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Thursday, 16 April 2020

Indomitable spirit: Navjot and his wife Arti remained unfazed by Yama’s sceptre. Major Gen Raj Mehta (retd) Defence Commentator-Colonel Navjot Singh Bal (39), a decorated ex-CO of the elite 2 Para SF (Special Forces) with unconquerable spirit and élan, departed early on April 9

Fear death? — to feel the fog in my throat,
The mist in my face,
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong man must go:
I was ever a fighter, so — one fight more,
The best and the last!
I would hate that death bandaged
my eyes and forbore,
And bade me creep past.
— Robert Browning’s Prospice

Colonel Navjot Singh Bal (39), a decorated ex-CO of the elite 2 Para SF (Special Forces) with unconquerable spirit and élan, departed early on April 9 in a military hospital at Bengaluru. He died a year after his cancer-stricken right arm was amputated. A rare malignant bone cancer strain — Telangiectatic osteosarcoma — had made it inevitable, the cancer later spreading to his lungs and heart.

Lt-Gen Nirbhay Sharma, former Governor of Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, and himself an ex-CO of 2 Para SF (having been its war-time adjutant during the successful air assault to capture Poongli Bridge in Mymensingh during the Bangladesh War in 1971), spoke movingly to this writer about Navjot’s infectious panache: “Attending as former colonel, parachute regiment/battalion officer, my wife and I last met Navjot and his amazingly strong-willed wife Arti on December 11 during the Poongli Battle Honour Day celebrations. Despite the amputation, Navjot and school-time Army Public School, Dhaula Kuan, sweetheart Arti were dancing, singing and laughing; unfazed by Yama’s sceptre, still so hopelessly in love. We watched, moved. He was a true warrior, an icon. God doesn’t make many like him.”

Navjot’s father, ex-Garhwal Rifles veteran Col KS Bal, with ancestral roots at Chhajjal Waddi village, Jandiala Guru, Amritsar, smilingly told Nirbhay before leaving Gurugram for Bengaluru by road, 2,100 km away, with wife Raminder and elder son: “Braveheart Arti, hug-worthy grandsons Zorawar (8) and Shahbaaz (4)... We will be there on Baisakhi to salute his last journey.”

April is undoubtedly the cruellest month, mixing, desire, hope, life and death in our corona-stricken world where death has become a weary statistic with fear, anxiety, ignorance; even angst and hatred confronting us like in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Yet, even in this bleak mindscape, the death of Col Bal stands out.

He was an all-rounder. He was genuine, unpretentious and affable. At the NDA, as Company Sergeant Major, counselling a shattered cadet ragged by all because of his silence, a gawky lad contemplating departure, Navjot instinctively empathised and found out why that cadet was in a dangerous, self-harming space. “Lost Mum, sir,” he had whispered. Navjot hugged him, wept with him, bringing him back from the cold. He cared.

Brilliant in the military profession, he was a topper; pressing all the right military buttons. He topped in courses of instruction, football, cricket, Alpine adventure and counter-insurgency. Awarded Shaurya Chakra in 2008 for gallantry in the densely forested Upper Lolab Valley, where the bravest fear to tread, he would dismiss his Vir Chakra-equivalent award, saying SF wearers of the Balidan Badge did it routinely.

With the Indian UN peacekeeping contingent in Ebola-hit Africa as a Major, he walked a long mile in helping the Africans cope and left with awe and undying respect in those whose lives he touched.

He dared break stringent North Indian Jat Sikh protocol. Fell in love at school with a fetching South Indian girl. He knew how erudite citizens across the Vindhyas hated being called ‘South’ Indians. Pretty Arti, brilliant engineering post-graduate from ancient Trichy, once seat of the early Cholas at Uraiyur and a happening techno town minded too, reacting like a tigress when so addressed.

In May 2018, in his second year as CO at Bengaluru while doing his umpteenth chin-up, he felt pain in the right elbow. Post-biopsy and MRI, it was identified as osteosarcoma, an aggressive, painful malignant mesenchymal neoplasm: a bone cancer. Telangiectatic osteosarcoma is its uncommon variant. Immediate amputation was the medical opinion.

While this was on, Navjot started learning to do his work with his left hand. From tying laces to dressing, eating and writing. He also ran a 21-km half marathon before and led his men in a major desert manoeuvre after the amputation, his flapping right sleeve becoming a rallying point. This is recorded in a moving recall by his SF soul-mate and soldier-scholar, Maj Bharat Cingireddy (retd). Bharat says Navjot was born to emulate Invictus. This is a poem by William Ernest Henley; when 17, his leg was amputated. Recovering, Henley wrote about fortitude under adversity. In Latin, Invictus means ‘unconquerable.’ Its last two lines are:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Arti helped. She knew and was stronger. The kids would be told, “Daddy is becoming Avenger, your favourite toon. He will catch villains with his new arm.” They were thrilled. When the amputation happened, she was attending a family wedding. They wanted photos. She sent him pics of adorning mehndi, doing gidda, he his picture.

The cancer was malicious. The amputation was swept aside and the end was near. I have never seen a braver man, said the treating doctor. Navjot was smiling till the end and requested he depart away in his beloved unit; a dying request that was honoured.

He wrote his own epitaph hours before; an ode to Balidan, the SF ethic. An extract: Undeterred by fear, I faced fate, good or bad;

Zorawar, Shahbaaz, my gallant sons, henceforth, you’ll be the pride…

Arti, my life resides inside you;

Today, I am alive, and fly the

Tricolour high…

And Bharat Ma, my motherland... In your feet, I give my final salute;

My final sacrifice…

Death be not proud. Navjot won and has attained immortality.

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