In 1986, I was commanding an artillery regiment near Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh when the infantry division planned a major sand-model exercise, and dropped a "bombshell" on us. The army commander was scheduled to attend the event for a day; and the division headquarters had assigned the artillery brigade to host a lunch in his honour.
The task came to my regiment eventually. Since I was attached with the command headquarters in Udhampur to manage the aviation branch, the brigade commander called me back to give me my brief, which was that the lunch must be of the highest standards. Thus, "Operation Grand Lunch" was launched.
I had the conference of my regimental officers, and they would do the duties I gave them. I encouraged them to involve the regiment's ladies to take advantage of their expertise in catering and decoration. The officers' mess was to be spruced up with new flooring, curtains and paintings; and all we had was 10 days.
A team went to Pathankot to select and purchase the curtains and the floor covers. After it came back, a team of tailors was put to work in the mess. It slogged through the day and well into the night to meet the target. Next, we required fresh fish from the Beas river and flowers from Hotel Asia in Jammu.
Another team had to arrange for the favourite drinks of the big man; so Golden Eagle beer was bought from a civilian shop and Napolean Brandy from the Command Officers' Mess cache. Four days from the event, I was asked to get a few bottles of French white wine. It is not available anywhere around; but as the army takes no excuse, I got in touch with a friend from the Polo Club in Delhi, who worked in an embassy. Naik Angrez Singh was rushed to Delhi by the evening train to fetch the wine and he was back the day after. With a day to go, we had everything, including the curtains, in place.
The day of reckoning arrived. After the sand-model exercise, all congregated at the officers' mess, which was sparkling in its new livery. The army bands were in attendance. Everything went as planned until the lunch was to start. My second-in-command called me discretely to the pantry and gave me the bad news. The corks of both French wine bottles had broken mid-piece and I was to decide the next course of action.
I told the team to push the corks back inside the bottle, strain the wine through muslin, and pour it back into empty bottles, which were then wrapped in starched white serviettes. The wine was served and guests were none the wiser. The lunch was great and appreciated by the big boys present.
I heaved a sigh of relief as the army commander left the station. Unfortunately, the commander blew his top when I sent him the party accounts for approval. He was upset that each officer's share had come to Rs 300, a big amount for the army in 1986. Anyway, all went well when the general officer commanding of the infantry division sent a good-show message to the brigade commander. "Operation Grand Lunch" had been a success.
(The writer is a former officer in the artillery.)