There is a risqué joke about how only real men can drive taxis in Paris. Professionalism and other attributes apart, I feel only the real large-hearted can do well on Viraat; and if you haven’t been one before being posted, you become one soon enough.
I took over as the ship’s commander after my command of a 400 ton boat, Vipul. Whenever I used to meet Viraat at sea or in harbour, I used to fear they would hoist my boat on one of the LCA davits. I had a ship’s company of eighty, whereas on Viraat, close to three hundred sailors would be on leave and temporary duty at any one time. The then Commander Rajender Singh, when he handed over to me, told me that being ship’s commander would be like being General Manager of Bombay VT. One of my biggest fears was that whilst talking to sailors outside, say in Kohli stadium, I would ask someone which ship he was serving on, only to be told that he was with me on Viraat. Another big fear was that someone someday would report an incident in a compartment and I won’t even know where it was, let alone know about the compartments surrounding it.
And yet, the mind and body expand automatically and respond magnificently. You not only remember men but remember details about them. Unlike small ships where an incident is reported rarely, on Viraat, incidents used to be commonplace and everyone used to take these in their stride and find quick solutions. Decision making becomes faster and if you are not one or two steps ahead of the game, you cannot have an honest sleep at night. I must have taken many bad decisions during my tenure but I always felt reassured that the majority ship’s company supported me as against my leaving them in the lurch for not having decided in time or at all.
My Commanding Officer, Captain JS Bedi, was ten times faster. There must have been times when he could have lost control, for example, when we had a major AVCAT leak or when, off Kochi, a Harrier in bad weather was very late in returning at the limit of its ROA; but, he always gave the impression of being in total control. I recall that whenever we were very tense onboard, say, due to an accident or incident, Captain Bedi would tell us the juiciest Punjabi joke to break the tension, so that everyone would return to normalcy. However, I don’t remember a single occasion when he passed on to us anger, fear or anxiety. He had the enviable ability to sift out significant from a lot of gibberish and with word or gesture he invariably guided everyone not to dissipate time and energy on the insignificant.
He stood by his principles but never made trifles into principles. I remember the time, when after days of sailing on Viraat, we anchored off Karwar and I asked his permission for taking the officers to Anjadip for a soiree. The only parting injunction that he gave me was, “Please make sure no one comes back drunk on board.” He was at the embarkation ladder when we returned on board – hold your breath – the next morning. After a binge that lasted greater part of the night, I had ensured that everyone slept on the beach. No words were spoken as we got off the boat and stepped on the quarterdeck; but, one look at his face conveyed to me the Tsunami that was about to hit. Silently I followed him to his cabin and his enquiring look demanded my explanation. “Just followed your instructions”, I ventured tentatively. “What instructions?” he demanded with matching aplomb. “The one about not coming back drunk on board”, I stuttered with increasing confidence, “We got drunk and hence slept there until we got un-drunk, I mean, sober.” His look said “dismissed” and so I returned to my cabin and then the phone rang. With trembling hands I picked up the receiver and there he was with his peerless response, “Next time you guys decide on an evening like this, don’t forget to take me with you.”
This wonderful spirit of being proud members of a larger team reflected in everything on board and I am sure it still does. I remember that we arrived in Mumbai harbour one day prior to the annual Pulling Regatta, having practised very little in Kochi. Viraat was berthed on the outer side of South Breakwater. Hence, nearly one-third of the course to the finish line was along Viraat; and that made all the difference. Captain had personally addressed the teams and had demanded that a win would be counted by him only if a Viraat boat would beat the nearest boat by at least two boat lengths. I had assured him that we would win the Cock by winning the largest number of races ever and not just by points. All was going well until we came to the MEs’ race. They had just finished doing long and arduous hours of watches at sea and I had mentally prepared to concede that race. They were in the third position when the racing boats came close to Viraat. And then hundreds of excited voices on Viraat started the altogether familiar litany: WE RAAT, WE RAAT. It was simply magical; a new and sudden energy was injected into the MEs and they started pulling as if they were possessed. Lo and behold, they won the race. We won the Cock by winning the largest number of races ever, at least till then. The Captain made sure that the MEs were the first to be photographed with the Cock. I can never forget MCME M Singh’s countenance that day. He would have done any rooster proud.
Life is memorable never because of mammoth events but because of small nuggets. The memory of Master Chief PTI Chauhan having prayed for me at Vaishno Devi and having brought me a small amulet, which I always carry with me, moistens my eyes even now; I having won his total devotion by insisting that we should have mass PT on the Flight Deck every morning. It would be difficult for any ship to match the sight of MCPOs and CPOs volunteering to clean and paint their mess decks and alleyways so that Viraat would come out a winner in FOST assisted workup. How can I forget the sight of a sailor moving up and down on the Flight Deck in webbing and with a baton in his hand one hour after the ship had weighed anchor and sailed out of harbour, he being the AWKWARD (Harbour Security) Sentry, not having realized that the ship had sailed?
I know that a variety of phrases are used to describe life on Viraat. But, I feel that the phrase that describes it best is that ‘it is a life of constant discovery’ – a discovery that often fills you with wondrous pride, belief in hidden potential of men, and their indomitable spirit; a discovery that fills you with awe just as much as it fascinates you. Five months after having joined, when I was confident that I knew all about Viraat, I went about, on New Year’s Eve, wishing men at their duty stations. I came across an LME on watch in the Fwd Pump Space, a post so remote and lonely that if anything were to happen to him, it would be four hours later that he would be discovered by the sailor relieving him. I discovered that day that this watch-post existed! I discovered soon after joining that irrespective of fire and flooding taking place in any part of the ship, our NBCDI L Ram would reach DC HQ within a minute from anywhere on the ship and Chief ME SR Singh would be invariably taking charge at the vicinity of the incident as if he just happened to be there! I discovered that our cooks and stewards hardly ever rested and whenever HODs visited me in my cabin, PO Std Swaran Singh would magically appear from nowhere with tea and shakarparas. I discovered that Cdr (Met) Dey somehow knew the inside story of all happenings on board. I discovered that the same men who worked hardest also were skilled musicians, comedians and singers. I discovered that we had the finest pilots and air boys on board and the best D team. Finally, I discovered that it was my good fortune to have served on Viraat.
Many years later I commanded the tanker Aditya and I had forgotten how large Viraat is. Initially, my ship was based at Vizag but half way through my tenure she changed base port to Mumbai. Thanks mainly to Viraat, during my first day with the Western Fleet, I supplied more fuel to the ships than during my entire tenure with the Eastern Fleet.
A time would come when Vikrmaditya would join the Fleet and they would tell us what a magnificent sight it is when MiG 29 takes off from her deck. And we the Viraatees would wistfully remember the sight of the Sea Harrier taking off from the ramp of the ship, and appear, for a moment, suspended in vapour. We would still insist that there is no lovelier sight. Large would give way to larger, but we would persist in our belief that the largest hearted men were only there during our tenure.
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