The Enigma of No 12

A memoir about the author's humble beginnings, difficult educational journey, and eventual admission to the elite Indian Army, culminating in a proud veteran's life dedicated to serving the country.

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Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.)
Lt. Col. M.A Siddiqui (Retd.) was commissioned in the Corps of Signals in December 1957. He participated in the Wars against China in 1962, against Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. He was awarded 'Mention in Dispatch' in the Bangladesh Liberation War 1971. His contact details are: [email protected], Ph: 9818260900 * Views are personal.

When I look back at life, I often wonder how we managed to get some form of education amidst the adverse circumstances we lived in. In those days, there were only academic, engineering, or medical colleges to which one looked forward to admission after finishing the intermediate or “Plus 2” level. The education system was not centralized then, and every state board had its syllabus. We lived in an obscure town called Katihar in Bihar. The town’s only important was its railway junction, with rail lines going in five directions. In Bihar, we completed matriculation after 11th grade and then moved to college to study intermediate for two years before going in for graduation. In Bihar schools, science was not taught until high school, and one only started studying science as a subject at the intermediate level- that was when they chose between the medical or engineering stream, depending on their aptitude. What you would become in life was your parents’ decision, and we had no say in the matter. Unlike the present times, when many options are available to children, our options were limited in those days. The competition was also not as intense as it is nowadays.

Another problem was that my serious schooling only started in class nine, to which I was admitted for the first time. My father had this strange notion that children get spoiled in school and pick up bad habits. So, he planned for us to do high school privately. We had a tutor who came to teach us, and we played all the time when he was unavailable. I used to watch students going to school in the morning, carrying books held in hand at shoulder level and found it very fascinating. Nobody carried books in a bag like they do now. So, one day, I told Ammi that we needed to get admitted to a school where they had a tutor for each subject, but our teacher would only teach Maths and English. what about other subjects like history, geography, and so on? By the way, our teacher used to teach Urdu in school but taught us maths and English at home! So, Ammi had a chat with Abba, and that is how our regular schooling started. The next day, our tutor took my younger brother and me to Islamia High School and filled out the admission form. When it came to the date of birth, he made a calculation and filled in a date almost a year earlier than my actual date of birth. When I pointed this out to him, he explained that I would become eligible for a government job at an earlier age, and this idea thrilled me to no end that I would be able to start working early in life. It was only when I started applying for various courses that I found the recorded date of birth was a disadvantage for me. 

On the first day of school, the homework given to us was to write an essay on a subject. I was totally stumped! I had no clue about what an essay was, and our teacher never ever mentioned anything, either. So, I had a tough time putting the words together that made some kind of a reading. The teacher saw my write-up the next day in school but said nothing. He must have assumed that another mediocre student had joined his class. However, that situation soon changed, and I started doing well in my studies. I completed high school without a hiccup until I landed in a college in Allahabad.

When it was decided that I would go to Allahabad for further studies, it was not a decision where I had any say. That is how I landed up in the college. I did not have a clue about science subjects like chemistry and physics. In the beginning, I used to sit clueless about what was being taught. The lecturer, assuming that all students were at the same level of knowledge, did not start teaching at the elementary level but proceeded as per the syllabus. The result was that I always lagged behind in the class, putting me under tremendous pressure. Earlier, you just had to score passing marks, and it was not counted in total to determine in what division you passed. You were considered a bright student if you got above 60% marks. So, I did not get a first division in intermediate class- and had no clue about what I would do next. One day, someone told me of an advertisement in the newspaper stating that apprentices were being taken for training in marine engineering in Bombay.

The bright side was that you also got a monthly stipend of Rs 100, a princely amount in those days. I landed in Mumbai with eyes wide open- everything appeared straight out of a dream. I found myself jostled in the city of film stars, where people went crazy trying to get a glimpse of their favorite hero or heroine. Our hostel was in Colaba, an upmarket area even in those days. Shakila was a top heroine and used to live in a building opposite our hostel. We tried our best but could never get a glimpse of her. I met the same Shakila in my Anjum’s (my daughter’s) apartment in Mumbai in 2005 when she had come to meet Rashda, my wife. I reminded her of her days when she lived in the Colaba area. 

Mumbai was a great place for games and sports. I used to watch cricket and football matches. I saw the greats of that time, like Frank Worrel, Vinoo Mankad, Vijay Hazare, and Lal Amarnath, amongst the many cricketers in action. The famous Cooperage stadium, where football matches were played, was close to our hostel. I saw film stars like Dilip Kumar, who used to sit in the highest class, but their enclosure was right next to the cheapest one to which we went. I had the pleasure of seeing Jessie Owens, who had won three Gold medals in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. Normally, Hitler shook hands with the gold medal winners, but in this case, he refused to shake hands with Jessie Owens, only because he was black and was not from the elite Aryan race to which he belonged! However, Hitler was quite generous in his praise for Dhyan Chand, the legendary hockey wizard, and he closely examined his hockey stick to see if any built-in magnetic device allowed him to keep the hockey ball glued to his hockey stick. It is said that once Dhyan Chand missed a couple of scoring opportunities, he pointed out that the goalpost was not exactly in the center. When measured, it was found that the posts were indeed out by a few inches.

I was happily carrying on with my studies in Marine Engineering, though not too sure of what lay in the future for us. We had no idea what kind of job we would get after training. There were three in the top bracket in the class- me, one Ramachandran, and one Kulwant Malhotra. Rivalry among the three of us was quite intense. I was closer to Kulwant, but he always kept his distance and never shared any information about studies. He had this habit of closing the book he was reading or the writing work he was doing, especially on the eve of an exam whenever I went to his room. Perhaps he did not want me to get a hint on what the hot question that could be asked in the exam was. So, when one day I went to his room, he continued with what he was doing, and when I inquired, his reply was that he was applying for a commission in the Army. I was absolutely clueless about the Army and had not even joined NCC in school/college. He then explained the whole process of selection, from the written exam to the interview, on the service selection board, which was located in Bangalore. He motivated me also to apply as the attraction was a free trip to Bangalore, which we had heard was the garden city of India. I, however, backed out when he told me that the exam fee was Rs 37.50, which one had to pay. In those days, it was not a small amount for me, but when he told me that we get a refund of Rs 30/- if we passed the written test. That is how I agreed, and we both applied and passed the written test together but went in different batches for interviews. He went earlier and came back with a long face as he did not make the grade. He said his morale went down when he was allotted his chest number as 12, which was not considered a lucky number in those days. He, however, simply refused to share any information on the activities that happened during the selection process. So, I went with no clue about what was expected of us in the interview and the kind of tests that we were to be put through.

The train journey from Mumbai to Bangalore used to take three days, with two changes in between. As I sat listlessly beside the window on the third day, the train appeared to be slowing down a bit as a station was approaching. Suddenly, some features appeared to be very familiar- and then the name of the station appeared. It read, “Shahabad”. I jumped excitedly, exclaiming to myself- “Oh my God! This is the place I was born in.” My grandfather was a civil surgeon here. Several times, we went there on long vacations. I was reminded of the one Anna coin, which was our daily pocket money. It was equivalent to 4 paise in Allahabad. Here, in Shahabad, being part of Hyderabad State, the currency used was Hali. Here, we got six paise to an anna. To us, it meant more money and, hence, more buying power. For one anna, we used to get a samosa, a sweet, and a tumbler of a cold drink or a cup of tea served in a kulhadh (earthen pot). I sat reminiscing about the good times I had spent during my childhood there, and several incidents came back to memory. 

We reached Bangalore sometime in the afternoon of the third day of the journey. We met some other candidates who had come for the same purpose, and together, we tried to figure out how to reach the selection center. It was then that we saw two army people carrying a folding table and a chair. They set the table on the ground and placed a placard that read, “Selection Center candidates- report here.” They looked at our documents and asked us to go and sit in the army truck parked outside the railway station. It was a 15-minute ride to the selection center. We were straightaway ushered into an exam hall, where we were allotted our chest numbers. One can imagine my plight when I got 12 as my chest number, the same as Kulwant. I had a quiet laugh at my luck, as my result was already known even before the selection process had actually begun! A thought came to my mind as I walked towards the assigning point- had I slowed down, the guy behind me would have got the number 12. But then, I would have got the number 13, a universally acclaimed unlucky number, and, therefore, would not have been a better option either. 

However, I did not allow this to upset me too much, as I also remembered that my desk number in the drawing class in Bombay was 12, and I was good at the subject and got very good marks. So, this did not affect my psyche too much, and I held my composure as we went through the process in a normal way. We were grilled by the psychologist for four hours, during which we were asked several questions and were shown slides and clips of pictures that showed some kind of activity in a hazy state. We had no lunch, though we were served tea with two tiny biscuits during the exam. In essence, I went through the whole process disinterestedly, sure that I, too, would meet the same fate as Kulwant.

The next day, physical tests and obstacles were to be conducted. In these, you were given a situation and asked to complete the task in a time-bound manner. In our case, a situation was narrated in which a heavy can was kept in the center of a football goalpost. A line was drawn beyond which we could not cross, and we were given a heavy wooden plank and a long rope as aids to retrieve the can without stepping on the ground.

You always find enthusiastic people who quickly go to work. They threw the rope across the goal bar and caught the other end, to which the plank was firmly tied. They held the other end of the plank. Now the plank was suspended in the air raised from the ground, and then they asked the toughest guy to walk across on the plank, bend down, and pick up the can. The end, however, was much shorter than the spot where the can was kept. Everything went as smoothly as they had planned, but when the guy bent to lift the can, he toppled over because the can was heavy. They tried this several times but failed. In our studies at that time, mechanics were taught, and topics like balancing, fulcrum, and leverage were covered. An idea just came to my mind that the plank was quite heavy, and if we left the plank, it would take a swing with the guy standing astride the rope. The guy can shift his weight so the plank remains parallel to the ground as it swings. This way, he would be able to go past the can. He could bend and lift the can when the plank swung back. We would then catch the near end of the plank, and the guy would walk down to us. Everyone shouted immediately how that could happen. I replied that it was a thought that occurred to me and that there was no harm in trying. Everything happened as anticipated. The plank took a swing and went past the center. The guy bent down and picked up the can when it swung back. We then caught the other end of the plank, and the guy walked back triumphantly, holding the can aloft as if he had conquered the whole world! There was little doubt that my idea had worked. In an instant reaction, one or two guys clapped, looking at me, acknowledging the fact that my idea had worked. 

While walking from one obstacle to another, the Group Testing Officer (GTO), who was conducting the tests, started chatting with me about what I was doing and what would happen if I did not get selected. My reply was- nothing; I would just continue with my marine engineering course in Mumbai. That gave me an idea that, perhaps, I may have made the grade. When the final results were announced, the candidate’s chest number was called, which was not done in chronological order. For example, they called the number 29 first, then 5, 9, 22, and then 12. I did not react, and someone nudged me, “Hey, that is your number”! I, too, stepped forward like the others. There were eight of us in a group of thirty-three who had made the grade. Out of these, two were not found medically fit, and others I met in the Academy when we joined as ‘gentleman cadets’ (GC), in short, in the first week of January 1956.

On my return to Mumbai, Kulwant asked me, “What happened?” I told him that my chest number was also 12 and I, too, am back like him”. He felt happy at not being the lone failure. When the call letter came a few months later, asking me to join the Academy by a certain date, his reaction was worth watching. He indeed felt bad and said, “You are lucky; your career is made. I don’t know what would happen to me. The future is so uncertain.” But he did well in life as a marine engineer.

Time just flew by. The years turned to decades, and we found ourselves at the cusp of a new millennium as well. It has been sixty-seven years since we passed out of the Academy. In the twilight years of my life, memories of the days gone by, come flashing back to my mind. 

My memory goes back to the day when we passed out of the Academy. As we passed the saluting base in slow march with head held high and a swagger in our stride to the lilting tune of Auld Lang San played by the band, we were reminded of the writings on the wall of the Chetwood, which are still fresh in our minds. They read something like this:

“The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time.”

“The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next.”

“Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.”

These words have been firmly etched in our memory and have guided us through the thick and thin of our service. 

It was a very emotional moment for us as we walked past the saluting base of the Premier Institution of the Army that had transformed rustic civilians into disciplined soldiers. It taught us the rudimentary principles of war, and we were ready to take on leadership duties in the Army.                                                              

14th January, 2024 was celebrated as the Veteran’s Day at the Maneckshaw Hall at the Delhi Cantonment with some 2000 Veterans who attended the High Tea hosted by the Defence Ministry. The high point of the event was a gift hamper for each Veteran as souvenir. Main items were a badge and a peak golf cap with an inscription that read ‘Proudly Served’.

This inscription could have been avoided as it appears to be a bit arrogant and self-appraising. Just the word “Veteran” written with the emblem would have been enough as an identity of the person wearing the cap.


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