Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu – An Ever Smiling Soldier

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, ADC, Vice Chief of Army Staff, hangs his boots today.  Do not get carried away by his smile; he is a rare combination of professional competence, inspiring leadership, humility and chivalry.  A quote by John F Kennedy came to my mind As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”    There is no better person than General Anbu for whom the above quote applies as he hardly uttered any words, but always lived by them – for over five decades of life in a military uniform.

It began when he was all of nine years old, as a cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in June 1969. As a cadet, two years our senior, he was identifiable by his cheerful smile, his omniscient trademark insignia. He often walked away with a lion’s share of medals in most sporting activities at school – athletics, swimming, boxing, football, hockey and so on.  He was adjudged the most technical boxer while at school and his gymnastics skills were invariably on display during our School Day Pageants.

He graduated from school in 1976 to join the 56th Course at the National Defence Academy (NDA).  In his final year at school (1976), he was Chera House Captain – Cadets were divided into four houses – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava- named after the great ancient Tamil Kingdoms, which somehow paled into insignificance in the History of India as devised by the British.   It may be a coincidence that the present Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM from our batch too was  the Chera House Captain in 1978.

His smiling, soft spoken demeanour concealed a firm, no nonsense attitude – no wonder he was appointed the Cadet Sergeant Major (CSM) at the NDA as well as at the Indian Military Academy (IMA).  He was awarded BLUE in Athletics and Physical Training and Merit Card in Basketball – an envious record for any NDA Cadet.  As a young officer he continued to excel in sports and competed with the soldiers at the highest level.

General Anbu was commissioned into 14 Sikh Light Infantry in June 1980.  He served in all operational environments – Siachen Glacier; Counter-Insurgency Operations in Kashmir and Manipur; Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, United Nations Peace Keeping in Namibia, etc.  He was awarded the Sena Medal for a very daring operation, showing exemplary leadership and gallantry during operations in the Siachen Glacier.

During my visit to Hyderabad in 2001, he organised an impromptu get-together of all our school mates that evening.  There I met Mrs Gowry Anbu – a down-to-earth and compassionate lady who mirrors the very same qualities of her husband.


He was in command of his battalion during operational deployment in Rajasthan deserts and that is where I met him in 2002.  At that time I was commanding a Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment in the same Division.  One day I walked into Colonel Anbu’s battalion and was received by Subedar Major Swaraj Singh, a smiling smart confident soldier. The way the Subedar Major interacted with me was indicative of  how the character of a Commanding Officer flows down the chain of command to all ranks of the Battalion.


Colonel Anbu was busy with some official commitment and the Subedar Major and I got into a conversation.  My query to the Subedar Major was as to how Colonel Anbu with his quiet and pleasing manners was commanding Sikh Light Infantry soldiers so well.  That was when I got a significant military lesson from the Subedar Major Swaraj Singh who said “It is a myth in the Indian Army that Sikh Light Infantry soldiers need tough handling in a language filled with profanity.  They are just as sensitive as other soldiers and their sensitivity needs to be respected.  Our Commanding Officer from his Lieutenant days (1980) believed in respecting the soldiers under his command and we all respect him immensely for that.  The performance of the Battalion under his command amply proves the equation.” Subedar Major Swaraj Singh also said that his Commanding Officer neither drank alcohol nor smoked in his life – another Indian Army myth busted.

I must relate an interesting story about Brigadier Devraj Anbu when was posted on deputation as the Commandant  of the Assam Rifles Training Centre (ARTC) at Dimapur, Nagaland; a first hand account narrated by another colleague of mine.  At the time he was on the upward trajectory of a very impressive career graph. This posting was his first exposure to the Assam Rifles and prudence dictated that he swim with the tide.  Right from his first day in office, all ranks got a feel of his sincerity of purpose, steely determination, no nonsense attitude and genuine concern for the welfare of his Officers and Soldiers.  One soon learnt not to mistake his self effacing modesty and courteous demeanour for weakness.

Like most Indian Army Regiments, the Assam Rifles too has very strong traditions rooted in their rich heritage, the foundations of which were laid by Gorkha Troops who formed the nucleus of the Force.  One such tradition was the conduct of animal sacrifice on the ‘Vana Devta Pooja‘ celebrations to propitiate the Gods of the forest.  Over the years, many  General Officers,  Commanding Officers and Religious Teachers had done their best to sensitse the soldiers about the regressive nature of this tradition, quoting examples from the scriptures,    None issued orders prohibiting this practice as it was felt that such an order would cause deep resentment among the rank and file. As all Army Officers were posted to the Assam Rifles on deputation, most were not keen on risking their careers by ‘rocking the boat’.

He was barely few months in the saddle when it was time for the Vana Devta Pooja.  A traditional ‘Havan’  (where oblations are offered into the sacred flame) was conducted by the Priest and the principal participants were Brigadier Anbu, his deputy, a nominated officer, the Subedar Major and some selected representatives of the soldiers in the presence of all personnel of the organisation except those on essential duties.  The ritual was to conclude with the sacrifice of a goat with a single stroke of the Khukri (a Gokha’s machete), wielded by a chosen soldier.

The Priest used the ashes of the Havan to anoint the sacrificial goat, the soldier selected to conduct the sacrifice and the sacrificial Khukri.  The soldier then positioned himself near the head of the sacrificial animal with his Khukri ready and  formally requested Brigadier Anbu for permission to carry out the Sacrifice.

In a steady clear tone, Brigadier Anbu replied “Nahin Hai”  (permission denied).  For the benefit of those unrelated to the uniform, let me elaborate this a bit. In the army when permission for conduct of a troop related religious act is ceremoniously sought, it is simply expected to be ceremoniously granted. If not, it is deemed to a serious attack on troop sensitivity and could culminate in loads of trouble.

Everyone was stunned and the Priest, assuming that he had heard incorrectly, repeated the formal request only to get the same reply from the Commandant.  Jaws dropped in astonishment and emotions could have flared at the perceived sacrilege.  However, Brigadier Anbu remained unmoved despite gentle hints from his Deputy (who was his senior at School) to reconsider his decision.

Without batting an eyelid, Subedar Major Arjun Thapa, a Gorkha from Nepal where ritual sacrifices are held sacred, supported his Commandant’s decision and ordered that the goat be set free. A Lauki  (Bottle Gourd) was produced and ritually chopped in two by the Khukri in its place.  Not one dissenting murmur was heard from any quarter.

That’s obviously a classy example of what is meant by courage of conviction.  It is a testimony to the immense respect and affection earned by Brigadier Anbu  across the organisational spectrum, that  too within a few of months.

Brigadier Anbu’s brief tenure at the ARTC  is still remembered for the immense progress made in training, administration and welfare at the premier establishment of the Assam Rifles.

In April 2017 our batch-mates from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar had a get together in Srinagar (J&K).  I reached Srinagar three days ahead to spend time with soldiers who had served with me.  I travelled to a remote locality to be with the boys and that evening I called up Lieutenant General Anbu,  the Army Commander Northern Command over the military telephone circuit.  Typical of the Corps of Signals’ way of doing things, the duty officer at every successive military exchange came on line and fussed around for ever as the call was being directed to the Army Commander.  He finally came on line and spoke to me for over thirty minutes, bantering about the good old days and expressing his inability to fly down to meet his school mates at Srinagar as he had to attend the Army Commanders’ Conference at New Delhi next day.

It is said that a soldier has no holiday in life; but retirement makes every day one for him.  Knowing General Anbu, I am sure that he will make the rest of his days more rewarding and entertaining as he is a man of great versatility.  He is bound to enrich the life of those around him in a meaningful manner.

Great soldiers do not retire, they just fade away – surely he too will fade away and be rarely seen under the television spotlight, as is the wont of so many retired senior defence officers these days!! Perhaps he will pen down his thoughts covering a momentous half century in uniform.

 

Bathing Nude


Few years ago an Indian Army Officer undergoing a course at Canadian Forces College, Toronto came over for dinner.  During our conversation he said that one evening he walked into the sauna in the gym to find the Commandant, a General, sitting nude, enquiring his welfare.  He said that he felt a bit embarrassed to face a nude General.  I asked “That means you are surely not an ex-NDA (National Defence Academy)?” And I was dead right.

Bathrooms at the NDA are all open ones with neither any cubicles nor any shower curtains.  There are only shower heads, all in a row.  It is mandatory for all cadets to shower before breakfast and in the evening after games.  As time is always at a premium for any military cadet, the ritual had to be as short as possible, with many waiting in queue – hence an elaborate bath was near impossible.  The highlight of the bath was not its brevity, but by tradition implicitly enforced by the seniors, the cadets are not allowed to wear any clothing – it’s all nude and pretty natural. `

I cannot really say with any great emphasis that bathing nude is hygienically a huge plus as compared to bathing with a small brief on. However, it is more than a century old tradition in many military training institutions the world over. The open shower system meant that a large number of cadets could use the facility within the limited duration of time available.

To my mind, bathing nude has two distinct advantages. It helps one to overcome one’s inhibitions about being nude in the presence of others thereby developing a sort of self confidence about one’s own being and physique. When one learns to overcome this pretty strong inhibition, one automatically develops the capability overcome a lot of other inhibitions of less intensity.  The second is that with everyone down to his skin it builds a sort of camaraderie with the fellow trainees.

There is no awkwardness, nobody made any stupid dick jokes and nobody stared. There was just complete utopian nonchalance about the whole thing as cadets from all regions, religions, castes and creeds bathed under the same shower. In everyone’s consciousness he was down to mother earth, a sort of nude common denominator. The act was indeed a great leveler.  The common Indian mentality is that public nudity is obscene and vulgar and therefore should be abhorred. I do hope that as a nation we can learn to tolerate public nudity, no matter what our personal inclinations are in this regard.

Communal bathing and spas have been around for thousands of years, especially in the Indian context. However, the concept of modesty is a relatively recent one and was mostly dictated by the Victorian British norms.  Many indigenous people still  play sports without any covering and athletes in ancient Greece competed naked. In fact, the Greek word gymnasium means ‘a school for naked exercise,’ but in English it means only athletic exercise.


Men and women bathed nude in Roman baths of first century.  Emperor Hardin is believed to have issued many decrees against co-ed bathing.  There were baths of varying levels of luxury and also at varying levels of propriety. At one extreme were the ones for prostitutes and at the other the ones for royalty.  These baths showcased  Roman architectural expertise where new and innovative building styles were tested.


Bathing complex of Friedrichsbad Baths, Baden-Baden, Germany, opened in 1877, catering to European aristocracy.  It is still open to all and visitors who indulge in a 17-step Irish-Roman bathing ritual – a sequence of hot air baths, steam rooms, showers, pools, and massages, soaking in curative mineral waters. Here on some specific days of the week and on holidays, it is co-ed nude bathing and on other days it is gender specific nude bathing.

It was mandatory for students to swim nude in Chicago high school swimming pools till 1970’s.  In those days filtration and chlorination techniques were not as advanced as of today.  Nudity ensured that the swimming costumes they wore, mostly cotton or wool, did not leave any fibres that would clog the pool.

In most gym and swimming pool locker rooms for men in Canada, the baths are all open without cubicles.  Cubicles are provided in family locker rooms used by children and parents.  It is natural for people to have differing standards of modesty, based on their cultural/ religious background and upbringing.  Some are comfortable striding around the locker room naked and some prefer to change their clothes more discreetly. People around are neither stealing glances nor are they being judgmental.  I generally go to swim in the afternoons which is the time designated for adult swimmers.  I surely do not have a body to flaunt and no six-packs to flex.  Everyone around me also passes the same muster with respect to their masculinity.


One has to shower before entering a swimming pool to keep dirt and germs out.  Post a swim-session, it is meant to rinse off salt, chlorine and other harmful chemicals.  You cannot do this well with your swimming costume on.  It is said that the concept of the open bath came to Canada with soldiers returning from World War II when most able bodied Canadian men got enlisted to fight the war in Europe.  The only country where it is a rule to have a nude bath prior to entering a swimming pool is Iceland.  Here the bath may be in public or in a cubicle.

Nudity in public bathroom may offend some people, but most will not react to it though they may avoid it.  The argument that nudity is natural may fall on deaf ears to the puritans who refuse to accept their ties to the natural world.

Sleeping without underwear is another military tradition proven to be good for one’s genitals as per many medical studies.  Underwear tends to trap moisture, creating a breeding ground for bacteria.  For sure, allowing that area to get some air helps to keep it dry and clean.  Royal Marines tend to sleep naked for a similar reason and also to ensure they don’t hold all the juices and skin flakes emitted from their bodies in their clothes.  From this came the expression ‘going commando‘  which means going without wearing any underwear.

In Western militaries where men and women serve together the bathrooms are shared.  Here too there is hardly any awkwardness or sexual discrimination.  In 2011, a woman soldier of the Norwegian Armed Forces complained about being asked to bathe naked with 30 men and in front of other male officers during a field exercise.  The Norwegian Armed Forces initially gave the male officer who ordered the bath a harsh disciplinary warning for his behaviour and a fine of 2,500 Kroner, but cancelled the official reprimand after the officer appealed the decision.  After two separate internal reviews, Norwegian Military ruled that it would not make any changes to its bathing policies, meaning that other female soldiers could find themselves in a similar situation due to Norway’s gender-neutral military conscription policy.

I must here quote from the book ‘Immediate Action’ by Andy Mcnab.    He was a member of 22 SAS Regiment and was involved in both covert and overt special operations worldwide until he retired in 1993.  Teaching young infantry soldiers as an Instructor at the Regimental Training Depot how to bathe, he writes ‘We had to show them how to wash and shave, use a toothbrush…  Then I had to show them how to shower, making sure they pulled their foreskin back and cleaned it.

To be NUDE or not to be – it is your choice – rules permitting. 

Article 370 and Kashmir


Kashmir could better be defined as a paradise in turmoil. Persian poet Amir Khusruhad said “Agar Firdaus bar roy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast” meaning “If there is a paradise upon earth, it is here, it is here, it is here”.

In August 1947 the British divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan based on religious lines. British India consisted of about 565 princely states and their rulers had the option of joining either of the two new dominions, India or Pakistan.

The princely state of J&K, had three geographically distinct areas – Leh in the North and East with many Buddhist, Jammu in the South mostly Hindus and the Kashmir Valley in the middle with a Muslim majority. The state was ruled by a Hindu Ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh. Under British rule, J&K had its own army, police, post, telegraph, transport, etc, akin to many other Indian princely states then.

Maharaja Hari Singh did not want to accede to either and wanted to remain independent. In order to gain time, Maharaja signed a ‘standstill’ agreement with Pakistan so that trade, travel and communication would be uninterrupted. India did not sign a similar agreement. Pakistan believed that Kashmir would accede to them as it had majority Muslim population, was geographically contiguous to them and the area had better road and rail communications with Pakistan than India. As the Maharaja kept delaying his decision, Pakistan imposed a trade embargo on Kashmir resulting in a lot of misery for the people of Kashmir.

Soon Pakistan’s patience ran out. They covertly sent in Pathan tribals to capture Kashmir. These Pathans were lured with a promise of loot, plunder and rape. The invasion commenced on 20 October 1947. Kashmir was then defended by the state forces and many Muslims from the force rebelled and joined the invaders. Despite the desertions, the state forces fought many pitched battles and were successful in delaying the attackers. The invaders reached Baramulla on 26 October. The Pathans now let loose a savage orgy of loot, rape, murder and abduction of girls. The local Muslims could not believe that a force that had come to liberate them could indulge in such barbarism even against fellow Muslims. Raping, looting and plundering at Baramulla in fact delayed the raiders from reaching Srinagar, thus saving the capital.

As the raiders were knocking at the doors of his capital, Maharaja Hari Singh first sought urgent military aid from India on 24 October. The Indian cabinet under Governor General Mountbatten refused to send troops unless the Maharaja acceded, arguing that the Indian Army could only defend Indian territory.

By about 11 PM, the Maharaja sent another request specifically asking for Indian troops to be sent to Kashmir. The Indian cabinet agreed to the request and on 26 October Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession joining India.

The decision was taken on 27 October to launch the First Battalion of the Sikh Regiment (1 Sikh), located at Delhi, to be flown into Srinagar by Dakota aeroplanes of the Indian Air Force. As there were no administrative echelons of the Indian Army in Kashmir, the battalion had to be self-contained, meaning it had to carry anything and everything – from rations to ammunition. Landing a heavily loaded Dakota on a poorly maintained airstrip at an altitude of around 5000 feet was a feat in itself. Neither the pilots nor the soldiers had any experience in operating at such altitudes and were not equipped to do so. The soldiers had only a thin sweater to beat the cold. Biju Patnaik, who later became the Chief Minister of Odisha State, was one of the first pilots to land in Srinangar that day.

The soldiers of 1 Sikh fought many a bloody battles against the raiders and threw them back to Baramulla and then beyond up to Uri. By November 1948, the Indian Army was in a strong position. They were in fact ready to defeat the Pakistani forces and occupy the entire Kashmir. Yet the Indian government requested United Nations (UN) mediation to resolve the conflict. After protracted discussions at the UN, a cease-fire was agreed to by both countries, which came into effect on 01 January 1949. Why India called in the UN to resolve the conflict when the Indian Army was on the brink of achieving victory remains a mystery.

The terms of the cease-fire as laid out in the UN resolution of 5 January 1949 required Pakistan to withdraw its forces, both regular and irregular, while allowing India to maintain minimum strength of its forces in the state to preserve law and order. On compliance of these conditions, a plebiscite was to be held to determine the future of the territory.

Pakistan claims that a plebiscite must be held to determine whether the people of J&K want join India or Pakistan as stipulated in the UN resolutions. India blames Pakistan for failing to withdraw their forces from the area held by it as stipulated in the very same resolution as a reason for not holding the plebiscite. This simmering bone of contention between two nations resulted in the beautiful state of J&K being divided along the Line of Control (LC) as Azad Kashmir on the Pakistan side with India calling it Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and India Held Kashmir (IHK) as Pakistan calls the Indian part of J&K.

Raja Hari Singh meanwhile appointed Sheikh Abdullah as the Prime Minister, who with three other colleagues joined the Indian Constituent Assembly to discuss provisions of Article 370 of the Indian constitution under draft.  In 1950, the Indian constitution was adopted with its  Article 1 defining J&K as a state of India and Article 370 conferring it a  special status.

Article 370 allowed J&K to make its own laws in all matters except finance, defence, foreign affairs and communications.  It established a separate constitution and a separate flag for J&K and denied property rights in the region to the outsiders.

The events and turmoil thereafter only complicated the existence of the state within Indian Union with all political parties fishing in the troubled waters for a few more votes. This situation led to rampant corruption in all spheres of life.  Even though Indian government was pumping in lot of money, it never reached the grassroots level.   It only alienated the local population from India and they called themselves as Kashmiris and others Indians.

First time I landed in Kashmir was in 1987 as a young Captain and I observed that the most effected due to rampant corruption was basic primary education and healthcare. When I visited the state in 2017, the tale was not different.  When these two basic facilities the state must provide is absent, the area becomes an ideal breeding ground for political extremism.  Now add religious fanaticism to it, it becomes a real Molotov’s cocktail.  This is what has happened in J&K and a similar game is being played in some other areas of Indian hinterland also.

In my view, Article 370 has not served the part it was intended by the authors of Indian constitution, but has led to extreme corruption and difficulties to the common Kashmiri.  Lack of education, coupled with lack of employment opportunities encouraged  Kashmiri youth to take up weapons, with support and facilitation by Pakistan.

Article 370 though gave a separate identity to Kashmiris, it failed to amalgamate the state and its people with the Indian union.  Abolishing it was a mandatory step to ensure the very existence of Indian union.  It had to be done now or later and that must have been what the authors of the very same Article 370 intended.

Like many other such ‘special rights’ articles in the Indian Constitution like  reserving jobs for the under-privileged castes – Article 338, the number of castes were to be reduced each passing year to ultimate removal of the article from the constitution.  The political parties have played hell with this article that the number of castes swelled and beneficiaries have overtaken the normal citizens.

The present Indian Government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the strength and support in the Parliament to move any constitutional amendment.  Removal of Article 370 is the first step in the right direction.  It must be followed by constructive steps to ‘Educate, Employ and Empower’ the Kashmiris.  This will help them to amalgamate with the Indian union and also quell extremist forces fighting for independence or cessation.

When the common Kashmiri finds economic and social upliftment as a result of removal of Article 370, they are sure to amalgamate easily with Indian union than when the article was in force.  If necessary steps to improve the lives of a common Kashmiri is not taken up on a war footing, removal of article 370 would prove to be catastrophic.

Meeting Subedar Major Paramjit Sidhu


We were enjoying the Canada Day long weekend from June 29 to July 01.  Our daughter Nidhi and son-in-law Jay had left our grandson James with us and went golfing the weekend.  We the grandparents were enjoying a laid-back and relaxed long weekend with our grandson.

Canada Day is celebrated on July 01 to commemorate Canada becoming a self-governing dominion of Great Britain and a federation of four provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec in 1867. The anniversary of this date was called Dominion Day until 1982.  Since 1983, July 1 has been officially known as Canada Day.  It is a public holiday, a day off for the general population with all schools and most businesses closed.


In many towns and cities, municipal governments organise many events, often outdoors being summer. These include pancake breakfasts, parades, concerts, carnivals, festivals, firework displays and so on. Canada’s national flag is widely displayed and a lot of people paint their faces red and white – Canada’s national colors.

On June 30 morning, as I was playing with our grandson and also watching the inglorious defeat of the Indian Cricket team at the hands of their English counterparts in the league stage of the World Cup, I received a call on my cell-phone. The caller spoke in a soft and confident voice introducing himself as Subedar Major (SM) Paramjit Sidhu.  He said that he was visiting his daughter in Toronto and had got my number from his Commanding Officer(CO), Colonel Viveka Murthy of 288 Medium Regiment.  He informed me that he was at the Square One Shopping Mall near my home and expressed his desire to meet me.   I could immediately place Colonel Murthy as I had interacted with him on the Sainik School Amaravati Nagar WhatsApp Group.  Colonel Murthy had joined the school in June 1979 shortly after I had left the school to join the National Defence Academy.

Vet Plate
I briefed SM Sidhu that our home is only two minute away and he must come to Gate 8 of the Mall and my car would be parked outside the gate.  It would be very easy to recognise my black Honda CRV with its unique licence plate.

As I pulled alongside Gate 8, a tall smart Sikh gentleman emerged from the shadows.  From his bearing, gait and the meticulous folds of his turban, I couldn’t have missed him a mile away. He was a true representation of the smart and ramrod straight Indian Army Soldier.  On entering the car, he greeted me and introduced himself.  The way he spoke and his conduct was the reflection of the confidence this soldier had and obviously it came from his CO. I felt he was different from many of the Subedar Majors of the Indian Army that I had come across.  Why else should he ring me up in Canada and express his desire to meet a Veteran Gunner who retired 15 years ago?


We drove home to be greeted by Marina and James.  We spoke at length about his daughter, family and military life.  During our interaction I confirmed my earlier belief that he was ‘something different‘ when he casually mentioned about his achievements in powered hang gliding.

After the meeting, I drove him to his daughter’s home, a 30-minute drive.  He was very pleased and thankful to me for this gesture.  I said to him that I take it as a matter of pride and my solemn duty to take care of all soldiers of the Indian Army who visit me. Irrespective of rank and stature, I treat everyone alike.

On returning home, I decided to research on SM Sidhu’s power hang gliding.  SM Sidhu hails from Sangatpura village in Ludhiana district of Punjab.  He joined 76 Medium Regiment and was later posted with the Adventure Cell at the School of Artillery, Devlali.  He has an experience of over eight hundred hours of hang gliding during his 21 years stint there.

On 17 February 2012, he broke the 33 years old British world record in powered hang gliding by covering a distance of 380 km between Sriganganagar and Sanderav near Jodhpur. Gerry Breen, a British Pilot had on May 7, 1979 created the previous world record by gliding 325 km from Wales to Norwich.


Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India conferred Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award to SM Sidhu, named after the first Everest summiteer Tenzing Norgay.  SM Sidhu also holds three national records in hang gliding as mentioned in the Limca Book of Records. What a great achievement for an Indian Army Soldier!!

I am very thankful to Colonel Viveka Murthy for providing me an opportunity to meet and interact with SM Sidhu. It was an opportunity to rekindle a sense of belonging, regale about the good old times and share a camaraderie and esprit de corps, albeit separated in space and time! I felt wonderful and perhaps a wee bit more thankful to him than he was to me.

A Note Pad


During my Indian Army service, I envied all those officers who carried a well organised note pad.  The envy was obvious because I could never maintain one whatever and however I tried.  My pad was almost like God and Time, with neither a beginning nor an end.    I did not know what I wrote where, hence retrieval was never possible.  Why? – I never even attempted it.

Some officers of the extreme meticulous variety had their pad separated into sections to note down instructions and orders from their Commanding Officer, Battery Commander, tasks allotted to Sergeant Majors and Sergeants, and so on.  Some even used different coloured ink to jot down points based on its priority or severity. Some officers even had note pad beside their toilet seat. Supposedly, all the earthshaking ideas dawned on them while they were on the throne, and it had to be noted down there and then for fear of losing them. I did make an attempt once after observing the pad of a senior officer.  I created various sections in the pad, but when I wrote something, it was back to the God status.  When I tried to retrieve some information from it, I realised that it would be easier for me to decipher the Harappan script than my own handwriting.

The Harappan script was used by the Indus Valley civilisation some 4,000 years ago.  From excavations in present-day Pakistan and North-West India, archaeologists have recovered several thousand short inscriptions, mostly consisting of four to five signs.   Till date no one has come out with a satisfactory resolution of these inscriptions.  It is ironic that although the Indus Valley Civilisation existed in the heart of present day Pakistan, the nation claims no cultural heritage from this indisputable fact. Due to the non Islamic roots of the civilisation, Pakistan finds it convenient to hand over all cultural heritage claims to the Indians.

The pad often ended up as an appendage in my uniform’s Left breast pocket.  In the Regiment of Artillery, we very proudly wore the Lanyard on the Right shoulder with its tail end in the Right breast pocket. So the left pocket was reserved for the appendage! At the slightest hint of an order/ instruction coming my way initiated by a senior officer, I took out the pad and dutifully completed the motions.  The pad accompanied me to all the conferences and briefings that I attended.  As every other officer, I too often scribbled into it, using my version of the Harappan script. However, when it came to execution I found it more comfortable to rely on my memory.

Captain Desh Raj (now Veteran Colonel) was the self appointed commander for all young officers of our Regiment.  He was a great sportsman and captained almost all regimental sports teams.  This resulted in him being our mentor and guide in those days.  One day, after the Commanding Officer’s Regimental Sainik Sammelan (Commanding Officer’s monthly address to all soldiers and officers), Captain Desh Raj summoned all of us, five young officers of the regiment, and directed us to show him our note pads where we had noted down the points briefed by our Commanding Officer.  All of us, except one, were reluctant to display our pads.  We were all trying to hide our note pads, but Captain Desh Raj successfully managed to snatch them from us and glanced through them.  Soon thereafter he declared “None of you can make a good caricature of our Commanding Officer.  Your artistic skills need to be toned up.  Look at my note pad and the next time I would like to see a better caricature of our Commanding Officer from you all than this masterpiece of mine

That was when I realised that all those serious note taking by all young officers were much the same and on similar lines to what Captain Desh Raj did!  When I became a Battery Commander and later a Commanding Officer, I ensured that all my Sainik Sammelans were of less than ten minutes’ duration. Possibly, I was mortally scared of my subordinates drawing my caricature! So I resolved not to give them time for the act.

In the Army it was all about check-lists and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and here was I, treading a different path, and relying totally on my memory.  I prioritised and analysed all tasks in my mind and executed them to the best of my ability.  I too had my failures, but my dedication to execute the task always outweighed my failures.  I had a self commitment in that the day I omitted or failed to execute any assigned task, I will accept the consequences and carry a note pad for ever. Well, fortunately, it never got to that.

At the end of our Long Gunnery Staff Course of 13 months, our juniors presented me a mock prize.  You guessed it right!  It was the smallest note pad available in the market with a mention “This will last for your entire military service.”

I was posted as Brigade Major and our Brigade Commander was often peeved with me for not carrying a pad when he summoned me.  He tried all tricks he knew to make me carry one, but failed.  One day his Personal Assistant came to me and said “Brigade Commander has summoned you.  Please carry this pad and pen when you go in.”  I went in to the Commander’s office carrying the pad.  He smiled at me and asked me to take a seat.  He briefed me on ten tasks to be executed and whatever he said I religiously noted them down on the pad.  At the end of it, assuming that he succeeded in making me carry a pad, called for a cup of tea.  The two of us sipped our tea while discussing some mundane matters.  After that I left his office and commenced with the execution of tasks.

After an hour, I got a call over the phone from the Commander. He wanted a progress report on the tasks and I briefed him about the seven tasks completed with three in progress.  At the end he summoned me to his office.  As I entered his office, he pointed at the pad on the table and said “What is this pad doing here?”   That was when I realised that after the discussion over tea, I had inadvertently left the pad on his table.

It is where it is supposed to be.  I do not need it” I said.  Our Commander being a thorough gentleman, even though was livid, asked me “Seriously, please tell me why don’t you carry a pad with you all times like other officers?”  My instant reply was “Only cricket players and women use them.  I am neither.”  (Sorry! My apologies if you deem it sexist).  That was it! Our Commander never asked me to carry a pad ever after.

On assuming command of our Regiment, my orders to all was that no one will take out a pad and start noting down the moment I give any directions or instructions.  They must listen to me with all attention.  In case I felt the instructions were complicated or is likely to lead to any confusion, I or my Staff Officer will issue the instructions in writing with all details.

A few months into command, our Regimental Havildar (Sergeant) Major said “When you start a conversation, my hand first goes into my Left breast pocket.  Then I realise that it is an anathema for you and so bring it down immediately.  Most of our soldiers too face a similar dilemma.

How true was the famous military axiom “It is easier to put in a new idea in a military mind, but it is impossible to take out an old one!

Colonel Kizhakayil Kotiath Arun, Sena Medal


Cadets at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) were divided into four houses named after four Tamil Kingdoms – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava.  I was in Pandya House.  Reminiscing through the good old Sainik School days, a thought came to my mind about my many visits to Chera House dormitory in my Grade 11 days (1978), walking through the back alley of Chola House  dorm.

The most prominent object that would catch my eyes was the wheel of a trolley that lay unmoved in the Chola House back alley.  It was black cast-iron wheels, surely weighing over 80 kilos, from  one of the trolleys used during the construction of Amaravathi Dam.  It had a solid axle with two wheels, akin to the wheels of a railway wagon, but a bit smaller.  It obviously resembled the ‘Barbell with Plates’ used by champion weightlifters.   I used to try moving it and many a time realised that it has not moved an inch since  1975.

These trolleys used during construction of the dam found their resting place behind the old Cadets’ Mess, now the Gymnasium and Cinema Hall on completion of the dam.  The Gymnasium building was the workshop during dam construction days, hence these trolleys were abandoned there.

How did this barbell find its way to the back alley of Chera House dorm?

It was brought in by Veteran Commander Ponnar and his friends who managed to pick up the trolley-wheel from their ‘graveyard’ behind the gym and carried it over a kilometer long trail and brought it to its current resting place in the back alley of Chera House.

The toughest senior cadet I came across during my Cadet days at Sainik School Amaravathinagar was Cadet  KK Arun of 1975 Batch.  He was tall and well built, quiet and unassuming, always with a smile on his face.  I realised he too was a Malayalee who found his moorings at Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu like me.  I hardly ever interacted with him – he was too senior and I belonged to a different House – the Pandyas.

It was a matter of pride, sense of achievement and a dream  for any Cadet at Sainik School to be selected to join the National Defence Academy (NDA).  It involved passing a written examination with a qualifying rate less than a percentile or two.  Then was the five day Services Selection Board (SSB) interview and then a stringent medical examination.  Cadets of the graduating  year (Grade 11 then) used to work out mentally and physically to qualify through this rigorous and grueling procedure.

Cadet KK Arun too had set his aim to join the NDA.  He found the weights and exercises at the gym and the morning Physical Training (PT) inadequate to stress and strain all his muscles.  One often found Cadet KK Arun lifting it with ‘Clean and Jerk’ or a ‘snatch’  in the evenings after the Games Parade.  Whenever I walked past this ‘Barbell’ during my NDA preparation days in 1978, the idea to lift it germinated in my mind.  Obviously, I could only lift it from a side, that too with both my hands. I always had a ‘Hero Worship’ for Arun as to how come he could lift this monster many a times at my age.

Arun joined NDA in 1975 and I followed suit in 1979 January.  We never met since our school days.  Arun remained a fitness freak throughout his Indian Army career.   He was an Instructor at the Commando Wing of Infantry School – an appointment any young officer will even trade his ‘girl friend’ for.

As a senior Major he landed in a coveted appointment – The Adjutant of NDA – an appointment any Cadet who passed out of NDA will sacrifice anything and everything for.  It was a reward for Major Arun’s soldierly qualities, his love for his soldiers, dedication to duty, physical fitness, gentlemanly qualities and so on.

Drill is the bedrock of discipline – thus goes an old saying and it is the Adjutant who meticulously oversees the Drill Training at NDA.  It culminates with  the Passing Out Parade (POP), a spectacular event which marks the  culmination event of another successful semester.  POP parade held at the Khetarpal Parade Ground comprises over one thousand cadets bidding farewell to their senior colleagues and will remain etched in the memory of anyone who has witnessed it.  Passing Out Cadets march past the Quarter Deck to the  haunting strains of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.  The Adjutant on his charger accompany the passing out cadets to their Final Steps.

This entire spectacle is the culmination of five months of rigorous drill training imparted by the Drill Instructors under the watchful eyes of the Adjutant.  It is purely an Adjutant’s show.  Please click here to read more about the Academy Drill Instructors.

Who will ever forget the ‘Josh Pep-talk’ delivered by the Adjutant prior to the commencement of POP, exhorting all cadets to put in their best to make it as spectacular as possible.  A young Officer on commissioning  to our Regiment narrated an anecdote.  He was trained by Major Arun at the NDA.  He said “While delivering the customary Pep-talk by the Adjutant, his Charger, a well built white horse, delivered an anal salute.  Major Arun immediately said ‘SORRY’ and continued.  That was our Adjutant, an epitome of decency.”  I felt very proud of our Alma Mater and did not miss the opportunity  to declare with pride in my voice “I attended the very same school from where Major Arun graduated.”

Major Arun served as a Commando Instructor.  He was a real ‘tough’ instructor and was well known for his teaching abilities with love for his students – A real GURU in all aspects.  Some even say the Nana Patekar’s Hindi movie ‘PRAHAR‘ (please click here for more about the movie) was inspired by him. He was awarded Sena Medal for gallantry.


He rose to the Rank of Colonel and commanded a Rajput Regiment.  There are many anecdotes from his army life worth mentioning.  He hung up his military boots and is now settled with his family at Greater NOIDA near Delhi.

I was lucky to come in contact with him, courtesy Colonel TM Natarajan, our batch mate from Sainik School.  It was a rewarding experience sharing our journey experiences and also relent that we two never met after leaving school.

Pongoes


On 13 January 1979 I joined the National Defence Academy, Pune India as an Army Cadet.  National Defence Academy is a Joint Services academy of Indian Armed Forces, where cadets of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force train together.   This is to ensure jointmanship amongst the three services.

We, the Army Cadets, were often referred to as Pongoes or at times Grabbies, especially by the Naval fraternity – both officers and fellow cadets.  It often intrigued me as to from where these terms originated. In fact, I disliked it, like every other Army Cadet at the Academy.

The word Pongo is seemingly used in a somewhat derogatory sense evoking a sense of both stupidity and a bad smell, something like a ‘stinking moron’.  Although a bit derogatory, the word is often used by the Naval guys in a friendly manner when they refer to the Army guys. It is interesting to go into the etymology of the word.

Pongo is a British slang dating from the mid nineteenth century, meaning soldiers. The word itself stems from expressions used by comedians in theatres and music halls to get a cheap laugh. The two most common quotes were “where the army goes the pong goes”, or “when the wind blows the pong goes” – pong meaning smell. This quickly became pongoes meaning soldiers (plural) and pongo meaning an individual. Another possible explanation is that the soldiers were being likened to a large, hairy, smelly ape called a pongo. The expression is still in use today although not common, confined mainly to those who saw service in World War II or Korea or who did National Service in Britain while this was still compulsory.  (www.urbandictionary.com)

There is another explanation given in a blog post ‘Be Proud to be a Pongo’ at www.theobservationpost.com. During the Napoleonic wars, the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written pão (this could also be the origin of the Indian street bread – the Pav पाव), and pronounced pong. British soldiers coined the term pongo as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of pong. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time was that sailors lived on biscuit while, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting army soldiers, and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of pong might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – meaning bread eaters.

As per Appendix: Glossary of British military slang and expressions, an  Army soldier is referred to as Pongo meaning “Everywhere the army goes, the pong (stink) goes”; derived from the supposed inferior washing facilities in field compared to those on a navy vessel.

Pongo was also used by members of the Royal Navy or RAF.  Sailors noted the similarity of the sand-apes’ colour to the rough brown (khaki) uniform of the British Army.  They believed that a Pongo was an ape that when alarmed did not climb trees, but would dig holes and hide itself on the ground reminding the onlooker of infantrymen.  They said a pongo dug holes and filled it for no rhyme or reason.  However, the only mention of Pongo – the ape – I could find was in National Geographic website which refers to a new orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutanthe rarest great ape species on the planet – found in the high-altitude Sumatran forests.

The term Pongo comes from the days when soldiers were stationed on board ships to protect the Navy when sailing abroad. Usually the first to be sent ashore when the ship docked, soldiers would carry out all sorts of different tasks.  One important (the most important… surely) task being the setting up of a brewery. The main part of it, the still (apparatus used to distill alcoholic spirits) being called a pongo. Hence the nick-name given to the soldiers who would be sent to do the job “send the pongos ashore”. The name seems to have filtered down through the years and is used today by the Navy towards members of the Army.  (www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Pongo)

Our childhood adventure series – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – in its fifth volume, Five Go Off in a Caravan (1946), has Pongo as a main character who is a circus chimpanzee.   In David Foster Wallace’s novel – Infinite Jest – refers to Checkpoint Pongo, a border post of the Concavity near Methuen, Massachusetts.

That is all about the poor Pongoes, but how did they get their nickname Grabbie?

It is said that the poorly fed soldiers on boarding a ship would scramble to the Galley – the ship’s kitchen – and would grab anything and everything edible

Here I would quote from The Sea Regiments published in The Navy and Army Illustrated MagazineOctober 1806, where it says ‘ The Marines, in a word, are a military force maintained by the Admiralty for service in the fleet.  “What’s the good of ‘aving leather-necked grabbies aboard ship?”  said an ordinary seaman once to a private of the Royal Marines.  “To keep you flat-footed, ginger-whiskered swamp rats from eating one another!” was the prompt and unexpected reply.’

Another reference to grabbies I found was from the book The Cameronians – A Concise History by Trevor Royle.   ‘Amongst the officers of my Regiment, nice fellows as they were, only a few cared for the Army as a profession.  All were proud belonging to splendidly drilled Light Infantry Battalion – drilled according to the practice of War in the Peninsula, before the introduction of the rifled musket.  They thought themselves to be socially superior to the ordinary Regiments of the Line, which were always spoken of as grabbies.’

In the book Seven Sailors by Commander Kenneth Edwards ‘The history of British Empire is rife with examples of devotion of British sailors to their brothers in army.  These reached their zenith at Dunkirk, not only among the matelots and the grabbies, but all the way down from the Admiral and staff to the over tired infantrymen.

Matelots, a Naval slang, refers to a sailor and originates from 19th century from French, variant of matenot, from Dutch mattenoot meaning ‘bed companion’, because sailors had to share hammocks in twos.

Whatever you call a soldier, especially an Infantry Soldier, Victory is still measured on foot.