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The military colours never faded

A son’s tribute to a man who commanded the Indian army, but saw it as his family, writes Aditya Sondhi.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2007 15:34 IST

Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa
Air Marshal K.C. Cariappa (retd)
Niyogi Books
Rs 200, pp 1,250

When I wrote to Air Marshal ‘Nanda’ Cariappa congratulating him on the book on his late father, Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa, OBE, I mentioned three aspects of it that were most striking.

One, when Air Marshal Cariappa was taken POW by the Pakistani forces in Khem Karan in 1965, and President Ayub Khan conveyed to General (later Field Marshal) Cariappa that his son would be released if he so wished, the General had replied: “They (Indian POWs) are all my sons. Look after all of them.”

Apart from Cariappa’s strength of character, the episode speaks volumes of the author’s relationship with his father and the extraordinary spirit that only the armed forces can induce.<b1>

The second interesting point was Cariappa’s ‘soft’ diplomacy — while visiting Pakistan, post-retirement, in 1967 — with Ayub Khan on the Kashmir issue on account of their old friendship. Often bred at the same place (Sandhurst, IMA, Oxbridge, etc.), many Indian and Pakistani military commanders share a strong personal rapport, which can be effectively used by the civilian leadership to build bridges.

Third, Cariappa’s spirit and grace at the function at Rashtrapati Bhavan in 1986 on being designated Field Marshal was inspiring. An 87-year-old man nursing an agonising toe injury, he’d stood as firm as a young officer would while receiving the honour.

Similar grace was shown by him when he got out of bed at the Command Hospital, Bangalore, in 1990 and got into a suit to receive President Narayanan. His reasoning: he could not meet his Supreme Commander any other way.

These episodes, among many others narrated in the book, underscore the character and spirit of Field Marshal Cariappa.
Moreover, the book, in a coffee-table format with a moving postscript by his daughter, Nalini, offers the reader little-known perspectives to the Field Marshal.

For instance, one comes to read of his intimate relationship with his siblings, his generally ‘English’ tastes (including his fetish for wearing suits even while eating dinner alone), his love for the patriotic Bengali poem Dhonodhanney pushpheybhora, his adoration for the Indian jawan and his peaceful and, at times, lonely days at the magnificent Kodagu (Coorg) family home, Roshanara. An array of priceless pictures, letters and certificates are included and truly enhance the readability of the book.

Notably, the book rubbishes the ‘coup theory’, which some authors propounded as the reason for Jawaharlal Nehru appointing Field Marshal Cariappa as High Commissioner to distant Australia rather than giving him a gubernatorial posting in one of our states.

Ultimately, this is a book meant more for a ‘civilian’ reader with a taste for trivia than for a student of military history. The publishers could have done well to avoid bloopers, such as the wrong date of the Field Marshal’s death in the concluding chapter, in what is otherwise a high-quality publication. Here is money well spent for a unique perspective to the Indian army, to Kodagu and its people and, of course, to ‘Kipper’ — a great son of India.

Aditya Sondhi is an advocate based in Bangalore and Convenor, General Thimayya Memorial Lectures