Keeper of the flame

It is hard for a tourist visiting New Delhi to give the India Gate a miss. Originally called the All India War Memorial, the 42-metre-high arch was built by the British in 1931 in the memory of soldiers who died in the World War I and the Afghan campaigns.

In 1972, after the 1971 India-Pakistan War, the Amar Jawan Jyoti (flame of the immortal soldier) was added to the memorial. A small symbolic tomb, known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, lies beneath the flame. This black marble structure has a fire lit perpetually at each of the four corners.

While the flame reminds us of the sacrifices made by the soldiers in the 1971 war, few would care to know about the old soldier who keeps it alive. Chander Singh Bist, who retired from the Military Engineering Services of the Indian Army in 2008, is the man responsible for keeping the flame perpetually burning.

Bist was seen roaming the lawns of India Gate on a searing day, following a function to mark the assuming of office by Gen. Bikram Singh, 25th Chief of the Indian Army. Gen. Singh had just finished paying homage at the Amar Jawan Jyoti.

Bist peered at us through his thick spectacles. He himself doesn't make much of the minor feat that he performs: "It isn't much work. The flame runs on CNG, which is supplied through a pipeline, and I just need to ensure it is burning at all times." He is popular among vendors at India Gate. "I get bored sometimes, so I come out and sell them tea." He is proud to be the oldest man here.

Age has caught up with Bist's memory. He doesn't remember names of dignitaries who visit the Amar Jawan Jyoti. But one memory that hasn't faded is of Indira Gandhi. "She had come here to pay homage. She even had some meeting. The same day she was assassinated," he says.

A little-known fact is that there exists a room right under the arch, next to the perpetually burning flame and that's where Bist lives. Grandfather to three children, he has a large family at Najafgarh, on the southwestern outskirts of the city. Sometimes his son comes to fetch him, and he goes home for a day.

For Bist, little has changed in the world, except that the India Gate used to be cleaner and the grass here much greener.

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