This is an Army story that not many people know. The story of Laxman Purushottam Kammath, or LP Kammath, who got into the military by chance, served in World War II and later became a commissioned officer in the Indian Army, rising to the rank of Major.
LP Kammath is one of those few surviving veterans of the World War II. But his first battle in life was against hunger and poverty. When he was about to slip into the abyss of misery, he got to wear the soldier's uniform that turned his fate around. His subsequent battles were with enemy nations.
Major (retd) L P Kammath, who was born in 1920, turned 100 on August 22.
As he rekindles his memory, 'Major Saab' LP Kammath uses the rigour of a military man to ensure no detail is amiss or out of place.
Purushottam Kammath, the boy, grew up in the midst of many hardships. His Veliparambil house in Cherthala, Alappuzha, was an abode of tears and scarcity.
Purushottam was the third of four children of Lakshmana Kammath, a clothing retailer, and Sundaribhai. When the clothing business was staring at collapse, his father borrowed heavily to keep it afloat. But as debt increased, the family's situation worsened and it had to go many days hungry.
“While studying at Cherthala school, I did not have the money to pay for the matriculation examination. I walked to a relative's house about 20 km away to ask for the money. I was told, ‘There is no point studying, look for some work.’ However, I did not return. Finally, out of pity, they gave me the money to pay the fees,” he says.
“I passed the matriculation examination with high marks. I wanted to become a doctor, but I was afflicted by the curse that education wouldn’t be of any use. I started hunting for a job. I sought people’s help and with the three-and-a-half rupees I managed to collect, I boarded a train to Madras. I was 20 years old,” he says.
"I knocked on many doors for some small job, but without any success. I, however, got a place in a timber company to stay. That’s when someone said people were needed for the US military. I ran to the recruiting centre, but I was pushed out saying I was late," he says.
That probably was a blessing in disguise. In 1941, when the World War II was on, he learnt that the Indian Government Service Core (IGSC), a part of the British-Indian Army, was looking for people. "I went to its office in Madras (now Chennai). While running in the scorching sun and climbing on roes as part of the physical test, I was oblivious to the burns and injuries I suffered on my hands and legs. I only had the tearful faces of my parents and siblings in my mind. I got selected after coming first in the physical test. After two months of rigorous training in Aurangabad, I went to Bombay (now Mumbai). From there, I sailed to East Africa and participated in military operations in Mombasa, Nairobi, Tanzania, Egypt and Palestine," says Major (read) Kammath.
After the World War II, he was deployed in France, then England and Scotland.
"Although I cleared all the tests of the selection board to be an officer in the British Royal Army, I was not selected because there were apprehensions about appointing another national as an officer. I was then sent back to India."
It was while at IGSC that he came to know about the foreclosure of his family's house in Cherthala. "That 40 cents of land is all that we had. My father, mother and siblings would have been on the road had that property been confiscated," he says.
So he sent a telegram to the governor-general of Madras explaining his difficulties. "The then governor-general ordered that the confiscation be stopped. I later paid off all the debts."
After independence, he was selected as a Commissioned Officer in the Indian Army. The training was at the Pune Officers' Training School from November 12, 1948, to June 3, 1949.
After the training, he was appointed as Second Lieutenant. On June 27, he was assigned to the 1st Battalion of the Rajputana Rifles. There, he was commissioned as the first officer when the Brigade of the Guards was formed. The 1st Battalion of the Rajputana Rifles was then merged into the Brigade of the Guards. The new army moved to Assam. While in Assam, the governor was looking for a competent officer to become his ADC.
"Bikram Singh, who was the Brigadier at the time, put forward the names of five officers," says Kammath. "I was selected after I performed well in the interview. I was appointed as the ADC of Assam governor Jairamdas Daulatram, a post I held from 1951 to 1955."
In 1962, he became the Company Commander of the 18th Battalion of the Rajputana Rifles and led the military operations in the Kashmir region during the war with China. He was later appointed the NCC Assistant Director in Thiruvananthapuram in 1965.
"I was made the NCC Commanding Officer in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, in 1970. When the war with Pakistan began in 1971, I was called back to the Army and was posted in Punjab. After the war, I was made the NCC Commanding Officer (7th Battalion) at Kollam. I retired from service on August 29, 1976," he says.
Tryst with Nehru
Many VVIPs used to visit Assam. Jawaharlal Nehru had visited Assam several times during his tenure as Prime Minister. "I visited various places with him," says Kammath.
"I had the habit of riding a horse in the morning. I did that wherever I went. One morning while I was riding, Nehru heard a hoofbeat and asked who was riding the horse so early in the morning. 'Can I also join you? Take me also tomorrow,' he said. The next day, we arranged a horse and I went for a ride with Nehru," he says.
"Once, while Nehru was returning by helicopter after a visit to Assam, I expressed my desire to have a picture with him. Nehru asked the accompanying photographer to take the picture. He sent me the photo with his signature after he reached Delhi. I can never forget that."
While working as the ADC to the Assam governor, he got to meet Chithira Thirunal met Balarama Varma in Delhi. That friendship lasted till the end."I have accompanied the Arattu ceremony during the festivities at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple many times on the invitation of the royal family," says Kammath.
The first face to emerge from the unforgettable memories of the war is that of a colleague who was shot in Nigeria. "We were on our way to another location during a military mission when he was unexpectedly shot by a machine gun. When he struggled and died, we were on our way to the next base."
In 1964, during a military mission while walking through the thick jungles of Assam, he fell to a depth of 40 feet and injured his right leg. "I was in an army hospital for six weeks. I can never forget the people who took care of me and who gave me company then," says Kammath.
"When life had become a question mark, I got refuge in the military. I had nowhere else to go. Even today, I feel that was the right decision. My country has given me all the fame and glory I have achieved. There is no rest for a man who has served in the military. The blood of the country is flowing in his veins ... His life must be dedicated for the country..."
Still quite fit
Even at the age of 100, Major Purushottam is not ready to change his daily routine.
He wakes up at 5.30am. After having a cup of tea, he takes bath and does pooja for an hour. After his breakfast, he reads the newspaper and watches TV. Then at 10.45 am, he rests a bit. After his lunch at 1 pm, he sleeps for two hours.
After waking up, he has tea at 4 pm and at 4.30 pm, he walks at the parade ground at the Pangode Army Camp. He then returns home after spending some time at the gym at the camp.
He again takes a bath and does pooja. He goes to sleep after having his dinner at 8 pm.
“I like Carnatic music very much. Until the age of 96, I went to play tennis at the Sreemoolam Club,” he says.
Locals address Purushottam as 'Kammath Sir’ with respect. You just have to write LP Kammath, Pangode, Thiruvananthapuram, for a letter to reach him at his house.
Purushottam was married in February 1951. The bride was Chandrakala, daughter of Nagendra Prabhu, a prominent businessman from Alappuzha.
The couple has two children: Dr Sujatha (ENT surgeon) and Vijay (engineer, Muscat). His son-in-law is PB Sundaresan, and Asha is his daughter-in-law.
Purushottam was in Muscat for some time after the death of his wife Chandrakala in 2005. He currently stays at Parijat, Vettamukku, near the Pangode Army Camp in Thiruvananthapuram.