The Eternal Hunger of the Homesick Soldier

Grub

The Eternal Hunger of the Homesick Soldier

Illustration: Juergen Dsouza

I

distinctly remember the night my father returned from his sailing expedition. He’d been away for twelve weeks, and five-year-old me had been counting the days until his homecoming. My mother hurried around the apartment, trying to ensure that everything looked perfect. All the furniture in the living room had been rearranged, dinner had been prepared early, and even my reclusive brother had stepped out of his room to wait at the dining table.

When he finally arrived, we rejoiced. He settled down on the table almost immediately and proceeded to lift the covers of each dish, breathing in the warm aroma of home-cooked food. There was dal, roti, aloo ki sabzi, and kheer for dessert. That memory stands out for me because that was the first time I had watched someone devour home food with such delight. It struck me for the first time, how much he had missed it.

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I went back to this memory earlier this week, while watching BSF jawan Tej Bahadur Yadav’s video trending on social media. Setting aside all criticism of Yadav breaching protocol and not following proper procedure to have his complaints addressed, I looked on in horror as he displayed the meals that they were being served. Out there on the front, doing a thankless job in inclement weather, away from any familial connection, food is sometimes your only comfort; your final resort. To deny a soldier even that must surely be criminal.

I recognised this elemental relationship in another story I grew up hearing. My father, now a retired naval officer, had just come off a warship, which often sails without docking near land for several weeks at a stretch and during these periods, good food becomes the stuff of dreams. That night, deeply satisfied after his meal, he told me about how in 1981 his ship was docked near New Moore, a disputed island between India and Bangladesh, and its crew remained hungry for two whole weeks. Their orders to sail toward the tiny patch of land in the Bay of Bengal had come suddenly. They had no time to stock up, and hence, within a matter of days, rations became scarce. After a week, even the biscuits had run out.

Morale on the ship was running low so the Commanding Officer, in a bid to lift spirits, announced a party, and benevolently opened the liquor cabinets for the crew. “We had the finest whisky, and the most fantastic vodka,” he told me, “But there wasn’t a grain of food to eat.”

Once they’d been relieved of their duty at New Moore, the entire crew was sent to Calcutta where they gorged on food as if there were no tomorrow. Once they’d emptied bowls full of piping hot dal, all their troubles and weeks of deprivation at sea lay forgotten.

The Indian army, my father told me that night, could march to the ends of the earth for hot dal alone.

For a person who spends weeks on end in the dimly lit confines of an underwater craft, nutritionally accurate food cannot hold a candle to dal-khichdi prepared at home.

Being a navy kid, I’ve grown up around tales of remote postings, heirarchies, pranks, bonhomie and tales of homesickness, but the common thread through all of them were always stories of food. I’ve heard of grown men slinking out in quiet nights to lift food from the galleys. I’ve heard of food being stolen from carefully guarded lockers. I’ve heard of hungry cadets in acute bouts of home-food withdrawal jumping over the walls of the Naval Officer’s Institute in Kochi, to have parathas at the Casino Hotel in town. I’ve even heard of cadets at the National Defence Academy stuffing toast down their shorts to snack on later.

From sailors running submarine operations to the jawans in Siachen, each solider has a unique story. Some of the most poignant ones come from Siachen, one of the most brutal postings an army man must survive. For the soldiers at the outpost, food makes for a brief and welcome distraction from the harshness of their daily life – even if it is only in dehydrated form. Every day, Indian-built Cheetah helicopters airdrop food supplies and men make the day-long journey down the mountainside to where small, parachuted packages would be dropped. I’ve heard stories of soldiers who broke down when due to poor weather conditions, some parcels sunk into the stark-white snow, getting lost forever. These were only pre-packaged Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), but the desolation was acute.

MREs are provided to the soldiers by the Defence Food Research Laboratory (DFRL), and they vary from chicken curry to paneer mutter. Soldiers simply have to heat the food over a kerosene flame. However, the same dehydrated package that could light hope in the hearts of a Siachen soldier, is completely rejected by the dal-chawal loving submariners. For a person who spends weeks on end in the dimly lit confines of an underwater craft, nutritionally accurate food cannot hold a candle to dal-khichdi prepared at home.

Such is the lure of home food that soldiers who come back from their hometowns in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Haryana with tins full of ghee find that they’ve hit the top of the popularity charts on their return. Soldiers with an extra supply of egg powder get the same warm welcome – egg powder is the most sought after breakfast item in the army since the result is so fluffy, you can’t even tell that real eggs weren’t used.

When you’re so starved for choice that an artificial surrogate is as good as the real thing, it speaks volumes about the grit and determination required to serve in the armed forces. To a tired naval man – or a BSF jawan – food is not simply sustenance. It is succour.

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