I have seen many great Admirals in the Indian Navy; smart, super intelligent, highly committed and professional. Strangely, most of them – if not all of them – take pride in their “man-management” and mastery over “human-psychology” in comparison to any other virtue or attribute. So, if you were ever to fault with your divisional duties (in the Navy, the ship’s company (what the civilians call as ‘crew’) is divided into various divisions such as Foxle (slang for Forecastle), Top Deck, Quarterdeck, Electrical, Engineering, and Logistic Divisions), you would have a prolonged harangue from these old timers as to how they never faulted with their divisional duties when they were young subalterns like you.

Some of the oft-repeated expressions that you were likely to hear were: “I knew every sailor like the back of my hand” and “Twenty-five years later I still remember the send-off my sailors gave; I had tears in my eyes (one liquid trying to compete with the other in the belly: Rum).”

Old-timers are happiest when they come across a sailor who was merely a Seaman First Class with them but had become a Master Chief Petty Officer now. “Master Chief Sahib”, they begin with more than a glint in their eyes, “Do you remember the Gunnery shoot when we brought down the PTA with our accurate firing? And do you remember the signal the Fleet Commander made to us: ‘IF YOU KEEP SHOOTING DOWN TARGETS LIKE THIS, SOON THERE WILL BE NO TARGETS LEFT FOR OTHER SHIPS TO PRACTICE ON’.”

Navy always has the stress on 'Man-behind-the-gun' (Pic courtesy: jhunjhunu.info)
Navy always has the stress on ‘Man-behind-the-gun’ (Pic courtesy: jhunjhunu.info)

Most sailors oblige the old-timers with sudden flashes of memory at this stage, whether or not they remember the incident. At this stage, the chest of the Admiral blooms larger than a large balloon and he walks through the rest of the Annual Inspection with the expressed feeling that he is proud of the stress on the Divisional System in that ship or establishment.

Master Chief Petty Officer First Class JK Singh of the establishment Agrani (a School for Leadership in the Navy), however, was a very honest sailor and highly competent; on his mother’s knee the one lesson about life he had learnt was never to lie. He was our best sailor-instructor at that time. We, who had started our career in the Navy only three years back, were in awe of him since JK was a recipient of Naosena Medal (NM) for having fought a difficult fire on the old carrier Vikrant with grit and valour.

This Admiral from the Naval Headquarters who was visiting our establishment Agrani had weaved the web of his being of the ‘man-management-type’ (“It is the man behind the gun that matters” he often declared in his booming voice). So, the Commanding Officer had lined up, for interaction with the Admiral, the senior most of his sailors near his office in addition to all of us officer-instructors present there. I noticed that JK stood looking tall, competent and exuding supreme confidence that he always did.

Hand-shaking with the officers, by the visiting Admiral, was done wasting the minimum time (in any case there would be time over PLD (Pre-Lunch Drinks) to know us better).

And then the Admiral started with the sailors. Looking at Master Chief Petty Officer First Class JK Singh brought the pride in the Admiral and his chest was about to burst; more so since he wore the NM ribbon. The Admiral boomed confidently “Ahh,,Master Chief JK Singh; old chap, old ship-mate, how nice to see you again….you were with me on?…no, no, don’t tell me…let me guess….you were on Kiltan with me, right?”

JK Singh looked straight and erect and answered without flinching, “No Sir; I was not on Kiltan.”

The old-man wasn’t the one who’d give up easily (he won’t have made it to a Vice Admiral if he did), “Ahhh, now I know, you were the bright chap in the Foxle division on the old Rajput.”

They don’t make sailors like Master Chief Petty Officer First Class JK Singh anymore; indeed, even then he was a limited edition. Without batting an eye-lid, he replied, “No, Sir, I haven’t had the privilege to serve with you on Rajput.”

Now, it had become a do-or-die for the Admiral and the C.O. had already started winking at JK Singh to put the old man out of his misery. But, our Gunnery Officer had already instructed the sailors to look the Admiral in the eye whilst answering and not look “here and there”. In the proper Gunnery style, this drill had been carried out with them several times with the G.O. acting as the Admiral. So, our C.O.’s winking was wasted on JK Singh. JK’s expression was indicative of his will to follow the drill of the Gunnery Officer with the same resolve as had earlier got him the coveted Naosena Medal.

The Admiral had a brain wave (I haven’t yet come across an Admiral who doesn’t get one at the crucial time), “Oh my God; I must be getting forgetful with old age (this said mockingly to indicate that he was far from becoming old); of course you were with me on Mysore and had got the Best Sailor award several times on board when I was the Commanding Officer….ha, next I will forget my own name.”

Our C.O. was visibly trembling by this time and had closed his eyes to fervently pray to God to drive some sense in the vacuous head of his (erstwhile) best sailor. But, JK Singh stood his ground and replied with becoming honesty, “I am sorry, Sir, I was never with you on Mysore.”

At this juncture, our CO was already motioning the Admiral to move on to Master Chief Second Class Pillai who was dying to agree with the Admiral on anything at all, even to say that it was he who gave the crucial pass to the Admiral when as Lieutenant he had scored his first goal in a football match against the Royal Naval Ship Kent. You won’t believe it but I gathered all this from the eager face of Pillai. I wish I had taken a photograph.

Admirals don’t give up so easily; as I have mentioned earlier, only the brightest, the smartest and the most professional make it to that rank. So, the visiting Admiral had a massive Tsunami that hit his brain and he came up with a clincher, “Ahhh, now I know; it was the ‘other’ JK Singh who left service three years back. Strange, there is a very close resemblance….(and he turned to my C.O.) Don’t you feel, Satpal?”

My C.O.’s eagerness to nod his turbaned head put Pillai’s visible alacrity to shame and he seized the opportunity to declare cease-fire on further barrage of ‘man-management’, “That’s what I have been trying to tell you, Sir; this is not the same JK Singh…..(and added for effect); all smart sailors, in our great Navy look alike.”

Over the PLD, that afternoon, the Admiral recited several anecdotes about “that” JK Singh. Our C.O. added quite a few of his own and whole-heartedly agreed with the Admiral that “that” JK Singh was one of the greatest sailors “this side of the Suez”.

Satpal would have certainly made it to an Admiral’s rank had he not been court-martialed and cashiered that year for something as insignificant as embezzlement of funds. Dishonesty doesn’t always work.

© 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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  1. Honestly Sir,
    I had to unlearn my so called man management training of the Navy once I was on the Civil street and learning my ropes with the corp orates while doing placements. I had to again unlearn this man management once I was sailing with the merchant marine.

    The point is that whatever the setting, while the’ fine tuning’ is different in these settings, the Macro element of leadership does not change much.. Cheers, it was a good reading.

    1. Thank you, Kamal. Life stays interesting because of gems like these and if we can recall them after decades, it only means that one has still not lost one’s noodles, eh?

  2. Excellent piece of pure humour bursting through out. No body is doing anything else than helping Admiral Sahab firing rapid shots of humour from the gun called MC JK which is being supplied conons by CO Sahab. But these all are mere characters playing the actual work for this fierce outbrust of humour is being done by the trajectory that is the lesson JK leatnt at his mother’s knee and ofcourse drill taught to him by GO. MC Pillai is poor MB 1 who did,t have anything for him. At PLD there were still indication that there was no need to made the GUN retire pre mature , but for trajectory ….