I found him sitting inside the manager’s office, wearing the same old chocolate brown trousers, a white shirt and a brown cap. He seemed angry and troubled. The hapless manager and I exchanged pleasantries. I wished my old man and sat with a sigh on a chair next to him. Thankfully, I was around to intervene. The manager briefed me about the incident. It was going to be a difficult job but I didn’t have a choice.
So, I asked him straight away, “Sir, you’re an honourable old man, a nonagenarian sir, why did you steal the chocolates, sir?”
“Prasad, you are embarrassing me with your repeated sir, sir…”
“Oh, stop it! I know, I picked a few chocolates. How does it matter? Did I kill anybody? It’s a big store. Will they collapse?”
“But sir, you distributed more than twenty bars of chocolates to the children in the street. I think you’re still carrying a few in your pockets. Apart from that, you announced to the crowd that the store is offering free chocolates. It was utter chaos outside.”
“Don’t bother me. You know, I’ve negotiated shady deals, assassinated a few, hatched conspiracies. What’s this? Petty issues, I tell you.”
“Sir, you don’t understand…”
“I don’t understand. You’re telling me? The one and only, Captain Charan Lal Pandey. Do you know? Nehruji used to take my advice. I taught Sanjay and Rajeev.”
“Yes, sir, I know.”
“But Indira was autocratic. She never listened. I never went to that house after Nehru’s demise.” He dwelled on, reminiscing the past glories.
I nodded, patiently waiting for him to finish.
“Sir, please don’t do it again. I’ll bring whatever you wish for, at your home.” I said, trying to bring him back to the present.
“Never mind, Prasad. I am getting old but I can still drive, do my work. You know, the other day; I went to watch a movie in the Army cantonment’s cinema hall. All by myself. People are courteous there. They proffered my usual drink and offered to drop me home. I refused. I told them I’m still young.”
“Okay! Prasad, I’m leaving. Ahem! pick a cheque from my place in the evening. You know, I’m the longest surviving officer who’s drawing a pension.”
I walked along to see him outside. The captain walked with a slight bend but didn’t need a stick. He could still salute back smartly like any young officer. The legend and his vintage car, a white Maruti 800, was parked outside. The weather was getting a bit chilly. It had rained; the September winds were harbingering the onset of foggy cold winter days. Trees looked sturdier, taller, as if, conspiring with winter to cover the earth in a dark green shroud. Roses, wildflowers in the thick grass jungle were in full bloom.
“By the way, Prasad, It’s my birthday today. I’ve always distributed chocolates to children. I’m their ‘Chocolate Papa’.”
“Oh! Happy birthday, Sir”
“You’re invited to the party at my place.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
Before driving out, the captain chuckled, “Oh, that was fun! The manager spoiled the game.”
I smiled and thought, ‘Strange! It’s been just a month since I met him. How do some relationships grow on you!’
I stopped at an STD booth to make a phone call.
I was drawn to him one night while he was recounting his days in Force 136 as an intelligence officer. Uproarious laughter followed by others joining in made it a lively party. I entered the room to find an old man in a dapper chocolate brown suit whose hands shook but not his robust voice. That day, it was his escapades in Burma. Later on, I’d the chance to record his adventures in Germany, Russia, Britain, and the USA. He’d a trainload full of stories that kept people enthralled for hours.
Captain Charan Lal Pandey was a tall, fair, frail old man with striking dark brown eagle eyes and an endearing smile. He was the centre of attraction of all the gatherings in a small town, Kasauli. I met him at Major Ajith’s home. Ajith was a close childhood friend in the Indian Army. I was on a writer’s sojourn. Ajith’s posting to the picturesque valley of Kasauli, came as a blessing in disguise. I requested him to arrange for accommodation and he happily obliged.
Captain Charan was a charmer, “My dear, I must compliment your baking skills. That’s an excellent chocolate cake. Your husband’s a lucky man.”
He would hum a tune, cheer a group to sing along. His favourite song was from a movie, ‘Hum Dono’, ‘Main Jindagi ka Sath Nibhata Chala Gaya’.
He took a spoon full of the chocolate cream. Rolled his tongue inside, closed his eyes and said, “Ah! The good old days. You know, these chocolates saved my life in Burma. We used to get Cadbury chocolate bars in a tin-box packing in our supply rations. The chocolates came from England for us as a reward. I always kept a bar or two in my dungaree.”
I was intrigued. I asked, “What happened there, sir? How did chocolates save your life?”
Everyone stared at me with looks to kill. Ajith shook his head and ran the left hand in his hair. It was a sign. I asked him in Tamil about his changed expression.
Surprisingly, I got the reply from the captain, “Young man, he’s tired of my ramblings, ask no more.” He’d a hearty laugh.
“Oh! You understand Tamil too.”
Ajith smiled helplessly.
“Yes, my dear, I’ve served in Ceylon. But, that’s not the reason. I have a way with languages. I’m well versed in sixteen languages. Your friend knows everything.”
I looked at Ajith. His eyes betrayed his facial expressions. I could feel restlessness in the air. But I’d to probe.
Oblivious to others, the captain accepted a refill of the Glenfiddich scotch and began.
“Force 136 had played a vital role in the liberation of Burma. We were on a mission to gather intelligence and support for the resistance operations against the Japanese. The Japanese had raised a force from the POWs of Singapore, Malayan Tamils, Indian National Army, and Burma Independence Army. We recruited the locals for British Burma Rifles and trained them in guerrilla warfare. Several other smaller dissatisfied groups joined in. By April 1945, our unit managed an uprising that played a vital role in regaining Rangoon back from the Japanese. Our efforts of almost 4 years brought results. We celebrated. My happiness short-lived.”
I was all ears with ‘whys’ written all over my face. He took another sip and a couple of peanuts to chew on the story.
“We’d captured a few prisoners of war. They included officers/soldiers from INA. At that time, we were forbidden to interact with the INA. Even during our operations, we never ventured near their camps irrespective of our intentions. But the successful coup relaxed the rules. I met Ghanshyam in the POW camp. His words kept ringing like a bell. He was one of my students. That April became torturous, heat scalding me inside out.”
“So, you were a teacher too.” I was amused.
“You see, I was the professor of Linguistics and Sanskrit. I also used to teach Hindi to the British officers in the Meerut cantonment.”
“I hope you’re aware of the Indian independence movement abroad, funded and fuelled by the NRI’s.” He asked.
“Yes, sir, I’m an avid reader.”
“Ghanshyam was the fourth-generation soldier in the 1st Jat regiment. More than half of his village had served in the Indian British Army. His regiment was sent to Malaysia in 1942 during the second world war. There was already unrest due to racism, the scornful attitude of Malaya people and the independence movements across the world. The Indian Independence League, clandestinely, met a few Indian officers and soldiers. They instigated them to join the swaraj movement. When the Japanese invaded Malaysia, the troops suffered heavy casualties. The Britishers seemed to be heading for a defeat. The futility of fighting a war that doesn’t recognise their contribution, fear and patriotism too I believe, many rebelled and joined the Swaraj movement. A few defected officers, other ranks and the local Indians formed the INA. Ghanshyam was one of the defected officers.”
Another sip of the scotch and he asked others to refill their drinks. “Don’t worry, I won’t take long. Help yourselves with some snacks. We’ll have dinner after this.”
“Well, the patriotism bug bit me. I was raising an army, mingling with locals, gathering intelligence against the Japanese for another country that was looting my country. It struck me hard. I was his teacher. Ghanshyam had taught me a life lesson. We’d nothing to do with the Japanese, whereas, British ruled us, pitched our brothers against us, used them as toilet paper, threw them crumpled and soiled forever. I was standing in front of my pupil, proud of sabotaging his efforts to win freedom! I sensed hatred when he addressed me as Sir. He was termed a traitor. His mocking smiles were accusing me instead. I couldn’t do much. I offered him my chocolates.”
“So, that’s it? You didn’t do anything for those captured Indians?” Ajith’s wife asked.
“Ah! I’m invigorated to have the attention of a lovely young woman at the age of 92. But with your permission dear, let’s call it a day lest your husband would stop inviting me. Gentlemen, let’s have dinner.”
He smiled, “I wrote an escape plan in Sanskrit in the wrapper. He escaped with six other prisoners.”
“I left for another base, deep in the forest towards Thailand. The Japanese had retreated towards Thailand. A coup was planned to disrupt the Japanese occupying force.”
“So, chocolates saved Ghanshyam’s life and he, in turn, saved yours?” I asked.
“No, Ghanshyam got lost in the jungle. He couldn’t make it.” My friend and a few others replied in unison.
I was dying to learn the entire story but I’d to compose myself for the sake of others who were about to murder me. The aroma of the Mughlai cuisine, Kashmiri pulao, and fresh bread invited me to the table. The captain was a mild eater but he returned to the chocolate cake again to savour the last bite. We bid goodbyes to everyone.
Once alone, I cornered my friend, “Now, tell me the story, you were most reluctant to hear from the horse’s mouth.”
He smiled, “We meet the captain at almost every party. We love his stories but making him sit for long is not good for his health.”
“No, you all have heard all his anecdotes.”
“Yeah! That too…”
Ajith didn’t divulge much except that the captain sustained on two bars of chocolates in the Burmese forests while trying to reach the nearest base of his unit.
“Is there something more to him?”
Ajith was lost in his thoughts. He explained, “The captain is a cynical old man. He loves baking stories to grab attention. Otherwise, who would bother with his blabbering in public? He’s losing his mind.”
Ajith laughed, “By God! Prasad, don’t you try to find a plot here. I’m warning you.”
I couldn’t sleep the whole night, tossed and turned, guessing stories in detail, craving for an orgasmic release. The next day, I made a call and fixed an appointment.
Sitting in a garden chair, the captain was basking under the sun when I reached his home. An orangish-brown kitten, running after the butterflies, was giving him company. Tall chir pine trees were playing with the sunshine and a pleasant October wind. The rows of colourful hydrangeas, marigolds, dahlias, roses in flower beds along with some seasonal plants in chocolatey-brown pots adorned the pathway to the entrance of his veranda. The coffee table, covered with chocolate and white check prints spun cloth and matching chocolate napkins neatly arranged on one side in a tray, was set for the two of us. Chocolate walnut cake, cookies, salted cashew and a spicy snack were already placed in the airtight glass containers. He asked if I preferred tea or coffee. I declined. I was keen to listen to his story.
He was wearing chocolate brown comfy track pants and a white t-shirt. I handed over a box of chocolates to him. The delightful ‘thank you’ with blessings nudged my heart. He looked beautiful with his childlike smile. I noticed the clothesline. I could only see various shades of chocolate browns from his wardrobe.
I couldn’t stop myself from asking him, “Is chocolate your favourite colour?”
He chuckled, “I love chocolates in every form, colour, aroma, taste or for bartering it for gainful insights. Chocolates are magical beings. They can transform life, bring a smile. So, anything for chocolates.”
“The colour is camouflage in mud, dark brown teak tree trunks, make you hide like an animal in tall grass. It soaks blood, the red turning to dark brown, dried plaster chipping off the chocolate skin walls. It saved me.”
“We were a team of eight, sent for a mission in Thailand. We couldn’t be airdropped due to a fault in the only C-37 aircraft available. We used our jeep to a motorable path and then abandoned it to continue on foot. You must’ve guessed by now that being a linguist, I was the cypher of the unit. My code name was ‘Red Cherry’. Deep in the forest while making contact with the headquarters, the Japanese caught our wireless signals. They bombarded the area. We ran helter-skelter to save our lives.”
He stood up and started pouring coffee from the kettle. I immediately came forward to help. He smiled and continued, pouring another cup for me. This time, he did not ask if I wanted any. Not sure of chocolates but the old man had a penchant for leaving his lover just at the height of ecstasy.
“It was June already, the peak of monsoon in Burma. My luck turned to dogs, it started raining. I was running with my equipment. Gosh! It turned heavy. I lost track of time and my colleagues. Mud sticking to my shoes, clothes dripping wet with rain and sweat, each step was turning to lead. I slipped into a ditch full of muddy water. It was swallowing me inside. I’d to abandon my radio set to swim out of it. Completely exhausted, I clung to a shrub hanging at the one end of the ditch. Life flashed like a movie with selective episodes of my parents, university days and Ghanshyam. I shuddered. With one last strong push of will, I came out of the ditch and rolled over, farther away from it. I dozed off or fainted, I can’t say. When I came back to my senses, I found the last light gradually leaving me into the dark alleys of a green demon turning darker every passing minute. I had to gather strength to climb a tree lest I became history. Croaking frogs, hooting owls, crickets, insects glowing in the dark kept me enthralled and alert. There was some sweet pain in my skin like a thousand needles gently piercing at odd places. Too tired to check, I decided to tie myself to a branch at a comfortable angle. I slept.”
“It stopped raining. The first rays of the Sun brought back the majestic greens to life, illuminating the muddy path, and the ditch that had completely digested my radio set. My khaki uniform had turned chocolate brown due to the reddish-brown soil. I rummaged into my pockets. I found chocolate bars and the lethal cyanide capsule too, tied in a black thread. The thread had another small silver capsule, with some sacred powder, rice grains, turmeric, and grass infused with a mantra. My mother had tied it on my left arm before I left home. I licked the melted chocolate, pure bliss and energising. I looked at the thread with two capsules. Such a paradox, I’d tucked the blessing of life with the death wish. ‘What if I open the wrong capsule when caught?’ Or, which one would be considered wrong?”
“For my mother, I was Charan, her ‘lal’. For the mission, I was ‘Red Cherry’ with too much information. At that time, both were vulnerable.”
“I heard someone shouting instructions in Japanese. I hid in the thick bushes like a dead log. The cat and mouse game continued for two days.”
“On the third day, after scanning the area, I moved on towards the west with the sun by my side, and the rainy season’s rivulets to direct me. Rain now seemed like a blessing. I reached close to a river by the evening.”
“A slurp of chocolate every four hours was the only solace. Sometimes, sweet nothings become everything to look forward to. It was time to retreat and reach Rangoon. I was one useless captain without my secret weapon. I started walking upstream, carrying the leeches, getting plumper, feeding on my blood.”
We finished our coffee. A helper came from inside and picked up the cups. He introduced the helper as Ramesh who’d been with him for the past two years. He praised Ramesh as being the first servant who was intelligent and diligent too. I then observed Ramesh, a young local lad of around 20, maybe more. It’s hard to predict the age of hill folks.
I always sensed him around, without being seen or heard, paying attention and listening.
I asked, “Where did you find him, sir?”
“My previous one brought him from his village when he became too old to continue.”
“How long did you remain in the jungle, sir?”
“I walked for 10 days, surviving on jungle fruits and two bars of chocolates that I kept licking, time by time. I reached a village and sought help. They removed the leeches by burning the skin at the contact point. I’d high fever and gaping wounds. I suffered from scrub typhus. I sent a signal to Rangoon with a villager in exchange for my left-over chocolate and my knife. I promised him a thousand Kyat. The team from our base brought chocolates. I distributed chocolates to the village children. After fifteen days, I was shifted to the Force’s headquarters in Ceylon on a submarine.”
We found his car, deep in a ditch after 36 hours of search operations. The crane pulled it out. I prayed for him. His limp body was leaning on the steering wheel. The white shirt, soaked in blood, had turned into his favourite chocolate brown colour. I heard the faint noise of the car stereo, singing the Bollywood songs. The battery was dying with the dead man. Pity, he’d not even gone rouge, just aberrant.
I’d grown fond of the legendary old man. I’d visited him every day to listen to his experiences despite the resentment growing between Ajith and me. The images from his last birthday, which was celebrated two days ago, will forever be imprinted on my memory. He was dancing with a young lady, teaching her the nuances of ballroom dance. He’d no family of his own.
He’d said once, “God has his way of punishing his children.”
He regretted Ghanshyam’s death. He continued on the Britisher’s side. His father, a renowned doctor and a congressman, was close to the Nehru family. He couldn’t change sides. Force 136 was disbanded in 1946. Captain Red Cherry returned home. He’d become weak after fighting several infections. On regaining health and after a lot of introspection, he persuaded his father to convince the Congress party and Nehru to fight the cases of the INA personnel. Nehru agreed to become their defence lawyer and brought back the lost glory of ‘a forgotten army’. The INA personnel were sent home, not labelled as traitors but as heroes of the freedom movement.
Captain Charan Lal continued teaching, as a professor at Delhi University. He was associated with various embassies as a teacher of Hindi and Sanskrit. There’s another identity that only I knew.
‘Chocolate Papa’, a secret service agent at RAW. A truth suddenly dawned upon me, while writing. Certain mysterious ongoings had found answers. Someone was stalking me. I needed to get out of Kasauli.
I reported back on duty. While filing the ‘Chocolate Papa’ report for the record, I pondered over my life. I started getting restless. I didn’t want to get old.
The captain had turned 93. For him, age was just a number. Probably, God forgot him like his alma mater. One left him to live, the other one forgot to kill. Somehow, both got wind, it was too dangerous for him to live. Would wiping his identity, his record, wipe the murky muddy bloody chocolatey history? Chocolate Papa was a brave man but…
Hey, don’t get me wrong but when I look back, I gain strength in his dying words, “Don’t worry my son, we all are God’s mercenaries.”
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