This was published in the Navy Foundation Magazine ‘Quarterdeck’ 2014.
Bimal Roy’s 1961 movie ‘Kabuliwala’ had its story adapted from a story by the same name by Nobel Laureate Rabindra Nath Tagore. The movie was directed by Hemen Gupta who had been private secretary to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. The movie had a famous number sung by Hemant Kumar: Ganga aaye kahan se, Ganga jaaye kahan re. Families of the commissioning crew of the second of the Godavari class (modified Leander class) ships, named after India’s holiest river, INS Ganga, must have sung the opening lines of this song many times during the one and a half years after commissioning that I remained on board as Signal Communication Officer.
Ganga was in a hurry everywhere, even to be commissioned. Normally, ships of a class follow their pennant numbers sequentially from the first one of the class. But, Ganga would have none of it. After F20, Godavari, it suddenly overshot F21, Gomati and got commissioned as F22 on 30th December 1985.
Visiting a ship before commissioning fills you with strange feelings. We used to visit her regularly at Mazagon Docks. A ship being commissioned is not unlike a baby being born; gradually it takes shape in its mother’s womb, the yard, and then slowly starts kicking around. For me it was a prolonged association with the Godavari class since I was a part of her Trials Team at WATT (B) (Weapon Acceptance And Trials Team (Bombay)) and undertook the trials of communication and electronic warfare compartments, and harbour and sea trials of the equipment. The CO designate, Captain KK Kohli, wanted the ASW Officer MS Shekhawat and I to continue in WATT as long as possible and we undertook most of our own trials and ensured we got the best. We even put through some much needed modifications.
But the comparison to a new born baby ceases a few days before commissioning. It now becomes like the rehearsal of a play. I have directed and acted in a few and hence I am aware that on the night before the final staging, you can’t believe you have finally got the act together. Similarly, in our case, we were to be commissioned by the Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi on the 30th Dec 1985. On the night of 29th/30th Dec, we couldn’t believe Ganga would finally be commissioned the next day. There were cables lying around, last minute painting to be done, woodwork wasn’t yet over and there was dust, confusion and overalled men everywhere.
However, came the dawn of 30th and everything was suddenly ship-shape: the brass gleamed, the floors were waxed and shining, and there was sudden freshness and neatness around. On the morning of 30th, as I reached on board in ceremonial rig, I felt that the ship was, in this respect too, exactly like the holy river Ganga: it remains holy and sacred, hiding in its depth all that’s thrown in it.
This was the second ship after Godavari whose commissioning I watched at close quarters. For men in uniform, commissioning signifies the transformation of the ship from mere skeleton and flesh put together by the Yard to having its heart and soul put into it by the men who are going to have it as a second home, sail on her and take her the harm’s way.
This distinction is as curious as it is fascinating. The men who build the ship work under challenging conditions. One slip by them in, say, welding, can result into serious incidents and fatalities. They too have a sense of belongingness with the ship over (in our case) years of pre-commissioning period; a period when there is no power, no air-conditioning, no water, no order and nothing good to look at. And yet, as soon as the ship is commissioned, we tend to forget them and reason it out with ourselves that the ship didn’t belong to those “uncouth”, “grimy”, “paan-chewing” and “bidi-smoking” workers and supervisors.
I was much younger then, restless and impatient and admittedly didn’t have these emotions that I have now. But, later, when I commanded INS Aditya, the Fleet tanker, as the second Commanding Officer, I sailed her to GRSE (Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers) for her GRDD (Guarantee Repairs and Dry Docking). As we approached the berth in the Yard, the entire workforce that had built the ship and commissioned it just about a year ago watched her on her homecoming from all nooks and corners of the Yard. Many of the ordinary workers and foremen visited the ship so as to share in the pride of having built the longest ship (172 metres) that could negotiate the Hoogly river.
Returning to Ganga’s commissioning, after the commissioning warrant was read out by the Captain and the ship’s commissioning pendant, national flag and naval ensign broke out, we stepped on board and felt that now she was she, a living being, pulsating with the power of machinery and weapons. The Indian designers had done wonders; she was the second ship of her tonnage (3600 tons of standard displacement) to carry two large Seaking 42B Helicopters on board that gave her tremendous advantage in ASW and anti-ship warfare. The ship was fitted with the latest and wholly indigenous Composite Communication System (CCS), a feather in the cap of Bharat Electronics and indigenous APSOH Sonar. It was the first ship in the Indian Navy to have Selenia IPN 10 Combat Data System as also INMARSAT. Together with its weapons of four P22 anti-ship missile launchers, one OSA-M SAM launcher, two 57mm anti-ship, anti-shore twin guns, two ILAS3 triple launchers for A244S ASW torpedoes, and four AK230 AA guns, it carried a deadly punch. We felt proud to step on board.
As the Captain escorted the Prime Minister for a walk around the ship, we were closed up on the equipment in our compartments. I was on INS3, the latest Electronic Warfare system from Selenia, Italy. My heart-beats were increasing as Shri Rajiv Gandhi approached the EW Compartment on the back of the Ops Room. I briefly explained the equipment to him and even after nearly three decades, I still remember the question he asked me, “Can it detect and jam frequency-agile radars?” All of us were used to the perception of our political leaders not knowing anything much about matters of defense. But, here, we had a PM, who asked a most relevant question about a complex electronic system. After the morning commissioning ceremony my chest was already bursting with pride. After hearing his question, it literally ballooned.
After the PM and VIPs and other visitors left, finally we had the ship to ourselves. The Commanding Officer brought his old mother on board and took a picture with her; there was a combined picture of the commissioning crew. By evening when we had the commissioning cocktails on board, we already had the sense of ownership.
The Prime Minister’s association with the ship didn’t end there. One year later, we took him and Smt. Sonia Gandhi for their visit to the Andaman & Nicobar islands. They also visited and interacted with the officers in the wardroom and the sailors on the quarterdeck. Ganga’s helo-deck accomplished a record number of helicopter sorties during their visit.
I still remember, the first sortie by Seaking that the PM and Smt. Sonia Gandhi took. She was at his arm all the time as a shy wife. Before going in, one of the crew gave them the Mae Wests to wear. Shri Rajiv Gandhi dutifully donned his but Smt. Sonia Gandhi declined, came closer to him and said, “He is my life-saver; I shall cling to him.”
Now, many years later, when lots of water has flown in its namesake, the holiest of the rivers, Ganga; operations and exercises that she has participated in, foreign shores that she has touched, I still remember the first time we sailed on her, when she was still not commissioned. In the afternoon, when I came down for lunch (to be had from a cardboard box), there was frantic announcements for me to come up on the bridge. When I finally ran up, panting, the CO asked me how much time it would take me to learn Greek. I told him that my brother was learning Latin and got a smattering of it in about two months. Greek, I told him would be even tougher and may take at least three months. “Ah” he told me, “You mean to say that it would take us three months time to understand the signal our Signal Yeoman has received from Rajput on the Signaling Light.”
I marveled at the fast one that he had pulled on me. But, we also knew the task at hand. We toiled and sweated in the next few months to make hers one of the finest ship’s companies in the Fleet. The ship named after India’s holiest rivers soon became one of the best in the Fleet and we felt proud to be so named on commissioning.
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