But in Wellington, the quaintly beautiful cantonment town in the Niligiris, where the Field Marshal retired to, his memories live on.
Each year when I go for my annual lecture to the student officers at the Defence Services Staff College located in Wellington not very far from Coonoor and Ooty, at least one anecdote about Sam Bahadur, the Legend gets added to my stock. In 2012 I garnered more than my usual quota because I came twice in close succession!
Nothing prepared me for my trip this time though!
As I came out of the Coimbatore airport, an LO (Liaison Officer) in his crisp Madras Regiment uniform was as usual standing with the customary placard to receive me. As we walked to the Black Ambassador Staff Car, shining in the bright 30 degree sun, a tall man, his hair neatly combed and parted, wearing the Chauffeur’s khaki uniform, greeted me: “Good Morning Sir! I am Kennedy!”
I wished him back distractedly since I was busy looking at messages on the mobile after a two-hour long flight.
As we started our drive to Wellington, Kennedy asked: ” Shall I put the AC on Sir?”
After replying the affirmative, just to be polite I tossed a remark: “Have we met before, Kennedy?”
He said: “No Sir but I have seen you on TV and last year I also saw you at the function in the Field Marshal’s honour!”
Impressed and flattered at the same time, I ventured to ask Kennedy how well did he know the Field Marshal. His instant reply was: “Sir I drove him and Madam around for 22 years!”
My mind snapped back to attention from the numbness that a long flight induces.
Here was a variation of a situation that I encounter almost every fortnight: the talkative taxi driver who wants to impress you with his knowledge and wisdom. But this was different.
Here was a man who saw the Field Marshal closely for over two decades!
You would be foolish to let go of this opportunity Nitin, I told myself.
And the planned short nap be damned.
The inquisitive reporter in me was now wide awake!
So what is your most significant memory of the Field Marshal, I shot off the first question, my pen poised over the small notebook I fortunately still carry in my shirt pocket!
“Oh so many of them Sir,” Kennedy replied in his heavily Tamil accented English. I wanted to immediately ask a counter-question: which one is most precious but years of training as a print reporter made me hold back.
After a minute or two, Kennedy, who was perhaps trying to recollect his memories, said: “Whenever I went to his house with the staff car from the college (Defence Services Staff College), the first thing he would tell Solai (the Field Marshal’s Batman), Kennedy ko chai pilao, bread mein jam lagao, butter lagao! Each time, without fail, the Field Marshal would make me eat the bread-butter and drink tea,” an emotional Kennedy reminisced. “The Field Marshal had cows at home. The household made its own cheese,” he added.
And how often did you go, was my next question.
“Definitely once a fortnight. He was very particular to use the Staff Car only for official purposes,” Kennedy revealed.
Now there was no stopping Kennedy.
“Very often Madam (the Field Marshal’s wife, Silloo) would drive Sam to the market in her Maruti 800. Sam would purchase the essentials from the market himself–vegetables, meat– he loved doing that,” Kennedy recalled.
“You know something Sir, he bought the plot of land in 1960 when he was commandant of the Staff College but even as a Major General, he did not have enough money. He himself told me once ‘Kennedy I had to take out money from my provident fund to buy this land.”
Kennedy knew he had a captive audience of one in me now. The poor Madras Regiment soldier was just a mute spectator.
As we left behind the plains of Mettupalayam and started the gentle climb up the Niligiris, Kennedy was in full flow.
“The Field Marshal never said it openly but Madam and and other family members often made it clear that they were never happy with the way the government treated Sam after retirement. They gave him the baton, 5 stars and nothing else,” Kennedy said. “Not even a dedicated car,” an angry Kennedy recalled.
Now this was interesting and little disconcerting. Was this man sharing what he himself heard and saw or was he making it up mixing facts with gossip and innuendo?
Yes, one knew about the cold shoulder Sam got from successive governments but would he, even if he was unhappy, give that impression to anyone, leave alone his chauffeur?
I wasn’t sure, so just to change the subject, I asked him is Kennedy you real name?
“Real name Hridayraj Sir but was I born in November 1963 the same month when President Kennedy was killed. My father (we are Christians by the way Sir) thought Kennedy was a good man so he gave me the name Kennedy. Everyone knows me as Kennedy around here Sir,” the chauffeur who was unlike any other driver told me.
To bring him back to the Field Marshal’s memories, I asked him, “what else do you remember about Sam?”
“He was a pucca soldier,Sir. He would never eat his breakfast without getting fully dressed. Also Sam always used to deliver the last lecture for the staff course,” Kennedy revealed.
“Many senior officers, including Chiefs from Delhi and elsewhere would go and meet the Field Marshal whenever they came to Wellington. Often I would take them to the house. You know something Sir, (the most oft-repeated sentence in our one-way conversation!) I have driven more than 500 three star officers in my 27 years of service. I have been a driver to so many chiefs–Gen Rodrigues, Gen Sundarji (after his retirement Sundarji settled in Wellington), Gen Malik, Gen JJ, Gen VK, Gen Kapoor…” Kennedy was unstoppable now. He also knows which former chiefs’ father was a JCO!
Kennedy even had an opinion on one chief who he thought didn’t deserve the top post but became chief through political maneuvering in the first decade of this century!
Kennedy may sound opinionated but he certainly has phenomenal memory and information.
“You know Sir (that term again) Gen (KM) Seth, who was Governor of Chattisgarh and Tripura, was a CI (Chief Instructor,Army) here in 1992-1993? Later both his sons, one in the Army and the other in the Navy, did their staff course here. I was expecting the Army son to come here as DS (Directing Staff) but that didn’t happen!”
We were by now nearing Coonoor.
He was digressing. “Tell me more about Sam the father and husband,” I gently prodded him.
“Oh for him Madam’s word was final ( for which husband wife’s word isn’t, I wanted to ask him but didn’t, since he was in a trance). The Field Marshal was a loving father and grandfather. One of his grandsons looked exactly like him. Long nose, tall and fair. I never saw him scold any one. And he was always kind to people like us. When Madam passed away, Sam was a broken man. We knew he wouldn’t last long without his biggest strength,” Kennedy said in a voice that was clearly choking.
“You know Sir, President Kalam was the one who gave Sam more dignity than any one else. I drove the President to the hospital where the Field Marshal was admitted,” Kennedy recalled.
Kennedy was however extremely angry at how the government treated Sam in his death. “No chief came for his burial. Defence Minister Antony sent his junior minister, some Raju. Is this the way we treat our heroes Sir,” he asked.
Posing before a ‘4-starred’ car
I had no answer.
As we neared the Staff College, all that I could ask Kennedy to do was to share some photographs of his with the Field Marshal.
And sure enough, later that evening, he came with the photos.
Over the next two days Kennedy drove me to the college, to the market and to dinners, coming up with one anecdote or the other about Sam the legend.
As he dropped me back to the Coimbatore airport on Saturday evening, I couldn’t help but envy him a bit for having had the privilege of seeing the legendary soldier so up close.
Kennedy has a decade more to serve in his job but nothing will perhaps be as exciting for him as his years with the Field Marshal.