“Oh, Shikha’s been transferred to Vizag a month ago”, replied my teenage daughter in response to my query on the whereabouts of her friend. It didn’t matter to her that it was her friend’s father who had been transferred, and that his daughter was merely accompanying him. As far as she was concerned, Shikha had been transferred and that was that, while she returned to the animated conversation with her mobile phone, clearly demonstrating an early capability of multitasking.
To a dyed in wool fauji like me who has spent a lifetime in and around the service, as a child transfers offered great excitement – something to brag about to the boy who was always first in class and who knew just about everything that existed in the universe of small boys. Then there was the excitement of watching a house being slowly dismantled and put away into black boxes, farewell parties with plenty of attention lavished on me, and finally, the pinnacle of fun, the train journey.
I recall the very first posting, when as a four year old, I accompanied my parents from Balasore to Delhi. In my four year old mind, the words ‘posting’ and ‘Delhi’ were synonymous and I assumed that all postings were to Delhi, and Delhi was just another name for posting. On that last day, as usual I hopped into the jeep onto my usual perch and was a little puzzled when someone asked me to sit at the back while a few more than the usual people accompanied us. In the early sixties, Balasore was a sleepy little town and the departure of the army’s station commander was a major event, for the entire population of the town along with their cousins appeared to have turned out, and there were crowds lining the road all the way from the house to the station. Of course I had no idea how the luggage and our dog reached Delhi.
A few years later, we were ready for another transfer, this time to Pune, or Poona, as it was called then. Once again the excitement mounted, though this time it originated from the fact that I would be leaving that horrid school, where I had found myself to be the focused object of scolding by teachers and bullying by other boys. Besides, this time I was determined to be part of the action during the packing process, and demanded my share of responsibilities. My older siblings instead sent me packing, with “Buzz off” and “Go do your homework” being some of their more polite remarks.
Eventually, to get me out of the way, I was given an old trunk and told to pack my toys and books. I went about it in due earnest and having carefully put away all my worldly treasures, I labeled it TOYS with my name scrawled on a page torn from a school-book that I hoped I would no longer need. For good measure, I added my class, name of the school and age. Lest someone hadn’t got the point, I added “Handle With Care” and “This Side Up”. Having duly considered the possible threat posed to the household by the presence of my air-gun pellets inside the trunk, I further added “Explosives”. With that, I was ready to move.
In those days, for long journeys, officers usually hired special railway wagons called EVKs to transport their household effects. I stood in open-mouthed fascination in the railway yard as I watched our boxes being loaded into the wagon and expertly tied into place behind a net of ropes. I didn’t quite understand why the car was also driven in, till the doors of the wagon closed and my father explained that it was also being transported to Pune by train. The older siblings didn’t deem it fit to explain why we couldn’t just drive down to Pune.
However the biggest surprise of the transfer was yet to come and I was secretly glad that both my older brother and sister would be coming separately. This time we travelled not by train, but by air. It was immensely exciting as we boarded the Caravelle and I accompanied the stewardess to the cockpit for a visit. In those days there were no direct flights from Delhi to Poona and one had to change at Bombay into a four-engine prop driven Viscount for the shorter leg of the journey. Those two flights remained my first ever air journey for many years, till I joined service and hesitantly took my next flight.
Having donned the uniform, transfers soon became a by-word and the process began to fall into a routine. However as I had probably slept through or skipped the class on transfer allowances and procedures, I remained blissfully unaware of the nuances of baggage allowance, railway warrants and other such mysteries till I learned the hard way. Like all young officers, for many years my most important piece of luggage remained my steed, my trusty bike, and I spared absolutely no effort to ensure that it was properly packed, so that it received not one scratch during the various journeys between stations. My uniforms and personal effects packed into suitcases were a different matter and I usually ended up paying extra as my warrant and ticket was always missing that one crucial entry that entitled me to carry my luggage at the government’s expense.
With time the dawn of wisdom began to break over me as my wife and I gradually began to put our own nest together, and we learned to carefully preserve the cartons of the items that we so painstakingly collected. The mixer, the toaster, the crystal animal farm that adorned our drawing room, all had their original cartons, which were indispensible when it was time to pack again for the next move.
When I was younger, I found myself moving every eighteen months. The exercise of transfer began a couple of months in advance of D-day, usually with a muster of locks and keys. Locks were oiled and matched with keys, invariably there were locks that remained locked forever, that were inevitably consigned to the dustbin as neither of us had the patience to find a locksmith. Not long ago, while shopping at the market in Vasco, Goa, the shopkeeper asked me if I was under transfer. When I looked up surprised and asked him how he knew, he replied with a smile that since I was buying a number of identical locks, I was obviously moving, as this was standard practice before a transfer.
Next came box inspection. Boxes and trunks would be aired in bright sunlight and the resident roaches and other wildlife evicted. It helped to have a fully loaded can of potent insect spray at hand with the memsahib at a safe distance, when opening boxes, as the resident insect population was likely to get agitated at the untimely disturbance. It was also quite normal to discover some long lost teapot or that missing china plate when boxes were reopened towards the end of a tenure. Boxes laid out open in the sun were another giveaway of an impending transfer. So much for confidentiality of transfers.
Boxes and trunks would then be given a fresh coat of paint, usually black, but any available color would do. At one stage, I had a virtual palette of colors as among the blacks there were a few boxes in ship-side grey, pale-cream yellow, olive green, metallic silver trunks and even oxide brown depending on where I had been posted when the box was acquired. Stencils would be cut with the latest rank and destination duly dabbed on with white paint.
Boxes would be assigned duties to the drawing room, the dining room, kitchen and so on depending on their capabilities in the same manner as assigning guard duties to troops. Experience is a great teacher and I learned that it were best if one immediately replaced the empty cartons into the boxes after unpacking, so that before the next transfer, the items could go back into the same box. My skill at jigsaw puzzles improved as I juggled cartons into various boxes in different combinations. By then I was a seasoned packer capable of offering my services to any logistics company.
Invariably, after each tenure the number of boxes fell short and one had to acquire a few more, which meant it was time to go shopping for boxes and trunks. Long before packers and movers introduced the delights of foldable cardboard cartons to the nomadic fauji population, we had discovered the virtues of empty cartons of 555 cigarettes for packing miscellaneous items. Those sturdy cartons, having discharged their consignments found their way to households on the brink of a move. One had to reserve these indispensible cartons with the canteen manager well in advance, and keep the canteen officer in good humour till he handed over those precious items. Such was the demand, that I found myself receiving requests from army and air force coursemates posted as far afield as Siliguri, for a half dozen of those versatile containers, to be sent through someone moving in that direction. At one stage I even mulled setting up a black market of cartons, much like the character Milo Minderbinder, in the book Catch 22, wherein I imagined myself supplying cartons even to the Pakis using PAF planes that had my initials emblazoned on their tails. While Milo in the book had a few generals on his payrolls, I on the other hand, would have been content to have a couple of nasty Commanders working under me.
There were boxes that had been with us so long that they were practically family, some even had names – there was ‘Big Russian’, a box that had once contained spares from that country, while one that had accompanied my better half as a new bride was simply named ‘Square Ambala’, and a longish trunk that had never been painted became ‘Long John Silver’. Quite easily the box with a mind of its own was one simply named ‘Idiot Box’. This was a large and sturdy wooden box that had seen service on both fronts and had accompanied its previous owner to high altitude areas as well. One look at the box would have been enough to convince anyone of the aptness of its name. It was probably built by a carpenter with more than his share of ‘desi’ inside him. The wood used was of varying thicknesses and types much like a street dog of doubtful ancestry. It’s handles were improperly fitted which made it difficult for loaders to heft. Its lid would not close completely and its two latches were both different. The latches had a tendency to fly apart, as happened when it was being loaded into a truck. Fortunately the quick thinking truck driver nailed it shut. It had been passed on to us by a friend of my father-in-law, a senior army officer, before our first transfer. He gave it to us feeling sorry for my better half, who was his daughter’s age, as he sadly asked, “Who asked you to get married into the Navy, when there are so many fine boys in the army?”
There were boxes of all types, shapes and sizes. Those who had access to wood and carpenters proudly got a box made for the fridge. This was no ordinary box. In fact, as it guaranteed the safety and security of the family’s bread and butter, a great deal of technical thought and design effort was devoted to it. The wood and ply would be personally chosen by the owner, who would also approve the dimensions, keeping in mind not only the outer dimensions of the fridge carton, but also those of the next fridge, the memsahib had set her sights on. Then there was a box to transport that pride and joy of all middle class families, the television. However opinions were divided into two camps – those who sent their TV along with the rest of the luggage by road, and, those who preferred to personally carry their precious cargo by car or train. The pros and cons of both methods were the topic of fiery debates in parties, particularly after a couple of drinks, with both sides including the ladies ready to do battle on a matter of principle.
Closer to D Day, a search would be conducted for a suitable transporter. During the transfer season in March - May every year, one would be deluged by flyers, calendars, stickers, posters, business cards and personal house visits of reps of transport companies. Quotations would be obtained, reps interviewed, telephone numbers verified and references checked. One had to be careful as nearly everyone had a horror story to relate of missing luggage, of trucks stalled in the middle of nowhere or other damage with the truck agency untraceable at that crucial time.
In those days, truckers were a tough macho breed, with fierce upturned moustaches and intimidating stares. The rep usually a grey haired, grizzled old man, dressed in regulation kurta pyjama with a towel over his left shoulder, would saunter through the house inspecting your worldly possessions, much to the disapproval of the maid servant. He would then do a set of mental gymnastics to arrive at a price for transporting the luggage. The quoted price depended upon the amount of crystal in your drawing room, the size and make of your fridge, whether you had a color or black & white TV, and whether you had furniture. Thereafter would follow some fervent haggling over the price. If you negotiated too low, the veteran roadie would stubbornly demand that the amount be paid upfront. On the other hand, if you allowed him to have his way, you were in for a shocker from the CDA later. The price having been fixed, the trucker would conspiratorially call you aside and indicate the sign of a bottle with a huge gnarled fist and thumb. This was the signal when you were then expected to part with a bottle of rum to seal the deal.
In the old days, when one didn’t have enough luggage to fill an entire truck, one looked for someone to share a truck with, not so much to save on costs, but because it was a given fact that the trucker would use the vacant space to load additional cargo. While moving from Jamnagar to Bombay, I had no option but to ask the trucker to give me half a truck space as there was no one to share with. He agreed to my request to load the other cargo first. When it arrived, I expected to see a truck with boxes of the other load piled in the forward portion of the truck, but I was in for a surprise as I was sharing a truck with a consignment of salt that occupied the entire cargo space to a depth of two or three feet. He cheerfully explained that my luggage would be loaded over the salt and that it would in fact cushion my things. As we were to leave by train the next day and there seemed no option, I agreed. The truck having been loaded, I crossed my toes as well as my fingers while the memsahib glowered crossly at me. Early the next morning, the phone rang. It was the helper I had sent with the truck, calling to say that the truck had stalled. I froze, with visions of my things lying scattered on some desolate stretch of road. When he explained that the truck hadn’t left Jamnagar at all and had actually not gone beyond the trucker’s office, I felt somewhat relieved but quickly got on my scooter to reach his premises. There I found all my worldly possessions stacked nearby, while workmen were busy transferring the salt to the next truck. Eventually, everything was safely loaded onto the new truck and made it to Bombay without further adventures. But that was one heart stopping moment.
Packing in remote stations, was done by a combination of sahib, memsahib, maid and anyone else who could be drafted in, with yours truly being the chief packer. The trucking companies were far too masculine to do effeminate jobs like packing. That was for the wimps. Luckily, all those days of staring open mouthed at the packers in my parents’ home in Balasore were now beginning to pay off. I became something of an expert in winding hessian cloth around my things, having cut my teeth as a young officer on packing my beloved bike. I could wield the large needle called a sooa with jute string, like a sword. In the larger cities like Bombay, we had the benefit of the ‘bajrang dal’, an epithet given to a group of maids’ husbands who had been trained by an enterprising man to pack officers’ luggage. Since this gentleman usually wore a traditional outfit complete with Gandhi topi, the name of the group stuck. I believe he still operates in Mumbai.
As one grew older and the number of pieces increased with a sofa set and other furniture added in the course of our nomadic life, the weight slowly began to shift to the other foot. It was the trucker’s turn to get intimidated under the confident, steely eyed gaze of the memsahib seated comfortably on the sofa while he shuffled around uncertainly. Needless to say, he wouldn’t dare to mention the word ‘rum’. In due course, the ‘trucking only’ companies began to give way to packers and movers and hessian cloth was replaced by corrugated cardboard sheet, bubble wrap and cling film. My favored weapon, the sooa has was rendered obsolete by ducting tape. Moreover, I don’t think anyone makes fridge crates anymore, reams of corrugated sheet and thermocol are just as good. Above all, the macho truckers’ reps with their earthy and big-hearted ways and names like Om Pal and Dharam Singh have given way to smooth faced, English speaking, tie clad youngsters with business cards that read names like Nitin and Sachin.
However, the ethos and excitement of transfers remains the same.