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.

 

Sacrificing a Family Tradition


When we joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in Grade 5 in June 1971, there were many vegetarians amongst us.  Most Brahmin Cadets up until then had never ever eaten anything non-vegetarian in life.  As the school years went by, many shed their herbivorous status (other than the real hardcore ones) in favour of an omnivorous one.

We were served ground pork curry with bread for dinner on the first Friday of every month.  The meat came from the Yorkshire Pigs that the school farm reared.  Many cadets on joining the school were reluctant to eat pork due to religious reasons and also because they had never tasted it before.  Nowadays the very same pork curry, with all its flavours intact, is very fondly served to the members of the Alumni and their families during the Alumni meet.  Everyone, including little children of the Alumni look forward to this dinner.

Like a true Syrian Orthodox Christian, I too had never tasted pork.  Our family tradition was based on Deuteronomy Chapter 14: Verses 3 to 8 which says “Do not eat any detestable thing.  These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roe deer, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep.   You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.   However, of those that chew the cud or that have a divided hoof you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the hyrax. Although they chew the cud, they do not have a divided hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you.  The pig is also unclean; although it has a divided hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses.”

This was the rule the Jews followed a thousand years before Christ in accordance with The Torah passages in Leviticus that lists the animals people are permitted to consume. It first notes what qualifies an animal that is absolutely permitted.   Muslims also follow a similar rule.  Chapter 6 Verse 146 of Quran says “ We prohibited every animal of uncloven hoof; and of the cattle and the sheep We prohibited to them their fat, except what adheres to their backs or the entrails or what is joined with bone.”

Although Christianity is also an Abrahamic religion, most of its adherents are permitted to consume pork. Since Christianity lost most of its roots from Judaism, Christians are not bound to most of the restrictions of Mosaic Law. However, Seventh day Adventists consider pork taboo, along with other foods forbidden by Jewish law. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also do not permit pork consumption. The Syrian Christians of Kerala belong to this lineage of pork taboo. For many Scottish highlanders too, pork is taboo although the reasons are quite unclear.

It is believed that St Thomas, an Apostle of Christ came to Kerala in 52 AD and converted local Hindus and some Jews to Christianity.  Cochin Jews (also known as Malabar Jews or Yehudey Kochin), are the oldest group of Jews in India, with roots that are claimed to date back to the time of King Solomon (970 – 931 BCE).  St Thomas did not impose any changes to the pattern of worship, rituals and traditions of the locals.  This resulted in Malayali Syrian Christians with the Jews following Mosaic law .  It changed when the Portuguese colonised Kerala in the 16th Century.  Their concept of ‘the cross preceding the sword‘ resulted in forcible conversion of Malayali Syrian Christians to Catholicism.  Portuguese Inquisition used consumption of pork to distinguish between Jews and Catholics and accused the Malayali Syrian Christians of being Jews. Those Malayali Syrian Christians who refused to convert to Catholicism had to flee away from the coastal areas controlled by Portuguese to  the hills in the interior of Kottayam.  They today are further divided into Marthoma, Jacobite and Orthodox factions.

The first Friday of July 1971, we were served pork for dinner.  There were separate tables for all those who did not want to partake the ground pork, where they were served potato and peas curry.  I too joined this vegetarian section. So our taboos were at home. We learned about tolerance to eat what we eat, together, may be at separate tables though, but without hate and rancour.

Cadet Sunil Kumar, our batch mate, a Namboodiri (a hard core Kerala Brahmin) erroneously joined the wrong queue and ended up eating pork.  After eating it, he said it was so tasty that he even went for a second helping.  This motivated me to go for the forbidden pork on the first Friday of August 1971.  I sacrificed a family tradition of not eating pork in exchange for a mouth-watering dish on that day and from then on I never missed it on any first Friday of the month.

So, now I follow the New Testament of Bible (As do most Christians world wide) where in as per Gospel According to St Matthew 15:10, Jesus calls the people to him and says, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Minor mercies that religions do offer some flexible options!!

Despite the many health warnings that come with red meat in general and processed pork in particular, to this day I remain a happy and avid pork eater, thanks to Sainik School Amravathi Nagar and Sunil Kumar.

The Lesser Teachers


Teachers play an important role in our lives to become good human beings and valued citizens to society.  Teachers are an extremely important part of any school society and at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu), it was no different.  What Cadets at our school learned from our teachers at a young age has in most cases stayed with us and will continue to do so till our graves.

Here I am writing not about our great front line teachers, but about those lesser mortals, great human beings, who always worked in the background to make learning easier for us Cadets.  They are the support staff who assisted with most activities that happened at our school.

The oldest of the lab attendants was Mr. Vittal Das.  He was at the Biology lab assisting Mr Paul and Mr George, our zoology and botany teachers.  He made sure that we got frogs for our dissection classes, duly anesthetised with a heavy dose of chloroform.  He was the most politically active among the support staff, even though they were not unionised.  He was in the forefront fighting for their rights.  He was a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) who remained steadfast with the party and was always singing praises for his leader, Late M Karunanidhi.  Despite the dismissal of Karunanidhi Government in 1976 and the drubbing DMK received in the 1977 elections, he remained loyal to the party.

Manuel, the Physics Lab Attendant was a man for all seasons, all because he was assistant to Mr. PT Cherian, our Physics teacher.  Mr Cherian was an icon and was in the forefront for almost all activities at our school – cultural show, cinema projection, photography club, operating the public address system for all events and so on.  Where ever Mr Cherian went, Manuel was there, like his shadow, to assist him.

Then there was Samuel, our Chemistry Lab Attendant who like any typical lab attendants at any school, posed as a ‘Mister Know-All’. Mr KM Koshy, our Chemistry teacher during a class session, once sent Samuel on a leather hunt.  He asked Samuel to fetch dilute H2O from the Chemistry Lab.  Samuel returned empty handed after about 15 minutes and dutifully reported “Sir, in our lab there is no dilute H2O, all we have is concentrated.”

Whenever we walked into the library, there was Nazeer, assistant to Mr Stephen, our librarian.  He had a smile for everyone and was always on the double in the library – placing books back on the shelves, arranging periodicals and newspapers on the tables, setting the chairs right, etc.  He was very particular that the cadets used the library to enhance their knowledge and insisted that we read newspapers, the only source of information in those days in remote Amaravathi Nagar.  He used to deliver newspapers to us even on Sundays and Holidays at our dorms so that we never missed the day’s news.  He was instrumental in my developing a reading habit, especially the attachment to ‘The Hindu’ newspaper.

Mariya Das, the younger sibling of Manuel had two roles to play.  He was the attendant at the Academic Block whose main duty was to ring the bell at appropriate times.  In those days Cadets did not wear watches (it was a super luxury item and was not permitted as per school rules) and when we saw Mariya Das rushing, we knew that it was time for the period to end.  In the mornings during physical training and the evenings during the games hour he doubled up as a grounds-man.

CMN Grndsmen
(Late Mr C Madhavan Nair with his Grounds-men, from the left – Maria Das, Achuthan, Kuppan and I cannot recollect the fourth one)

It was a marvel as to how our Chief Grounds-man, Achuthan ensured that we Cadets were provided with all equipment needed for the morning Physical Training and evening games.  He was assistant to our Physical Training Instructor, Late Mr C Madhavan Nair.

With his team of four illiterate grounds-men, they ensured that the gym with the boxing ring was always maintained meticulously well.  Every afternoon, it was their duty to ensure that all fields were marked properly and all nets were in place.  We had to draw the balls and other sporting kit from Achuthan every evening at 4 PM.  He ensured that all kit handed over to us was serviceable and kept a track of them even if we left them on the ground.

The ultimate test of the team work of Mr CM Nair and his grounds-men was the conduct of the Annual Athletic Meet and School Day.  How they accurately marked the 400 meters’ track, pits for the jumps and lanes for the throws – all still remains a mystery for me till date.  This most important event of the school year culminated with the ‘Massed PT’ for the School Day, involving all Cadets from grade 6 to 12.  There too the role of the grounds-men in providing us with various equipment and marking the spots for us to stand during the Massed PT was indeed commendable.

Regarding our dedicated and caring Mess Waiters, please Click Here.

School support staff play an important role in ensuring the students are nurtured in a safe and supportive environment. They foster positive, trusting relationships with students and improve school climate by encouraging students to actively participate in all school activities, especially in a residential military school.

Every Cadet who has graduated from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar really had an intimate connect with the school support staff, especially their positive behavior which had a great effect on us the Cadets. In a quiet sort of way, they had touched our lives in ever so many ways with tender care.

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.

A Wedding in Peru

Vijayabhaskaran (Vijas), our classmate from Sainik School days. my partner in most teenage crimes at school (we took the resultant punishments too together), called me up in June 2018 to announce that their daughter Sandhiya, pursuing her engineering education in Germany had found her ideal life partner in Ernesto, a Peruvian citizen.  The marriage was scheduled for 05 January, 2019 at Piura, Peru.


Vijas’s voice was beaming with pride, voice choking many a times, narrating as to how and when the two met, experience and interactions he had with Ernesto and as to how they were an ideal made-for-each-other couple.  I felt honoured as I was the first one (other than his wife Amuda) he was informing of this development.


Vijas wanted someone who was just as warm hearted as her, but still had a great work ethic and a sense of determination.  He said that he could not be happier for his little girl – he watched her go through school, music lessons, internships, work, university, immigration to Germany and he realised that he had both God’s blessings, and best wishes from his family and friends in abundance.

I had learnt about Peru in middle school geography and about the Inca civilisation in history.  I knew Peru was in South America, with Lima as its capital.  But where is Piura?  Googled it up and came the answer.

Piura is a city in North-Western Peru, the capital of Piura Province. The population is approximately 400 000.   It was here that Spanish Conquistador (Conqueror) Francisco Pizarro founded the first Spanish city in South America, San Miguel de Piura, in 1532 thereby earning the modern day city its Peruvian nickname: ‘La Primera Ciudad‘ meaning the first city.  Piura served as the first main port through which the Incan gold and silver the Spaniards had gathered was shipped back to Spain. Piura declared its independence from the Spanish on January 4, 1821.  Piura is about two hours of flying time from Lima.

There were four of our classmates from Sainik School Amaravathinagar attending the wedding.  Dr Benoy and Dr Neena from Boston, Aravazhi and Amutha from Chennai, Ranganathan (Ranga) and Akhila from Bengaluru.  We were honoured with the presence of Mrs Anita Chandramouli, wife of Late Group Captain R Chandramouli in the group.  Vijas had planned a Peru tour for a week for all of us after the wedding.  How can we miss a visit to Machu Pichu, the hallowed ancient Inca city?

I booked our tickets from Toronto to Lima and then to Piura and the tour package with the travel agency JourneYou.  All set, we embarked the Air Canada plane to land in Lima on 03 January after a ten hour journey.   This was the first time I ever set foot in the Southern Hemisphere.  Luckily for us, Toronto and Lima fell on the same Longitude, hence no time difference, which saved us the agony of jet lag.  We then took our flight to Piura and reached our hotel in the afternoon, to be greeted by our classmates who had already reached in the morning, travelling over 36 hours.


(From Left to Right : Aravazhi, Self, Benoy, Ranga and Vijas)

Aravazhi was a day-scholar at school as his dad was our teacher – Mr MV Somasundaram.  Four of us lived in the same dormitory of Pandya House and were mentored by our House Master Mr PT Cherian.  We were all meeting Benoy after a gap of three decades, but the moment we met, the timeline seemed to vanish – we were all back as Cadets, sharing all our joy and experiences of life.


(From Left to Right : Shashi Bellamkonda – Vijas’s Catering College buddy, self, Aravazhi, Amuda Aravazhi, Anita Chandramouli, Marina and Akila Ranga)

Our  ladies too got into the act of sharing their life experiences.  Overheard a conversation about recipes and sarees – anything and everything under the sun.

The smartest amongst us all were Ranga and Benoy.  Ranga joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) and served the Indian Navy.  During a football match at school, Benoy suffered an injury to his eye leaving that eye blind.  We were told that with one eye, a person had only 2D vision and could never make out the depth.  We never realised what it meant until we were training on the obstacle course.  One of the obstacles was a ten feet long ditch with a rope hanging in the centre.  Benoy, running to the obstacle jumped forward to catch the rope, but he ended up in the water filled ditch as he could not assess the depth at which the rope was hanging.  That gave us a practical lesson on the 3D vision we enjoy.

Benoy too qualified for NDA but was obviously found medically unfit.  When the final result came out, he was among the top ten who had qualified – What an achievement! After leaving school he joined Madurai Medical College and later specialised in Cardiology.  My question to him was as how he practices cardiology with one eye.  He said that today all procedures are through various scopes which in fact provides only 2D images.


The above image of Ceremonial Parade at school is of 1977 when we were in our Tenth Grade.  Ranga and Benoy are the two Stick-Orderlies with Colonel (Dr) K Jaganathan as our School Captain.


The wedding ceremony was solemnised  on 05 January Afternoon at the Catholic Church.  It was followed by a cocktail and a sumptuous dinner with all Peruvian delicacies thrown in.


We then danced our way through the night to Spanish and Bollywood music.

Chai –My Favourite Brew


Recently I came across a video clip about TWG’s Yellow Gold Bud Tea.  This tea is believed to have been once the favourite of Chinese emperors and as precious and costly as gold.  In fact, each tea bud is lavished in 24-karat gold, which once infused, yields a delicately metallic and floral aftertaste.

In the Sixties, during our childhood days’ back home in Kottayam, the regular morning brew was coffee.  Ripened red coffee beans were plucked from the coffee trees that grew around our home and after being sun dried their outer covering was removed.  The beans were then fried until they turned black and   ground to a powder at the nearby mill, to be stored in air tight containers. The coffee powder was put into a copper vessel with boiling water and was left for a few minutes for the coffee to be infused and the thick powder would settle at the bottom of the copper vessel.  The extract or decoction was now mixed with milk and sugar and then served to all. Just thinking about it makes one salivate.

The taste of that home-made coffee is now history.  With the advent of rubber plantations, all coffee trees were cut to make way for rubber. Thus the end of home-made coffee powder. We now source our coffee powder from various commercially available brands in the market. Sad change.

Happy change. I took to drinking tea on joining Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, at the age of nine in 1971.  Tea was served to us early in the morning prior to Physical Training, at 11 o’ Clock between classes and in the evening prior to games.  Every cadet took a liking to this tea as everyone looked forward to it.  For many it served as a clock as none of us wore a wrist watch.  The tea had some magic in it as it had the innate quality to kick start all the important events in a cadet’s life!

CadetMessAmar22
What was so special about this magical concoction?  The taste of this tea is beyond words, and could never be replicated.  We tried hard to analyse the secret of this addictive tea. What was special about it? It could be the special blend of the tea leaves or the way in which it was cured. Or perhaps it was the sublime effect of the Amaravati River waters, the vessel in which it was brewed, or the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless.  It still remains a mystery to all of us, but it attracts most alumni to the school every year and they gleefully indulge in consuming steaming cups of this divine tea.

Another most memorable cup of tea that I have had was the tea served by soldiers at the Sadhna Post at Nastachun Pass.  This pass is located at about 10,000 feet Above Sea Level at the entrance to the Thangdhar Valley on the Indo-Pak border.  The narrow one-way road from Chowkibal (about 100 km from Srinagar) was cut along the mountains to Nastachun Pass and then down into Thangdhar Valley.  The road being narrow could only accommodate one vehicle either way.  To ensure a smooth flow of vehicles, all traffic was regulated by a convoy system. The up and down convoys left from Thandhar and Chowkibal at about 8 in the morning and 2 in the Afternoon respectively.  The vehicles on reaching Nastachun Pass would park there, awaiting all vehicles to fetch up from either side.

During this wait, soldiers manning Sadhna Post would serve tea to all.  It was real refreshing cup of tea as one was both physically and mentally tired traversing up through the treacherous roads with many hairpin bends. It was a magic potion that invigorated tired limbs and ebbing spirits.


During winter, the road and the mountains got covered with over ten feet of snow.  The only way to cross over was by foot columns.  The foot columns operated at night, two days after a heavy snow storm to avoid avalanches.  The foot column consisted mainly of soldiers proceeding or returning from leave from their homes, porters carrying essential supplies – fresh vegetables and milk, mail, etc. It took about four hours of strenuous climb to Sadhna Post and was a sure test of anyone’s mental and physical abilities. It was a kind of surreal experience. Talking aloud was not permitted as the vibrations caused by human voice could resonate with layers of snow on the ridge face and trigger an avalanche. On reaching Sadhna Post, everyone was welcomed by the soldiers with a hot ‘cuppa’, a cup of tea that was the most refreshing and tasty—it simply was the best ever. To my mind, it could very well be compared to Amrit – the nectar of immortality in Hindu mythology. The climb down from the Sadhna post appeared easier but was just as treacherous, if not more, due to the tendency to slip and fall.

I have never tasted the Yellow Gold Bud Tea, the speciality of the Chinese emperors. But I am pretty certain that it would pale into insignificance when compared with the Amravati Special or the Sadhna Post Amrit!

 

RIP Wing Commander K Manickavasagam


Squadron Leader K Manickavasagam joined our school – Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu, India as our Headmaster in 1978 while we were in Grade 11.  He bid adieu to the world to be with the God Almighty on 13 April 2018, leaving behind a great legacy – especially for the Cadets of Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar.

He got on to his main task from the day he arrived – to turn us teens into adults.  He was seen everywhere during all activities – from the morning Physical Training (PT) to evening dinner.  We all enjoyed his company, his talks, his motivational anecdotes.  It would not be wrong for me to say that he was instrumental in many of us clearing the Services Selection Board (SSB) Interview and joining the defence forces with Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM, Deputy Chief of Naval Staff  heading the pack.

The day for us all dawned with PT and there was Squadron Leader R Manickawasagam, out there, running with us and exercising with us.  While we marched from the Cadets’ Mess to the school after breakfast, we saw Squadron Leader Manickavasagam cycling down from his residence to the Academic Block.  Next was the morning assembly.  He called Vijayabhaskaran and me during PT and asked us to deliver a speech during the assembly  on  “Untouchability” for Vijayabhaskaran  “Co-education in Sainik Schools” for me.  Vijayabhaskaran asked “for how long should we speak?”. “As long as you can” came the Headmaster’s reply. As we went back to prepare our speeches, Vijas told me that we should speak for 45 minutes each the least so that everyone goes for the tea-break after the assembly and we all can manage to skip the first three periods of the day. After each speech, Squadron Leader  Manickavasagam spoke for 15 minutes, analysing and assessing our speeches.  He was real serious and meticulous  as he went about all his tasks.

Squadron Leader Manickavasagam appeared to have taken the divine task of molding us teens into leaders and good citizens.  He lead many adventure activities like treks through the Anamalai Wildlife Park located adjacent to our school campus, tracking rabbits in the Small-Arms Range area and so on.

He chaired many of the open-house debates and discussions.  He encouraged us to present our views, right or wrong, confidently.  He shared his experiences and wisdom during these events.  He encouraged all of us to be creative by participating in various extra-curricular activity clubs.  He conducted General Knowledge classes for us in the evenings wherein we could discuss anything and everything under the sun.

He was often seen cheering us from the sidelines when we competed in various Inter-house sports events with all our spirits, heart and soul – whether it was the boxing, athletics, football, hockey, volleyball or basketball.

Squadron Leader  Manickavasagam always had positive words of encouragement for us – even while we goofed it up.  He did mete out punishments for us, keeping in mind our age and exuberance.  Once he made Vijayabhaskaran and I to apologise in front of the Morning Assembly – it was too less a punishment for the mischief we did.  Looking back, had the intended punishment of withdrawal from school was awarded to us – we would not have achieved what we have today for sure.

RIP Squadron Leader K Manickavasagam.  You had the vibes of all of the students. An Officer and a thorough Gentleman to the core – someone we all would love to emulate.