"Gentlemen, deserts of Rajasthan and Cholistan (Pakistan) are like vast brown oceans. Navigating your way during the day is difficult and at night, tough. Stars are your friends because in the absence of landmarks, they guide your movement in the general direction."
Armed with this knowledge imparted by our tactics instructor during the young officer's course, I embarked on a train journey from the Deccan Ghats of Ahmadnagar (our training school) in Maharashtra to join my unit deployed for a war exercise at Barmer (Rajasthan).
After switching from broad to meter gauge at Jodhpur, the train steamed in at the deserted Barmer station before dusk. My field haversack was dumped in an open jonga (a luxury army vehicle of the 1980s). Captain FP, the squadron second-in-command, was there to receive me.
Known for his gluttony, he had 'tabled' half a dozen Mirchi Bondaas (a Rajasthani dish) in my welcome. He informed me that the unit was camping at a place called Kumharon ki Dhani (dhani is a habitation comprising varied number of mud and straw hutments), about an hour's drive from the railway station, and that we would have to brace ourselves for a north-bound cross-country desert journey. Apprehensive of FP's overconfidence, I looked up at the starry sky and realised that the north star was exactly in the opposite direction to where we were headed. Gathering guts, I asked him to recheck the route. He gave me a shut-up call, "Youngster, I have been in the desert longer than you and know which side is north."
I silently digested the weird logic. Lo and behold, after going around in circles the whole night, we returned early morning to the place from where we had started, the Mirchi Bondaa joint at Barmer. This was my welcome to the fabulous desert.
During another war exercise, I, as a second lieutenant, was tasked to lead the regiment across the dense desert dhoraas (dunes) at night, an onerous task with 45 tanks in tow. One wrong turn and chaos! As luck would have it, the sky was overcast with a continuous drizzle in shivering January. My friends, the stars, had ditched me and the good old prismatic compass remained the only technological aid during the early 1980s to assist me on this 50-odd-km journey through nowhere.
To top it all, the brigade commander, a seasoned cavalier, threw a bait of a case of Scotch whisky for the regiment which would reach the destination the earliest before dawn (three regiments were on the move that night on different routes).
The difficult contours sprinkled with village tankaas (ad hoc water storage kutcha dugouts covered with twigs and branches), coupled with electromagnetic disturbance produced by a 40-tonne rumbling tank, made the mounted use of a compass impossible. I decided to dismount with the compass and started running in front, guiding the entire tank column like an infantryman. The 'run and ride' lasted 50 km.
It was only after reaching the destination, near Raja Ki Dhani, that I reported, 'In location', on my wireless set. Our bounty, a case of Scotch, arrived pronto in the morning in a jonga from the brigade headquarters!
So enamoured was I of the desert that we spent our honeymoon in the enchanting dunes. My wife, a Himachali, was apprehensive, till she experienced the starry, moonlit night of the desert. The romantic singer in her couldn't help but hum, "Yeh chand sa roshan dhoraa, kyon kehtey ho ise koraa, in mein kho jaane ko jiya machley moraa" (Why do people call these moonlit dunes barren? My heart yearns to lose itself in their splendour).