Our Son Nikhil during his valedictory address to his classmates on graduating from Grade 12 in October 2015, concluded by saying “Hey! There is an individual who came up with a brilliant idea. Have you heard of him? I am going to reply with pride in my voice – and say – I know him; I went to High School with him“.
When I heard his speech, I never, ever visualised that the import of those words would come true in my life, and that too, within a short span of three months. Our classmates from the 1979 batch of Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, were invited by Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM, Commandant National Defence Academy (NDA) for a get-together at the NDA on 22 and 23 December 2015. That was when the meaning of our son’s words gleamed into my head and with pride I felt “I went to Sainik School with Ashok”.
It was not an occasion to be missed and so I booked my ticket for travel from Toronto, Canada to Pune, India. Apart from meeting many of my classmates, it was also a once in a lifetime event for anyone who graduated from NDA to be invited by the Commandant to be his personal guest at the NDA for two days.
The two places I looked forward to entering were the Commandant’s Office and his residence. Both the places, I never had an opportunity to venture into, either as a Cadet at the NDA or as a Major in the Indian Army attending a yearlong course at the Institute of Armament Technology across the NDA Lake.
On the evening of 21 December, about 25 of our classmates assembled at the Aquarius Resort, near NDA. Hats off to Veteran Group Captain R Chandramouli who made it for the event, ignoring his poor health. Some of us were meeting for the first time since leaving the school in 1979. For all of us, nothing much changed other than the age, marriage and children. It appeared that we were all back at the school in 1979. Everyone appeared to make the most of the time in celebrating the togetherness. Children, most of whom had known each other in their previous meetings, welcomed the new entrants into their fold and appeared to be busier than their fathers in exchanging notes.
The event commenced on 22 December, the day of the Winter Solstice, by paying homage to the martyred officers, who had passed out of NDA at the Hut of Remembrance. The solemn ceremony was an acknowledgement for the courage, valour and sacrifice of those who served the country. It kindled a thought in everyone’s mind on the sacrifices of these officers for the peace and welfare of the country. The ceremony had a patriotic impact on everyone, especially the children.
Then was the sumptuous breakfast at the Cadets’ Mess. Obviously, nothing had changed from our Cadet days in 1979. It appeared that the clock had frozen in the Cadet’s Mess. Those were the days when over 2000 cadets finished their breakfast consisting of cereal, two eggs, over a dozen toasts and coffee – all under 20 minutes flat. Possibly they still did so.
After breakfast, we moved to the Ashoka Pillar, at the main intersection opposite the Sudan Block. It was photography time for all and obviously the traffic was held-up. Luckily for us, the cadets were on vacation and we being the Commandant’s personal guests, took priority over everything at the NDA – a right normally enjoyed only by the cadets.
After that was the visit to the Salaria Square, known for its well kept lawns, gardens with exotic plants and flowers throughout the year, fountains and war trophies in terms of captured tanks. The square is named after Captain GS Salaria, the first alumnus of NDA to be decorated with Param Vir Chakra – nation’s highest gallantry award.
Then we moved on to the Sudan Block, with its massive pink dome, the most remarkable and dominating piece of architecture in the 8000 acre campus of the NDA. Money for the building had come from a corpus donated by Sudan in recognition of the sacrifices of Indian troops in the defence of Sudan during World War II. It houses the administrative offices, non-science academic departments, the Commandant’s Office and the Deputy Commandant’s Office.
We entered the Sudan Block and headed straight to the Commandant’s Office. This was the first time in my life I entered the Commandant’s office, all courtesy Ashok. One of the ladies in the crowd wanted to know whether I had ever been to the Commandant’s Office and my reply was “I did my training at the NDA in three years“. All the defence officers laughed out loud and the civilian friends and ladies wanted an explanation. Veteran Colonel AC Cherian came to my rescue and explained that the only time a Cadet entered the Commandant’s Office was when he had to be relegated to the next course on academic, physical fitness or disciplinary grounds and such cadets ended up completing their training in over three years. Ashok was prompt to point out that I must have narrowly missed the ‘honour’ as I had over 100 restrictions (punishments) to my credit.
After a cup of tea with the Commandant and his wife Geetha, we drove off to visit the equestrian lines, the Air Force Training Team and the Naval Training Team. Then was the visit to E Squadron to see the cadets’ accommodation. E Squadron was chosen as Cherian, Veteran Commander Reginald and self had graduated from this Squadron. Here again, everything appeared to be same from the time we had left. The only notable change was the grill atop the doors of each cabin. The vertical mesh had been replaced by a diagonal one and I am sure with it the ‘Seventh Heaven‘ would have disappeared too (the ex-NDAs would understand).
We were then treated to a splendid lunch at the Cadets’ Mess, with Ashok and Geetha in attendance. In the afternoon was the visit to the Habibullah Hall (named in honor of the first Commandant of NDA) for the screening Discovery Channel Documentary ‘Revealed: National Defence Academy’. The documentary charts out the history of military leadership; and explores the journey of young cadets through the tough three-year NDA course. The documentary was to be followed by a Hollywood movie and that was when Reginald came out with the idea of a drive to the Sinhgarh Fort. Obviously, old habits die hard, that too while back at the NDA.
Sinhgarh Fort, a site of many historic battles, the most famous one being the capture by Tanaji, Shivaji’s General, in March 1670. The Fort, located about 15 km from NDA, overlooks the NDA campus and the surrounding areas. Reginald, his wife Emy and I drove off to Singarh Fort to return by evening to join the crowd for the dinner at the Commandant’s residence.
The NDA Commandant’s residence is named ‘Kondana‘. The name is derived from the earlier name of Sinhgarh Fort. It was called ‘Kondana’ after the sage Kaundinya. Geetha and Ashok were waiting at the gate to receive all of us and obviously, it was the first time ever I entered the sprawling compound. A red carpet reception was awaiting all of us with the NDA band in attendance. Geetha took the ladies and children on a conducted tour of the residence and the surrounding garden and Ashok took the gentlemen around. After an hour into the cocktails, Ashok ‘secured’ (Naval terminology for dismissing) the band. Now Ashok took on the mic and sang songs which each one of us either sang or liked while at school, bringing in a lot of nostalgia.
On the morning of 23 December, we were dropped at the main entrance to the NDA by bus to walk three km along the picturesque periphery road. The road snakes its way through the main training area and the firing ranges to the Army Training Team’s Grand Stand. We were received by Ashok at the stand and hot breakfast awaited us there. Ashok took this time to bring out as to how Sainik School Amaravathinagar changed his life, from being a rustic nine year old in 1971 to a teenager in 1978, who was selected to join the NDA. He paid tributes to the school, the teaching staff and all the employees of the great school who had a role in morphing each one of us into worthy citizens of the country.
After breakfast, we returned to the resort to pack our stuff and checkout. Then we moved to the Peacock Bay of NDA. Peacock Bay derives its name from the abundance of peacocks found in the area. The bay is also home to other fauna such as the deer, lion-tailed monkeys and civets. The facilities at the picturesque bay is used to train the cadets in seamanship and sailing. Everyone enjoyed a boat ride in the lake and was followed by a gorgeous lunch. After lunch everyone dispersed, some on a trip to the temple town of Shirdi and some like me, to their homes in time to celebrate Christmas.
The red carpet treatment we received at the NDA, various events we were part of, and the many places we could access at the NDA where all possible only because of Ashok. Someone in the crowd aptly summed up by saying “We all felt like Vice Admirals at the NDA during the two days.”
I take this opportunity to extend our whole hearted appreciation on behalf of all Amaravian 79ers to Ashok and Geetha for their efforts in making the event a grand success. Alex Manappurathu, V Vijayabhaskar, V Mohana Kumar and Veteran Commander VS Ranganathan need a special mention for their efforts in organising such a memorable get-together. Thanks to G Natarajan for the special T-Shirts he designed and procured to commemorate the event.
A special ‘Thank You’ from all Amaravian 79ers for the efforts of two Amaravians posted at NDA – Flight Lieutenant Sathish Kumar (2006 Batch) and Wing Commander S Jayashankar (1982 Batch) – for their herculean efforts in making the reunion a grand success. They coordinated each and everything regarding reception, transport, meals, menus, accommodation, schedules, etc.
With pride in my voice, I would forever say “I went to Sainik School Amaravathinagar with Ashok”.