Second Lieutenant – The Extinct Species

We were commissioned as Second Lieutenants from the Academies and joined our Regiments – eager to go- like an unguided and nuclear tipped missile. 

While commanding our unit, our young officers often remarked that when they messed up something, however serious the matter was – I always said “That’s all – Do not worry – I will handle it now on.”  They now wanted an explanation as to why I neither rebuked them nor got involved in a ‘fault finding mission.’

One day on a lighter moment I gave out the answer.  “When I was a Second Lieutenant, I messed up much more than you guys have put together done till now.”

They prodded me for ‘Dil Mange More’ and I obliged.

I joined our Regiment in 1983 at Gurgaon and during a deployment exercise of our battery, traffic was stopped for the 130mm gun towed by Kraz to pass through the Delhi-Jaipur Highway.  In those days the highway was narrow and followed a different alignment. Superintend of Police of Gurgaon wanted to pass through but was refused and it ended in a physical bout.  Whatever it was – I ended up with a criminal case of attempt to murder using lethal weapons and a Court of Inquiry – both I got saved from – Thanks to our then Commanding Officer, Colonel Mahaveer Singh.

On 31 October 1984, Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, was assassinated, and her mortal remains lay in state at Teen Murthi Bhawan.  By evening that day, our Battery was tasked to take over security of Teen Murthi Bhawan.  Our Battery Commander was residing at Delhi, hence I marched the Battery and reported to General K Balaram, then Adjutant General, who was in command there.  Anyone of that era would better know the qualities of General Balaram. He was the first and perhaps only AG to be granted Vice Chief status.

Late Lieutenant General K Balaram, PVSM

Our Battery Commander then – now Veteran Brigadier CM Nayyar, Sena Medal – was a student when General Balaram, Signals, was the Commandant at Wellington. He warned me by narrating many incidents about his conduct – that he even rode his scooter and never his staff car after office hours. I had some great moments with him as he and I smoked ‘Capstan‘ cigarettes then. All shops selling cigarettes had closed down due to riots in Delhi after the assassination. Naik (Corporal) Paul, my driver kept a good stock of it (Still do not know how he managed it) and supplied me regularly with it. Whenever the work pressure got on to General Balaram, he called me to the Operations Room which we had set up inside Teen Murthi Bhawan. He wanted to inhale a deep smoke and a cup of tea – that too the tea in a steel glass our soldiers made. Thus, whenever General Balaram summoned me, it was when the situation at the gate had gone awry or he wanted a break.

We were responsible for the VIP entrance gate through which all heads of states would pass.  Whenever things would go wrong, General Balaram would shout at the top of his voice “Get that Second Lieutenant – only he can solve this chaos.”

In came Yasser Arafat with his four bodyguards – armed to their teeth – and I refused entry for the bodyguards saying that our boys would take care of Arafat’s security.  He gave me a deep glance and ordered his bodyguards to stay put with me.  Even Yasser Arafat did not want to take a chance with a Second Lieutenant!!!

Next on the receiving end was the Japanese delegation led by their Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. The delegation had over a hundred press people – journalists, reporters, photographers.  I requested their liaison officer that I could only send in five persons with their PM.  The liaison officer pleaded helplessness.  I had to solve the issue.  I assembled all their press crew outside the entrance and when the PM came in, I called out five people and send them inside.  Now there was more chaos with everyone shouting, “My photographer is inside, but I am the reporter” or “My reporter is inside, but I am the photographer.”  I told everyone that whosoever has gone inside will come out with the necessary material and you all can share the same.

Then came a person claiming to be the Commissioner of Police of Delhi. He too was denied entry through the VIP Gate. He shouted at me “Who are you to stop me? What are you doing here?” To this I calmly replied, “If you had done your duty, I need not have been here.”

With Veteran Colonel Mahaveer Singh during Golden Jubilee celebrations of 75 Medium Regiment in 2018

These were few of the highlights that happened at Teen Murthi Bhawan in those three days.

After a few weeks there was another altercation with a senior police officer from Delhi and again it was the same story of a Court of Inquiry – and again our CO managed to save me.

Now that was that when we were Second Lieutenants! Luckily for me – when I was in command (2002-2004,) the species had become extinct. 

What Would I Have Done?

After a couple of years of my retirement from the Indian Army in 2004,  my friend Colonel Josey Joseph, wanted to know what I would have done post-retirement had I been in India. I laid out my plans and he wanted to know why I did not implement a much smarter and better plan than immigrating to Canada.

My post retirement plan in case I had stayed in India was to become a Priest at our Church and start with many meditation sittings – all to impress the people.

In all mock seriousness, I replied “To begin with, there must be a few fair-skinned followers, especially good-looking blonde girls,  in low cut blouses , and a few white guys. Whenever I paused during my sermons, they would  chorus ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!‘ Now watch the fun as to how my coffers would have filled up.”

Why did you not work towards your plan?” Colonel Josey asked.

The plan was great, but I just cannot sing!  For such a plan to succeed, one has to be good at singing.  Look at any of the ‘successful’ pastors or swamis – They are great singers and dancers too!  A requirement to impress the poor masses and bhakthas,” I replied.

Colonel Josey said “Thank God! Your Dad did not put you through singing and dancing lessons, else you would have ended up selling your Dad first and then your God! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!

Now I laid my plan bare.

Syrian Orthodox Priests can marry, only those who aspire to be promoted as a bishop remain a bachelor. Fluent in  English, Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Punjabi, indeed a rare combination for a Mallu Priest, I will be invited to all the International and Pan-Indian (NRI/NRK) weddings and showered in moolah. With my vast military experience and having travelled all over India, I will be invited as a speaker, a motivational speaker, as I specialise in impressing people. 

A Syrian Orthodox priest is often allotted a Parish and he may be the Vicar or the Assistant Vicar. A Parish means a small administrative district or village, including all religions, typically having its own church and a priest or pastor.  Vicar is derived from the English prefix ‘vice,’ similarly meaning ‘deputy‘ and here he is the deputy to the Bishop.

The Parish will be benefited in that every need of the Parishioners would be presented effectively to the District Collector or the Superintendent of Police. Naturally,  they  would be compelled by courtesy and etiquette, to never refuse an audience to the Reverend Father-Veteran Colonel Reji Koduvath. The least I could do is to draft various complaints and applications for the Parish members.

There are various projects by the Central and State Governments for the benefit of the citizens. Many of them do not reach the public as people are unaware of the paperwork involved. Having written many Statements of Case while in service, and following it up to the Defence Ministry level, who else can do it better?

Employment opportunities for the youth, military, police (both central & state), bank, railways, state transport, UPSC, state PSC… I could have provided effective guidance and mentorship to youth aspiring to enroll into all these. I would have conducted orientation training for each specific job at the church, conduct mock tests, interviews, group discussions, public speaking, etc as well.  With more of the youth employed, obviously more money for the church (and me.)

I would also organise leadership training and adventure activities for the children and youth of the Parish. This would facilitate them to do better at the interviews.  

I would motivate the children of the Parish to read by initiating little ones to the habit of reading, the biggest bugbear for the Indian youth. I would publish a Church magazine with children contributing their stories, poems and articles.

Upon hearing my narration, Colonel Josey remarked “I think your idea is not only novel, but simply brilliant. And in these times when most of the clergy, across the board, propagate hate; a message of love , an effort to help the helpless and instill self-confidence in children : that’s the core of what our nation and the world really needs.  And, knowing you so well, I am quite certain that personal gain would hardly be your motivation. Also, more importantly,  although every parish priest is not a Colonel Reji Koduvath, I am sure most of them can undertake some of the activities you suggested.  Someone needs to take the lead.”

Hussif and Button Stick

We were issued with a Housewife’ on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979.  Why a housewife to a 16-year-old cadet? That too an item which was neither male nor female, and wasn’t even a living being.

It  was a simple Khaki pouch containing needles, thread, thimble, buttons, and a pair of scissors, meant for sewing on buttons, darning socks, and mending uniforms. It was called the ‘hussif’ by the officers at the Academy and housewife by many Cadets and the soldiers who were the Havildar Quartermasters at the Squadron.

Housewife morphed into “Hussif”   and first appeared in print in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1749 suggesting that it had already been in common use. The term appears to have possibly originated as a dialect of the shire of Lancaster, England. However, the term is now banned in modern armies which acknowledges that the gender specific term is not only outdated but also offensive to women.

By the mid 19th century these rolled-up sewing kits became standard army issue. Before the invention of safety pins for a quick fix, sewing needles were used to remove splinters and, at times, even sew up the soldier’s wounds! When I joined the Sainik School at the age of nine we had to carry a small plastic box with contents like the hussif. 

I hardly ever used my hussif at the Academy during my three years other than for sewing some lost buttons. Behold! It had to be carefully maintained as it had to be produced during kit muster held at the beginning of each semester at the Academy. The hussif was part of the small pack we carried in  the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO.)

The name hussif comes from a time when it was common for mothers, wives and fiancés in the 18th and 19th centuries to personalise these kits with embroidery for their menfolk to take to war.  It was often packed  in the holdall and stowed within the man’s haversack. Few hussifs of those days were covered with flowers or other feminine motifs and colours if the hussif was a gift from a needlewoman in their life.

The humble hussif played an important role in both the World Wars. Embroidery was widely used as a form of therapy for wounded soldiers, especially those recovering at the hospitals. The bright environment of the hospital was the perfect place for them to engage in  embroidery as an activity, which helped in their rehabilitation. The imagery and stories they stitched were  often reflective of pride in their regiment, the battlefields they had fought in, or messages of love to a distant sweetheart.

Armies and Navies, from Britain to Australia to North America, issued hussifs as part of the standard kit to their serving troops, at least up to the Korean War era. The British Army continued to do so, well into the 1960s and the Indian Army until the early 80s.

Another remarkable object that is etched in my memory is the Button Stick. These were used by the civilian bearers or orderlies to polish all the brass buttons, shoulder titles etc of our various Academy uniforms, though I never saw them later in my Army career.  

These button sticks were used by soldiers to polish the buttons on their uniform without spilling  any of the polish on the fabric. During WWI, when soldiers were out of the trenches, they often had to ensure that the buttons of their uniform were polished using Brasso. While tedious and time-consuming, soldiers used this brass button polishing guard to avoid staining the fabric with excess polish which left a nasty brown stain  on the Khaki or Olive Green uniforms. 

It could well be that the button sticks used by the orderlies of the NDA may date back to the World War days!

Why did the armies over the world have done away with the hussif? Repairing or darning the  uniform, stitching a lost button… are still needs of the day!