My father and mother and many people from my dad’s office had come to Shimla (that time still spelt the British way: Simla) railway station to see me off on my way to Naval Academy at Cochin (later Kochi). What a coincidence that my starting and destination stations changed the spellings of their names later. However, it was nothing in comparison to the transformation that had to take place with and within me. As the train chugged along on the now world heritage track, I looked back and waved at them. Little did I know that the next time I would see them, I would have grown more than I ever did before.
Beyond Delhi, I was fascinated with everything that I was seeing out of the window of the First Class compartment. It was the first time I had ventured this far from home and I soaked in all land, people, villages, rivers and rivulets and different languages that I heard during my over two days of journey. I wrote a 48 pages letter to my parents describing all this. Later, in NAVAC, when the letter was given to my Div O (Divisional Officer), Lieutenant SD Sharma, he read the entire thing (I quickly learnt that there was nothing like ‘private’ thoughts and mails in our formative years) and called me and chastised me to avoid going into such lengthy harangues “without any substance”. “All that you have actually wanted to write and was worth describing” he admonished me, “Can be written on the back of a five paisa stamp.” Many years later, my CO on Ganga too told me, “If what you want to say cannot be said in a single page, no one is interested in it.”
I too, therefore, quickly learnt the naval lingo, short and crisp replies to short and crisp questions. Eg,Q: How is life?Ans: Shit.Q: What you doing now?Ans: Coolex.
I also learnt that in order to keep pace with this ‘bikini – speech’, most navy officers read such ‘literature’ as comic books and cartoons. Major General Arjan Ray in his ‘Kashmir Diary’ bemoaned that the average vocabulary of an army officer was 300 words. Navy was no different. In my Cadet’s Journal on Delhi, I titled our first sailing to Port Blair as ‘Breakfast at Port Blair’. The Div O’s comments read, “What has this article got to do with breakfast?” I still have that journal with me. So, whilst the army-man describes features as, “See twelve O’ Clock, you will find a flat top hill; call it Flat Top Hill”, you quickly learn in the navy too to call a spade a spade. Imagination is for the non-professionals.
On my blog, therefore, the very first article, on retirement (On 28th Feb 10, before that I couldn’t have indulged in a blog) is titled: ‘I Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Did I?’ Was it a great job dome having removed these ‘kinks’ of language? Yes and no? Yes, because an uniformed service must have a uniform way of talking and writing that everybody understands. When a missile is coming towards you, you want to hear ‘Alarm missile starboard’ and get on with the automatic and mechanical responses of mind, body and equipment and not hear stories about the fire-ball looking like something straight out of Armageddon. No, because the missile is not coming at you all the time and your total cloning ensures that later in your career, when the bug bites you regarding ‘out of box thinking’, you find that the navy never gave you a chance to think out of the box. One of the senior officers, for example, tried to make Letters of Proceedings (LOPs) (a monthly report of happenings in and around the ship) “interesting”. It wreaked hell. Everyone was confused.
A navy officer, I learnt gradually, when he looks at the sunset, almost mechanically reports “Gyro error nil or such and such” and never describes its changing colours and hues and shapes.
At the lunch table, in NAVAC, we were initiated into uniformed way of describing things as follows:
Question by the Senior Cadet: What is on the menu Kay Dutt?
Answer: Sir, Mulligatawny Soup….and, garlic bread…and Sir, Chicken Braised for non vegetarians and Sir Cheese Cutlets for vegetarians, ….and cabbage fougard, mint potatoes, and then topped by Diplomat pudding….Sir.
Senior Cadet: Bull shit, Kay Dutt, there are too many pauses in your description and ‘ands’ and too many ‘Sirs’. It has to be like this (His demo was like the disclaimer in a television ad about a public issue of a company: at break neck speed without a pause; much like Mahadevan’s ‘Breathless’): Mulligatawny Soup, Garlic Bread, Braised Chicken within brackets NV, Cheese Cutlets within brackets V, cabbage fougard, mint potatoes and Diplomat pudding.
I was a turbaned Sikh a few years before I joined NAVAC. After I cut my hair, my hair were still like that of Beatles’ (the current fad at that time) and curly. I wore a snake-skin belt with a large brass oval-shaped buckle, bell-bottomed trousers and a shirt with elephant eared collar. First the POGI (It took me some time to find out what a Pogi (the way I pronounced it)) meant) took me to a barber. There were no mirrors there. So after a mere ten minutes of this ‘artist’s’ handiwork, when I came to my assigned room and looked at myself in the mirror, I wondered whether it was a mirror that I was looking into or a large poster of another man…a POW perhaps or a survivor of a holocaust.
Throughout my naval career I tried to find that curly-haired boy with snake-skin belt but I couldn’t. I had lost him for good.
Did I miss him? Well, even after I retired from the Navy, when my hair start touching my ear lobes and shoulder, I have a haircut without being told by anyone to do so. The requirement or the need for it has gone into my blood like good scotch that I had after I became a commissioned officer.
During my first leave from NAVAC, I met my civilian friend in Simla. He was trying to tell me about the breakup with his GF Asha. He was going round and round in circles. I told him to come straight to the point and summed up for him in crisp sentences: “Asha and you friends for long; Both enjoyed and promised. Now, Asha ditched you and left you high n’ dry. You want to know the reason. Well, it is because of your idiotically long hair, snake-skin belt, bell bots and funny shirt. Move with times Deepak; have a proper haircut and decent clothes and you will be back in reckoning.”
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