Brig Sandeep Thapar (Retd)

THIS will definitely come as a surprise to most millennials, who cannot visualise anything beyond their mobiles or tablets, but the most prized possession that we faujis could have in the 1980s was a humble transistor. A small, amazing instrument that operated even in the remotest areas and brought news, entertainment and much more, daily. It kept the soldier, deployed at the most isolated of places, connected to home and civilisation, helping maintain sanity.

Whether an officer or a jawan, you had only arrived when you bought a transistor. By today’s standards, it wasn’t costly at Rs 200 or so, but as a ratio of one’s take-home salary then, it was almost half. The most common brand then was Murphy, later others came in. One walked with pride carrying the newly acquired possession prominently. Immediately, some cloth camouflage pattern was bought and a cover was stitched. One’s Army number was unobtrusively but permanently etched to obviate loss or exchange. Needless to say, most owners were extremely possessive about their transistors; nobody but the owner could handle it. And only those programmes which appealed to him were played, at the time and volume of his choice, irrespective of whether others in the barrack liked it or not!

New friendships were formed, some old ones turned into rivalries based on liking of radio programmes. Among the Sikh boys, mainly it was Gurbani recital early morning, followed by Punjabi songs the entire day. Some old-timers liked to listen to news occasionally. But a programme that caught everyone’s attention was ‘Fauji Bhaiyon Ke Liye’ on All India Radio, where troops wrote letters asking for songs and messages to be read out to friends and family. The programme was heard in pindrop silence. Every request being read seemed like one’s own — ‘coming on leave’ was heard with a smile, ‘Baisakhi/Diwali greetings’ with a nod and ‘blessings to sister on her wedding’ with perhaps a tear rolling down the cheek! ‘Forces Request’ on Fridays was another such programme which mostly officers subscribed to. At posts where letters came in the weekly link, where there was no electricity or newspapers, where dusk meant it was time to sleep, the transistor was a great stress-buster. One knew all the programmes and stations by heart and what played at what hour. My love for Lata, Rafi and Kishore songs can be traced back to those days.

The transistor did not only have an entertainment role, it also helped a youngster like me control an agitated company. It was 1984, and we were deployed in Manipur at a post along the road. Operation Bluestar had created tremendous turbulence among my Sikh boys. The apprehension that someone may get highly worked up and attempt to go back home unannounced was prime on my mind. I ensured the troops were kept together and spent maximum time with them. Regular news updates on AIR were played out to calm edgy nerves. But, for some, AIR news was not considered accurate; they wanted to hear BBC Hindi only. Somehow, the BBC narrative was not along the same lines as the AIR version. It took leadership and diplomatic skills for a 24-year-old to manage censorship and tide over that fortnight without any untoward incident.

The penchant for BBC was widespread in the Army. Most senior officers liked to listen to the 6.30 am news. In 1986, as a young Captain, I was detailed as a Liaison Officer to a GOC on a three-day visit. I was made to believe by the HQ that the success of the visit largely depended on my ability to ensure that everything went smoothly. On Day One, as I wished the GOC good night, he said, “I have to go for a walk early morning. Can you please record the 0630 BBC news for me, I will listen to it on my return at 7.” I immediately arranged a tape recorder, a transistor and practised some recordings. In the morning, I was ready with my equipment but was delayed by a minute or two and missed the opening. I frantically searched for the station and the moment I heard news in English, I pressed the record button. The recording went on for some seven minutes before the newsreader said, “This is Voice of America.” The next BBC bulletin was at 7.30 am, I was doomed. As the GOC arrived, I walked in and before he could question me, I sheepishly blurted out my mistake. Fortunately for me, he took it sportingly, saving my nascent career!

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