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A soldier extraordinaire and the woman behind him

Lt Gen Prem Bhagat was the first Indian to be conferred the Victoria Cross during World War II. Lalita Panicker writes.

books Updated: Jan 26, 2013 18:01 IST
Lalita Panicker

The Victoria Cross
Ashali Varma
Rs. 375 pp 243

To turn a quote from Shakespeare on its head, the good that men do often lives long after them. Lt. Gen Prem Bhagat's example is testimony to this. In a tender book The Victoria Cross: A Love Story, his daughter Ashali Varma tells the story of the legendary general who was courageous, a stickler for integrity and most of all, a totally devoted husband to his beautiful wife Mohini.

His heroism is still remembered many decades after his premature death. His prowess on the battlefield is still spoken of in hushed tones across cantonments even today.

There were no half measures where Prem Bhagat was concerned. He never held back, except when it came to not letting his wife worry too much about his life on the battlefront in places like North Africa where he served in the Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners.

When the going got rough, Prem's letters to Mohini became full of droll humour and he is almost playful in his approach to what could only have been a very arduous task.

This is brought home with frightening clarity when we read of how he personally cleared a landmine.

His crowning glory was perhaps being conferred the Victoria Cross during World War II, the first Indian to receive this.

Prem Bhagat's accomplishments are legion, one of the principal being the Henderson-Brooks/Bhagat enquiry report on India's humiliating defeat at the hands of China, something Prem had the foresight to predict. As with all soul-searching reports which offer lessons about mistakes, this one too was mothballed and has not seen the light of day.

Surely, such a man would have been the logical choice to lead the army. Sadly, Prem was both not pliable and too popular with his men - negative qualities in the eyes of a paranoid political class.

The men to whom he had devoted his life were devastated, but the strength of his wife's unwavering love saw him through those dark days.

He bounced back as head of the Damodar Valley Corporation, which he turned around.

His love for his daughter and son was overwhelming and the author, whom the general often called Papoose, much to her embarrassment, was clearly the apple of her father's eye.

This is both, the account of an outstanding solider and the woman who stood by him. The book is an inspiration not just to the army but to anyone interested in learning more about a unique human being and soldier extraordinaire.