may want to see the obit I wrote on him: ‘Soldier of the mind’, IE, February 10, 1999, iexp.in/wMG89512). But I had started with him on a really embarrassing note.
In my coverage of Operation Blue Star, which drew wide international notice, I had made what would be an inconsequential mistake for any civilian but was a truly idiotic blunder for someone with claims to being a defence reporter. I had made the mistaken assumption that the 25-pounders used by the army to maul the Akal Takht had fired in trajectory mode. What that would mean is guns firing almost vertically upwards and the shells then following a parabolic trajectory to hit the target. I described the risk it involved in a crowded locality and how brilliant our gunners were that hardly any strayed despite the summer breeze. It was just a hyped compliment to our gunners, but embarrassingly wrong. The guns had fired in the direct mode and from a very close range. Many soldiers pointed this out to me but none as rudely and colourfully as Sundarji. “Ha! You defence reporters,” he said, “You can’t even tell the difference between bore and calibre.” And then, turning the knife even as he laughed, enjoying his own joke, “You can surely be big bores despite having low calibre.”
We became friends, fellow travellers on the strategic conference circuit and he even wrote a column for me that I pleased him very much by naming “Brasstacks” (the codename of his controversial exercise that nearly took us to war with Pakistan in 1987). But he never stopped repeating that lesson on gunnery to me.
Reporters’ lives are rough, chaotic but fun. Which creates justification for a lot of excess. Overeating, some drinking, no exercise and smoking (though not that last one in my case). In the summer of 1984, therefore, I weighed 83 kg (73 now). One of the fittest members of the hack-pack was always Satish Jacob, Mark Tully’s much-loved deputy at the BBC. We first met in Assam in 1983, when he was covering the aftermath of the Nellie massacre. He immediately told me I had to learn to exercise and by the time action was peaking in Amritsar, brought me from London my first pair of running shoes, an Adidas. You couldn’t get athletic shoes in India then and by teaching me to run, Satish added several energetic years to my life. As far as Satish and I are concerned, our fitness connection has just entered the fourth decade. His Bosnian daughter-in-law, Vesna Tericevic Jacob, is among Delhi’s topmost trainers, mine too, and isn’t she unforgiving!
In early enthusiasm, however, you can even overdo exercise, and in different ways. Like they say for the neophyte mullah chanting Allah’s name all the time, I wanted to run all the time, including under the burning late-afternoon sun on Amritsar’s curfew-bound, empty, tree-lined streets. One such afternoon, on Day 5 of Blue Star, I froze as a small convoy of machine-gun mounted Jeeps appeared from around …continued »