The Indian Army's elite Special Forces are all about "pure soldiering" without the "stiffness" and "spit and polish" of the infantry, says Abhay Narayan Sapru, who served with the "Maroon Berets" for 10 years, rising to the rank of Major and earning a Sena Medal for Gallantry in the process and opted out once he'd had his "fill of combat".
Having served extensively in almost all the insurgency-ridden areas of the country -- Kashmir and the Northeast -- also in Sri Lanka with the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF), he has written three books on his days his uniform, the third of which, "The Savage Hills - A Tale of Terror and Revenge in Kashmir" (Chlorophyll/Wisdom Tree), has just been published.
It's earned high praise from the normally taciturn General V.P. Malik, a former Chief of Army Staff, who has described it as "a fascinating story written in superb language".
"Having operated in counter-military operations along the Shamshabari Range and on either side of the Pir Panjal Range in Jammu & Kashmir, I find the description of the terrain, locales and combat activities as authentic as can be. Only a Special Forces officer can go into such details," General Malik says of the book.
And to think that Sapru almost never made it to the army!
"I grew up trailing my soldier father from station to station. He was in the Paratroops. Soldiering watched at close quarters from the outside can be very inspiring to a growing-up kid. Nevertheless, my mother was against my joining up for obvious reasons and managed to dissuade me from joining the NDA, directing me instead towards a university education," Sapru told IANS in an interview.
At Delhi University, he was in the midst of aspirants for the civil services, but it quickly became clear to him that he was "incapable of the enormous amount of academic hard work and diligence necessary to crack the exams".
"On the other hand, I didn't mind putting in physical labour. The army, which hitherto had been just a blip on my radar, now started to grow in size and shape. I got through both the OTS and the IMA and ended up doing four months at the OTA in Chennai, before switching and starting my training all over again at the IMA in Dehradun," Sapru explained.
How did he choose to volunteer for the Special Forces?
"One needs to understand the environment that shapes ideas and decisions. In my last term at the IMA, we had a weapons instructor from the Special Forces. While other instructors would scream and punish, Hav Joginder would chastise you in the softest of tones, often challenging you to improve with his eyes and a gentle smile. He was different, dignified and tough, with a row of ribbons on his chest. He was the man who first planted the seeds in my mind to volunteer for the Commandos.
"Needless to say, I was sold on his tales of a free-style unorthodox form of soldiering. No spit and polish and stiffness of the infantry; just pure soldiering. Once a part of the SF, I soon realised it was a profession rather than a career and the motley of men who banded in their ranks were a collection of misfits, romantics, adventurers. They were there for the flavour of combat soldiering," Sapru elaborated.
Commissioned in 1988, he quickly earned his spurs in Sri Lanka
"It was perhaps the last big offensive carried out by the IPKF against the Tamil Tigers to oust them from their jungle lair in the Kilinochi area. SF teams were used extensively throughout the month-long op to fight their way into a large camp that existed there. As a corollary, the LTTE, to take the heat off their camp, attacked a Gurkha post in the vicinity, which was the landing stage by air for troops inducting for the op. A counter-attack was carried out by our team to dispel the Tigers from their vantage point. As a consequence, a few of their members were killed and wounded in the firefight. The SM was awarded for this action in 1990," he said.
Why did he choose to serve in uniform for only a decade?
"When you had your fill of combat or ran out of steam at the heady pace of deployment, you either volunteered out if you could handle the shift or quit. While some made the adjustment to realign in the army and treat it as a career, some decided to seek greener pastures once the excitement was over," Sapru explained.
He describes his authorship as a "hobby by default".
"After quitting the army, I joined the corporate world and finally quit that too a few months back as a Group President in a private bank. All three books have been written in office between mails, calls and meetings. I also wrote a few articles for Tehelka and have contributed short stories for the Outdoor Journal.
"The books are not in a chronological order of my service and the first novel, 'In The Valley of Shadows' is also based out of Kashmir which was my last operational posting. The urge to capture all the dramatis personae -- the locals, army and the mujahideen, involved in the so-called Jehad-e-Kashmir was very strong. The intention was to write a script for a movie but I didn't know how to write one. So it turned into a novel. The response encouraged me to write the other two.
"While the books go out as fiction, it would be fair to say most of the incidents, personalities, places are factual. As someone said, 'I saw what I saw and I heard what I heard' and I penned it all down," Sapru said.
What next? What's his next project?
"Perhaps it'll be a collection of short stories; tales from the border or from the back of beyond. Till then, I'll wait for the urge to write something," Sapru concluded.