Etiquette, deference, tradition and tea amid an unsung tour of duty
But Monuc is garrisoned behind barbed wire and high walls near Goma airport and, a year ago, the city looked set to fall to the warlord Laurent Nkunda, leader of a rebel force that repeatedly routed Congo's army. Monuc fired some token shots in response, but nobody here believes it would have dared stand in Nkunda's way if he had chosen to take the city.
At the Monuc compound, I met Major Rohit Sharma, 35, from Delhi, who in a military briefing explained that in North Kivu province there is on average one soldier for every 1,100 civilians or on for every 12 square kilometres (2,965 acres).
"I'll not say it's hunky dory," he said. "But it's all relative. I've been here six months and the change I've seen is considerable."
I hitched a ride with Sharma in a UN jeep with such a low roof that I was unable to sit upright. I tried curling into a foetal position, but on the rutted roads, bumped my head enough times to conclude that I should have done combat training inside a tumble dryer.
As we rolled through the hills and villagers turned to look, Sharma said: "Every time a child waves to me, it gives me a lift and makes me want to pursue the mandate."
We travelled 150km (93 miles) north of Goma and stopped at military bases along the way. They all had an Indian flavour. There were Indian flags and shrines, Indian food and furniture, and a military etiquette and deference to tradition that somehow evoked popular notions of the British Raj. At every opportunity I was offered a cup of tea, perhaps with biscuits, and we spoke a common language, English, in this otherwise officially francophone country.
One night in Kanyabayonga, a buffet was prepared in the mess tent and I sat with a group of officers. Someone put on a DVD of the film Memento, explaining they were curious because there is now a popular Bollywood remake. There was talk of home, of the bitterly cold winter in Delhi this year, of the excitement of economic miracles in a country that has more people than the whole of Africa.
I recalled my brief travels there: dawn light on the Ganges, the beauty of the Taj Mahal at Agra. I imagined the air wobbling before a big red sun. I wondered if these sons of India ever imagined they'd end up in the jungles of eastern Congo.
One said: "It's not so different from where we usually operate. The hills look a bit like this. We've had a lot of experience with low-level insurgencies."
Sharma added: "It's such a big army, you always take pride in an overseas posting. The unit has to prove itself as one of the best to get sent here."
At the base at Kiwanja, home to a unit called the Bodyguard, I found a mess tent elegantly decorated with Asian carpets, ornaments, an antique desk and black and white photographs of campaigns during the first and second world wars. I was shown through to my home for the night, a hut with coffee table books such as Portraits of Valour and Officers' Mess: Life and Customs in the Regiments by Lt Col RJ Dickinson.
That evening a white envelope was delivered to my door. It contained a neatly embossed invitation that said: "Col Lakhbinder Singh Lidder requests the pleasure of the company of David Smith to dinner at Bodyguard House at 8.30pm." I joined guests on a clipped lawn under a tent where Lidder was holding court. Plates of Indian canapes were offered by waiters with courtly manners.
To my astonishment, Lidder presented me with a commemorative mug bearing the emblems of Monuc and the Jammu & Kashmir Rifles. It said: "Reliving the history. 'Bodyguard' once again in the shadows of 'Kilimanjaro' in east Africa 1918 to 1919 & 2009 to 2010." The presentation, and our handshake, were captured for posterity by a military photographer.
The soldiers expressed tentative optimism that their mission is working and violence is slowly ebbing here. But that same night, two people were killed, and more were hospitalised, in a rebel attack on a nearby village.
I went back to Goma and said my goodbyes to Sharma. The Indian army in Congo will never seize the international limelight like the Americans and British in Afghanistan. Many people are unaware they are even there. But perhaps a cup of tea should be raised in honour of these unsung tours of duty in the half-forgotten corners of the world