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Namrata Biji Ahuja
Namrata Biji Ahuja

COVER STORY

Lizards and lassi

26-para-commandos-lifestyle-week Keeper of faith: Subedar Ganguly (in turban) with commandos at the temple at the 10 Para (SF) headquarters in Jodhpur.

The commandos of 10 Para (Special Forces) do have their moments of fun

  • Apart from its exploits on the field, the unit also takes pride in its food, which includes specialities like commando toast, rocket and para lassi.

If Guruji can do it, so can we.” That is the faith the commandos of the 10 Para (Special Forces) have in Subedar Major Prakash Narayan Ganguly. The 54 year old is the priest of the temple at the unit’s headquarters in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and a commando who can jump out of aircraft at 2,000 feet.

Every evening, he performs aarti at the temple, reads out scriptures and sings bhajans to the commandos who come to him after operations. “In this country, so many people don’t have work. So every day, I thank God that he has not only given all of us work, but also a chance to serve our nation,” he said.

Born in a religious family in the small town of Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh, Ganguly always loved the Army. “I had an inclination towards religion and when I joined the Special Forces, I saw the confluence of faith and victory. I realised that it is belief and self-confidence that can make you win wars. Praying to God increases that self-confidence,” he said.

Though he is the keeper of faith in the unit, Ganguly has also become the go-to person for commandos with personal problems. “When people have a family crisis, leave issues, or problems with their girlfriends, they come to me for advice,” he said. “I give them advice on how to approach their problems and, when they leave, they leave their stress behind.” Ganguly also spends hours with the families of martyrs who visit the headquarters.

Faith plays a crucial role at the headquarters of the unit, which is also called the ‘Home of the Quiet Professionals’. Suryadeep, an SF commando sitting at the temple altar, said Goddess Durga showed them the way when they faced a tough situation. “When there is darkness all around me and I don’t know what is going to happen, Durga takes over the mission and completes it,” he said.

Each team of the unit carries a small statue of Durga during operational deployment, which it keeps at the temple upon return. “In tough situations and against insurmountable odds, we all tend to cling on to faith and seek divine intervention,” said Major Prakash Choudhary. “So, everyone has their own belief systems from which they draw motivation. Some even look for that faith in local gods when they travel to high altitudes or deserts.”

The 10 Para SF was born in the deserts, he says, and its soldiers mostly belong to states like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. Such is their belief, especially in Vaishno Devi, that the unit’s exclusive greeting is “Jai Mata Di”. Most units of the Army, in fact, have special greetings like “Jai Hind”, “Ram Ram”, “Tagra Raho” and so on. Though the Army has adopted a standard salutation—“Jai Hind”—the commandos often use their personal greetings, which increases camaraderie and brings a smile to their faces.

Recently, the unit built a motivation hall on its campus, which has a Jonga parked outside. The Army had used this four-wheeler in the first motorised cross-border raid in Chachro, 60km inside Pakistan, during the 1971 war.

“The motivation hall was built with two aims,” said Choudhary. “To give an insight into the battalion and inspire new paratroopers, and as a homage to fallen comrades.” Among other tributes, the hall has a statue of Havildar Bahadur Singh Bohra, who received the Ashok Chakra after he was martyred while fighting insurgents in Kashmir in 2008. During the operation, his team eliminated 13 of them.

It is this passion that drives the para commandos. There is never a dull moment at the headquarters, and they say the sun never sets for the 10 Para SF. They train always. A favourite haunt of the six-packed commandos is the gym, where they train whenever their schedule permits. After a gruelling training session in the morning and a back-breaking, six-a-side game of hockey in the evening, they usually hit the gym at night.

“For us, upper body strength is essential to lift the load and do route marches,” said para commando Bhim Sen. In the cold evenings, he stands bare chested, pumping iron, competing with himself. “I am going to test my limits before my battalion does,” he said, winding up the conversation quickly.

Apart from its exploits on the field, the unit also takes pride in its food, which includes specialities like commando toast, rocket and para lassi. The commando toast is bread, topped with a spicy paste of ginger, garlic and red chillies. Then there is the rocket—wheat bread stuffed with gur (jaggery)—called so because it looks like a rocket. The para lassi, which the commandos said is high in nutrition, gets its name from the size of the serving. It is served in a huge tumbler. As we finished our well-prepared meal, I asked them, “Is there a celebration or have you cooked this especially for us?” A jawan turned around and said, “Yeh 10 Para ke langar ka khana hai. Hamara khana officers’ mess se bhi acha hota hai [This is the food from our community kitchen, which is better than what you get even in the officers’ mess].”

The infantry marches on its stomach. If the food is good, the morale goes up immediately, said Subedar Major Shaurya Rajput. But, when the para commando goes on a long operation, he must learn to eat anything that moves. “That does not come without knowledge of the ground, good discipline and shedding of inhibitions,” he said. He is trained to find water, and know which plant to eat by smelling its leaves. From snakes to lizards to peculiar plants, the commando knows how to live off the land.

But, when it comes to food, especially in the Army, can a drink be far behind? The 10 Para (SF) has a “commando club”, where jawans let their hair down, listen to music and enjoy a drink after a hard day’s work. “Whenever we sit together, we end up discussing operations and exchanging notes,” said Subedar Karandeep. “Unlike other places where liquor and its sale is controlled, para commandos believe that if you are trusting your guy with your weapon, you can definitely trust him with his drink, too.” The scene is no different in the officers’ mess, named Skyfall, where officers and their families often celebrate a promotion, a festival or a child’s birthday.

Then, there are some leisurely afternoons, when the men often visit the indoor barber shop, which is being renovated. “You know how Army men are. They love to get a haircut and [they always have to have] the trademark crew cut,” said Lieutenant Colonel Arjun Bali. The barber is a para commando, who is enjoying his new stint, dressing the hair of his burly clients. The salon has tall mirrors and comfortable chairs, but what stands out is the wallpaper—it shows the para commandos moving out for operations at the crack of dawn, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

Names of serving men have been changed.

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