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The Wellington I Remember: Tuba, Terry and Pure Happiness

By: Ridhima Bhatnagar

Last Updated: December 12, 2021, 08:30 IST

As we went on reporting about the IAF helicopter crash, my mind went back to a place that holds an irreplaceable place in my heart—Wellington, writes Ridhima Bhatnagar. (Photo: Shutterstock)

As we went on reporting about the IAF helicopter crash, my mind went back to a place that holds an irreplaceable place in my heart—Wellington, writes Ridhima Bhatnagar. (Photo: Shutterstock)

This week, as we saw the visuals of the mortal remains of CDS Bipin Rawat and others being carried from Wellington to Sulur, I only wished we weren’t talking about Wellington this way.

On December 8, like any other day, I was in the office studio anchoring news broadcast when we got a flash that a chopper had crashed in Coonoor. That’s all we knew, nothing alarming just yet. However, within minutes, the situation changed. Unconfirmed reports said three high-ranking officers were on board, including Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Bipin Rawat. This was the highest-ranking officer of the defence forces we were talking about.

As more details emerged, it was confirmed that it was an Mi-17V5 that had taken off from Sulur and was on the way to Wellington in Tamil Nadu. It had crashed five minutes before landing in Coonoor.

The nation was in mourning, coming to terms with the passing away of India’s first CDS, his wife Madhulika Rawat, Brigadier L.S. Lidder, Lt Colonel Harjinder Singh and others from the armed forces.

As we went on reporting about a brutal tragedy, my mind went back to a place that holds an irreplaceable place in my heart—Wellington.

**

It was around 2002-03. I was in high school and we were in Meerut. My father, a serving Army officer, was commanding 18 Assam Rifles in Mizoram. My mother, brother and I were in Meerut in a separate accommodation as my father had been in and out of field and peace postings.

Dad called Mummy to tell her that he was appointed DS (directing staff) at Staff College in Wellington. The Staff College is one of the oldest military institutions in India. It has progressively transformed into a fully integrated Defence Services Staff College (DSSC), imparting training to middle-level officers of the three wings of the armed forces—Army, Navy and Air Force jointly, with a few officers from the Indian Civil Services, paramilitary forces and friendly foreign countries (FFCs).

This was an emotional posting. One, it was a rare opportunity and not everyone gets to be a DS. Two, it was the second time Papa was posted to Wellington. In the mid ‘80s, he had gone to Wellington as a student officer, with Mummy and my brother, who was much younger then.

So, this was in a way a full circle.

**

I was understandably young and thought Wellington meant New Zealand, only to be told that this was a hill station near Ooty in Tamil Nadu. Too young to understand anything else, I happily started packing my things.

But our biggest concern was how to transport our most loved member of the family—our Pomeranian, Tuba.

It was decided that she would travel in the truck carrying our luggage, from Delhi to Wellington. Our bhaiya (a helper assigned by the Army) would sit with her in the front and would take care of her. It was an emotional decision, Tuba was our heart.

Three days later with just a night more of the journey left, Tuba breathed her last somewhere near Bangalore (now Bengaluru).

Papa got a call, didn’t say anything and left home (we were at my grandparents’ place in Delhi). He needed a moment to register what had happened. He came home, broke the news to us, and it was never the same again.

**

But when duty calls, nothing else matters. Papa’s reporting date was inching closer and he had to leave soon to get our accommodation ready, find a school for me and the regular drill.

Mummy and I would be leaving at a later date. My brother by then was studying in Mumbai.

We left Delhi and landed in Coimbatore, the closest airport to Wellington. From there, it’s about a four-hour drive to Wellington. And, it is a beautiful drive, with winding roads and the much-loved Black Thunder amusement park at Mettupalayam.

Entering Wellington felt like a dream. It’s a scenic hill station, one of the prettiest Army cantonments I have ever visited. You are engulfed by clouds, there is a nip in the air and the architecture has an old-world charm.

I was in awe, little knowing that the next couple of years would imprint Wellington’s name in my heart forever.

**

As Papa received us in Wellington, we made our way to our home for the next few years—7 Neelambar. A four-bedroom cottage-style home with a beautiful lawn and a balcony overlooking the Nilgiri Hills.

But I was yet to find the biggest surprise waiting for me. A brown sofa was kept in the balcony with two little white furry ones barely able to sit on it. Papa had brought home Tuba and Terry (naming one of them Tuba was an emotional call). They were siblings, and Papa didn’t have the heart to separate them.

This was the beginning of what Wellington symbolised for me for a very long time—pure happiness.

The reason I am writing this now is to narrate how a place becomes a feeling, an experience that is hard to replicate.

I got admission at the Holy Innocents High School, the only convent school in the cantonment, where all other fauji kids went (well most, some went to the Army school too).

I went horse riding in the morning before school, after school took Bharatnatyam classes, and then went off with other fauji kids for birthday parties and the like.

The experience I gained in Wellington was unlike anything else. Would you believe me if I tell you that we played croquet every day? I hadn’t even heard of it till then (it is played with a ball and mallet). Horse riding, croquet, parasailing, dance classes, tennis… the list is endless.

But that’s not all that Wellington gave me. It gave me people who I grew up with. I laughed and cried with them and also learnt from them. Some I loved and lost; others became family.

This week, as we saw the visuals of the mortal remains of the brave hearts being carried from Wellington to Sulur, I only wished we weren’t talking about Wellington this way. That we could somehow go back to the time when a little girl wandered around the Nilgiris, laughing, jumping and falling in love.

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first published:December 12, 2021, 08:30 IST
last updated:December 12, 2021, 08:30 IST