The year was 1942. World War II was raging. Recruitment for Army was on in a big way.
The government encouraged agents to scout the villages for suitable boys who could be recruited in Army.
Muhammad din, one such agent, was a retired Subedar. He was a Rangad (Muslim Rajput, warrior clan).
He found and persuaded suitable candidates to join the British Army. Reward for this service was a murabba or piece of land.
These newly recruited Jawans were sent to the war front and were literally used as cannon fodder in Burma.
Prakash decided one fine day that he wanted to join the Army (at the ripe age of 14). He went to the recruitment office in Ajnala, a small town near their village.
He found Muhammad din standing outside the recruitment office.
Muhammadin asked him,” Pachheya, bharti hon aaya hain?” (Pachheya (spoilt version of Prakash), have you come to be enlisted in the Army?)
Prakash, the brave and reckless, answered,” Yes”.
Muhammad din took him inside the office to meet the British recruitment officer.
Prakash was asked to remove his shirt as per practice and his chest was measured.
The British officer felt that Prakash was too young to be recruited and asked how old he was. Before he could answer, Muhammad Din said that he was old enough to be recruited and was a strapping lad.
He also suggested that they check and see if he had hair growing in his armpits. Supposedly hair growing in the armpits proved that a boy was past puberty and old enough to be recruited in Army.(!!)
The British officer agreed and Prakash was recruited in the army, then and there.
They put him in a bus with the other recruits.
Meanwhile Baldev, Prakash’s younger brother had rushed home to their village Rokhe on a borrowed bicycle, to inform their father Aparnath that Prakash had enlisted in the Army and was immediately going to the Army training camp in Ferozpur, about 200 kms away.
Aparnath was shocked at this disturbing news and rushed to the recruitment centre in Ajnala.
He pleaded with the office staff to let his boy go as he was only 14 years old. He was told that Prakash had enlisted of his own accord and could not be let off without sufficient reason.
Aparnath abused Muhammad Din roundly for having led his boy astray.
Muhammad din warned,” Panditji, gaalan na kaddo. Tuhada munda aape aayea bharti hon vaste.” (Sir, don’t abuse me. Your son came to be recruited. I did not bring him here.)
Prakash sat dispassionately in the bus and watched his father fretting and fuming. He felt a sense of satisfaction to see that he had caused so much fuss.
After some time, the bus full of new recruits was driven off to Amritsar railway station en route to Ferozpur. From there they were to be sent to Kasur for further training and placement.
The excited boys out-for- adventure were dropped at the Amritsar railway station, 14 kms away.
It was a winter night. Winters are bitterly cold in Punjab.
Prakash had only the clothes on his back and no luggage. He had enlisted on a whim and had not known that he would be spirited away so quickly.
He was cold and hungry and thought about his home and his loving grandmother.
Then he thought of his six brothers and sisters and how everything was so difficult to come by at home.
He thought of the adventures that he will have, the new places that he will travel too, the new types of food that he will eat, the money that he will earn, and he knew that he had done the right thing.
One needed to move away from the family to earn respect and a standing in society.
Thus fortified with his new resolve he spent the night roaming around on the railway station. He assuaged his hunger with a cup of tea and stood around the fires burning to keep the destitute people warm through the night.
At 4 a.m. the next day, the train left the Amritsar station with the recruits on board and reached Ferozpur at 1 p.m. The recruits were taken to the Army camp, billeted there and issued supplies.
Supplies consisted of army issue type clothes, mess tin and other necessities. Prakash was excited to have so many new things.
The training cycle began.
The boys were enthusiastic and in good health. Food was plentiful.
They took the hard training in their stride and were learning the ropes to be professional soldiers in the Army Supply Corps.
Meanwhile, Aparnath decided to get his son out of the blasted army no matter what it took. He was not ready to let him die in some foreign land.
He came to meet Prakash in Ferozpur Army camp and asked him if he understood what he had done. He scolded, “Kaka, tu eh ki kitta”?
Prakash was quiet. His initial enthusiasm to be a fauji (soldier) had abated a bit in the one month that he had been away from home.
He told his father that they were to be sent to Burma after training, to fight there.
Aparnath wanted to cry because he knew that Burma was the killing field of World war II and his son will not come back alive from there.
He came back to Amritsar and met his sister Wanti’s son Devki Nandan to ask for his help.
Devki Nandan was a lawyer’s munshi (assistant ) and thus a man of some influence through the good offices of the lawyer.
The good lawyer (name not known) wrote a petition to the deputy commissioner of Amritsar apprising him of the situation and how a 14 year old boy had been recruited into the Army against his father’s wishes. He used the term vargala ke (by false representation or deceit).
This strongly worded petition made its way to the Army channels and ultimately to the commanding officer in Ferozpur army camp.
By then two months had gone by and Prakash was still living the life of a recruit. Running around with the other boys, marching to the commands of left- right- left and eating to his heart’s content in the mess.
One day, a postman brought a medal to Aparnath’s house in the village.
Everyone in the family started crying immediately thinking that Prakash was dead and that’s why a medal had been sent home.
The truth was that it was a service medal routinely awarded after a certain time had passed. It had been sent home instead of being handed over to Prakash.
Around this time in Ferozpur, Prakash was very much alive and well. He was being ushered into the presence of his British commanding officer.
The CO asked Prakash, “Kya naam hai?” (What is your name?
“Baap ka naam?” (Father’s name?)
Prakash gave his name and his father’s name.
The CO asked,“Kisne bharti karwaya?” (Who made you enlist in the army?)
Prakash answered,” Muhammad Din ne.”
“Vergala ke bharti karwaya?” (Recruited by misrepresentation and coercion.)
The British officer repeated several times in amazement.
The CO asked,” Do you want to leave the army and go home?”
Prakash replied in the affirmative.
The British officer declared,” Discharged.”
This was all it took for Prakash to be released from the Army.
His friend Sundar asked him,”Kya hua?” (What happened?)
This was because a mere recruit almost never got to see his CO let alone be ushered into his presence.
Prakash said he had not understood completely but he believed that he was being sent home.
He stayed another two days in the camp while his discharge papers were processed. He was given 20 rupees as his wages and put in a train to Amritsar.
He reached Amritsar railway station late at night and spent another night on the platform as the earliest tonga (horse driven carriage) to his village did not leave until mid-morning.
Prakash stopped at the market place outside his village and bought sweet sugar cane worth 50 paise, as a gift for his family.
His mother, grandmother, father and the entire family were overjoyed to see him back home safe and sound.
Muhammad Din visited them after a few days on his ghori (mare).
He exchanged hot words with Aparnath about how they had spoilt his name and his reputation by accusing him of coercing Prakash to join the army.
He had lost the chance to win the murabba that a successful agent was given for his services.
Aparnath asked him to go his way and think about what he had done. He had sent a young 14 year old boy to die. He asked him what he would have done if it had been his son.
Muhammad din went away.
Prakash was saved from this dangerous situation due to the British’s sense of fair play.
In their book, no one could be allowed to do something vergala ke or by misrepresentation.
Simple petitions used to work those days.
Prakash ran away again a few years later and enlisted in British Air force. But that is another story.