Skin of his Mules
My husband was getting a bit mulish with his general, I feared
His much awaited posting order read: “Posted to 82 Mountain Brigade in the acting rank of brigadier.” Being a late entry into service, I did not then exactly know what acting brigadier or acting as a brigadier meant. Perhaps he had to play an important role in the drama of military life?
Excitement mounted as no one in the total mechanised environments of Ambala could tell where on earth this brigade was. Help of the Air Force was sought. Of course, one pilot knew the location. He had air-maintained the brigade. “It is in the Far East,” he proclaimed. That bit took my breath away. Far East sounded so oriental. A foreign posting?
But the pilot was quick to puncture my rosy dreams. “Far east...of India,” he continued, a faraway look in his eyes. “You can get there in five days, four in the train and the fifth in a jeep, boat, ferry, and the last bit on elephant back,” he said, taking all the joy out of posting, promotion and perks.
Obviously there would be no staff car. His boss did not think much of the posting and questioned Delhi on the wisdom of wasting such expertise in mechanised warfare in jungles and mountains.
Delhi replied: “It is to balance his career.” Balance it on the back of a mule, the boss wondered? So it was mules he would deal with!
Soon a letter from the general arrived, welcoming him to the division and asking him to join early as there was lot of ‘spade work’ to be done for the approaching training events.
He would not arrive earlier than the date in the posting order, he wrote back. While he would make maximum use of his legs, lungs and knowledge, he had no intention of taking up a spade, an implement he had not handled since his academy days!
Then off he went. Although deprived of the minutiae of daily routine, a fairly regular relay of letters kept me informed of the rough outlines of his life in the Far East. My narrative henceforth relies exclusively on that pile of old letters saved from the period.
Within a week of his arrival the general himself landed, earlier than expected, on the mountaintop helipad. Soon my husband was huffing and puffing his way to the helipad, a steep climb.
When the general suggested he could have ridden up on a mule instead, still out of breath he told him that a Cavalry officer should not be expected to ride a mule. My husband was getting a bit mulish with his general, I feared.
Once through with the most urgent matters, he got down to attending to administration and interior economy, a term that he had often used for my benefit in the running of the house. In a nutshell it meant increasing efficiency, eliminating waste and cutting cost, something the Government of India (G of I) may find useful.
The general was a ‘hot shot’ for administration. Besides improvements in other areas of administration, he wanted no audit objections. My husband got on the job and soon had all pending audit objections resolved.. except one pertaining to the loss of some mule skins. On this matter Audit seemed to have dug in their hooves.
Many readers, particularly the civilians among them, may not know that it is mandatory in the Army to deposit the skin of a dead mule for sale so the G of I may make that extra buck.
In this case, half a dozen mules and four soldiers had been caught in an avalanche and were swept down the khud to be buried under thousands of tons of snow.
The matter came before a Court of Enquiry, which directed that the requirement of depositing mule skins be dispensed with and the loss thereby, along with other losses (cost of mules, stores, men’s weapons etc) be borne by the State.
While Audit was prepared to write off the price of a live mule, the department saw no way that it could forego the skins of the dead. No provision existed that allowed for regularising the loss of mule skins. Nor would any argument prevail with Audit - mule skins were involved and they would decidedly have them accounted for.
While at Army headquarters, my husband had gained some insight into the peculiar working of the bureaucratic mind. Determined to give his general no cause to point out any shortcoming in his administrative skills, he dredged up the last molecule of itemising wit and wrote in flawless officialese to Audit:
“The available records have been thoroughly scrutinised, and the circumstances leading to the accident fully investigated. While the accident is highly regrettable, but given the peculiar conditions prevailing then, it is difficult to pinpoint responsibility for the lapse in the non-collection of mule skins and the consequent loss to the Govt of India.
“Further, in-depth analysis of weather conditions, terrain, timing, unexpected and sudden occurance of the event and examination of all available evidence, leads one to make bold to record, that in all probability, the mules, as they were swept down the khud, took their skins with them; under the avalanche.
“Admittedly, had the troops been more vigilant, they would have saved not only their own skins but more importantly, those of the mules. Considering the peculiar circumstances leading to the accident, and viewing the case in its totality, it is requested that, as a special case, the requirement of depositing the skins be dispensed with.
“It is further confirmed that this would be a one-time exception of mules being allowed to disappear with their skins and will not be quoted as a precedent.”
The explanation being logical was accepted, perhaps grudgingly, and the objection settled. A clean slate on audit objections was much appreciated, and you could say that my husband made his peace with the general by the skin of his mules.