The love story of Lt General Prem Bhagat and his wife Mohini has now been preserved for posterity by their adoring daughter, Ashali Varma, whose life was transformed by the people who worshipped her charismatic parents.
The much-admired Mohini from cosmopolitan Poona, was “mesmerised by... the kindliest and most compelling eyes she had ever seen.” Commissioned in 1939, Prem joined the Bombay Sappers and was assigned to 21 Field Company—an event that would catapult him to fame as an expert in explosives and building bridges and roads.
From North Africa in 1940, Prem wrote long and chatty letters to Mohini, peppered with humour. When he witnessed the horrors of war, with lives snuffed out in seconds, he felt guilt and sorrow, emotions that he hid from her.
On January 31, 1941, the retreating Italians booby-trapped the roads with mines. Prem, leading from the front, had two close shaves with death. He ran into an ambush. The powerful blast shattered his eardrum. Yet he continued what his Commanding Officer termed “the longest continued feat I have ever seen of sheer cold courage”. The feat won him the Victoria Cross, the highest British award for gallantry!
The book has anecdotes and memorable photographs. While having dinner at the Taj Hotel, Mumbai, to his embarrassment and her glee, the menu had a picture of him saluting, the Victoria Cross pinned on. He proposed to her over candlelight, and they got married on February 24, 1942. Marriage was a close, loving partnership. When Mohini was expecting her first child, Prem was worried about the pain she would undergo, as also about the new interest in her life. When their son, Dubby was born, he fell in love all over again. Nine years later, Ashali, completed their family.
In 1949, as Commandant of the Bombay Sappers, he turned the outfit into a model training centre, taking bold steps to unite his men by introducing common dining, clubs and sports facilities. Later, as Commandant of the Indian Military Academy, he would invite cadets for delicious home-cooked meals. The parents of the cadets, often from rural areas, were invited to pip their wards. Stress on values like loyalty and integrity was paramount.
Towards the end of an illustrious career, Prem was cheated of the post of the Army Chief because he was outspoken and popular. Manekshaw, who considered him his natural successor, said, “The Army missed a first rate chief.” Mohini stood by his side. From Jammu to Calcutta, tearful jawans, officers and their wives mobbed them at every station. Post-retirement, Prem was made Chairman of the Damodar Valley Corporation. Once again, he left the stamp of his leadership with his concern for subordinates.
The idyllic love story ended when Prem succumbed to a massive allergic drug reaction. Mohini asked for a ceremonial military funeral. As the nation wept at the passing of a war hero, Mohini stood dry-eyed, aware she had a lifetime ahead to mourn him. For 30 years, she kept his memory alive, having presented his Victoria Cross to the Bombay Sappers. Her end came after a painful struggle with cancer.