Is there anything other than people, places and proceedings, in isolation or in combination, that plays on our memory? Perhaps, not. And, within each of these combinations are embedded stories and sub-stories. I recall one such from my first trip to picturesque cold desert town of Leh, which was considered incomplete without meeting Col. Chewang Rinchen, the living legend who had won the coveted Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) twice during his active military service, for his dare devilry during Sino-India and Indo-Pak wars. What is more, he bagged his first MVC at a young age of 17 – then and even now a rare feat! Small in gait but firm in built, Rinchen was compact and swift as a ‘desert goat’ in negotiating steep slopes and deep gorges in the high altitude cold desert. A ‘desert fox’ would have been an apt nickname for him, had it not been assigned to German General Rommel during the second World War.
Retired from active service in 1984 but served as Honorary Colonel of the Ladakh Scouts for the rest of his life, Rinchen had hair-splitting encounters to share with us as we sat on his first floor living room above an upmarket restaurant he used to own in Leh. One such encounter with the enemy in taking control of the strategic outpost of Turtuk during 1971 Indo-Pak war was worth mentioning. Engaged with the enemy in dreadful hand-to-hand combat through the night, it had shocked Rinchen at dawn that the enemy he killed was twice his size, an imposing six foot plus Pathan. It still sends shivers down his spine, as his expressions revived a long-dealt fear factor.
Rinchen had an image larger than his short frame, every new military commander to the region would consider an honor to meet the legend first. Rinchen had most memorable meeting with Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw in a military party. While Introducing the most decorated living soldier, Manekshaw was accosted by an unusual question from his wife ‘what were you doing when this young officer was winning honors for the country?’ Known for his raw humor, the Field Marshal was uninhibited in his response ‘sleeping with you dear!’ It not only needs courage to laugh at oneself, but make others join in the process too. In highlighting human vulnerabilities, Sam’s humor in uniform had portrayed the lighter side to a rather tough life.
Rinchen lived his life to the fullest, considered an inspiration for youth in the region. At an altitude of 14,650 feet in Ladakh, a 1400-ft-long bridge on Shyok River now stands in his memory although he fought battles at much higher altitudes. To me, the bridge is a testimony to his never say die approach to life. It reflected in all that he would do, I recall how despite being wavering under the influence of few pegs of drink, the incredible officer had driven us to our hotel after hosting a dinner for us. We may have been scared, but not him. Even in those small and insignificant moments his firm resolve would come to the fore – ‘you only live once’ he would assert!
Days are meant to be gone, and so were those days. For those who visit Leh these days, a statue of Col. Rinchen at a public roundabout is all that is a reminder of the deeds of this valiant officer, and a gentleman. But I continue to cherish meeting the incredible soldier with awe and inspiration, because it is a sheer chance that the geography of a place creates sociology of a rare encounter.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)
Posted by Green Beacon at 12:32 AM