ZEROES and HEROES – A short story by Surendra

Editor’s note

Col Surendra has sent us another little story. It is about ‘zeroes’ and ‘heroes’. For those who may have forgotten, a ‘zero’ is defined as a loser; a person with no aspirations or goal. Hero, on the other hand is an amazing mix of all virtues. He is a winner, whom every one admires, because he emerges as the winner always and every time. Just before I started reading his piece, I was going through a treatise on ‘Zero’ as conceived by Aryabhata, and wondering what would have happened if we had not discovered this amazing mathematical tool. The humble zero is an insignificant quantity by itself, but when you put it in the right place, it can achieve wonders. It is so powerful that if you divide any quantity by zero, the result shoots through the roof! This story does something similar. He claims that it is ‘semi-fiction’ which implies that there is an element of truth in it. I leave it for the reader to guess which part of his flight of imagination is true…



Short Story by  Col Dr TS Surendra

(semi fiction)

It was the commencement of yet another hectic day at the National Defence Academy (NDA). The day starts very early for the officer cadets, who are mustered at a Central place in front of their squadron building, inspected for their turn out and important instructions disseminated before their frenzied regimen for the day is kick started. I had just a minute to rush down to the mustering or fall-in area (at the Drill Square) of Bravo Squadron as a shrill voice announced “Bravo Squadron Fall In” a minute before 5.30 a.m. I had somehow managed to locate my misplaced riding breeches at the nick of time after ransacking my cabin- all this at ‘zero hour’. One becomes adept at rig change(s) within a few days of arriving at the NDA – in this case, slipping into the breeches, pulling up your socks (literally and figuratively) , sliding into the riding boots, spiraling the ’riding Patties’ onto your legs, tightening the web belt and putting on the pith hat (or riding helmet). The announcement came again breaking the high decibel cordon of the scampering footsteps of the cadets. ‘I made it’ I exulted as I fell in line at the fall in area and stood like a statue (at ‘attention’ position) awaiting my turn to be inspected for my ‘turn out’. The tall Division Sergeant (6 ft 4 inches in all) paused in front of me and bellowed his command “The next time you shave, damn well stand closer to the razor”. “Note his number and name” he ordered the Cadet Corporal who accompanied him. And then looking condescendingly at me he shouted “Riding rig Chindit order at 2 O’ Clock this afternoon with your bike. Is that bloody clear? We’ll teach you a few ——- things”. “Yes Sir” I replied. “Don’t you have a bloody voice” he yelled. “Yes Sir” I repeated raising my voice. This meant I was shortlisted for a special session of enhanced physical activity in the afternoon.

I rushed to the bicycle stand, as my course mates and I had to cycle to the Equitation Lines for our horse-riding classes. An attempt would be made there to hone our equestrian skills.  At the bicycle stand I was greeted by a deflated tyre, which left me with just one alternative – making it to the Equitation lines at the double. I set off soon racing against time. I thought I had made it to the Riding School in time but the riding Instructor (a very smart and agile Non-commissioned Officer) thought otherwise and gave me the unique privilege of riding a Polish horse “Toofan” bareback. Woe betide me! Yes there was no ambiguity here – no saddle and no stirrups either! Yes there would be no harness nor any contrivance suspended from the saddle to support the rider’s feet. “God” I thought. “When sorrows come they come not single spies but in battalions”. I resigned myself to the ordeal of bareback riding on ‘Toofan’,  a race horse not exactly known to obey commands from a weak rider. “I just have about a month of riding experience” I thought as I mounted Toofan. I tightened my thighs against the horse to avoid being thrown off. Toofan  set off as I nudged him with my heel – the trot turning into a canter and then gallop. My discomfiture was noticed by all – my course mates, instructors et al, who broke into spasms of laughter. Soon Toofan was uncontrollable and my getting jettisoned was imminent. As an officer cadet, I couldn’t shout for help, though I wanted to, as Toofan sped across the vast expanse of land abutting the Glider dome. Just as I was desperately clinging to an unrelenting Polish horse, I heard the sound of hooves.

“Thank God help is near at hand. Must be the Instructor” I thought.  But it was someone else who rode alongside to bring Toofan to a stop as I fell off the horse. “Thank you Sir” I said sheepishly.  “You are welcome” said a female voice as she dismounted from her horse. She took off her riding helmet to reveal one of the prettiest faces I had ever seen. She was about my age or even younger but a very good rider. “My name is Sandhya” she said. “You are apparently a novice. Please see how that cadet there is riding his horse” she pointed out. I could see my course mate Shergill (Rupinder was his first name) riding majestically (bareback). Thanks I said. By then a posse of instructors pulled up and pulled me up, too, using the choicest language in Punjabi as Sandhya rode away. God I thought! The algorithm had changed here. The paradigm of the hero saving a damsel had changed here cataclysmically – a 180 degree phase shift! I couldn’t even tell her my name. The Bollywood formula had changed. I was left nursing the blisters on my thighs kind courtesy the bare-back adventure.

I ran back to the Squadron, changed into my KDs (Khaki dress) and rushed to the Science Block. You could walk (sorry, march) if you are in a squad of four but run if single.  Academic sessions followed where one found it difficult to stay awake after the physical exertion in the morning. Lunch was a relief but then you had better watch out your table manners to avoid another unscheduled session of accelerated physical activity involving the involuntary use of every sinew, muscle and bone! My half-hour tryst with the bicycle was at the squadron square, where jogging in ‘riding rig and chindit order’ with the bicycle aloft saw me panting, palpitating and sweating bullets. No passer-by even cared to notice you in your hour of personal crisis, albeit ephemeral! But then as I was about to end my thirty minutes of misery, a young lady zipped by on her scooter. As I finished my session, slowly trudging back to my squadron lobby, the lady on the scooter was returning from the Canteen perhaps. She stopped to say hello to me. “You look like a POW. Here is a mangola drink if you care” she said. I hesitated as my Corporal was nearby and would have none of this. “No thanks” I told her as she removed her goggles and helmet. It was Sandhya again mocking at me I thought. She seemed to recognize me and remembered rescuing me from the “Toofan” express that morning. “You stay in this Squadron?” she enquired pointing towards the Bravo Squadron. I answered in the affirmative. “Does Rupi also stay here? Rupinder Singh Shergill” she asked. “Yes. Great all rounder. How do you know him? By the way I am Dev. Where do you stay?” I asked. The Corporal came running to admonish me. “You fool don’t you know she is the Army Commander’s daughter” he screamed. Sandhya maintained her composure and told me “I have known Rupi for a while. We are from the same school in Delhi. He is an excellent riding- and- polo player and an excellent marksman, too. Extend a hello to him from my side, Dev. You know I am a great fan of Dev Anand!” she added and drove away. For a moment I forgot my aches and pains. “Apparently there is a romantic link between Rupi and Sandhya. Or they could just be friends. Who cares anyway” I said to myself.  But the Corporal’s baritone disrupted my chain of thought “You idiot. Are you trying to maaro a line on the Army Commander’s daughter? She is here as a guest of our Commandant. Go look at yourself in the mirror. Thu kya samajhtha hai apne aapko. Dev Anand in HUM DONO ?” he screeched. I met Rupi in the ante room and conveyed Sandhya’s greetings to him. “Who, Dolly? She is a fantastic person and is very talented – singer, dancer, guitarist, horse rider, marathon runner and good in her studies. She was a few years junior to me at School. My brother Avtar and she are classmates and very close. Maybe they will marry some day. He is her idea of a true hero” he winked at me as though cautioning me to lay off.  God I thought! I have met her only twice so far. But everyone thinks I am queuing up!

A few months later – I was a member of the debating society. The motion before the house was “Should boxing as a sport not be abolished?”. The venue: A class room in the Sudan Block.  I had to defend while Chandan had to oppose the motion. As I was speaking, in walked Sandhya with the Academy Adjutant. She listened to me intently applauding every now and then. Then came Chandan who brought the house down with his facile articulation of points against the motion. The contest went down to the wire and Chandan was finally declared the winner albeit by the slimmest of margins. Sandhya congratulated me saying her vote would have been for me. “Who is your idea of a true hero” I ventured to ask and  then felt stupid. “Not you Dev” she replied with a smile as she walked away.  During my rewarding three-year training period at NDA, I met Sandhya one last time at the entrance to the auditorium. She arrived with the Commandant and his family. She ‘broke protocol’ to wave to me and chat for a few moments. She said she enjoyed playing Golf at the NDA Golf course. “She is so full of life” I thought. She was pleased to hear that my favourite actor, too, was Dev Anand.

Many years later, after I was commissioned into the Corps of EME of the Indian Army, I was deputed to the College of Military Engineering, near Pune, to undergo a degree engineering course. It was a rainy day in December at Bombay, where our course had gone from PUNE on an industrial visit. We were traveling in many vehicles. I was traveling in a modified Nissan Jonga with side doors. When we were entering the Main highway, I could notice a toddler straying on to the road and just then a bus was speeding towards the child. Something had to be done fast to save the child. Maybe I should jump off to push the child away from the bus hurtling at break neck speed. God there was very little reaction time, nano seconds perhaps. Providence came to my rescue as I was opening the door. The Jonga, while negotiating a speed breaker, threw me out onto the road as I was caught off guard. I hit the ground and rolled over along with the child to the periphery of the road. The Speeding bus also came to a screeching halt and just missed giving us the blues. The next thing I remember was a ward at the Command hospital at PUNE with a fractured leg, broken ribs and dislocated shoulder. I had many visitors including the Press. As I was catching a spot of shut eye, I was woken up by the nurse who announced that the mother of the boy I had saved wished to see me.  I said she could come. A big surprise awaited me as the mother seemed very familiar, someone I had perhaps met earlier. Realization dawned on me soon as she  was none other than Sandhya. I said “Hi Sandhya. What a surprise and what a coincidence!”. She said “ Dev. I am deeply indebted to you. You saved my child”. “What is your husband doing?” I asked. Sandhya said “ Dev! I lost him very recently in a border skirmish near Nathula. He was a Captain in the Brigade of the Guards – Captain Avtar Singh, Vrc. I work for Kirloskars here at PUNE. You know Captain Dev, I can now say with conviction that you are also my idea of a True Hero”.  She held my hands closely for a while and then left.

“Thank you for the good times, the days you filled with pleasure. Thank you for fond memories, and for feelings I’ll always treasure.”




  1. Raj says:

    Interesting story, extremely well narrated. I just couldn’t stop till I finished the entire story.
    The narration of our activities at the NDA were simply hilarious.
    Keep writing.

  2. S J Singh says:

    More than anything else, I think the Academy taught us how to survive! It is possible that some day, you will tell us what it felt to get back to ‘civvy street’ The culture shock during that transition is equally traumatic.

    • Col Surendra says:

      I agree with you, Sir, 100% having seen life in the Army, Industry (in India and abroad) and the Academia. ‘Civvy street’ is a different ball game. It took me a while to get accustomed to the ‘culture shock’. I have a story about the ‘civvy street’, too, and how ruthless the Industry bosses could be (without rhyme or reason!) based on what really happened. I’ll share it with the readers someday. As you correctly point out, the Academy taught us how to survive and how to work under enormous pressure! Regards – Col Surendra

  3. Col V P Kapoor says:

    Surendra, your art of story telling is superb,the fiction part has been correctly defined by Surjit.
    please keep writing, another wizard is Kohli, who is a wizard in poetry. God bless you.

  4. Surinder Kaur says:

    The art of story telling is a gift which God gives to some people. You are one of them! And just as you cannot teach a person how to paint or sing, this prowess can neither be taught nor learnt in a school or college.
    Keep writing. You owe it to your readers!
    We remember you as we saw you in the Centre in 1968 and IIT Delhi in 1975.
    Surinder Kaur

    • Col Surendra says:

      Thank you madam for your kind words. I realize that I now have to live up to your high expectations. Gen Surjit has always been my friend, philosopher, guide, instructor and mentor. Both of you have been a constant source of encouragement to me and Latha. Regards – Surendra (Tejinder)

  5. Wg Cdr G N Bhaskar (Retd) says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading the story. It brought back the memories of The days in NDA. Of course! Sandhya is the fiction part though well intertwined with the life of a cadet!

    G N B
    New Castle, UK

  6. Brig KN Hari Kumar says:

    Thank you Sir for sharing. It is a nice story.

  7. AVM RP Mishra says:

    Very good story.
    Veteran AVM RP Mishra

  8. Sriram Jaisimha says:

    Dear General,

    I liked this story too! Short short-stories are also called “sudden” (not to be mistaken with the character in the wild-west stories we read in the sixties) stories and Col. Sahib is a master!



  9. yogi says:

    Absorbing and a stimulating story! Here is a wild guess- you have spun a familiar cadet (self) story with vignettes of Nafisa-Sodhi romance? Whatever, it is well done!

  10. Lt Gen C Sundara Rao says:

    Dear Surjit,
    Thank U for sharing this story, it is moving & touching.

    Sundara Rao

  11. Surendra Rishi says:

    Dear Surjit,

    A very well written story to which all of us can relate nostaligically.

    Thanks and Regards,


  12. Anil Sunita says:

    Very Absorbing. When is the next one ?

    Anil Sunita

  13. Surjit Singh says:

    We used to say, “When troubles come, they come in a squad!” So what happened to you on ‘day one’ of this black day was a common experience. It took me down memory lane. The only difference is that the Commandant of our time did not have a guest, and so no young lady was ever seen anywhere, from the Equitation lines and up to the PT ground. The whole area was strictly ‘out of bounds for any one from the Venus.
    I am beginning to think that I know which part of this tale is fiction!

  14. Srikanth Joshi says:

    Your story telling skills are fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed your short stories. Gripping indeed. Wish to read more and more and more.

  15. DeepaK Sharma says:

    I have been reading your stories , they are good. Keep it up

  16. Col Anil Bhalla says:

    Thanks. A touching episode of truth

  17. Mahavir Jagdev says:

    Dear Sir,

    Enjoyed reading the story.

    Best wishes,

    Mahavir Jagdev

  18. AVM Manjit Singh says:

    I have enjoyed reading this story. Thank you.

    Manjit Singh

  19. Joseph Thomas says:

    Semi fiction ? You leave us guessing which part is true.

    • Col Surendra says:

      Thank you Sir for reading the story. I have to keep my readers guessing, Sir. Regards – Surendra

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