Force Magazine

 Honour and Love
 The book is a loving narrative of the life of a great officer Lt Gen. Prem Bhagat

Barely a few years into military service, Lt Prem Bhagat was already a legend in India and beyond. While being the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry award of the British armed forces, contributed in creating the legend, it was sustained by the sheer personality of the officer — part modest, part brash, part brusque and part sensitive. And the irony was that Lt Bhagat (and later even Lt Gen. Bhagat) himself remained almost unaware of the fame that followed him.

The-Victoria-CrossBy the time he returned to Bombay from the North African campaign during World War II, news of his winning the Victoria Cross was all over the country. Only Prem Bhagat hadn’t quite grasped how famous he had become, despite being invited by the All India Radio to narrate his story. One of those heady evenings when everyone wanted a bit of Prem, he took his girlfriend and future wife Mohini to the Taj for a meal and discovered his illustration with the Victoria Cross on the menu! Apparently, he was mortified, even as his date of the evening was beyond excitement. Clearly, for a nation that didn’t have much to cheer about in 1941-42, a war hero, honoured by no less than the Empire (on which the sun had not yet set), was indeed a matter of both pride and joy.

Prem and Mohini’s daughter Ashali Verma has lovingly woven these incidents together and peppered them with history to come up with her parents’ life story, which she calls a love story. And indeed, The Victoria Cross is a love story, as much between Lt Gen. Prem Bhagat and his wife Mohini, as it is between the author and her mother. Written with tremendous warmth and tenderness by Ashali, who is a writer by chance, The Victoria Cross’ biggest strength lies in the fact that it never crosses the line between sentimentality and mawkishness.

Sure, the book is replete with personal details, love letters — mainly written by Bhagat to his beloved as Ashali could not find her mother’s letters to him —, laudatory comments by those who worked with Prem Bhagat through his career, simplistic truisms and her own glowing impressions of her parents, Ashali adopts a clever approach as an author. She allows the distance between the events and the writing of the book to lend it some amount of dispassionate review. Of course, the review is not critical, but it is not giddy adoration either. Instead of saying how great her father was, she lets others say what they thought of him. In that sense, nearly 30 per cent of the book is almost compilation of everything that has been written or said about Lt Gen. Bhagat.

Yes, the book, despite the title, is essentially about Lt Gen. Bhagat, one of the most celebrated, respected and nearly revered Indian Army officers. The fact that he was denied the highest office in the army by the suspicious and wily political leadership further raised his stature among his peers and the subsequent generations of army officers. That even when the same wily government offered him the chairmanship of a perpetually sick public sector undertaking, which, writes Ashali, ‘most people would have turned down, for it could ruin reputations’, not only he accepted the challenge, he shone there as well. His reputation soared even more, taking the balance sheet of the PSU that had seen no other colour except red along with it! And then just when his career as a civilian entrepreneur was peaking, he died at the youthful age of 57, not because of natural circumstances, but because of gross medical neglect and incompetence at the hands of military doctors. What more does a legend need to remain in perpetuity.
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