LIFE IS INTERESTING BECAUSE OF WEIRDOS

This article is written in jest only. When we were in the Navy, many of us were at the receiving end of a number of these weirdos’ intended or unintended jest. It is, therefore, alright to recall some of their eccentricities in sheer nostalgia. When you get a rotten tooth pulled out, you sometimes miss the slow ache the tooth used to cause and your tongue goes to the void every-time and feels its absence.

A Weirdo is a person whose dress or behaviour seems strange or eccentric. When I was in the Navy, I came across many such persons; I am sure every profession or group has at least one such person.

It is, sometimes, awkward and embarrassing to deal with weirdos. Many a times, it is downright frustrating. However, in all cases, life is interesting because of weirdos; there is always something to talk about, something to bemoan, something to be amused about.

Why am I reminded of him today? Well, recently (on the 31st May to be exact), we have a new Chief of the Naval Staff. Admiral Sunil Lanba is not a weirdo. I am reminded of the weirdo who nearly made it to the CNS. His weirdness became even more acute when he came to know that he was nearly there (by that unique navigation expression called: time and space) and yet so far (by his predecessor CNS having been kicked out by the last BJP government and thus upsetting the apple-cart or the succession plan for him).

When you become very very senior in the armed forces, succession-plan becomes your favourite plan and you would do anything to have this plan, at least, go your way (like General VK Singh did; please also read: Army Chief’s Age – The Other Issues; Hats Off To General VK Singh; and Indian Army Before And After Operation Vijay). In the last sentence, if you would have noticed, I used the expression ‘at least‘; thereby implying that all your other plans are likely to be thrown out of the porthole the moment you swallow the anchor. This is actually true since most armed forces persons are good at reinventing the wheel (Please read Reinventing The Wheel, Armed Forces Style).

This gentleman, rich in the puss that oozed out of his super-ego, in the OK Corral Model, placed himself in the center of the one-up position (quadrant) with everyone, called by Eric Berne and several other transactional analysis people as: I am OK, You are not OK position. When he talked to any of his men and women, they were made to feel smaller than worms.

He had a reason for every one of his eccentricities. A la Kejriwal style (many years before Kejriwal became a phenomenon), this gentleman had his entire command divided into just two kinds of people: those who were facing Boards of Inquiry and Courts Martial for such serious crimes as having taken a few kgs of extra chicken for themselves or for their ships; and those who conducted these BoIs and CMs (whilst awaiting their own turn for sitting on the other side). He gave the reason for each one of these: ‘If I can’t trust him with chicken, how can I trust him in war?’

Another of his fads was to investigate (more torturous than the Spanish Inquisition) from which of the Ship’s Funds were Greeting Cards paid for; which he termed as “utterly wasteful expenditure”. Most of us had learnt the hard way never to send him any greetings whatsoever. However, youngsters sometimes didn’t know about such embargoes. One of my young commanding officers once sent him a New Year Greeting card. I was immediately summoned to his office to participate in the Inquisition. It went like this:

Rich-in-puss: “What’s this?” (he asked pointing derisively towards the offending card on the table)
Me (Poor in everything including puss): “Looks like a greeting card, Sir”. (I silently prayed that it should be none of my men/women. God, didn’t listen to me that day.)
Rich-in-puss: “It is a New Year greeting card sent to me by your CO_____”.
Me (with resolve): “Give me sometime, Sir. I shall investigate and find out”.

He dismissed me with the sway of his hand, which I was quick to translate as: you can’t be trusted to find out even the most basic things; but, nevertheless, go and do your bit whilst I conduct my independent investigation into this very serious misdemeanour.

Just one hour later I was back. It was obvious from the expression on his face that his independent investigators had also given him similar report. I mentioned to him with unconcealed glee that CO____ had actually purchased the greeting cards with his own money.

My glee was short-lived when I heard him thus, “It is still utter wasteful expenditure. We are living in a country that doesn’t have resources to feed millions of poor or to give them shelter. And here we have CO____ indulging in such ostentatious splurging of money as to send greeting cards. Put a stop to this immediately.”

After returning to office, it was now my turn to summon CO____. I told him: “When the greeting mood ever overwhelms you, as it does with so many human beings who are humane, you should send these to people in all corners of the world but never – please say after me N-E-V-E-R, never – to the C-in-C or any of his friends or kith and kin, near or distant. I also have to discuss the forthcoming sailing and exercise programme with you. But, first let this important lesson sink in with you and we could discuss those relatively less important issues after the sailing tomorrow.”

The Rich-in-puss had indefatigable energy though. Let us say you are CO of a Seaward Defence Boat (SDB) and your SDB is deployed for patrol in the Palk Bay. Lets say you, during this patrol, start feeling really important as a CO with nothing between you and the skies, nothing around and below you but the sea. Suddenly you hear a whirring sound. Lo and behold a Chetak helicopter hovers over you. Who do you see winching down from the helo? You guessed it; the C-in-C himself to remind you of your smallness. As you go to bed that night, one thought that calls for your attention, like the whirring of the helicopter is: there is no escape from God and C-in-C; He is everywhere.

One such incident took place with me too. One day I had an ex colleague of mine who had flown into the port with his Islander aircraft. I was going to sail with my flotilla. I arranged with D to have an Islander sortie with us to exercise  avanguard  procedure with us (to provide attack information to my missile boats; they with their low freeboards being unable to get target information at long ranges on their own radars). We exercised with D for many runs. At the end of the day, since my ETA (Expected Time of Arrival) at the port was drawing close, I altered the course of the Flotilla to head home. D still had some more time with us. Hence, I instructed D on the net, to provide us with target information in the direction of the port. He insisted on targets in the opposite direction. I thought he was not understanding my intention and hence, over the net, I used my call-sign as Senior Officer to direct him to go the other way. To my frustration, he used a strange call-sign to tell me that he was going ahead with the earlier targets. We went through the call-sign book and found it was C-in-C’s. D told me later that he was on the runway, about to take off for us, when he saw C-in-C’s car approaching. C-in-C got into the other seat and breezily told him, “Lets go”!

Islander aircraft of the Indian Navy
Islander aircraft of the Indian Navy

I was reminded of a lady complaining to the lift operator, after pressing the button for the lift several times, “Where have you been?” And the lift-operator replying, “Ma’am, where can you go in a lift?” Similarly, we in the Fleet and the Flotilla, were never too far from the Rich-in-puss.

In the definition of a weirdo in the beginning, I had said that Weirdo is a person whose dress or behaviour seems strange or eccentric. You would have noticed that I concentrated only on the behaviour. Here is about the dress.

The dress that was his favourite was Dress #8 or white shorts and shirt and white stockings for officers and blue stockings for sailors. Before he made this dress compulsory for all ships and submarines, the daily orders would read ‘Dress for the Day’ as ‘No.8s/8As’, the latter being with white trousers. Hence. there was a choice given. Rich-in-puss felt that giving choice was akin to losing total control, a la Asrani, the angrezon-ke-zamaane ka jailer in the 1975 movie Sholay. Hence, personnel had no choice but to be wearing it day after day. He himself wore it except whilst sleeping and bathing. Once he called on the Governor of Tamilnadu, Justice M Fathima Beevi, dressed in his shorts, shirt and stockings. She was totally scandalized, she not being used to the nautical manner of dressing. Her tenure lasted for four and half years. She declined to meet any other navy officer during this period lest she should be exposed to further mortification.

Weirdos generally have other outstanding attributes. People like me, for example, grudgingly admitted that he had elephantine memory, remarkable intelligence, professionalism and all other qualities that make great leaders. However, it is a fact that we do remember weirdos more for their idiosyncrasies than for those other attributes. In this particular case, except for the fact that he totally destroyed you in case you ever differed with him, he didn’t mean any other harm to you.

During his farewell, he gave the Command an empty bottle of champagne, glass-cased. He said this was the same bottle that he had with his officers when it was rumoured that he wasn’t making it to a Rear Admiral from a Captain!

Indeed, life is interesting because of weirdos.

 

© 2016, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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13 Comments

  1. Excellent piece Sir… Reminds me of Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queen from Caine Mutiny…

    1. Thank you. So many times I thought of Queeg (not Queen) whilst dealing with this gentleman. Indeed, I do remember that when the SCO, Lieut. Willie Keith, was asked in his Court Martial if Captain Queeg did anything that was against the law; Willie’s was a classic reply, “No, he didn’t do anything against the law. But, he demonstrated what can be done whilst remaining within the law”!

    1. Thank you Sundeep. You hit the nail on the head whilst calling them “control freaks”. I compare them with the jailer Asrani in Sholay, “Without my knowledge even a bird can’t flap it’s wings”.

  2. I think I know the gentleman. Here’s my take on him.

    He WAS NOT a weirdo. Perhaps he didn’t seem so weird because I myself am weird in many ways, for I don’t accept conventional logic everytime, and prefer to figure things out myself. I despised the shorts and stockings – I particluarly hated the latter, but found the man brilliant, of high integrity, very professional, and despite his fearsome reputation – he was reputed to make grown men pee in their undees by hollering at them, and believe it or not,, open-minded. He once asked me why he didn’t see me in the squash courts. “Look at me,” he said, “If I as the Commander in Chief can be at the courts at six sharp, why can’t a youngster like you?” “You are able to do that because of youngsters like me, sir,” I replied. “It’s only because I sit till nine and write those detailed, well-researched file notings that you are left with only a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ decision to ink in.” He didn’t mind that one bit.

    Another time, he tried to bulldoze his way through me, and I objected, saying I was the specialist, not he. “Look at my head, Siddhartha. For every grey hair you see, there’s a story. I am more experienced than you can imagine. I have 33 years of experience. Do not question me needlessly. Please obey my orders.” “How many of those 33 years have you spent reading or thinking about special operations, sir?” I replied. “I have spent 15 years doing that.” Again, ‘rich-in-puss’ did not mind. He thought for a few seconds, and said, “Ok. Explain to me why we should do it your way.” I was a ‘piddly’ Commander, but the Vice Admiral took my advice, and called me a couple of days later to tell me he’d been wrong, and thanked me for correcting him. Not many Admirals like that anywhere.

    He was known to summarily reject proposals without assigning reasons. But I think he formed strong opinions about people, and respected professionalism. He never once tried to bulldoze his way past me again. Nor did he ever take more than a minute to approve or sanction my proposals. Yet many people were mortified of him, and avoided the paths he took, lest they caught his eye, which was very sharp indeed. I have no issues with his strong likes and dislikes. When you encounter rank mediocrity day in and day out, you can be forgiven for cynicism as the first response.

    Some of his ideas and decisions seemed weird when mooted/taken. But they turned out to be brilliant when implemented. For instance Dolphin Hill at Vizag. It’s a hill feature a few hundred feet high, lush green with karvanda and other berry-rich scrub that came alive at sundown with wild hare, jackals and the settling down call of woodchucks squatting on the ground. As an endurance athlete and nature lover, I loved runnning the eight km from Naval Park at its footstep, to the VOR station right at the top, sometimes draped in clouds. And this plonk in the middle of Vizag.

    ‘Rich-in-puss’ decided to create a housing colony at the top. People called him mad, scorned him and laughed at him behind his back. For some reason, they never did so on his face. Today, Dolphin Hill, as the naval residences atop Dolphin are called, is the best residential colony within a hundred miles of Vizag. It is an amazing place to live in. No one remembers the shorts and stockings clad moron who insisted it would be so.

    A year or so after retirement as the Commander in Chief, he collided with a truck while riding his decades old Lambretta scooter, and almost copped it. Now which Admiral does that? They all ride around in their fancy SUVs and sedans. ‘Rich in Puss’ must have been weird.

    1. Thank you Sid about your detailed comments that are intended to put the whole thing in the balanced perspective. First of all, I have no quarrel against any of the aspects that you brought out. He was brilliant,sharp, professional and all that. He had, as I mentioned, indefatigable energy especially in the squash racquets court. He landed up for the annual inspection of Kattabomman late in the evening, after inspecting Naval Air Station Ramnad and after leaving from Vizag in the morning. He played six strenuous games of squash before the station reception for him and yet no one could make out he was anywhere near being tired.

      But, he was a weirdo indeed; the word appears to be made for him. In many aspects he could be compared with Indira Gandhi; always full of energy, always well meaning and all that until her own position was challenged. And then she did away with most institutions in the country, earning the sobriquet: Indira is India. Likewise, Rich-in-puss, with all his lofty attributes, squarely put himself in the OK Corral in the ‘I’m OK, you ain’t OK’ quadrant. This really made people under him feel like some lowly creatures.

  3. Upri gur gur di annexe di be-dhiyana di moong di daal of di lalteein.
    upri gur gur di annexe di be-dhayana di mung di daal of di Toba Tek Singh gornament.
    ……Sadaat hassan Manto..writing in “Toba Tek Singh”..
    ..weird is relative skipper…relative to the circumstance with nuances which are incomprehensible , not sensitive to the sotuation and hence extraordinary and yes termed as weird mabe
    Douglas Bahder the legless ace as a prisoner of war in a stalag luft regularly used to throw food at the german prison guards ordering them to bring food of his choice….they termed him weird….once after many escape attempts he was being booted out to a high security stalag, he marched out inspecting rows of german guards as if being presented a guard of honor…weird is what they termed him as….Hugh Dowding as a flight commander in RFC squadron in France in 1915 , has been written about as a military medal winner weird squadron leader who spent his time chopping of grass tips with a stick fashioned out of a german plane he had shot down..andfinally he was shipped back to britain almost in disgrace .the comment is made by no other thsn Duncan Grinnel Milne then a young pilot in his book “wind in the wires” but look what Dowding turned out in the end..he won the battle of britain 25 years later against the feared Luftwaffe…

    1. Thanks Amit. Yes, we require all kinds to make this world. Weirdos too. As I mentioned, in retrospect we don’t remember any of their other sterling attributes. But, their weirdness stays in our minds.

  4. Plenty of Weirdos were there in the Navy . I am sure you must be remembering some of our Divisional Officers when we were Cadets.