Man’s best friend!
(A work of fiction)
It happened during Op VIJAY in 1999. Tololing had just fallen. I had moved my field company to Drass. We moved into the heights of Sangro between Tiger Hill and the long Manpo La Ridgeline. I shared a bunker with a Maj Ajay, the company commander of Sangro Main where we were constructing field defences. Maj Ajay belonged to Alpha company of the GRENADIERS battalion which clung onto the Sangro ridge despite everything the Pakis could throw at them. Our post, Sangro Main, was regularly shelled by the Pakistani Observation Post at Pt 5109 to the North.
The Company Commander’s bunker at Sangro is on the crest of an exposed knoll connected by a hundred yard corridor to the nearby mountain side. Each day we had to get out of the bunkers carefully at unexpected intervals and scuttle along the ridge to the mountainside. For, if we dawdled or were seen, the ever watchful Pakistani OP would lob a few arty shells at us. On each of these hair-raising excursions, we were accompanied back and forth by Bozo.
Bozo, was a large biscuit-coloured Bhutia. He, and not Ajay, was the real king of Sangro. He would sit on top of the Company Commander’s bunker basking in the warm sunlight while we cowered inside or crept along the mountainside. When shelling began, he would yawn, stretch himself and cock his head to peer at the explosions. If he felt they were a mite close, he would amble inside the bunker. Not for Bozo were the jawans bunkers nestled safely amongst the rocks. No, his domain was the company commander’s bunker, the most exposed of all and the favourite target of the Pakistani Mountain Howitzers whose life’s sole mission, it seemed, was to land a shell squarely onto it and blow us all to smithereens. So far, it had not happened and Bozo being the Raja of Sangro naturally chose the Company Commander’s bunker as his home.
Being the Tiger’s dog, Bozo was the mascot of Alpha company and the choicest scraps were reserved for him. These he accepted with great dignity from Ajay’s hand only. The rank and file he ignored. It took me a long time and much effort before he deigned to grace me with the permission to pat his head! Bozo would lord over the other dogs who dare not show their snout anywhere near our knoll. Bozo accompanied Ajay everywhere. He was the apple of Ajay’s eye and they were inseperable. I marvelled at their affection for each other.
In war, bunkermates become bosom-buddies and I soon came to know Ajay quite well. A courageous and competent officer, Ajay was undergoing great personal strife – he was accused of failing to press home an attack on a nearby feature.
Ajay’s company had been tasked to crack a particularly difficult nut, Pt 5200 which had a long flat exposed approach. Just as his company attack had reached the objective,their stealthy approach was noticed by one of the ever-vigilant Pakistani OPs and Ajay’s company were straddled by salvo after salvo as they tried to bunch up for the final assault. Ajay was knocked unconscious by an arty shell. After the accurate arty fire forced the company to retreat with a large number of casualties, the local commander blamed Ajay for this debacle, ignoring the fact that the next attack by an infantry battalion was also repulsed by the Pakistanis. Ajay was to face a Court of Enquiry and a possible Court Martial. In those dark days, Ajay seemed to have no friend in the world, except for Bozo who lavished affection on him.
One fateful day, Alpha company was ordered to capture Pt 5109, our nemesis. As the troops moved up after dark, Ajay soon found that he was not leading just a company but also a large brown dog. Bozo, happy to do something new, was following him. Shooing him away had no effect. A well-aimed stone drew a whimper and it seemed that Bozo had returned to Sando. An hour later, as Alpha company crouched behind rocks with fixed bayonets, Ajay was startled by a warm wet tongue licking his face. Bozo was intent on assaulting with the GRENADIERS. There was nothing to do but go on. The company moved out silently and soon battle cries and barks surprised the Pakistani outpost which was quickly overpowered. Alpha Company tasted victory for the first time and that too without a casualty. The troops attributed this to the luck that Bozo brought with him and this time Bozo permitted all and sundry to pat him on the head.
Pt 5109 is ten yard narrow ridge with sangars on both sides and a trench in between. The Pakistani shelling soon began but either overshot or fell short. Later that night, a fog crept up and it became very cold. The troops huddled together, tired and miserable after the gruelling climb and adrenalin rush of battle. An hour passed. Suddenly Bozo stared into the fog and began barking loudly. Ajay immediately stood to with his men just in time to repulse a Pakistani counter-attack which had used the cover of the fog to get close to the post. Once again the GRENADIERS pushed back the enemy without a casualty.
Except for one, that is. Bozo was found bloody and cowering at the bottom of the trench after the attack. A piece of shrapnel had neatly sliced off his front right paw. He was quickly fitted with a first field dressing and the Company waited for daylight when a company of SIKHS climbed up to relieve them. Bozo was carried down by Ajay in his own arms, no mean feat since Bozo weighed over 20 kgs.
Bozo healed rapidly and soon adapted a three legged gait. He moved slowly, but with the same dignity and once again accompanied Ajay everywhere. He was still the Raja of Sangro. With Pt 5109 falling to the GRENADIERS and Tiger Hill falling soon after, we could now sit in the open and enjoy the sunshine on Sangro knoll along with Bozo. I can still recall, in my mind’s eye, Ajay and Bozo sitting beside me as the last rays of the evening sun fell on our faces and the waters of Pariyon Ka Talab glinted in the distance.
Soon, Ajay had to leave for his Court of Enquiry and he bid a tearful farewell to his best friend. I assured him that I would look after Bozo for him till he returned. Soon I shifted to a bunker on the nearby hillside next to the camp of my field company. Bozo continued to live in Sando but often visited me at mealtimes to the great delight of my sahayak who kept the choicest marrow bones for him.
In early October, Ajay returned. He had finally been exonerated, but his battalion was moving out to a peace station in the desert. He resolved to take his best friend with him. I kept silent as he first retrieved his luggage, then collected Bozo’s collar, dish and blanket and loaded them in the 1Ton. As he turned to get Bozo from where he was basking in the evening sun at his usual spot atop the bunker, I placed my hand on Ajay’s arm. He looked back enquiringly. I quietly reminded him that Bhutias are dogs of cold weather and high altitude and that Bozo would definitely not survive the desert summer. Ajay’s eyes mutinously but silently refused to acknowledge the truth of what I was telling him. But in the heart of hearts, Ajay knew that what I said was true, and now deep sorrow filled his eyes. My hand dropped from Ajay’s arm. He walked over to the knoll and sat next to Bozo. They spent a few moments together and then after petting him for the last time, Ajay returned. He shook hands with me. We could not look each other in the eye. Without looking back Ajay got into the 1Ton and drove away. Bozo was still sitting on the knoll enjoying the evening breeze, the undisputed three-legged king of Sangro.
Soon after, my field company finished our task and we too moved on. I have not yet been able to find anyone who could tell me how Bozo is at Sangro. Thus ended one of the finest friendships I had seen between man and beast. Truly, in those dark days, Bozo had been one man’s best friend.