There must be thousands like me in the armed forces of India; we join at a very young age (I was 19 when I joined the Naval Academy or NAVAC at Cochin (now called Kochi) in 1973) and retire when we do not have much life left to see (I retired in end Feb 2010 as Commodore at the age of 56). The other day, on Facebook, I saw security executives in my present corporate where I work celebrating four years (to them it appears a long time with the present trend of job-hopping) of having been there in the same industry. I spent 37 years in the Indian Navy and I could have celebrated this feat nine times over!
I was given the President’s Commission on 01 July 1975 and just a few days back my course-mates and I greeted one another on having completed 40 years of commissioned life. At the time of joining, some of my course-mates were suave, smart, confident and in with the naval way of life. To me, it was all very strange (if I were a girl, I would have been called Alice irrespective of what my parents would have named me!). One or two of the course-mates even appeared to have been from a different planet; one still appears thus. I must have been the most awkward and unlike a Labrador, the least trainable.
What fascinated me about the Navy? The short answer is books and movies; I lapped them up during my boyhood days and imagined myself standing on the deck of a ship like, say, Willie Keith in Caine Mutiny or George Ericson in The Cruel Sea. I also had this strange wanderlust and hence going to sea was as far as I could get from the hills of Himachal where I had been for all my childhood and boyhood years. Now that I have retired from the Navy though the sea is still as fascinating (Please read ‘The Lure Of The Sea’), my next fascination is about matters of philosophy and meta-physics (you will find my writings on these in the Philosophy section of this blog)
So, one fine day, from my home-station in Simla (now spelt Shimla), in May 1973, I took a train to Cochin to be trained (tough job for them!) to become an Indian Navy officer. Here are the last two pictures with my people before Navy claimed me:
You must have seen two things in the above pictures: the short hair-cut that I supported in preparation for the Naval life and the huge smile. As soon as I landed up at Cochin they modified both. The journey to Cochin from Simla had taken only two and half days and how much my hair would have grown in less than three days? However, the urgency with which I was taken to the barber (barbarian?) made it seem like I was some hirsute sadhu who had emerged from the caves in the hills after long hibernation. I couldn’t believe the mirror when this barbarian had finished with me; all resemblance to a wantonly college-going teenager was gone forever. My snake-leather belt, large brass buckle and my bell-bots were all gone. Even civvies for us were the muftis with a neck-tie. Uniform became a way of life in profession, in spare time, in thoughts and even in sub-consciousness.
The next were my seniors who appeared to be direct descendants of Goebbels; they made me wipe my smile as if it was an ugly scar. One of them got used to ragging me with a simple monosyllable word repeated ad-inifinitum (one of the two in his extensive vocabulary; the other being No). An intelligent conversation with him went like this:
A: Why didn’t you report to me yesterday?
Me: Sir, I broke my leg.
Me: I reported to the hospital.
Me: They put my leg in a cast. It is still in the cast as you can see.
“So, Sir, I prayed whole night to God to make me a bird” I wanted to add, “But, then He told me I would have to do without a brain because He had given you the bird(‘s)-brain.”
I also found out that neither my seniors nor any of the staff at NAVAC respected time of the day or night; one could be asked to do front-rolls immediately after dinner or do somersaults in the middle of the time. I was also to learn, at great cost to my dignity (or whatever remained of it) and physique that during war we may have to change various rigs in less than a minute each time lest the enemy should steal advantage over us. And, in order to prevent enemy from seeking this advantage, those of us who couldn’t finish rig-changing in a minute’s time had to go through the kind of torture that the enemy would have unleashed on all.
These staff and seniors, totally bereft of even the remotest traces of civility, made me do things that were well beyond my own endurance and stamina and against my loudest protestations. For example, they predicted that if they threw me in the deep end of the swimming pool, I would automatically learn swimming. I knew it was impossible and I tried my best to tell them so. However, they insisted on the correctness of their theory. Lo, and behold, after a few dunkings and after my having drunk gallons of chlorinated water, it is they who were proved right and I automatically learnt swimming. Late at night in my bed I formed the opinion that it wasn’t correct that God listened to the godly and righteous people; He also listened to such devils.
In likewise manner, I automatically learnt many a thing and discovered newer limits for my own endurance and stamina.
I learnt, for example, that one could go to sleep whilst standing erect on the bridge of Cadet Training Ship Delhi with binoculars in hand tied to a lanyard around the neck.
I also learnt about Relativity of Time; four hours spent in the club (Officers Institute) in the drunken company of my course mates would pass in a jiffy; whilst the same four hours during the middle watch on the ship appeared like four years.
To add to the misery of training days was the naval lingo that had quaint feel about it. One had to say “Aye aye Sir” if one wanted to say “Yes Sir”; port for left, starboard for right, and “very good” whilst acknowledging a report even if the report was about an impending collision.
I remember seeing the Daily Orders for the first time and laughed that even in an official document personnel were called by their nicknames such as Popti for our physical training instructor until it was explained to me after considerable front-rolling and bend-stretches that it wasn’t Popti but PO PTI (Petty Officer Physical Training Instructor).
Armed forces are, I gradually learnt, always training. Many years later, when I was the Director of Maritime Warfare Centre at Mumbai (I am the only officer who has been Director of all three MWCs in the Navy involved in tactical operational training of Command teams), the motto on the Large Screen Display in the auditorium was by General Patton: ‘The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war’. Armed forces, therefore, are always sweating.
On Cadet Training Ship INS Delhi, our only contact with the civilian world was to be taken for what was called RWR (Road Walk and Run) along the Marine Drive in Bombay. What a world awaited us, we thought; Bombay, the dream city of Hindi films (not yet bastardised to ‘Bollywood’) and glamour, the city of marines and window to the rest of the world, the city of money, and the city of possibilities. And when I finally joined it, honestly, there was this air about us that put us on a pedestal. During those days, you rubbed shoulders with the elite and they were dying to be seen with you. During my Acting Sub Lieutenant days, we could sit in the Ante Room and enjoy the company of Nutan and Tanuja. A video of those days is going around showing really big film stars, singers and music directors attending the Navy Ball.
Forty years back, I remember, I had gone in uniform to receive a senior officer at Bombay Central. After receiving him, as I stood in the queue for a cab to take me back to my ship INS Himgiri, a cop who was directing people into cabs, beckoned me at the end of the queue, stopped the next cab for me, put me into it, without any protest or demurring from anyone ahead of me in the queue. It felt really nice being a uniformed naval officer.
And what about going abroad? For a boy from a small town in Himachal, who was awed by walking and running along the Marine Drive in Bombay, stepping on a foreign shore was ecstasy indeed. Our CO said we were to be ambassadors of our great country and as I covered in ‘Foreign Jaunts’, it felt great to be in the naval-diplomatic role wherever we went. Many decades later, in the year 2001, as the Indian Navy organised its International Fleet Review in Mumbai, the motto selected by them was ‘Bridges of Friendship Across the Seas’. I remember our visit to Odessa in erstwhile USSR (now in Ukraine) on Himgiri, my second ship as a commissioned officer after three weeks on Vikrant in harbour. The official reception was held on the second evening. All the lovely Russian damsels attending the reception asked us why the officers were not attending the reception. We were flummoxed until the mystery unfolded. In foreign shores, sailors go on shore leave in uniform whereas officers go out in civvies. Some of these damsels, fascinated by naval uniforms, gave company to some of the sailors over drinks, dancing and dinner. When they inquired from these sailors the meaning of two crossed anchors badges on their sleeves, the sailors responded that they were officers (conveniently forgetting to add that they were Petty Officers!) and hence permitted to wear uniform ashore whereas the other ranks had to perforce go out in civvies.
The fascination for naval uniform abroad was to be seen to be believed. I have seen in real life and in pictures people stopping to have their pictures clicked with men in uniform.
During the training period and in our formative years in the Navy, we almost totally forgot about our families. My only sister, for example, got married when I was a cadet, holy-stoning the decks of INS Delhi (erstwhile HMS Achilles that took part in the famous Battle of the River Plate against German battleship Graf Spee, together with HMS Ajax and HMS Exeter. The movie was shot in 1956 and the ship had already been transferred to us in 1958. During the shooting an aerial photo shoot was to be redone because when the reel was developed, it came out that a Sikh sailor, complete with his turban, had come out on the upper deck of Delhi!). I never attended her marriage or any other marriage; I was married to the Navy.
We did manage to fall in love and get married (Please read ‘Lyn And I – Scene By Scene‘); but, the Navy proudly and correctly told our wives that Navy happened to be our first love and they could, at best, be Number Two. The wives themselves had no doubt and never tried to be Numero Uno in our lives. Strangely, the ladies too learnt the ropes through the automatic process that I mentioned above. Whilst we had learnt quick rig-changing, my wife learnt the art of quick packing and unpacking both on permanent as well as temporary duties. They also automatically learnt how to get the best from MES (Military Engineering Service); for example, how many incandescent bulbs of what wattage they were entitled to in exchange for how many. They waited endlessly for us to return to harbour; only to see us off again on another mission, which, they complained the newspaper man and the dhoodhwalla knew all about; but, which “thanks to your stupid secrecy norms, you don’t tell us”.
Our first child, Arjun, was born immediately after my father’s untimely death in an accident and hence under trying circumstances. Our second child, Arun, was born when I was away for a month to Andaman and Nicobar islands on my ship INS Ganga with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his Italian wife Sonia embarked. Lyn, my wife, walked to the hospital, quickly delivered and returned home so as to look after the first one too. Now that we were raising a family – and in my case, under most difficult conditions (as you would have gathered from the blog ‘Lyn And I – Scene By Scene’) – for the nth time, the automatic process came in handy. Both the children too became fiercely independent (Read ‘Diminishing Dad‘), capable and accomplished almost entirely on their own. The other day, my erstwhile coxswain of INS Aditya, a retired Petty Officer, brought his daughter for selection in ICSI (Institute of Company Secretaries of India) run institute called CCGRT (Centre for Corporate Governance Research and Training). She is from a small town in Andhra and just 12th standard pass. She had to compete against graduates and diploma holders but she easily got selected, thanks to the automatic learning process of the armed forces.
During our days there was a joke about a naval officer’s involvement with his family (I believe the joke is still prevalent). A naval officer was asked how big his two children were. He pointed out with his hands, not vertically, but horizontally. This was rather quaint way of bringing out the size of his children and he was asked to explain. He responded, “I see them in the bed only; when I leave in the morning they are still in bed, when I return late at night, they have already gone to bed.”
Ask a naval officer as to what are his most nostalgic experiences in the Navy. With very few exceptions, he would answer:
#1, the Midshipman Tenure. It was a rank unique to the Navy when one was not quite a commissioned officer yet and also not a cadet. This lasted for only six months whereas we would have wanted it to last a lifetime; you’d start getting some perks of being and officer and yet not too much of responsibility. Indeed, in the naval slang a Midshipman used to be called Snotty as he would be frequently wiping his nose on his sleeve. Our Midshipman tenure was on INS Tir, an erstwhile River Class Frigate of the Royal Navy; and we had a ball, even though we had to do hot-bunking (the number of bunks in our mess being much less than the number of Midshipmen on the premise that a certain number would be on duty by rotation all the times).
#2, the Command of a Ship, Submarine or Aircraft. A Commanding Officer is next to God. Indeed, as the old timers used to say: “Ham God nahin hain, par, God se kam bhi nahin hain.” (I am not God; but I am no less than God). The responsibility that the nation places on a CO of a ship, submarine or aircraft at sea is as mammoth as the unfettered powers given to him; you can’t afford to make mistakes; people’s lives are dependent on you. During our training years we used to wonder how the CO, even whilst asleep in his cabin, instinctively knew what revolutions the ship did by the sound of the engines and whether we were headed into danger. Two decades later when I commanded my own ship, I realised that it comes to you automatically.
#3, to be given an official transport (vehicle). Ahh, for this, during our days, one had to be a very senior officer! And then, the moment this honour (Read: Navy And Staff Cars) was bestowed on you, you sat at the left rear of an Ambassador car, saluted back with a flourish all those who saluted you and failed to recognise your erstwhile friends lest they should ask you to share the prized possession.
Nearly 37 long years went as if in a jiffy. And before you can pause, the Navy retires you. Three days after I retired from the Navy on 28th Feb 2010, I wrote a blog ‘I Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Did I?’ in which I concluded “I have no desire to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. The loony bunch is family, for heaven’s sake.” There is nowhere to go. Five years later, after working in India’s largest corporate, there is still nowhere to go; Navy is the only home I knew, the only life I had.
We hadn’t seen any life on civvie street at all. The civilians must be smart in their own ways; after all they command large organisations, governments and countries, whereas all that we do is to command ships, submarines and aircraft. However, frankly, I haven’t met anyone half as smart as a naval officer! In my case, in the Naval Academy, in the Ante Room, I distinctly remember that we waited for someone smart to switch on the television as one, we hadn’t seen one before; and two, with its complex sounding controls such as Contrast, Brightness, V hold and H hold, people would laugh at us if we didn’t know how to get a picture that didn’t jump on the screen. Years later, we were handling with ease, the most complex Electronic Warfare and Action Information systems. The Navy lets you learn all these – well, by now even you know the process – automatically.
Navy was life, a system that used to work; and I know it still works. We were always responsible and accountable for all our actions and non actions; except perhaps during our Midshipmen days. And then you are faced with the lack of discipline and accountability to that extent wherein people die and no one is to be blamed; wherein brand new bridges collapse and no one is accountable; wherein after 40 years of promises and more promises, we still don’t have an OROP (One Rank One Pension) and everyone assures you it would be there shortly.
A Navy man is totally at home when he is at sea as I wrote in Lure of the Sea. But, the moment he is out, he pines for the sea, the only life he’s had.
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