Life’s little things are the ones that teach you more than bigger events. I spent thirty-seven years in the Indian Navy and I am convinced my life was moulded because of the small nuggets that came my way. I shall periodically try to recollect some of these in this blog. This is the first of these nuggets.
I was posted at Navy’s Leadership School at Coimbatore in South India when I was fairly young, as a Lieutenant. A Leadership Course at Indian Naval Ship Agrani (to be pronounced as Ug-runh-ee meaning Leading; however, all those who have little knowledge of Hindi, which includes ninety percent of the officers in the Navy, pronounce it as Ag-raan-ee, meaning Fire Queen) is for sailors with about 10 to 15 years of service, as Petty Officers (in Seaman branch) or their equivalents in other branches. In addition to classroom studies about leadership traits, these men are exposed to outdoor exercises to observe their individual and team attributes.
One of the outdoor exercises was a trek from Needle Factory near a hill station named Coonoor to the foothill of Ooty hills (Nilgiris). It was not meant to be a competition but since the entire lot of sailors was divided into ‘syndicates’, each with a ‘syndicate officer’ in charge, competition was bound to arise. So, as each one of the syndicates would run or walk along the difficult hilly trail, it was not just a test of endurance and hill – navigation skills but also of team spirit and various other qualities that make a leader at the level of those sailors. Sailors were dressed in what was called FSMO – Field Soldier Marching Order, complete with boots, a heavy rucksack, water bottle etc; whereas, we as officers accompanying them, were dressed in simple fatigues with sports shoes.
We, as young ‘syndicate officers’ would have secret bets of a few bottles of beer as to whose ‘syndicate’ would win the race.
I had never been a topper at sports but this trek in the hill was my favourite. Being from the hills in Himachal, this was one sport that I was good at and could actually beat others in. I had therefore been happy recipient of many bottles of beer that had come my way, despite the fact that I often had to compete with another officer who was also from the hills in Himachal.
On this particular occasion, I was sure of winning since we were leading the whole lot. Engine Room Artificer Third Grade (ERA3) Khan, who finally won the Best Leader award in that batch and I were trailing our syndicate of about 30 sailors since Khan was good at everything except a hilly trek. The nearest syndicate was about 200 metres behind and we were nearing the Kalar Gardens, the end point of the trek; a trek that our youth and spirit had converted into a competitive race.
Khan was at the verge of giving up many kilometers behind and had indicated to me a number of times that he could not go on any further. I was trying all motivational tricks at my disposal and had somehow brought him to within one kilometer of a sure victory. Suddenly, Khan tripped over a rock and fell. The heaviness of his rucksack made him tumble over. He had bruises on his hands and face and because a sharp rock went into his right calf, he started bleeding profusely from the gash.
I knew the race was over for us. It did not matter anymore since it was Khan that needed to be attended to more than the thought of winning the race and having those beers from my fellow ‘syndicate officers’. I asked the rest of the syndicate to go on whilst I made Khan sit on a flat rock. I took out his right anklet and lifted the trouser cuff to expose the wound on his calf. I had nothing to tend his wound with; so I took out my kerchief and tied it around the bleeding gash. We sat for a few minutes and then I asked him to walk with me to the medical help only a few hundred metres away. He had difficulty walking and so I asked him to lean on me. With his wounded leg even walking was tedious for him. We had forgotten about the syndicate that was following us but now we heard footsteps not so far behind.
I could make out that what weighed on Khan was the heavy rucksack. So in order to make it easier for him I unstrapped the rucksack from his back and strapped it around me. Suddenly, as if some lightening had touched Khan, he started limping and moving forward on his own. I could make out that he was wincing in pain but a few steps later he started jogging, though with extreme difficulty. The kerchief was tied lightly and with all this renewed activity it came off. The gash re-commenced bleeding profusely and I asked him to stop. He would have none of it. He shouted for me to catch up with a war-cry: “Come on, Sir; we can still win the race; you will still have those beers”.
We won the race with Khan nearly collapsing as we caught up with the rest of the syndicate.
It took me years to realize why Khan ran that day even with bleeding leg. It took me still more time to realize how he knew that his syndicate officer had set a wager to win the race, even when we had told no one about the bet and the beers.
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