To the best of my knowledge, I first met Brigadier Kanwal in June 2004. I was a Research Associate—a fancy word for assistant—at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, while Brigadier Kanwal was a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. His name placard said, “Brig. (retd.) Gurmeet Kanwal,” a stylistic choice we had made about which I am sure the Brigadier had reservations. “We retire the man, not the rank,” I heard him say many times over the years when examining similar placards. He was always proper without being pretentious.
My next memory of him must be from the following year. Naval Postgraduate School had partnered with the Observer Research Foundation to examine the 2001-2002 military standoff between India and Pakistan. We traveled to Delhi at least twice in 2005 to meet the Brigadier and his ORF team. He was always a gracious host. I remember meeting at his home for dinner and drinks. Another retired Indian Army brigadier was there with us that evening, I recall distinctly, and he had finished his scotch. Eager to be helpful and by several decades the junior-most person in the room, I offered to refill it with the subcontinent’s favorite liquor and soda. I went to the bar station outside the room. I was perplexed. I didn’t see anything that looked like soda or tonic or any other clear bubbly liquid. The closest thing I saw was some citrus drink—perhaps a Fanta—and out of desperation I mixed the Johnny Walker with the atypical mixer. I knew it was wrong but going back to interrupt the conversation seemed too awkward. I brought it back. The other brigadier took a sip, grimaced, and shared a look with Gurmeet. He got up and replaced the drink, out of a soda dispenser I eventually realized. Gurmeet never said a word, never poked fun at me for what was a silly mistake, never remonstrated me for the wasted scotch.
From 2004 onward, I must have seen the Brigadier at his home, at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies which he subsequently led following his time at ORF, at countless conferences in the Gulf and Southeast Asia, at Delhi Gymkhana. He was always good natured. He frequently asked staff to find a high-backed chair to support his back, which caused him enormous grief but rarely deterred him from trips or gatherings. He offered advice. He told stories. He supported young scholars. Sometimes you would meet him and other visiting scholars would join, at an impromptu salon that Gurmeet had organized.
I will miss his interjections on the advantages of artillery to resolve some tactical quandary. I will miss him. Trips to South Asia, conferences on South Asian security, won’t quite be the same. And yet I will trade memories of him with countless scholars that Gurmeet also touched with his generosity, with his hospitality, with his time, and with his years of accumulated wisdom.