There is an anecdote about a Midshipman going berserk on a ship. He started playing with shit with his hands and at the same time asking the Topasses to obtain more and more shit from the WCs. The man-management bug had just started in the Navy and hence, rather than sending him straight to the cooler, his Training Officer decided to use tact and counseling with him. He asked him gently as to what he was doing. Without batting an eyelid the Midshipman responded, “I am trying to make a Lieutenant out of it.”
Not being able to handle this on his own, the Training Officer reported this to the XO (Executive Officer), the second-in-command. By that time, more and more shit was being brought to the Midshipman’s JOM (Junior Officers’ Mess). He too inquired as to what the snotty was up to. Pat came the reply that he was making an XO out of it. This was then reported to the Captain who evinced a response that the Mid was making a Captain out of it.
Now this was rather unusual and reported to the Fleet Commander, the last word in Man-management in the Fleet. This wizened man berated the others for not knowing how to handle this “simple” situation, approached the Midshipman, and rather than questioning, said in his heavy baritone, “Don’t tell me, son, what you are doing; I know that you are making an Admiral out of the shit.”
“No, Sir”, responded the Midshipman calmly, “I don’t have enough shit for that.”
It has always been there in the Navy. We live in close quarters with our senior officers and jokes – both overt and covert – abound about this species called ‘Senior Officers’. The reactions to this type of banter are undergoing a huge change these days. We used to have many old-timers who used to recognise that such harmless banter was the sure shot way of cooling tempers and returning to sanity after letting off steam by the juniors. These senior officers would merrily join in the banter and would be expected to crack one or two juicy ones on themselves, which the narrator would be otherwise shy to relate.
It is not easy to allow a joke on yourself when you are the senior officer. It is even more difficult to crack one yourself. And the most difficult is to have a good laugh on these and not earmark it for sorting out the narrator when the opportunity would arise. I am afraid the percentage of senior officers who would take offence is forever increasing. Gone are the days when the senior officers would permit these large-heartedly.
One such person was Admiral Dawson. On the day when he was promoted from Commander to Captain, he was walking to his car at the end of the day, in civvies. A few junior officers too were walking and didn’t recognise him (he was just behind them). They were talking enthusiastically about this b——d called Commander Dawson who was this and that but always a b. At the end of the jetty, Dawson overtook them, turned around and said, “Not Commander Dawson; but, Captain Dawson from now onwards.” The junior officers were stunned and frozen.
Another was Captain Lewin. He was endowed with great sense of humour. During one of his unannounced rounds of his ship, he came across a few Acting Sub Lieuts curiously espying the pages of a Playboy magazine. He called them to his cabin. Being called to Captain’s cabin is nothing short of being marched up to gallows and the Sub Lieuts were expecting the worst. Captain Lewin opened his table drawer, took out a copy of the Navy List (a compendium of all officers in the Navy from CNS downwards, branch-wise) and gave it to them with the remark, “You guys don’t have to spend good money on Playboys. Here, take this (Navy List). You will see more c—-s here than in all the Playboys and Penthouses.”
My CO on Ganga, Captain KK Kohli, was another such large-hearted senior officer. When it came to cracking jokes on the ship everyone had equal rights. Once, on the Bridge, we were all getting nice and proper from him. He noticed me doodling on the blank reverse side of an NC1 (Signal form). He was pretty cheesed off that whilst he was slanging, I was amusing myself by doodling. He angrily snatched the paper from me and saw that I had drawn a complete cricket field with KKK batting and all of us in various fielding positions. He couldn’t believe his eyes. I thought that would be the end of my till then brilliant career. Anyway, he gave the paper back and asked me to draw my own position that he had seen was missing. With trembling hands I took the paper and drew myself at Silly Mid-on! He had a look at it and pocketed the paper. The whole day I kept thinking of how my thoughtlessness had spelt the end of my naval career. Late in the evening, his coxswain came to my cabin with a message, “From Captain to Silly Mid-on: Come and have a glass of beer with me.” Everyone familiar with ships at sea would know that is rare honour indeed.
My Captain on Viraat, Jaggi Bedi, too had a keen sense of humour that promoted team spirit. When things would get tense – and honestly, there were many such moments with the old Viraat having fire and flooding at the drop of the hat – JSB would crack a pippin’ of a joke to relieve tension. Most of these were not directed against anyone but either at the circumstances that we were in or similar circumstances in which Banta Singh or the subject of the joke would find himself. There was one he told the divers of the Command Clearance Diving Team (CCDT) who were very tense because one of our sea tubes was leaking and they were sent to block the sea ingress to it so that repairs could be carried out. Only, the joke is a risqué one and I cannot relate it here. But, it was enough to bring down all around tension and normalcy returned to everyone’s thinking.
Having been in the old-time Navy, it was a rude shock to encounter some of the latter-day senior officers who would actually finish the career of the subordinates who would even think of indulging in such banter. One such guy sent me a show-cause notice asking me to explain why action shouldn’t be taken against me for not ensuring the working condition of a particular equipment. I really thought it was some sort of joke since I was the one who brought it to the notice of the authorities repeatedly that this particular equipment wasn’t working since the time it was installed, ie, for the last ten years even with my predecessors. So, in reply to the show-cause notice, I made a detailed response giving not my perception but facts and figures from various documents. I ended my submission, in my characteristic style: “In the end, I would like to bring out the advice given to a new teacher by a veteran: ‘As you go into the classroom, you would come across a student who is persistently asking questions. Don’t ever be offended by him; he may be the only one paying attention’.”
A Letter of Severe Displeasure (the highest punishment that can be summarily awarded to an officer) was given to me for my misdemeanour. End of humour. I became Yaqub Memon. Humour had led not to pleasure but displeasure.
Looking back, that was still an odd case. Most other senior officers that I came across in the Navy sorted out matters of humour with equivalent or better humour. In one of the Shiksha (exercise between Commands with Chief of the Naval Staff being the umpire) exercises, whenever a situation arose and a Fleet team was asked to respond, the FOO (Fleet Operations Officer) taking down the Fleet Commander’s instructions differed with him on every point. Finally, in good humour, this Fleet Commander grabbed the pen and paper from his FOO and said without even a trace of confrontation or bitterness, “Okay, you dictate the instructions and I shall write.” I was part of the same team and I just couldn’t believe my ears.
The national leadership, these days, is on short-fuze. Any cartoonist, writer or critic drawing or writing anything in good humour but critical of authorities is promptly jailed (Please also read: A Dangerous Profession). My service, Navy, was never like this. For a short duration, as a stop-gap, I was Flag Lieutenant (naval equivalent of an ADC) to a Chief of Naval Staff (CNS). We were going to receive the PM of a foreign country at Palam (New Delhi). We were resplendent in our ceremonial uniforms and CNS’s flag flew in the front of the car. Even at that, one of the traffic cops stopped us at a junction to allow the car of the Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his complete entourage pass (they were going to receive the same foreign PM). I was hot under the collar and wanted to berate the traffic cop. The CNS, in excellent humour restrained me by saying, “Don’t do that, Flags; I am only a Chief (a Chief Petty Officer sailor is generally referred to as Chief!).”
Years later, our ex President APJ Abdul Kalam when asked to remove his belt and shoes in a security check at the airport reacted likewise.
I guess the really great have great sense of humour. Others have arrogance; but they ain’t great.
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