There was a time, and times have not changed even now, when the Israelites found themselves in constant battle or war for survival with their neighbours. During one of these, a battle weary Israelite with bombs and shells falling all around him, his house and town in shambles, his clothes in tatters, looked skywards and asked, “God, are we your chosen people?” God’s voice, from the heavens was heard by him over the crescendo of shells and splinters, “Yes, son you are.” At this, the Israelite, unable to stop his tears asked, “God, isn’t it time you chose someone else?”
Communicators were perceived by officers of other branches in the Indian Navy as the chosen people. They were, hence, not only constantly slanged but held responsible for anything and everything that went wrong with naval operations. Today’s generation of people, with world-wide means of communications in their pockets, would find it difficult to perceive the bad and ugly world of communications that I went through as a professional Communications and Electronic Warfare officer. Since this is a humorous article, let me give some light-hearted examples:
One, there used to be a Very High Frequency (VHF) portable set called VM25C (pronounced as Vee Em Two Five Charlie). It was called portable but as big as a Murphy radio set complete with an antenna sticking out from one side and a hand set like that of a telephone. One had to press the prestle for speaking and release for listening. In a scenario, say, a boat being sent to 5 – 7 miles away, in order to make sure that it would work when required, extensive pre-testing and pre-trials used to be done with the set having been lowered into the boat whilst still alongside and another one on the quarterdeck of the mother-ship. This testing would go on something like this:Mother: Baby this is mother, over.(No response from baby)Mother (a little louder now): Baby this is mother, over(No response from baby)Mother (at the top of his voice now): BABY THIS IS MOTHER, OVERBaby (feebly): Mother this is baby, overMother (Still shouting): BABY THIS IS MOTHER, HOW DO YOU HEAR ME? OVERBaby (feebly): Mother this is baby, I hear you loud and clear, overMother (For the first time conscious of the phenomenon being unfolding): BABY THIS IS MOTHER, NOT DIRECTLY BUT OVER THE SET, HOW DO YOU HEAR ME? OVERBaby (Realising this himself): Mother this is baby, directly loud and clear. But, over the set nothing heard, out.
We were, therefore, relieved when a “quantum jump in communications” was achieved with the help of PUNWIRE (M/s Punjab Wireless Systems Ltd) sets both for portable and tactical communications. These PWSL sets had to be synchronised before sailing out and repeatedly during the sortie at sea. Choicest abuses were hurled at the communicators of those ships that went out of Sync and were to be re-inducted into the fold. As far as portable communications were concerned many times the loud-hailers worked better than the PWSL sets.
Most exercises at sea turned out to be communications fiascos (Read ‘Orphanage In Naval Dockyard Mumbai’, ‘Poor Communicator Had The Last Laugh’, ‘Phew – What Signals!’, and ‘Anything For Me?’. and in the debrief of the exercises officers of the other branches would bring out how they could have performed miracles at sea had the communications behaved properly.
Communicators everywhere, like the Israelites in the opening paragraph, after getting confirmation from God that they indeed were the chosen people were most likely to tell God, “Please do us a favour and choose someone else for a change.”
At the end of the sea sortie, when their other counterparts merrily went home, communicators were seen establishing shore telephone lines. If the communications at sea were awful, you have no idea of what communications in harbour would be like. Most of these shore telephones produced only noise and sometimes wrong numbers. Those who eventually obtained the dialled numbers ran through naked like a certain Greek gent named Archimedes and shouted the equivalent of Eureka in Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil or Bengali.
One forenoon, on my ship INS Ganga, I was working at the writing table when suddenly on my bunk-bed a shore telephone unit landed with a crash. I don’t normally swear but since this crash was precipitously close to my head I nearly uttered what is common expression these days amongst youngsters: “WTF”. But, before I could do so I heard the booming voice of my Captain KK Kohli, “Call this shore telephone, do you, SCO? It is the shame of @$%*##& communicators.” With this spitting of contemptuous venom he left. There is no sky in a cabin. Indeed, the cabin being luxury of 7 ft by 7 ft, it hardly has any room. Even at that, I looked upwards, the general direction of God and repeated to him what Pandit Kedar Sharma had penned for Bawre Nain, “Teri duniya mein dil lagata nahin waapis bula le..” (I am not finding it worth amusing my heart in your world, recall me to you.”
In the midst of endless woes as communicators, the Director of Naval Signals (DNS), that time Commodore VK Malhotra decided to visit us on INS Ganga. He was a course mate of our Captain KK Kohli and he was visiting us in connection with the first ever installation of SATCOM (Satellite Communication) system in the Navy. Charity begins at home and hence as DNS nothing better than fitting the system on a course-mate’s ship. In any case, Ganga was the latest ship in the Fleet and deserved this honour. Our Captain had asked us (self and SCO II) to look-after him in Captain’s absence and we dutifully left no Heineken can unopened (the naval equivalent of no stone unturned) to make him feel at home. Several Heineken cans later and post a sumptuous lunch, the decision to install the SATCOM system on Ganga was sealed. The complete party went to see the site of the fitment, ie, atop the helo hangar.
After Vijji Malhotra left, the squeals of glee and mirth of my SCO II (an outstandingly brilliant officer in various respects but totally naïve in other respects) could be heard all the way to Okinawa, Japan. However, I was finding it hard to match his glee. He asked me the reason. I narrated to him the incident of the Captain chucking the shore telephone on my bunk-bed in harbour. “Imagine” I told him sombrely, “We were to be free from the taunts about shore telephone at sea at least. Now, with SATCOM being fitted, we would have to be on guard at sea too.”
My utterance was prophetic in two different ways. When the bally thing didn’t work at sea, the complete communication department’s efficiency was suspect. And when it worked, the Fleet staff merrily kept making urgent calls from at sea resulting in Lakhs of rupees of bills (since at that time, SATCOM calls were to the tune of Rupees 540 per minute or so).
A communicator used to be the most god faring person in the Navy. Whilst everyone else blithely used communications, the SCO, in the silence of the nights, often communicated with God…….totally free of cost. I wonder if things have changed now.
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