TEXT BY ARJUN GULERIA
PHOTOS BY AANCHAL MALHOTRA
New Delhi, India
My story actually begins with a painting that adorns the wall in my grandmother’s living room – a recently commissioned portrait of my grandfather in his memory; a strikingly stately image of him poised in uniform. My grandfather, Brigadier Prem Singh, was born in 1916. From my father I’ve known that he was strict yet loving, and did all that he could to put family first. Even as an officer, he was known for his positive approach and unruffled manner which was a perennial source of inspiration for cadets and officers. He died a year into retirement, before I was born. And as a result, I never really paid attention to the painting, nor knew anything about him beyond the fact that he was once an officer in the army. Nothing extraordinary thus far in the narrative of a family that has followed a great tradition with the armed forces; my generation being one of the few exceptions to that rule.
However, technology and this age of social media ubiquitousness played an interesting role in rectifying that. A chance family photo posted online, with the painting of my grandfather in the backdrop, caught the eye of a friend. The regality of the painting struck her but more so the medals that decorated him in that frame. When she asked me about them, I found it odd that I didn’t know much. Medals carry an honour reserved for bravery and courage, and using that as my strarting point, I embarked on a quest to unearth the story of a grandfather I knew so little about.
Brigadier Prem Singh’s journey turned out to be particularly intriguing. He studied at the Government College, Lahore but soon ran away from home with a ‘toli’ of travellers headed to Patiala. He tried his luck with being in the King of Patiala’s employ but left shortly thereafter to join the British army as a soldier. He got married around this time and subsequently was commissioned into the British Indian Army. He was the first officer from Mandi district to serve in this capacity, and to commemorate this, the King of Mandi rewarded him with a grant of land! In the Corps of Signals, my grandfather was responsible for military communication. His first posting was in Quetta where talk of war soon gained ground. His unit was deployed to Iraq to participate in the theatre of World War II, which had him serving across the Middle East including Palestine, Egypt and the Persian Gulf!
Medals were awarded for his service in these countries and are a glimpse of that story – his travails and tribulations across the world. Now several years after his death, they live in a rectangular wooden box in my grandmother’s house. The inside of the box is lined with beautfiful sky blue felt and the row of medals and further tucked within a square of white felt. There are five in total, their ribbons worn and dusty from age and wear, but the coins itself are as brilliant as ever. In the order in which they are placed:
Indian Independence Medal, rewarded all members of the Indian armed forces serving on 15 August 1947 and all British military personnel for their contribution after the independence of the Dominion of India in August 1947
The India General Service Medal was awarded for service in Waziristan on the North-West Frontier of India between 1936 and 1939. The obverse featured the bust of the recently crowned King George VI, while the reverse feature a Tiger superimposed upon a mountain range with the word INDIA below. Only two clasps were issued, and the medal could not be awarded without at least one clasp. His reads, NORTH WEST FRONTIER 1936-37.
The India ‘Raksha Medal’, awarded for service during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. The obverse shows the national emblem and the reverse depicts a rising sun, with a half-wreath below.
The War Medal 1939–1945 was instituted on 16 August 1945 for subjects of the British Commonwealth, who had served full-time in the Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy for at least 28 days between 3 September 1939 and 2 September 1945
And lastly, The India Service Medal – 1939-1945, a campaign medal of the Commonwealth awarded to the Indian Forces for three years of non-operational service in India.
These medals were significant at the time that they were issued- markers of courage, pride and selflessness. But over the years, their value has gone unnoticed, which makes me think that perhaps what becomes mundane is a matter of perspective and time having passed. Perhaps even things of incredible significance can transform into items of everydayness. But having now been introduced to them and my grandfather, it is absolutely fascinating to imagine him travelling across the world, fighting wars in foreign lands to protect those he might not otherwise have any connection to beyond humanity. What a rich life and wealth of experiences to be gained in a world before globalization!
Just the thought of that swells my chest with pride for a man I might not have had the opportunity of meeting in the flesh. And it strangely brings life full circle, as my father too was awarded the Shaurya Chakra while he was serving. Is this sign of things in store for my future? Who knows?
Opportunity knocks on all our doors at different points in our life, and my grandfather’s decision to join the Army shaped the destiny of generations ahead of him. I stand here today, a summation of all those decisions he took as a boy from a small dusty nondescript village.