling.

Thank God for my boarding school genes which earned the respect and admiration of the gentlemen around as they appreciated my work ethic and punctuality in reporting on time and staying beyond sunset (our cue that the day was over). I will never forget the observation shared by the Commander with my husband, “She would sit at her laptop with a bottle of water, never once did she go to the caravan which had been placed especially for her. Not once did Mrs. Chauhan ask me again about going to Jodhpur when I was unable to let her. I continued to wait for her to remind me but she did not.”

His observation taught me the most important lesson – we are all under a scanner, and everything we do is under the gaze of people around us. We may not realise this but they notice our smallest habits.

Looking back, I am grateful to the Almighty for not letting down my husband, a serving officer in the Army, and the reason why I was able to take on this colossal task (Herculean, actually!).

Notwithstanding the many hiccups in the 23 days that changed my life, the takeaways are like life lessons:
● The “fauj” refers to “dayein” (right) as “dahiney”.
● MEAT isn’t what you EAT. I was well briefed by Col. Abhishek Chakraborty that these are
Expendable Aerial Targets. I will never forget the most encouraging phrase from him,
“Ma’am you’re doing great, just look at me for cues!” And that gave me such comfort!
● If there’s a storm in the op-area and you’re served lunch, then please consider sand as a condiment – you eat with a straight face because no food once served can be wasted.
● Soldiers consider vanity an unnecessary burden – no one cares how big your bottom is – only that you get up and down the ladder safely.
● No one is concerned if you resemble a lobster from staying out in the sun – here “fair” is play and “lovely” is a round fired well
● If you need to pee – shun modesty and use the tent, instead of holding it in expecting better
● The only landmines you will encounter are in the form of fragile egos – avoid them and march on regardless.
● Always come with a clean slate, leave the baggage of past laurels where it belongs – in the
distant past.
● The man in charge knows best – if he says “silhouette” is to be pronounced “silhat” then that is the right pronunciation!
● No matter what – stick to the script! You won’t go wrong.
● Through the rehearsals, the storms, and tantrums, take time out for celebrations – cake is a great unifier!
● Remember, silence doesn’t go wrong – in fact that’s why it’s called “golden”!
● Appreciate people who take a leap of faith on your behalf and root for you, and express your gratitude to them – as often and in as many ways as you can! Thank you Col. Arun Kumudesan, and gratitude to Col Gulshan & Col Bundela for all the laughs.
● Whether one of the most famous men on the planet, the Prime Minister of India knows my name or doesn’t – is irrelevant, because every time I passed an instruction – I could see him follow my voice! And the best part of it undoubtedly was when I invited him to address the gathering. I have never and probably will never again get the opportunity to invite the PM of India to do so! So every accomplishment is BIG.

I recall my words at the break-off dune party after the IFME, “Which woman wouldn’t want to be stranded in the middle of a desert with a handsome Commander and his team of equally handsome officers? Except that my heart was skipping beats for all the wrong reasons mostly to do with getting words like BFSRMR right!” (For the uninitiated that’s Battle Field Surveillance Radar Medium Range). Thanks to the Team of Colonels Sahoo & Rupesh, I now know the difference between an ATV and an SUV, a BMP and a T-90! Hot wheels for me no longer mean luxury cars, give me a QRF Heavy or Medium any day!

My citation, proposed by Brig. Uppal, reads thus:
“Mrs. Chauhan has demonstrated her proficiency in delivering expert analysis, articulating insightful commentary and encapsulating the essence of each moment during the live demonstration with the Prime Minister as Chief Guest. Her expertise and fervour have notably elevated the live demonstration in keeping with the ethos of the three services, rendering it more captivating and enlightening for the audience.”

Thank you, Lt. Gen. Ajai Singh and Lt. Gen. Mohit Malhotra for your kind words and encouragement as you awarded the Commendation Medal and Certificate – this makes me the first civilian woman to be a part of an Armed Forces Theaterisation Exercise. It is without a doubt, the highlight of my working years!

Brig. Arjun Uppal taught me that hard work never goes unnoticed. A great inspiration, I could not have asked for a better mentor for this Bootcamp before turning Fifty! Thank you to the Gentle Giant and his Knights in shining armour.

Much love and gratitude to Sa’ab Baha’dur, who braved a month of lousy meals and an empty home, yet always had a word of encouragement for me at the end of the day when I was at my lowest. Thank you for the fantastic mutton curry you cooked for me and brought it for dinner, all the way from Jodhpur. And our Bear Aavi, who had her friends and professors rooted to the live coverage from college.

As I look at the photos on the wall in my home, I feel a sense of great pride looking at the lone chiffon in a sea of combat uniforms. I hope that what has come to mean and become a seminal moment in my life – will encourage my daughter and inspire her to achieve greater things by challenging her comfort zone.

Lastly, there is nothing more compelling than that voice in your head that says, ‘Go for it’. So, if you’re hearing it now – then please do go for ‘it’! All I carried with me, other than my grey hair and girth, was my love for mirth and that helped me prove my worth!
Jai Hind.

Angeline Chauhan

Angeline Chauhan is the Associate Editor for the Jodhpur Polo Magazine, GM – Academics Central Academy Institute. She is a publisher, author, and TEDx Speaker and frequently speaks at parenting conclaves. She resides in the heritage-brimming Blue City of Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

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