On my birthday, as I was replying to all the birthdays wishes from friends, the news of passing away of Ms Sheila Cherian – Ms Sheila Murphy – came not as a surprise as she was in a coma. Anyone from our vintage reading this eulogy will acknowledge with a nod and a smile that Ms Sheila was the best educator we had ever been blessed with, was an absolute timeless icon.
Ms Sheila Murphy, an Anglo-Indian lady, was among the first group of teachers to join Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Thamzh Nadu in 1962 at the time of inception. Mr PT Cherian joined our school a year later in 1963. After a few years, fell in love and got married, while we were in our eighth grade. On the evening of their wedding, we were treated to a never ever seen sumptuous dinner at the Cadets’ Mess. Thus, Ms Sheila Murphy became Mrs Sheila Cherian.
Mrs Sheila Cherian is the first teacher anyone who joined Sainik School, Amaravathinagar encountered. Most of us were from Malayalam or Thamizh medium schools having very little knowledge of English. The way she taught us English, especially how to write (her handwriting was exceptional.) She tried her best to improve my handwriting, but the success rate was minimal. She taught us table manners, how to sit at a table, use of cutlery and crockery, how to spread butter and jam with the knife, how to drink soup, how to eat boiled egg and most importantly, how to eat with our mouth closed.
I still remember her first class in July 1971. She was our English teacher and the Class-teacher. She first took us to the washroom and taught us how to use the urinal and the commode, how to flush and how important it is to wash our hands there after. Next, she took us to the library. She introduced us to the books in the junior section and explained to us the need to read – read more – as we grew. Then commenced her English class.
Many of the lessons she taught, I will take them to my grave – so will most of her students.
When I heard the news of her passing, there were so many thoughts and memories that raced through my head. Just like many of you who might have been blessed to be her student. I thought about the last time I met her.
In 1994, we went to Sainik School Amaravathinagar, to attend the Old Boys Association (OBA) meeting. By then Cherians had retired and had settled in the farm they purchased, adjacent to the school. We decided to call on the Cherians in the evening and reached the farmhouse. The house had about 50 old students, some with their families already there. The Cherians, known for their love for their students, whom they adored as children, as God had been unkind to the couple and had forgotten to bless them with any kids. They were playing excellent hosts to each and everyone, including little children.
We paid our respects to the couple, and by about nine in the evening, most guests had left and I was sitting with Mr Cherian enjoying a drink in the coconut grove. Mr Cherian said “Do you know why I did not come to your home to accept the Guru Dakshina? It is not that I did not love you or adore you, but because my marriage has not been complete as the God has not blessed us with any children and that was the reason why Sheila had declined to come for the marriage.”
I just could not speak and our eyes became wet. We both remained silent for the next five minutes and completed the drink.
Mr Cherian fetched another set of drinks and continued “I Married Sheila very well knowing that she would not bear any children for me, due to her gynecological condition. I wanted to set an example for my students by marrying the person I loved. I never wanted my students to tell me that I ditched their teacher.” Tears rolled down my cheeks….
Although decades have passed since we all sat in her class, that feeling we had when she greeted us back then has not faded a bit from our collective memories. We humans tend to hold on to the best memories of our childhood and Mrs Sheila Cherian was most certainly a big part of our best memories. She was indeed . . . and will always be . . . a timeless icon in our lives.
The words I write – I owe it to Mrs Sheila Cherian as she laid the foundation for all my English language abilities – to read and to write. She made our life brighter with her charming smile, motherly affection, knowledge and wisdom.
Rest in Peace Mrs Sheila Chearian. To the world you may just be a teacher, but to us,your students, you were the world.
We attended the Junior Command Course at Mhow, India in 1993 and after the course went to our home at Kottayam, Kerala for a month’s vacation. In those days, we travelled on vacation by train and the journey took over 48 hours and two train changes at the most awkward hours of night. You can imagine my plight with Marina and our two-year daughter Nidhi in tow, with paraphernalia of assorted baggage – in all sizes and shapes.
We reached home and my next ordeal was to get a return reservation from Kottayam to Delhi and onward to Jammu. During summers, the seats in the trains from Kerala to anywhere in the country were lapped up the moment the reservation counters opened on the exact 60th day before the date of journey. The only option for me was to contact our Member of Parliament, Mr Suresh Kurup, who always obliged with his emergency quota. Mr. Kurup is well known for his soft corner and respect for all soldiers.
Armed with the allotment of Emergency Quota and my Warrant (Military form authorising travel by Indian Railways,) I reached Kottayam railway station. At the reservation counter the booking clerk refused to book the seats – Why? Our Regimental clerk had committed a grave sin!! He spelt KoTTayam with one T.
I contacted the Station Master and the Reservation Supervisor. All expressed both sympathy and empathy a soldier deserved, but the cardinal sin of spelling KoTTayam with only one T, they could not condone.
While at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Thamizh Nadu, our nearest railway station (NRS) was Udumalaipettai – with one P and two Ts. In Thamizh and Hindi, it has two Ps, but in English only one – Any reasonable reasons?
The town was known amongst the locals as (உடுமலை) Udumalai and all the bus boards read so. The British called it Udumalpet and that too caught on, but no one ever used Udumalipettai, other than the Indian Railways and some Military clerk sitting in the remote border, preparing a warrant for a soldier from Udumalpet – counting the Ps and Ts.
When we filled our application for the National Defence Academy (NDA,) our teachers insisted that we spelt Udumalaipettai with the correct number of Ps and Ts as the Indian Railways insisted.
To return to the Regiment on time, the only option to me was to buy two tickets and claim the cost later from the Comptroller Defence Accounts (CDA.) I requested the Reservation Supervisor to block the seats until I either got a fresh warrant or bought the tickets by paying cash. He agreed saying that he got to finalise the reservation chart two days before the date of journey.
I shot off a letter to our Adjutant, narrating my agony. Major Ranjan Deb (now a Veteran Colonel,) an Aviator with an uncanny sense of humour was in chair and he despatched a soldier to Kottayam with a fresh warrant with two Ts for KoTTayam. Unfortunately, the soldier could reach Kottayam a day prior to my journey and by that time, I had to buy the tickets by paying cash.
On reaching the Regiment stationed in Jammu & Kashmir, I sent the forms for claiming the cost of the tickets to CDA, explaining the reasons as to why I had to buy the railway tickets by paying cash. The reasons I stated appeared beyond reasonable doubt to the powers at the CDA, but how can they allow such a claim without raising any objection? It will go against the ethos of the Accounts Department anywhere in India.
My claim was approved in principle, but the CDA raised a query “How did the Officer and his wife make the onward journey from Jammu Tawi to Kottayam?”
Beyond reasonable doubt, Major Ranjan Deb promptly replied “By walking.” In a week’s time my bank account was credited with full reimbursement for the cost of tickets.
Now let us fast forward to 2016. Our family is in Canada – Marina, Nidhi, Nikhil and myself – all Canadian citizens.
Nikhil decided to travel to Kolkata to serve in Mother Teresa’s Ashram for a month. I said to him “If you find time, visit Veteran Colonel Ranjan Deb, our Regimental Officer who lives in Barrackpore.” I had narrated many incidents about Colonel Deb, especially when he was our Battery Commander with 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.)
On a Wednesday, when Nikhil had a day off from Mother Theresa’s Ashram, he took a cab to Barrackpore. Colonel Deb and Nikhil spend a day together and at the end of it Colonel Deb remarked “Reji, I spent a few hours with Nikhil. I was amazed at his all-round development at his age. No Indian student will be able to match up with Nikhil’s thought process. His education in Canada stands out distinctly. I am 63 and he is 19 years of age. I did not get bored for even a second of the six hrs we were together. Healthy engrossing discussion.
This is what is called Regimental spirit. A kid, not born – why – not even planned while we served together, comes all the way from Canada to meet us – a Veteran Colonel and his wife. What else can we ask for in life? What other recognition do we need? He made our day!!”
Mrs Hema Ramachandran, wife of Veteran General PK Ramachandran, posted this image on her Facebook of a Koel (Eudynamys Scolopaceus) who visits her garden.
I was reminded of our grandfather who narrated to us young children as to how the Koel laid her eggs in a House Crow’s (Corvus Splendens) nest. His narration was to teach us to be industrious as a crow and not be lazy and cunning as a Koel.
When we were in Grade 10 at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Mr Paul Sathya Kumar (MPSK) taught us Biology. He explained various tactics in the bird/ animal/ plant kingdom to prove the survival of the fittest theory, and one such case was that of a smart Koel who laid her eggs in a crow’s nest.
The Koel is known as a brood parasite – a species that imposes the cost of rearing its offspring onto another species – the host (House Crow) – by laying its eggs in the hosts’ nests.
Is Koel Lazy? Is she more industrious than the crow? Is she crafty and cunning?
In Sanskrit and Telugu language it is called as Kokila, Thamizh, Kannada, Malayalam –കുയിൽ, குயில் (Kuyil), Hindi-कोयल (Koel.) Many good female singers are referred to as Koel or Kuyil. Does the female Koel sing? No! It is the mating call of the male bird to woo the female bird.
For almost nine months of the year, the Koel is seldom seen because it neither sings nor calls except in the breeding season – April to July. It is difficult to spot a Koel due to its shy nature and secretive behaviour. They mostly remain hidden inside leafy foliage and go undetected, by and large.
In their breeding period, birds mate, lay eggs, rear their offspring and protect them. In India, birds usually breed in summer because their chicks will have enough food in the following monsoon.
Koel is a case of mimicry in the bird kingdom. Its eggs resemble those of the crow in pattern and colour. The ground colour of the crow eggs presents different shades of bluish green while that of the Koel is olive green. Eggs of both host and parasite have similar brown markings in the form of blotches, specks, and streaks, which are more densely distributed towards the broader end. Although eggs of Koel are smaller in size, they exhibit remarkable mimicry with crow eggs.
To ensure a higher chance of clutch formation (clutch is the number of eggs laid,) the Koel cleverly lays an egg in the crow’s nest when the mother/father crow is not around and then throws away one of the crow’s eggs.
That means the crows can count and the mother crow is unaware of the replacement.
Another reason as to why the Koel leaves its egg in the crow’s nest is that the Koel is a vegetarian. Newborn chicks need a lot of protein to grow, and the crows will feed them non-veg protein.
This is a survival instinct and is basically inherent in the genes of organisms in nature. It further proves Darwin’s theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest.‘
There are other examples of brood parasites in the bird kingdom. The egg of the common Hawk Cuckoo (Hierococcyx Varius) mimics that of its host species, the Jungle Babbler (Turdoides Striata) in size and colour. Such mimicry is thought to have evolved to prevent the host from rejecting any eggs.
Host birds respond to brood parasites using different defence strategies. They attack the parasite outright at times, and at others issue warning calls, hide the nest, look for and remove the parasite’s eggs and aggressively defend their territories. I have often spotted female Koels being chased by crows even outside the nest when they spot each other.
A Koel is so crafty that to increase the chance of survival of its eggs, she lays her eggs in different nests. Remember the adage – ‘Never put all your eggs in the same basket!‘ When the Koel visits a crow’s nest, it also punctures or breaks eggs irrespective of the species so that her offspring isn’t starved of food even during a shortage. The Koel is too smart to ensure that the clutch size is optimum so that the crow can feed and take care of its chicks.
If a host happens to see a parasite laying an egg in its nest or recognises an intruding egg, it will abandon the nest or reject the egg.
Incubation period of the Koel’s egg is about 12 to 13 days and the crow’s 16 to 17 days. Thus, the Koel chicks emerge a few days before the first crow chick hatches. The poor crow hatches the eggs, feeds the Koel chick, and brings it to adulthood to hear the bird coo differently.
The Koel chick keeps chirping continuously. So, the mother crow feeds it more thinking that the chick is still hungry and not yet fed enough. The Koel chicks grow rapidly and become healthier than the crow chicks. They develop feathers and wings earlier than crow chicks and fly out earlier.
Isn’t the Koel industrious, crafty and cunning than the crow??
I was the giant great and still, That sits upon the pillow-hill, And sees before him, dale and plain, The pleasant land of counterpane. From the Poem – The Land of Counterpane – by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894.)
It was during the year 1971, when we, as nine-year-old kids, joined the fifth grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (located in Thamizh Nadu, India), that I first heard the word ‘Counterpane.’ For some of you too, it must be a Baader-Meinhof.
I have often been Baader-Meinhofed by Sashi Tharoor with his eloquent English vocabulary, many a times forcing my fingers to caress my cellphone to search for the meaning of the word.
Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one stumbles upon some obscure piece of information – often an unfamiliar word or name – and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.
On the day that we joined the school, late Mrs Mercy Mathai, our Matron, ushered us into our dormitory. We were allotted a hall with 12 beds laid out with military precision. Every bed was covered with a thick cotton sheet with our school colours – a steel grey background with four blood red lines running near its four borders in such a manner that the inner lines fell along the border of the mattress. These lines caught my attention and I presumed that the four lines represented the four houses for cadets named after the four famous Thamizh Kingdoms – Chera, Chozha, Pandya and Pallava. I was assigned to the Pandya House.
Addressing her new wards, Mrs Mathai said “This is your bed and it is covered with a counterpane. Before you go to bed, each of you will fold it neatly and place it at the foot-board. You will not use it to cover yourself at night. For that there is a blanket near the foot-board.”
Was I Baader-Meinhofed? I did not understand a word as I knew only Malayalam.
I was introduced to the term ‘Counterpane‘ in Sainik School. I presumed that counterpane was of British origin, but, oddly, never came across the term later at the military academies, in India. I was therefore, pleasantly surprised when my colleague Major Rajib Basu in 1989 at Devlali, Baader-Meinhofed me when he referred to his bed cover as a “counterpane!” He had graduated from the residential Lawrence School, Lovedale. The term was very common with many ‘public-schools’ in and around Ooty.
Counterpane is a modification of the word Counterpoint, from Old French word Contrepointe, meaning a quilted mattress.
The humid warm sultry days all through the year at Aamaravathi Nagar was a bit tough, especially without air conditioning. Why? There were no fans even. Windows were thrown open in our dorm to bring in whatever breeze we could catch. The breeze brought with it fine dust particles and there was the counterpane, discharging its duty to protect my bed from this dust.
We carried our counterpanes to our senior dorms in grade 9, where we had a cabin allotted for each cadet.
The counterpane protected the mattress and the blankets. How often do we clean or wash our mattress and blankets? Today the counterpane has been relegated to be an unnecessary addition that just ends up tangled at the bed’s foot-board.
Try using a counterpane to cover your bed during day and you will end up with a clean bed in the evening. You may find yourself having the best sleep of your life!
In those days many military stations were not authorised fans. Most military stations were established by the British and were at cooler and greener hill stations. Blame it on climate change or global warming, most military stations now are authorised air conditioners. I have seen it all.
We had to fold our counterpane every evening prior to retreating to our bed. It was a sin to use it to cover our body at night with it – all because it may lead to skin rashes due to aberration with the dust particles it carried.
Next morning, we had to neatly spread the counterpane on our beds, tuck it in at the rear end, ensuring that the four red lines ran all along the mattress border and leave our dorms for the Physical Training (PT.) Our mornings commenced with making our bed, spreading the counterpane and the last action before going to bed was folding the counterpane.
Veteran Colonel T Ravi (Roll No 556, 1974/Chera) reminisces:- In the late sixties and early seventies, counterpanes in school dorms came in varying colour combinations, but the patterns were pleasant and same.
Some of the nine- and ten-year-old 5th and 6th grade boys, still wetted their beds. The counterpanes were a great cover up, though sometimes the smell gave them away. As they grew older, the counterpanes again covered the sins of some of the adolescent kids, who had adolescent dreams or indulged in porn.
Lieutenant Colonel AC Thamburaj, Principal, introduced the system of inspections. Every alternate Mondays, the dorms and cabins were inspected by the Principal, Headmaster, and the dorm staff. Dusting of closets and bookshelves, sweeping out the dirt, hanging all dresses rolled and thrown under the beds and the over mosquito nets, tight hanging of the mosquito net, washing the socks that smelt like dead rats, blancoing the canvas shoes that were white two weeks ago, changing the pillow case and bed sheet and hiding away unauthorised toys, bugs, pets that lived in the closet…the list was endless; but always ended up with the neat spreading of counterpanes over the well-made bed without any wrinkles.
There were some good wardens like Krishnaswami, Narayanaswami and Govindarajan. There was one scoundrel we feared the most: ‘Karunakaran.’ In 1967, he was with Chozha House, and in 1968 became a shared one between Chera and Chozha Junior houses. He always found out the exact one item we tried to hide under the mattress or at the bottom shelf of closet. In later years at the military academy, Karunakaran’s training kept me safe from the Divisional Officers during cabin cupboard inspections.
The Counterpanes in School had a tag showing it was manufactured by ‘ChenTex‘ – a cooperative at Chennimalai near Tiruppur and Kangeyam. Chentex, a Weavers Cooperative Society was established in 1941 and is leading on manufacturer of bed covers, bed sheets, bed spreads, cotton bath towels etc. The Society sells within India and also exports to European countries.
We got so used to counterpanes, that a beds without them, always looked incomplete.
Veteran General PM Hariz (Roll No 579, 1974/Pallava) writes: – The legacy of counterpane continued right through our lives I would say … just that over the years it got transformed into a bed cover with greater elegance than the one we had at School …the purpose was the same!!
To me a more important lesson was that of making the bed as one got up early morn each day – at school as Reji said we had to make our bed and cover it with the ‘Counterpane’ before even we got to get going with the morning routine. Some of us left hastily, only to return from PT to find our matron frowning upon the ‘les miserable’ who had left his bed in the same state of rest!!!!
Soon the habit of making one’s bed kicked in and it became second nature to me … and have carried it till today … my wife Zarina and kids fail to understand why I remain paranoid with an unmade bed – and why I hurry to make the bed even as the sun is only just rising!!
That is a habit with a lesson!! In that, one commenced the day with a small doable task … it made it then mentally possible to continue doing small/big tasks through the day. Also importantly, when one returned late at night from work etc – one came back to a clean and made bed – which by itself was a blessing to crawl into after a long day at work!!
It has become so ingrained that I would make the bed even in a guest room or hotel room – at least set the bed in order and place all items at its designated place…. Believe me ..even as I got up this morn at 5.30 ..I first made my bed – my side of the bed !!!
For many of us even today – Amaravathi Nagar remains The PleasantLand of Counterpane.
Images courtesy Veteran Commander Vijayasarathy Natesan (Roll Number 244, 2002/Pandya,)M Balaajhi, (Roll Number 4574, 2010/Pandya) and Ashok Prabhu, (Roll Number 3499, 2002/Pandya.)
A Dosa is a thin pancake like a crepe originating from South India, made from a fermented batter of lentils and rice.
The paper-thin Dosa is the corrupted form of Dosa. In my childhood Amma made Dosa on a ten-inch dia stone girdle. It was thick – the least it was five times thicker lighter and spongier than its paper-thin cousin. These Dosas were characterised by the holes left by the steam evaporating on cooking from the batter.
I joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Thamizh Nadu) in 1971 at the age of nine where Dosa was served twice a week – Sunday breakfast and Thursday diner. The Sunday Dosa was with Sambar and Chutney, but the Thursday Dinner was the best – rarest of rarest combination – Dosa with Chicken Masala Curry – one of the best combinations I have had in my life. Here too it was the thick and fluffy Dosa which combined well with the gravy.
My introduction to the paper-thin Dosa was at the National Defence Academy. It never tasted anywhere near what I had at home or at school. It was too crispy for my liking. I called it the ‘Corrupt version of the poor Dosa.’ Though corrupt, it was lapped up by the North Indians and the South Indians too followed suit and the thick and original Dosa disappeared from most South Indian restaurants and homes. Some restaurants now serve it as ‘Set Dosa.’
I recall an incident narrated by Veteran Colonel MA Mathai. After marriage, on settling in their first military abode in 1985, he and his wife Sainu decided to invite all officers of their Regiment for a Dosa Brunch. In the morning Sainu made Dosas the way her mother made them – thick and stout. Neither Captain Mathai nor the officers were too happy about it.
After our marriage, we established our first home at Devlali, Maharashtra in 1989. During our settling down days, Marina said she intended to make Dosa on the following Sunday and she inquired as to what I wanted with it. I asked for my most relished combination with Dosa – chicken masala curry. “What an unpalatable combination?” was Marina’s reply. I told her that the thick Dosa made on a granite griddle, served with chicken masala curry was the best combination for Dosa that I had ever had. She did not believe me until we relished it that Sunday evening.
During our Pan-India tour as part of the Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1990, at Jabalpur Railway Station, our coach was stationed adjacent to the main platform. After the industrial visits, while I was strolling on the railway platform in the evening, I came across tow young men from Kerala selling Dosas. They narrated their story as to how they came to Jabalpur and established their business.
The two unemployed high-school graduate lads landed at Jabalpur on the recommendation of a close relative who was employed with the Ordnance Factory. They searched for a job and joined the restaurant on the railway platform as dishwashers. Few months into their work, the restaurant owner was impressed with their dedication and asked them “Can you make Dosas? There is a lot of demand for it. There are no good Dosa vends in town.” They took the bait.
The two men travelled to Kerala to return with a heavy grinder, girdles and other utensils needed to make Dosa. They commenced their Dosa selling in the restaurant and soon the place became a favourite haunt of the powerful, wealthy and influential people of Jabalpur. The restaurant owner now came out with a new business model for them. “You sell your Dosas here and all the money is yours?”
Too tempting an offer to reject!! They again took the bait. They sold hundreds of Dosas every evening, collected the cash, went back to their home to soak the rice and lentil overnight. Next morning, they ground the rice and lentil and fermented it till evening. In the evening, they established their girdle on the platform, in front of the restaurant. People came in droves to buy Dosas. Many sent their tiffin carriers for home delivery.
The biggest question in their minds was “Why did the owner allow us to sell Dosas and take all the money?”
A month into the new venture, they gathered enough courage to ask the question to the restaurant owner. “Customers who buy Dosas from you buy coffee too. I sell over a hundred coffee every evening and I make a Rupee on every coffee. “
The restaurant owner did not kill the geese that laid golden eggs for him, he nurtured them!!!!
Facebook this morning brought the sad news from Veteran Colonel Sajan Moideen about the demise of Mrs Mercy Mathai, our Matron at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Thamizh Nadu.
Death cannot take away Mrs Mercy, she will always remain alive in our hearts. Many cadets like me, owe their littledomestic skills to her. I feel lucky because I was one among her many wards, helped and developed by her, during our formative days at school. I pray he is in the good place now, watching us from the right side of the Creator.
When we, 30 of us from Kerala, joined the school in grade 5, at the age of nine in July 1971, armed with little communication skill in our mother tongue Malayalam, we were welcomed in at our dorm – the Feeder House – by Mrs Mercy. We were all happy that our Matron – Mrs Mercy – spoke Malayalam. Everyone of us will vouch that she was a mother to each one of us. Her love for each cadet and her devotion to duty made up for our mother’s care and love that hardly anyone felt home-sick.
Most of us, until we joined school, hardly ever wore shoes. It was Mrs Mercy who taught us how to wear the socks and shoes and the biggest bugbear for us was tying the shoelaces. In the Cadets’ Mess, she with Mrs Sheila Cherian taught us table manners – how to sit on a dining table, how to use the cutlery.
Making our bed in the morning was the first ritual of the day and it was Mrs Mercy who taught us how to execute the task with the counterpane covering the bed to protect it from dust.
Counterpane – the first complicated English word in our vocabulary – is a fifteenth century word meaning a quilt, coverlet, or outer covering of a bed. I have heard only cadets from our school and students from some public schools at Ooty (Udhagamandalam, Thamizh Nadu) use this word. I never heard it later while in service with the Indian Army.
She taught us many domestic skills like threading a needle, stitching a button, darning our socks, etc. We had to put the dirty linen and clothes in our pillowcase and place them at the designated place and after three days we picked them up washed and pressed. No one ever missed any of their garments. How she managed it still remains a mystery.
Mrs Mercy was very strict with us regarding personal hygiene. She taught us how to brush our teeth, how to bathe, how to flush the toilet, etc. She ensured that we clipped our nails – for the defaulters, she clipped them.
She ensured that we wrote a letter home every Sunday – the only means of communication then – and she posted them on Monday. When parents came to visit their sons, she made them confident that their son was in good care.
She was a great leader with exceptional organisational abilities. For our House Day, she made sure that each one of us participated in the cultural show. For many of us appeared on stage, it was our first stage experience. While others sang, danced and acted in skits, the likes of me without a tinge of musical or dramatic skills became trees on stage.
How can one forget the birthday bash she organised for our House Captain PM Hariz, who is now a Veteran General? Many of her wards served the Armed Forces of India and many served as doctors, engineers, lawyers and bureaucrats.
Rest in Peace Mrs Mercy Mathai – there are many like I missing our mother – who ensured that our dorm was a home away from home.
We were about 30 of us who landed at Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar, Thamizh Nadu from Kerala in July 1971, armed with little communication skill in our mother tongue Malayalam. English, Hindi and Thamizh were alien to us. First language and medium of education at our school was English. We started with the English Alphabets under Ms Sheila Cherian and graduated to Wren & Martin and English Today by Ridout. We had to study Thamizh or Hindi as our second and third languages.
Thamizh as a second language was out of question as it required us to cram the Thirukkurals onward. Thamizh poems, and ancient literature are not easy to understand. Hence we were given Hindi as a second language. As expected we all fared badly and was the nightmare for us during the Grade 10 public exam. Only the God Almighty and the examiner who evaluated our answer sheets know as to how we managed to pass. It was all about cramming to the last alphabet and reproducing them on paper. Luckily we did not have to study a second language in our grade 11 and 12.
Thamizh was our third language, taught to us by Mr MV Somasundaram and Mr K Ekambaram. We commenced with grade 1 Thamizh textbook in grade 5. The only saving grace was that they put an end to our agony in grade 8 with a grade 4 Thamizh textbook.
We from the 1979 Batch were the very first batch to face the brunt of 10+2 education by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) India – an extra year of studies. Our previous batch graduated from school in 1977 on completion of grade 11.
Grade 12 was a bugbear for my likes who were pathetic with academics and who never achieved any academic glory while at school.
Why did I join the National Defence Academy (NDA) and later serve the Indian Army for over two decades?
The truth is that I ran away from studies. The bonus of getting through the NDA entrance examination was that we joined the NDA after our grade 11. We did not have to go through grade 12 and the culminating public exam. What a relief!!!.
We were made to believe at school that the training at NDA was more about outdoor activities – Physical Training (PT,) games, drill, weapon training, equitation training, military tactics, etc – and that the academic component was very minimal. On joining the Academy, reality dawned on us. We had to graduate in a Bachelors’ Degree programme, covering over 30 subjects ranging from Engineering Drawing to International Relations to be awarded a degree from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU.) This is the only Bachelor’s Degree JNU confers as JNU is India’s premier research university.
Gods had to settle the scores with my academic pursuits, especially linguistics. How could they spare me from the rigours of Hindi and Thamizh?
I was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.) The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery (consisting of six Bofors Guns, and about 150 soldiers) was of North Indian Brahmins; the second had Jats mostly from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Now I had to master Hindi the way the Brahmins and Jats spoke and also Thamizh as it was the medium of communication for the South Indian Soldiers.
At the end of it, commanding a Regiment and retiring after two decades of military service which I joined primarily to run away from studies – the reality was that neither did I stop studying nor did I stop running!!
Even while commanding the Regiment, I continued studying as we received modern high-tech radars, survey equipment, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones), etc which I had never heard of until then. In order to command the Regiment, I had to master all the modern military gadgets and the only way out was to learn about them and operate them. This meant I had to pore over volumes of operational and maintenance manuals.
My studies did not end with my hanging my military boots. It continued and will continue for ever.
Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young – Henry Ford.
When our Amaravian Colonel Reji koduvath Roll No 931 of SSA, wanted me to share my experience with Vice Chief of Naval staff Vice Admiral G Ashok kumar, an Amaravian I readily accepted heart of hearts, though I didn’t give a positive nod to him on the spot. How can a teacher say ‘No’ when he is asked to say about his student in the past during his formative years in Sainik School, Amaravathinagar. As I am an ardent lover of Reji’s prolific pen who is an author of two books in addition to many blogs penned by him about Masters of SSA.
Since over lapping memories for the past more than four decades give pressure to my thoughts, joining with my age, minute details of our Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar had escaped from my memory.
In the year 1971 Ashok kumar Roll No 870 joined as a raw-clay along with other students like 892 Brigadier T Thomas, Colonel Reji Koduvath and many others. In the process of moulding the cadets through well–designed activities, he made a remarkable lead and made himself fit physically, mentally, intellectually and emotionally for joining the National Defence Academy and other walks of civil life.
Blue colour epaulets with single golden stripes adorned Ashok’sshoulders when he was in eleventh standard as he was made Vice Captain of Chera House by selection and not by election. He was a front line cadet both in scholastic and co-scholastic areas. He lead the Chera House under the guidance of his House Master Mr MV Somasundaram, a nonagenarian, now living in Chennai, ably assisting his House Captain, marched forward majestically towards achieving the target of hugging the covetable Cock-House trophy and to give honour to his House symbol Bow and Arrow.
As all Sainikiens are groomed to become all rounders, he enthusiastically participated in all activities. If my memory track is in the right direction, he was a good basket ball player, a fine tune piper in the school band, ably guided by the Band Master Mr Goodu Sahib. His most liked area is on the stage. He is blessed with the gift of the gap and with his eloquent tongue he enjoyed and made the audience enjoy with elocution and extempore speech competitions also conducted in the school intra-murally.
As we are living in a nuclear family, if the parents don’t have girl child they need not worry, SSA will turn them to be beautiful girl in stage one- act plays. Yes, our Vice Admiral, G Ashok kumar, the then Sainikien is an example as he acted in a lady character, Komalambal, the mother of Ramanujam, world- wide great Indian Mathematician, in a skit entitled Ramanujam, written and directed by Mr Venkatesahamurthy, Maths Master. In addition to students, many Masters like Mr KM Koshy,Mr R Subramanan, Mr K.Ekambaram,Mr KP Nataraja Pillai, Mr King Kristo kumar, myself and the playwright Mr Venkateshamurthy himself enacted various roles.
Right from his joining the SSA Ashok had been a gentleman cadet, the way in which he was moving with his fellow mates, Masters, other staff members and the armed force officers were of exemplary manner and that he was loved by all. He is one of the proud sons of Alma mater SSA , and he has reached the second highest position in the Indian Navy. Normally intelligent people make a soft- pedaling towards intelligence; but our Admiral Ashok kumar is an exemption. If I say that his intelligence coupled with diligence has taken him to such a great height along with other covetable traits in him , it is not an encomium or a hyperbole but it is my heartfelt expression that comes from the bottom of my heart about our past student of Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Vice Admiral and Vice Chief of Naval staff.
On behalf of all Amaravians – Defence officers, Masters, Staff members and the students of the past and present let me wish Vice Admiral Ashok kumar, his better half, Mrs Geetha, the woman behind him for his achievement and success, daughters Mrs Sruthi and Ms Sweta all the best. May God’s gracious blessings be showered on them.
The first time I met Ashok Uncle was when I was about 8-9 years old, when we had gone to Darjeeling and Gangtok on a family vacation. We were staying at the officers’ mess at Gangtok. Dad suddenly walked in with a smart energetic gentleman and introduced him as his classmate. They both were overjoyed to see each other. Little did I know back then that our association would stretch so long in our life. Because as an army kid you come across so many coursemates and uncles every now and then. But the strong bond that Sainik School Amaravati Nagar had forged held on stronger than anything.
Many years down the line, I kept on hearing about uncle and as luck could have it, both Ashok Uncle and my dad were posted at Mumbai at the same time. I used to hear that dad used to go meet uncle often despite him holding a prestigious and demanding position. Owing to the fact that I was elsewhere during that tenure I could not get a first hand glimpse of how Ashok Uncle handled his multitudes of roles with such aplomb.
When we went to NDA as a part of the Amaravians get together in 2015, I got to see Ashok Uncle’s cool side. He must have probably been the coolest of all commandants of NDA, his alma mater as well. Finally, in 2019 when we were at Delhi and Ashok Uncle was yhe Vice Chief of Naval Staff (VCNS,) I had probably maximum interaction with him compared to any of his batchmates kids. I am thoroughly convinced that he is the most chilled out person who is always high on energy and ever cheerful; that too while being the VCNS.
Not to forget Geeta Aunty is also retiring with uncle, who is also another one who needs to be mentioned for her cool demeanor. Perfect couple who are always youthful and full of life. I have never seen either of them stressed or tensed despite the numerous tasks and responsibilities at hand. He was kind enough to share few instances of how he had managed to wriggle out of tough spots while ensuring that no one’s ego was hurt and at the same time ensuring the outcome was the best possible one.
It is simply unbelievable. The quick thinking, speed of thought and execution is something I wish to emulate in my life as well. I think I have iterated enough number of times how cool uncle is but it just does not seem enough. It would be incomplete if I don’t mention his amazing singing skills. Oh what a wonderful entertainer he is!! Would have given so many singers in the industry a run for their money. Good for them that he ended up in the Indian Navy.
All the very best Ashok Uncle for your second innings. I’m sure the nation is missing out on an amazing chief of Indian Navy but hopefully he gets to serve in some or the other capacity because he still has enough fire in his belly. Also the nation needs such leaders. Good luck Ashok Uncle and Geeta Aunty. Lots of love yours truly Rohinth (Gucci as Aunty calls me.)
About Rohint Natarajan: – Born in Tiruppur to Veteran Brigadier TM Natarajan, an Amaravian of 79 batch and Mrs Sudha Natarajan. He travelled the length and breadth of the country as an Army Kid. An alumnus of almost 10 educational institutions across the country – Army public school Dhaula Kuan, New Delhi and Kolkata, Bhavans Secunderabad, Kendriya Vidyalaya , Avadi to name a few. A mechanical engineering graduate from SASTRA University, Thanjavur (completed in 2014.)
After a short stint in Tata Consultancy Services, joined the Central Reserve Police Force as Assistant Commandant in 2017 and served at the Indo Pak border in the Kutch Sector. Subsequently, cleared Civil Services Examination in 2018 and joined Indian Revenue Service (Income Tax.) Presently serving as assistant commissioner in Bangalore.
Interests include traveling, playing the guitar, sports and watching movies.
When we – thirty Mallus (a person from the Indian state of Kerala, especially one who speaks Malayalam) – joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (SSA) in 1971 in grade 5, it was our classmate – Cadet G Ashok Kumar – who acted as an interpreter. Our life was made easier as our House Captain was Veteran General PM Hariz, then in his 9th grade – who too was a Mallu. We knew only Malayalam with no knowledge of either Thamizh or English. Ashok, a Mallu, his father served in Thamizh Nadu Police, he studied in Thamizh Nadu, but spoke Malayalam fluently. He was very empathetic towards us and did his interpretation with lot of passion and commitment. I fondly remember him teaching me how to slip a pillowcase over a pillow.
These qualities of Ashok stood with him throughout his life, especially as a Indian Navy Officer, rising to be a Vice Admiral and the Vice Chief of Naval Staff.
Admiral Ashok was commissioned into the Executive Branch of the Navy on 1 July 1982. He is a navigation specialist and served as a Navigation Officer of the Frigates INS Beas and INS Nilgiri, the Destroyer INS Ranvir and the Aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. He attended the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC,) Wellington, the Higher Command Course at the Army War College, Mhow and the Expeditionary Operations course at Quantico, Virginia, USA.
He commanded Indian Naval Ship (INS) Kulish and INS Ranvir. He has also served as the Executive Officer of INS Brahmaputra. He served as the Defence Advisor (DA) at the High Commission of India in Singapore and the Chief Staff Officer (Operations) of the Western Naval Command.
Admiral Ashok has made each one of his classmates proud by his achievements. He displayed his love for us when he hosted us at the National Defence Academy (NDA) – while he was the Commandant – for a get-together on 22 and 23 December 2015. It was the most memorable part of the life of all our classmates and their families. To read more about it, Please click here.
Today, Admiral Ashok hangs his Naval Uniform after nearly four decades of dedicated service to the Indian Navy. How cool is that!! So began the journey we celebrate today, a career in which that nine-year-old cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar grew up to be a top Admiral of the prestigious Indian Navy.
For your next visit to Swati in the US, ensure that you and Geeta obtain a Canadian Visa and spend some time with us. Remember that the Niagara Falls is better viewed from the Canadian side. This is a fabulous place for a second honeymoon.
Ashok, now is the time for you to sit back and not relax, but to demonstrate your deep love for Geeta. You can now afford to spent more time with her – without the excuse of office or duty. This is a God sent opportunity to express your gratitude to Geeta for all her love and dedication in bringing up your two daughters Sruti and Swati to be great ladies and valuable citizens.
On 24 July, Vice Admiral Ashok dedicated a Sea Harrier aircraft to his Alma Mater – a great act showcasing his love for his Alma Mater. Many of our classmates proudly accompanied Ashok on the solemn occasion.
Mr MV Somasundaram, Ashok’s House Master at Chera House about his protege:- ‘You are a seaman with gratitude to our School, the soil and source of a crusading career; Inhale the sweet fragrance of Sainik Flower, your formative alma mater; Keep navigating viewing the Pole star with a vision, rowing with a compass of rationalism; A splendid torch that would make your life bright and beautiful, With wishes to grow near the sky.‘ To read more about Mr MV Somasundaram, Please Click Here.
Mr M Selvaraj, Ashok’s Thamizh teacher recalls:- சாதாரணக் குடும்பத்தில் பிறந்தவரும் சரித்திர நாயகனாகத் திகழலாம் என்பதற்கு நீயே நல்லதோர் எடுத்துக் காட்டு. உன் மார்பை அலங்கரிக்கும் பதக்கங்களே உனது கடற்படைச் சாதனைகளைப் பறைசாற்றும் படைத்துறை இசைமுரசு. உன்னத சேவைப் பதக்கம், உயரிய சேவைப் பதக்கம், சிறந்த சேவைப் பதக்கம் முதலான விருதுகளே உன் கடற்படைச் சேவைக்கு அங்கீகாரம் அளிக்கும் நற்சான்றிதழ்கள். அன்று (1978 ) அமராவதிநகர் சைனிக் பள்ளியின் சேரர் இல்லத் துணைத் தலைவனாய்ப் பணியாற்றினாய் இன்று (2021) இந்தியக் கப்பற்படையின் துணைத்தலைவராய் விளங்குகிறாய். குடியரசுத் தலைவர் பெருமகனார் அப்துல்கலாம் அவர்கள் சொன்னவாறு அப்போதே கனவு கண்டாயோ? உச்சம் தொட்ட உன்னைக்கண்டு உன்னை ஈன்றெடுத்த பெற்றோர்கள் மட்டும் அல்லாமல் சைனிக் பள்ளியாம் நற்றாயும், சைனிக் குடும்பத்தைச் சேர்ந்த அத்தனைப்பேரும் அகமகிழ்ந்து ஆனந்தக் கண்ணீர் அல்லாவா விடுகிறோம், அன்புச் செல்வனே துணை அட்மிரல் அசோக் குமாரே. தாயக மண்ணில் மட்டும் அல்லாமல், அயலக மண்ணிலும் நம் நாட்டின் பெருமையை நிலைநாட்டிய உனக்கு எங்கள் வீர வணக்கம். கனிவையும், கண்டிப்பையும் காட்ட வேண்டிய இடத்தில் காட்டி, கடற்படை வீரர்களுக்கு நல்லதோர் வழிகாட்டியாய், முன்கள வீரனாய் விளங்குகின்றவன் அல்லவோ நீ. இன்முகமும், இன்சொல்லும் உனக்கு இறைவன் அளித்த அருட்கொடை..கடற்படை ஆயுதங்களோடு இந்த இரண்டு பிரம்மாஸ்திரங்களையும் கொண்டு அல்லவா அனைவர் நெஞ்சங் களையும் வென்று மகிழ்கிறாய். ஓய்வுக்கு ஒய்வு கொடுத்த ஓய்வறியாக் கடற்படை வீரன் நீ. ஒய்வு பெற்ற பின்னும் நீ ஓய்வெடுக்கவா போகின்றாய். இல்லை, இல்லை.தேனீயாய்ச் சுறுசுறுப்பாக என்றும் இருப்பாய் என்று எங்களுக்குத் தெரியும். இதுவரை நாடுகாக்கும் நற்பணியாற்றினாய். இனி, வீடு நலம்பெற அன்பு மனைவி இல்லற நாயகி திருமதி கீதா, அருமைச் செல்வங்களாம் ஸ்ருதி, ஸ்வேதி இவர்களுடன் பல்லாண்டு பல்லாண்டு மகிழ்வுடனும், நலமுடனும் வாழ்க என எல்லாம் வல்ல இறைவன் அருள் வேண்டுகிறோம்.
You are an exemplary example to prove that ordinary common man’s offspring also can shine like a historical legend. The medals that adore your chest are the proclaiming Military band. Param Vishist Seva Medal, Ati Visit Seva Medal, Seva Medal are the right recognition for your outstanding service in Indian Navy. In 1978 you were Vice Captain of Chera House in Sainik School and now in 2021 you are the Vice Chief of the Indian Navy. As our great soul Dr A.P.J.Abdul Kalam said, did you dream to reach this height at that time itself? You have reached the zenith in your career. Seeing you, not only your biological parents but also benign mother – SSA and all members of SSA family shed blissful tears out of extreme happiness. Do you know,our dear Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar? You have impressed the people to know the greatness of our country not only in our mother soil, but in other alien soil also. A Royal Salute to you, our dear. Where you have to show your senility you did show and where you have to show gentility you did show and you stood as a forefront warrior, you are an ideal guide to all your fellow warriors. Aren’t you? Smiling face and soft-spoken words are God’s precious gift to you. Along with the Navy weapons, with these two ‘Brammasthrams’ you have conquered the hearts of all people and make them feel happy. You are an outstanding soldier in Indian Navy who gave rest to rest and you are a work alcoholic. Are you going to take rest after retirement? Never, never. We know that you will be as active as a honeybee as you had been hither to. So far you have put in your very best without any reservation for the Homeland. Now it is time for you to look after your family. We pray to the God Almighty to bless you to have a happy retired life with Mrs Geetha madam, the woman behind you for your success, your affectionate daughters Mrs Sruti and Ms Swati. To read more about Mr M Selvaraj, Please Click Here.
Veteran General PM Hariz writes:-‘It’s been a pleasure knowing Ashok all these years. Apart from our association at Amaravathi Nagar, we served together as instructors at DSSC, Wellington, just prior to his posting as DA to Singapore; and since then have been always in touch with each other. As the Commandant NDA, I had a standing Invitation to visit him; unfortunately could not make it due to exigencies of service. We were indeed very proud when he was appointed as the Vice Chief of Naval Staff; when Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, another Amaravian was the Vice Chief of Army Staff. I took the liberty of telling both of them that they needed to get a photograph of them together …. And they obliged! I had then posted this in the Amaravian Alumni Association FaceBook Group. It was indeed a very unique and proud moment for all Amaravians. After my retirement, he was kind enough to visit us at Kovai on his way to DSSC to deliver a lecture.
Ashok has been actively involved in chasing issues on behalf of the School too, both at the Service HQs and at the State Govt level. Recently, when the present Principal was steering the release of funds from the State Govt, Ashok got the Defence Secretary to speak to the Thamizh Nadu Chief Secretary to assist in resolution of the issue. My wife and I had the pleasure of attending his daughter’s wedding at Delhi in Nov 19. Admiral Ashok, an officer and a gentleman has been a shining example of an officer in the armed forces, worthy of emulation. We wish him and his family the very best in the second innings.’
Veteran General Devraj Anbu recalls:- ‘Two Amaravians in the corridor of South Block housing the Ministry of Defence was an envy for everyone. Ashok and self did capitalise to a great extent. Ashok’s tri- service experience gave a great head start in his tenure as Vice Chief. His vast experience, ability to articulate and persuasiveness resulted many a time in deciding very delicate and important issues in favour of the Navy. Many a time he navigated his way through complex and thorny issues to Navy’s great advantage. He was at his best during deliberations in Vice Chiefs’ meetings. Having known Ashok from Chera House days in school, I took the liberty of enjoying his hospitality when he was in Singapore. I cannot forget the way he looked after me from the time I landed there to my departure. Every moment I spent with Ashok’s family is etched in my mind. He has done this for everyone who has come across him .. a great quality that endeared him to everyone.’
Chef Vijaya Baskaran, Vice President, Indian Federation of Culinary Associations (IFCA,) looking back at the VII International Chefs conference organised by IFCA in 2017 at Delhi writes:- ‘I recall with pride my classmate Admiral Ashok Kumar, addressing over 800 of the finest Chefs, he commenced by saying “What will a Naval officer talk to reputed Chefs about? Both the Chefs and Navy personnel wear whites and work in challenging conditions. Armed forces march on their stomach or ships sail on their stomachs and the most important reason – I was invited by my classmate and I could not refuse. Such is our brotherly bonding.“ The 45 minutes of his talk was repeatedly interrupted by applause from the delegate chefs; such was the power of his words. I am sure many chefs will try to influence their children to enroll in the Indian Navy after such a motivating talk. The aftermath of his powerful speech was that there was a long queue of chefs waiting to click a picture with Admiral Ashok.’
Veteran Commander Daniel Reginald, Indian Navy, our classmate remembers fondly:– ‘Having landed up in the Navy three years junior to Ashok and in a service where even one day seniority matters, I enjoyed the privilege of getting treated at par as a classmate by Ashok, despite our seniority differences. We missed being in the same station most of the time (except for a short period at Naval Headquarters) and I finally caught up with him after taking premature retirement and when he was posted as Flag Officer Sea Training and Chief of Staff Southern Naval Command, Kochi. The bond and friendship we share growing up together in Amaravathi Nagar breaks all the seniority differences, and Ashok is such an approachable person. I had the full liberty to call him up any time and seek his help and guidance in the high positions he held, and I regret not visiting him enough whilst I was in the service. Friends and forever and will catch up with him, post his retirement. Wishing Ashok, Geeta and their two lovely daughters- Sruti and Swati – Godspeed, following winds in their anchorage.’
Veteran Commander MP Joseph, Indian Navy, two years our senior at School reminisces:-‘Ashok was always seen smiling, even when things were not looking very good, a classic example of being bestowed with the stellar quality of sense of humour, he could laugh at himself, rather than complain – a very important quality in a military leader.‘
As we look back on Admiral Ashok’s career of service to our country, I think everyone will agree with me in saying, it was much cooler even than what we all – his nine-year-old classmates at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar – could’ve imagined.
Veteran Commander N Balasubramanian, our classmate recalls:- ‘It has been a 50 year association with Ashok since joining Sainik School in July 71. We were in the same section in School, thereafter we were coursemates in NDA too and there also we were in the same class following it up with the Indian Navy being in the Executive Branch. We also did 51st staff course together. I was also fortunate to know his wonderful family well and have spent some memorable time with them in our younger days.
Ashok and Geetha have always been warm and large hearted. Though I left Navy in 2007, have enjoyed like many other coursemates, colleague and even strangers their hospitality all along even when he was DA in Singapore.
I had a contribution to him in choosing the Navy, as I suggested to him to give Navy as first choice when we were choosing Service while appearing for NDA, as I was in the Naval wing and he in the Airforce wing in NCC. It proved good for the Navy. Also Geetha rose up to be President Naval Wives Welfare Association (NWWA).
Over the years, I have found Ashok to be down to earth, cheerful, affectionate, humble and helpful to all. He is a thorough family man and a very devoted son. I am confident that more challenging assignments will come his way considering his wide exposure and experience. On behalf of my family and many classmates and coursemates I take this opportunity to wish Ashok, Geetha, Shruti and Swati all the very best, good luck and god speed.‘
Alex Manappurathu, Ashok’s Chera House mate writes:– ‘I remember Ashok being a strong Sivaji Ganesan fan. A movie buff to the core. During school vacations he claimed to go to movie halls every day (and saw multiple movies per day!), and at end of the vacation, returned to school with repertoire of stories to be narrated to his eager classmates.
Cut to the present, having heard him at our Alma mater recently at the Sea harrier dedication ceremony, he was coaxing the students and teachers, connecting the dots of his school days and his naval career to drive home certain points. Makes me wonder if it was this story telling sessions of his school days that honed his oratory skills!
In the past few years whenever I have met folks known to him, it was very clear that all of them spoke of him in very high esteem. Some statements from them … “Made me realise persuasion is the way to get things done, and not Danda (stick.)” “He had done so much for me, this is is least I could do.” “Well accepted personality, gets along with every one.” “Learned so much from him.”
With his strong interpersonal skills, wishing him a very happy and productive second innings too after he hangs his naval uniform.’
Nostalgia struck me when I read a Facebook post by a very senior alumni of our school about the movie – The Guns of Navarone. It was the second English movie I watched in my life. The first English movie was Mackenna’s Gold. The next English movie was Where Eagles Dare.
When I joined the school in 1971, I knew only Malayalam and English was all alien. The ‘scary’ scenes in all these movies ensured that I closed my eyes and slept off in 15 minutes. I later watched all these classics.
A movie was screened every Saturday, Thamizh, Hindi, English and occasionally a Malayalm movie. The swimming pool doubled up as an open-air movie theatre with the viewers sitting on the stadium steps, and the screen placed on the opposite side of the swimming pool. Later, the old Senior Cadets’ Mess was converted into a movie theatre. The cadets had early dinner on Saturday at 7 PM and the screening commenced at 8 PM – after it became dark.
Mr Gurumoorthy was better known as the Naval Officer in the National Cadets Corps. The sight of him in his crisp white Naval uniform was the main motivating factor for many of our friends choosing to opt for the Indian Navy at the National Defence Academy. He was instrumental in I choose the Indian Navy as my first option, but the medical authorities decided that I was fit for the Army only.
The projector used then was RCA Photophone 35mm which used a carbon arc to throw the image of the celluloid film on to the big screen. Today’s digital screening had not come in. The movies came in reels – each reel 1000 feet long, running for about ten minutes. The Indian movies were generally of 16 reels, running for about two and a half hours and English movies about 10 to 12 reels of about 90 minutes to two hours. The reels of a movie were enclosed in steel boxes and were physically transported from theatre to theatre, often by bus or train.
To reduce cost of production and keeping in mind commercial viability, a Thamizh movie was released in about 25 cities/ towns of Thamizh Nadu. Theatres in Udumalpet (Udumalaippettai,) the closest town to Amaravathi Nagar – about 25 km away – hardly ever received a new release Thamizh movie. It featured in the ‘Second-Run’ towns – that meant that a Thamizh movie was screened a month or two after its release. English and Hindi movies came mostly six months to year, many much later, after their release.
English and Hindi movies ran as morning shows on Saturdays and Sundays at Udumalpet theatres. After the Saturday’s morning show, the reels were despatched by bus to Amaravathi Nagar and was screened in the evening. Sunday morning, the first bus carried the reels back to Udumalpet, in time for the theatre to screen their Sunday morning show.
Thamizh movies were screened in Udumalpet theatres as regular shows – matinee (3 to 5:30 PM), first show (6 to 8:30 PM) and second show (9:30 PM to midnight.) Now how to get those reels to far away Amaravathi Nagar on a Saturday evening when the movie was playing its regular shows?
After the movie played its first five reels, it was loaded into the bus on its last trip at 7 PM from Udumalpet and the bus reached Amaravathi Nagar a few minutes before 8 PM. As the swimming pool was very close to the bus-stand, the screening commenced immediately thereafter.
Mr Menon on his Bullet Motorcycle, stationed at the theatre in Udumalpet, carried the next six reels at 8 PM and reached Amaravathi Nagar by 8:30 PM. He returned with the reels played till then to Udumalpet, in time for the theatre to commence their second show. Then he carried the last six reels to Amaravathi Nagar and returned them after screening. What an idea Sir Ji!!!!
How was any delay in this clockwork precise operation covered? Mr Gurumoorthy had an answer. The local theatre had bits and pieces of song and dance sequences and fight scenes, cut out from reels of Hindi and English movies. These were screened to keep the viewers engaged, as Mr Menon raced to the theatre with fresh reels.
Veteran Colonel T Ravi (Roll No 556) reminisces: – ‘Prior to 1969, the school had only a 16 mm projector. The movies were all ‘black and white’ English movies. May be, there were no Thamizhand Hindi movies available in that format.
That time, Chera, Chozha, Pandya and Bharathi Houses dined in the longish shed. Bigger strength Pallava and Valluvar Houses dined in the Boxing Arena. On Saturdays, if a movie was to be screened, we had to pick up our chairs after lunch and deposit them on the lawn that existed between the two sheds. The mess staff took out the dining tables and made seating arrangement for viewing the movie. Dinner was served outside.
90% of 5th and 6th Graders fell asleep as soon as the movie started. For one, we were tired, and the other, we could not understand the language. Subtitles and close captioning were not heard of or seen. The film strips often broke or Mr Cherian had to change the spool with the help of his lab assistant Manuel. He switched on a lamp he had on his switch board, and wake us from the slumber. After the movie was over, we were woken up and sleepwalked back to the dorms.
Sometime in 1969, a 35 mm projector was installed in the swimming pool and the first movie to be screened was Sivaji Ganesan & Jayalalitha starrer ‘Enga Mama’ – remake of Hindi Film Brahmachari) The students sat on the bleachers, while the Staff sat on the top arena. We started watching movies in Eastman color. Since it was an outdoor pool, the movie screening was dependent on weather. Some evenings the movie show was cancelled even while we were eating our early dinner of tomato rice and kaajaa. There have been occasions we had to scoot halfway through the movie, due to unexpected showers.
Apparently, around 1974, the movie screening moved back to the good old ‘longish’ shed, but with a proper projection room and 180-degree change in the viewing direction – with the stage now becoming the balcony.
Some of the daring 11th Graders (senior most then) sometimes sneaked off to Udumalpet on a Saturday evening, watch a movie, sleep in the bus stand and return on Sunday morning. Not many attempted this risky business, anyway.’
Veteran General PM Hariz (Roll No 579) writes:- ‘Whilst watching 16 mm movies like No Man is an Island – a 1962 war film about the exploits of George Ray Tweed, a US Navy radioman who avoided capture and execution by the Japanese during World War II; Sinbad the Sailor – a 1947 fantasy film about the daredevil sailor Sinbad, who embarks on a voyage across the Seven Seas to find the lost riches of Alexander the Great; etc, changing of reels took some time. This dead time was for the singing talents to pelt a few numbers. I vividly recollect Om Prakash (Roll No 285)- our short hockey wizard – singing ‘Asman sey aaya farishta’ and using the reel cover as the dhol (drum.)‘
Movie watching at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar will forever linger in the minds of all its alumni.
A recall by Veteran Commander Nanda Kumar Parrat(Roll No 322)
I joined SSA in January 1965 in grade 5, age 9. The School Band members, especially in their ceremonial dress of Blood Red and Steel Grey (School Colours) with White anklets and gloves were a sight to behold for a nine year old.
Mr Guddu Shaib, a Veteran Pipe Major from the Madras Regiment, joined our school in 1966 and introduced bagpipes for the very first time.
As it happened, from 1965 – 1970, a Senior of mine was the SOLE player of this very light innocuous looking Triangle.
Everyone who was in school during those six to seven years, remember only THAT cadet as playing the Triangle….and NO ONE ELSE.
About 40 years later I met the Triangle player, now an Indian Navy Veteran, and suddenly I realised that it was a real feat and mystery that no other cadet ever got to play the Triangle while he was in school (all of 7 years.) As it was the lightest and easiest instrument in the band to play and to merit the extra ration of milk, etc., there were hordes of others trying for that particular instrument, but never made it.
The reason suddenly flashed to me after 40 years…the Triangle player was the only one to fit into the ceremonial dress which was specially stitched for him in Grade 5 (1964). No other cadet could fit into that small size uniform. That’s how he managed to stave off any attempts of others to play the Triangle for seven long years. Some people are lucky early in life.
Reveille with Bugle
Cadets playing bugle were detailed to sound morning Reveille at our school. It went like this, ‘Taa da Taa da Tat Tat Tat Taa’. We had this song in the same tune, ‘Chaar-lie, Chaar-lie, get up for tea’. At least we then believed….the song line…One Senior used to climb the roof of the dormitory at 0530 hrs to ostensibly increase the range of the sound of the bugle.
Retreat…. Sounds of Last Post
During the Annual School Day, sounding the Retreat, was a sombre occasion and the last act after Prize distribution, VIP speech, etc. Whereas, the Last Post sounded sentimental in itself, the apparent ‘Echo’ played by our cadet buglers from below the distant hill (firing range) made one’s hair stand on end.It is already dusk ..sun already behind the hills…the Last Post…wow.. Totally memorable even after 50 years…… The ECHO …still echoes in my heart.
This image came from the archives of Abe Jacob Abraham (Roll No 114,) as a Cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar in 1964, sounding the Reveille with Veteran Colonel Ravi Nair (Roll No 131) on his right.
Colonel Nair recalls: “Most memorable phase of life. Waking up the School for the day. An onerous task indeed, which Abe and I did dutifully for the entire tenure in school. After the Reveille, rush to the Mess to have a glass of glucose concentrate and two eggs as compensation to lung power!!“
Dr KT John (Roll No 84) writes from Melbourne, Australia: “I have played the bugle with you and Abe, Ravi, both for waking people and also for the lowering of the flag at dusk.
Remember playing the Reveille with Jaideep GC (Roll No 55) echoing, which used to wake up most of Amaravathi Nagar, including the donkeys, who occasionally joined in the chorus. Oh! what wonderful times.”
Veteran Colonel Jayath Pooviah recalls: “Later it devolved upon me to carry out this task…. Only I stumbled up that hill in my pajamas and woke up with the school while blowing that bugle... Never got that drink after!!“
Joining the BAND Wagon by Veteran Colonel T Ravi(Roll No 556)
In 1967, Pallava and Valluvar Houses were housed in the two storey buildings. Raghavan was the school vice captain. He lived in one of the side rooms along with our House Captain Muthukumar. Every morning Raghavan emerged from his room to blow the Reveille which echoed throughout the Amaravathi Valley.
Each week, Mr Guddu Sahib detailed a buglar to blow the Reveille in the morning and one for the Retreat in the evening. The retreat time was normally 15 minutes before the school ‘fall-in’ for Prep. Most of us running to be in time for the Prep cursed the Retreat. You had to freeze in whatever pose you heard it. The trail that ran behind the MI Room was full of human statues when the buglar blew the Retreat and the flag came down.
There were lots of misconceptions. ‘Blowing a bugle while sitting down, made your balls big,’ was one of them. Not everyone could blow the bugle, even though quite few could blow their own trumpets. Bugle was easy to carry, as compared other equipment, except the Triangle and Cymbals.
The dreaded instrument was the Base Drum, which needed strong shoulders and height. VP Misra (Roll No 179) and R Gnana Prakasam (Roll No 630) were made for Base Drum. Normally, the band used two side drums. The unwieldy kettle drums came out only on occasions. I still can’t recollect how Mr Guddu Sahib mustered those many side drummers.
Mr Guddu sahib’s favorite instrument was the bagpipe. We learnt to play the pipe in stages. Initially, just the chanter. Then we graduated to playing the pipe with the drones blocked. Finally, the pipe with all three drones. Each of the guys in the band, had their own favorite tunes. Mr Guddu Sahib cajoled and convinced the members to play the number he chose.
Sometime in 1969 or 1970, the band was present for an event in Udumalpet (Free Eye Camp.) State Ministers Sadiq Basha and Mathialagan were the guests of honour. When the event finished, the two misters came to the band stand and congratulated Mr Guddu Sahib, who reminisced about the accolades as long as we were at school.
Veteran Captain R Gnana Prakasam writes:
Wow …what nostalgic memories ..I have to confess that I never had any music sense and my motivation to join Band was only Extra Diet..Band Milk. My enormous appetite could be satiated by Band Milk and extras. I played cymbals and base drum. We really had lots of privileges like skipping PT and going out of school for some performances. Best sportsmen from our batch were in School Band. Rajarajan was the favourite of Gudddu Sahib as he was versatile in many instruments. He was our No 1 Bagpiper.
Veteran Lieutenant General PM Hariz, PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, during an online musical show regretted that he could not read musical notes, though he plays the Saxophone. We both graduated from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Thamizh Nadu – he in 1974 and I in 1979.
(Courtesy Mr Steve Rosson (1969))
We were taught musical notation by our Band Master, the late Mr Goodu Sahab, who led the school’s pipe band. He joined our school in 1966 and retired in 1987. Pipe band players do not refer to any music sheet while playing unlike the brass band. Many of our friends in the band thus were not into reading music, just like General Hariz.
Mr Goodu Sahab was a Veteran Havildar (Sergeant) who joined the Indian Army in 1950 and retired from the Madras Regimental Centre as a Pipe Major in 1966. His education level was not beyond middle school level, but was an excellent Band Master. He was instrumental in adding six bag pipes to our school band when he joined our school in 1968. The performance of the school band during various events and parades at school stood testimony to his ability – both as a Band Master and as a Guru.
(Courtesy Mr Somasunadara Kumar (1974))
He conducted music reading lessons while we were in Grade 5 and it was all Greek and Latin for most of us. Minim, Crotchet, Quaver, Semiquaver, Demisemiquaver, Hemidemisemiquaver – all flew over my head., some danced in front of my eyes. I just could not make any sense of them.
Our classmate Somasunadra Kumar, who played in the school band, reminisces: “Though Mr Goodu Sahab looked simple, rather Chaplinesque, for the band guys, he was a hard task master when it came to the practice and the performance. He made us practice with metronome, so that our beats were as per the requirement of a particular tune for slow/ normal/ double march.
On the ceremonial parade days (Mondays) we had to reach the band room early, check all the instruments practice for a while and then carry all the instruments from band room to the Oval Parade Ground, almost a kilometer away, over an undulating terrain.
Other than teaching us how to play the instruments, he also taught us how to maintain/ repair them. He taught us how to change the drum head membrane (those days it was animal hide and it had to be handled carefully;) how to maintain the bag of the bagpipes (the bag is also made of animal hide) using bore oil (a blend of pharmaceutical grade, all natural, organic oils;) and to clean and service the copper/ brass bugles.”
(Courtesy Veteran Commander N Vijayasarathy (2019))
Whatever it was, all those who played in the school band carried music with them. During the alumni meets, there is a beeline to play the musical instruments while the alumni marched from the Cadets’ Mess to the Academic Block.
Playing in the school band was encouraged with an additional glass of milk and a piece of Mysore-Pak post dinner (better known as Band Milk,) to compensate for the extra hours they spent on practice and the physical effort needed for it. Mysore-Pak, a concoction of ghee, sugar and gram flour, owes its origin to the Royal Palace at Mysore. It was rock-hard indeed, but it melted in the mouth sweetly.
Playing in the band was a way to work out and it improved the muscle memory and coordination of the cadets. Those who played the wind instruments – bag pipe and the bugle – it increased the strength of their respiratory system.
Our children went through music lessons as part of Canadian school curriculum in Grade 7. They were taught to read music and perform. Those students who excelled joined the school band and received an additional credit for music in their high school.
Not all can read music though many enjoy it. Many musically talented people never picked up a musical instrument in their lives. There are many musicians who memorise musical tunes on hearing them and play an instrument without knowing how to read the music. Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Ronnie Milsap, George Shearing – they were all well known musicians who were blind.
Why should you learn to read music?
Being able to read music facilitates to understand the structure of the piece and the entire composition. It helps you to remember the music you are playing. With the music sheet handy, you are less likely to goof up.
It is sure to boost your self-esteem and acts as a confidence-booster. Practicing and performing music – instrumental or vocal – by reading the notation is immensely satisfying. The act of practicing and performing are great stress relievers. It is truly exhausting and also good for channeling your mind.
Once you learn to read music, you will find it much easier to learn an instrument and an array of musical styles. It will help you play in a band or with your friends as a group. You can create your own musical compositions too.
It’s never too late to learn anything. So I too am trying to learn to read music, though I am not a musician.
Once again my thanks to Reji for allowing me to use his blog as a vehicle for my reminiscences.
I was very touched to receive so many emails in response to my original piece and I hope that I have replied to all of them. The Amaravian community spreads far and wide and I had responses from the US, Singapore and various parts of the UK as well as, of course from, India.
Here are some further thoughts on looking at the photos again.
Here you see the famous bike that I learned to ride. I think that I look pretty good in that lunghi. I am sure I still have it folded up in a box in the loft along with a blue and white “hippy style” shoulder bag that I used on my travels. The chappals I think I bought from a street vendor somewhere. The soles were made from bits cut from old car tyres. One of my correspondents mentioned my banian (now that’s a word I had forgotten). To read more about the Banian and what it is called in North America, Please Click here (Reji)
The car parked outside the academic building was Maj Menon’s. An internet search tells me it was a Fiat 1100 Delight. Maj Bhoopal had one too but Col Thamburaj, as befitted his higher rank, had an Ambassador. A teacher called Soundarajan (?) had a motorbike but all the other staff had pedal bikes. Strange to think that all those teachers who were highly educated and had secure reasonably well paid jobs owned very little – perhaps just a bike and a radio.
If you want a laugh on the theme of Ambassador cars check out a great video clip by googling “the sculptor peugeot 206”.
The neighbours. Mr Mathai was on a visit home. He worked abroad, somewhere in the Gulf States I think, so Mrs Mathai was able to afford a few luxuries like a fridge. When it was time for me to get going in the afternoon Robin and Reena would come out into the front yard and shout at my window “Wake up Stephen Uncle. Wake up”.
The green kurta story. Here I am eating traditional style, although it doesn’t look like the mountain of rice is on a plantain leaf, at a festival – perhaps Pongal. A few days later I heard that A S Ram was quite put out that I had worn a kurta in Islam’s colour at a Hindu festival. I had no idea that was what I had done. I just liked the colour.
I am ashamed to say that I knew very little about the history of India and particularly the independence struggle and the horrors of Partition before coming to the school. Most of what I came to find out was from reading a sequence of novels by Paul Scott. The British Council Library in Madras sent out boxes of books. You had to choose from a printed list which just gave the titles and I was struck by “The Jewel in the Crown” and chose it. Luckily this was the first in the sequence and I then read all the others in what became known as “The Raj Quartet”. I also read “Train to Pakistan” by Kushwant Singh and I can see that book now on my bookshelves as I am typing this as well as “Kushwant Singh’s India”.
A S Ram was from north India so he had particularly strong feelings.
The white dhoti story. When I appeared in this outfit for another festival Mrs Mathai said “Look at Steve. Pukka”. I only needed a little “Nehru cap” and I could have been a real Congress wallah. Going round the picture from bottom left I think the first two guys worked in the office, then comes Nair one of the ex-army PT instructors, then Krishna Kutty I think, then on the front row Pakianathan, then Ram, the next face is familiar (Mr KM Koshy) but I can’t put a name to it, then Warrier, then me.
The march past. Many of the readers of this piece will be ex-military men so I hope you won’t feel offended when I say that I didn’t really agree with encouraging boys to concentrate on a career in the armed forces from such an early age and to this day I don’t really agree with boarding schools as I think that young children should be at home with their parents. Then again, I recognise that the school was a great springboard for many boys to have a fulfilling well paid career and all of those who got in touch with me obviously hold the school in high regard and have happy memories of their time there.
by Steve Rosson My thanks to Reji for allowing me to post these memories on his blog.
As I neared the end of my university course in 1969 I was accepted by Voluntary Service Overseas to work for a year or so in the developing world.
It was in August of that year, a few days short of my 22nd birthday, that I arrived at Sainik School to teach English.
I had flown from London Heathrow (my first time on a plane) to Bombay (as was) and then on to Madras (as was). After a few days of orientation I took the overnight train to Coimbatore to be met by Major Bhoopal (the Registrar), Paul (the volunteer I was replacing) and Driver Menon (with his splendid moustache). We piled into the school jeep and, after Bhoopal had done a few bits and bobs of shopping, we set off on the seemingly endless journey to the school. Route planning software tells me that the drive should take two hours today so maybe the roads were worse then or maybe I was just very tired.
As we approached the school Bhoopal suggested that Paul should take me to meet some of the other teachers at “the cafeteria”. I had visions of a sleek, modern establishment with chrome fittings and bright neon lighting so imagine my surprise when I entered a windowless room with rudimentary lighting, a cement floor and mismatched chairs and tables. I got even more of a surprise when I was introduced to Swami, the proprietor, in his dhoti, beads and full Brahmin tilaka. I grew to really like this place, however, and I was to spend many hours there chatting with friends on the staff, drinking coffee, eating masala dosai and being served by Swami and his waiter Rajamini.
My home for the next fifteen months was to be a small three roomed house in a row of four. The windows were barred and shuttered (no glass) and the door was secured by a huge padlock. In truth I only really used the bedroom and the toilet at the back. The bedroom was furnished with what I presume was an army issue bed and wardrobe made of olive green steel and a desk and chair. I had no need of a kitchen as I took all my meals in the mess except when I was invited to the houses of other staff members. The school had very thoughtfully installed a western style toilet for me. Flushing this involved filling a bucket of water from my storage drum in the room next to the toilet. The dam supplied water twice a day for an hour so water had to be stored. My one luxury was an immersion heater about a foot long that I clipped onto a bucket full of water and then plugged in. After about half an hour the water was warm enough for me to “take bath” as I learnt to say.
I said that was my home. Really it was just my house. The school was my home.
The first thing I had to do was to learn to ride a bike in order to get around the campus. The boys found it absolutely hilarious that someone of my age had never learnt to ride a bike and watching me wobble around the place for the next couple of weeks brought them more hilarity. A couple of the senior students were deputed to teach me and eventually I got the hang of it.
I soon got used to the routine. I was woken early by a mess waiter who brought me a mug of “bed tea” from the vast urns that were being taken to the boys’ dormitories. Then it was off to the mess for breakfast. The mess was a large hall a bit like an aircraft hangar with long tables and benches. As I was attached to Pandya House I sat at the top of their table with the House Captain and his deputy. Most of the other teachers ate at home.
I soon got used to Indian food although I do remember the first time I was given idli sambar for breakfast I just could not manage the spicy sambar and asked for an omelette instead. The omelette arrived a few minutes later ….. with green chillies in it!
Then it was off to the academic block to teach. The classrooms were arranged around four sides of a sort of courtyard of rough ground where the daily assembly was held complete with a rousing rendition of the national anthem. I still have the words and music of “Jana, Gana, Mana” rattling around in my head even after fifty years.
I can not imagine I was much good as a teacher. I had no training and my degree was in English Literature and here I was trying to teach youngsters who were all working in their second language even though it was an English medium school. I think we progressed pretty much page by page through the textbook and all the lessons were fairly formal but that was probably how the school liked it. Discipline was never an issue as the boys were all incredibly well behaved but I was horrified to see on a number of occasions boys being made to crawl across the stony courtyard on their elbows and knees as a punishment for some misdemeanour. Remember that the daily uniform was short sleeved shirts and short trousers.
Lunch in the mess was followed by an afternoon nap and then games at the extensive sports fields. Football, volleyball and basketball predominated but I was truly astonished one day when I saw with what ease and alacrity the senior boys tackled the assault course. I can not remember ever seeing the swimming pool with water in it. Then it was back home to “take bath” and then the evening meal in the mess unless I had been invited out. After that home to mark books, read or listen to my small radio which could pick up, usually with much interference, Radio Ceylon which played British pop music and the BBC World Service for news. I sometimes wandered over to the Pandya House dormitory to chat to the boys but not as often as I wish I had done.
I did get regular invitations to dinner from other staff members and sometimes I was rather uncomfortable when the man and I were served by his wife who then went back to the kitchen to eat her meal. I never knew whether this was shyness or the fact that she had no English or it was just tradition. This was not the case, though, when dinner was with Colonel Thamburaj, the Principal, and his wife or with Major Menon, the Headmaster, and his wife. With them, too, you could usually rely on a good supply of alcohol.
(Extreme Left is Mrs Mercy Mathai – our Matron when we joined school in 1971 – with Late Mr Mathai. Late Mr PT Cherian and Mrs Sheila Cherian on the extreme right. Mr Steve in the middle. The children in the pic are Mathais – Robin and Reena.)
There were plenty of other social functions organised like the House Days and at Diwali and Pongal. I always loved the huge buffets that were laid on and one of my favourite foods was the large potato cakes. I never could get on, though, with the custom that nobody could leave before the chief guest. I was often ready for my bed hours before that. Some other random memories include watching a flock of about 100 sheep go past my house being driven by a little boy with no clothes on, sitting on my verandah and watching A K R Varma with his Groucho Marx moustache riding past on his bike ringing his bell furiously and waving to me, eating my first ever mango at Venki’s house and then my first ever papaya at Mrs Mathai’s, the dhobi wallah squatting on my bedroom floor and listing the clothes he was taking away to wash “one kurta, one jibba, one pant, one half-pant”, the frogs croaking after the monsoon, Balan the tailor making trousers for me that fitted perfectly without him even measuring me, a hike in the Animalai Hills with the mess waiters carrying all the gear so that we could have a brew-up en route, a school trip to Mysore and Bangalore, Sports Day with its “Olympic style” march past complete with flags and the band in their red tunics, the view of Idli Malai across the sports fields, learning to eat rice with my hand whilst sitting on the floor. All happy memories. Of course, I wasn’t always happy. Sometimes I felt lonely and sometimes I felt homesick but I look back at my time at the school with great fondness and I have always been grateful for the immense kindness that was shown to me, a young man a long way from home, by all the staff and students.
If anyone would like to contact me please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
After reading my blogpost on Mr KP Damodaran, our Compounder at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar, Veteran Commander NK Parrat, reminisced about the medical treatment of Cadets by Mr KP Damodaran.
Commander Parrat was in 11th Grade, senior most in school, when we joined in 5th Grade in 1971. He then Joined the National Defence Academy (48 Course) and was commissioned into the Indian Navy (IN.) His claim to fame, both at the School and at the Academy, was his swimming and basketball skills. He later became a Clearance Diver in the Navy. He came out with flying colours and was cleared for 100 meter deepsea diving in a Diving and Salvage Course at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC), Panama City, Florida, USA.
Commander NK Parrat’s father, Late Lieutenant AK Parrat served the Royal Indian Navy (RIN) and was transferred to IN on India’s independence. Lieutenant AK Parrat specialised in air-radio and was posted at INS Hansa, which was then located at Coimbatore. Thus Commander NK Parrat joined Sainik School Amaravathinagar.
With the liberation of Goa in December 1961 from the Portuguese, INS Hansa moved to Dabolim, Goa and Lieutenant AK Parrat was posted to Kochi, Kerala. He now offered his son Commander NK Parrat, then in grade 6, that he could move to Sainik School, Kazhakkoottam, Kerala. Commander NK Parrat refused on the plea “I do not want to be new boy again!“
AK Parrat knew Mr Damodaran from their RIN days and instantly a special relationship was established. Mr Damodaran was well known as he had actively participated in the Bombay Mutiny, a revolt by Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy on board ship and shore establishments at Bombay harbour on 18 February 1946.
Lieutenant Percy S Gourgey, RIN, in his book, ‘The Indian Naval Report of 1946,′ has chronicled the events of the revolt. The sailors were infuriated by the statements of Commander F M King, RIN, of HMIS Talwar, when he addressed the Indian sailors as ‘sons of coolies and bitches.’ Later, around 20,000 sailors stationed at Karachi, Madras, Calcutta, Mandapam, Visakhapatnam, and the Andaman Islands joined the revolt.
The revolt began with a demand for better food and working conditions, but turned into demand for independence from British rule. They also demanded the release of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army (INA), action against the commander for ill-treatment and using insulting language, revision of pay and allowances to be at par with the sailors in the Royal Navy, etc.
That was a bit on the history of the Bombay Mutiny.
How did Mr Damodaran earn a place in the heart of all the cadets at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar?
It was all due to his dedication and love for the cadets. He had many a magic potions which could cure all diseases and injuries the cadets suffered.
On returning from the sports field after a hard day’s play and leaving behind the epidermal layer on the ground, all Cadets straight went to the MI Room for an appointment with Mr Damodaran.
He cleaned the wound with savlon solution, applied a gauze over the wound and painted it with a layer of ‘Tincture Benzoin.’ It burned as the tincture was applied, but was a sure cure for all superficial skin wounds. After the superficial wound was cleaned with savlon, a gauze was placed on the wound and Tincture Benzoin was painted over it. It burned as it was applied, but the adhesive nature of the medication ensured that it stuck to the wound and did not need bandaging. On healing, the gauze fell off by itself.
Many cadets suffered from fungal infections of the skin, ringworm, athlete’s foot, scabies, etc – all because we played in the dirt, many a times bare-footed. Gentian Violet, an antiseptic dye was used to treat these cases. The cadet who suffered from the infection stood out as the dye remained on the skin for over a week. It was a sure way to mark out those ‘Unhygienic Cadets.’
There were two magic potions compounded by Mr Damodaran – Soda-Sal (Sodium Salicylate) and Sodium-bicarbonate. Soda-Sal is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory agent for relieving pain and reducing fever. Sodium-bicarbonate was the antacid. Mr Damodaran had them in two labeled bell-shaped jars and was dispensed lavishly to cadets for any ailments.
We had the awful smelling IG Paint (Ichthammol Glycerin), also called black ointment or black drawing salve, a remedy for many skin disorders and inflammation. It is made from sulfonated shale oil and combined with other ingredients, like lanolin or petroleum. For any sprains, this ‘stinking’ paint was lavishly applied.
The most uncomfortable potion was the Mandl’s Paint, used as throat paint for the treatment of pharyngitis, laryngitis, tonsillitis and sore throat. Due to high viscous nature, it retains the drug for longer time on affected part of the throat. The agony was that he inserted into the mouth a cotton swab attached to a foot-long stick to paint the patient’s throat. It left a severe after-taste, but it cured all those medical conditions in a few days – without any antibiotics.
Most of the medicines listed above have been discontinued today due to their harmful side-effects. It was with Mr Damodaran’s loving care that we cadets of the days trained and graduated from the school without any serious medical conditions.
At Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Thamizh Nadu, we had an MI Room (Medical Inspection Room) – the refuge for the tired souls – both physical and mental. The boss out there was Mr KP Damodaran who can well be described as a Nursing Assistant by profession, whom everyone called a Compounder, but always acted as a Doctor.
Forever for any medical condition, worth it or not, he prescribed a combination of APC with sodium-bicarbonate, a pink coloured magic potion, an awful tasting mixture, compounded by our Compounder Mr Damodaran, a Veteran from the Royal Indian Navy who saw action during World War II.
I was admitted for mumps in the isolation ward for 21 days while in grade 7. During one of his daily rounds, Mr Damodaran saw me reading the history book. As he turned the pages, it was about the Viceroys and Governor Generals of British India – Lord Wavell and Mountbatten. Mr Damodaran said “I’ve met both Lord Wavell and Lord Mountbatten during World War II. Lord Wavell’s sketch in this book least resembles his personality.”
What was the magic tablet APC? It was a combination tablet containing aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine. In those days (early 70’s), it was perceived to be a magic drug – a solution for most diseases and medical conditions. It disappeared in 1983 because of harmful side effects of phenacetin.
Sodium-bicarbonate is a mixture of Sodium-bicarbonate with sugar and salt. It was used as an antacid to treat heartburn, indigestion and upset stomach as Sodium-bicarbonate is a very quick-acting antacid.
When we were in grade 11 in 1978, we were the senior-most in school. During a movie show on a Saturday night, a bench we were seated broke and a piece cut through the thigh of Palanivel, our classmate. Everyone else were engrossed in watching the movie, but I saw Palani bleeding and writhing in pain. I helped him walk to the MI Room and there was Mr Damodaran.
Palani was immediately administered a dose of Tetanus Toxoid (TT) and the next step was to suture his six inch long gash. Mr Damodaran switched on the steriliser and after five minutes asked me “put on the gloves and take out the suturing thread and a needle with a tong.” I did as ordered.
Then came a surprise ordeal for me. Mr Damodaran had a failing eyesight and he asked me “Please thread the needle.” Unfortunately for us, Mr Damodaran’s spectacles broke a few days before and to get a new one he had to travel to Udumalpet, the closest town, about 24 km away. That could be feasible only the next day being a Sunday.
His next command was a bigger surprise – “now start stitching.” He instructed each step and I put six sutures through Palani’s skin. Palani must still be carrying the scar on his thigh today.
How could I execute such a mission?
When we were in Grade 2 & 3, we had stitching classes by Annamma Teacher, who also taught us Malayalam. On a piece of cloth we began with hemming, then running stitch, cross stitch and then stitch English Alphabets, a flower and a leaf. It came in handy that day.
Annamma Teacher remains etched in my memory as she was very compassionate to the young kids and was an epitome of dedication. She was always dressed in her spotlessly white ‘Chatta, Mundu and Kavani,‘ the traditional Syrian Christian women’s attire. Chatta is more like a jacket, while the mundu (dhoti), unlike the one worn by a man, is elegance personified, especially at the back, where it is neatly pleated and folded into a fan-like ‘njori‘. Both Chatta and Mundu are pure cotton, Kavani, generally off-white with hand sewn embroidery is made of a thinner material and is draped across the body.
During our younger days, Chatta, Mundu and Kavani was the most common wear for the ladies, especially while attending the Sunday Mass and also during social and religious occasions. Chatta consists of two pieces of cloth cut into T shape and hand stitched prior to the arrival of sewing machines. My grandmother said that they used to cut the cloth into two Ts with a kitchen knife as the scissors were not in vogue then and hand sew them.
Muslim women of Kerala in those days wore a white Mundu called ‘Kachimundu’ with blue and purple borders. The Muslim women’s Mundu do not have the fan-like Njori at the back. The head covering ‘Thattam‘ is better known as ‘Patturumala.’ The torso is covered by a long blouse with full sleeves. This type of dress is known as Kachi and Thattam.
Difficulty in maintaining the white outfit spotlessly white and availability of cheaper, easy to wear and maintain sarees resulted in the saree becoming the common wear for the Syrian Christian ladies. Modern day wedding planners have revived the Chatta, Mundu and Kavani by showcasing it by asking a few relatives of their client to dress up so.
Annamma Teacher’s son, Veteran Colonel OM Kuriakose and her grandson Lieutenant Colonel Anish Kuriakose – both father and son are from The Parachute Regiment of the Indian Army.
When we were in grade 6, it was a norm that on the first Monday of the month a teacher spoke during the assembly and on other days it was the cadets of grade 11, the senior-most then.
That Monday the speaker at the assembly said that the tendency of people to ‘discard’ or disregard their aging parents is unfair. He emphasised that parents were not a pair of shoes that one throws away once worn out, or when one grew out of it. What a comparison to bring a great lesson home to the young cadets!
After the assembly, our first class was biology by Mr CAS Raghavan, better known amongst us cadets as Jigs. There was a brief discussion about the morning speech and he asked as to whether we knew as to who the speaker was. None of us knew his name. Then Mr Jigs declared – It was Mr I Louis Fernando (ILF), the physics teacher.
Mr ILF was an amazing human being, an amazing teacher and an amazing mentor who always motivated me to give my best. He was the one who used to urge me to put my best and was very confident that I would join the National Defence Academy and he was dead right.
A flamboyant Late Mr PT Cherian (PTC) headed our physics department and he was in the forefront of all activities – both academic and extracurricular. Mr Cherian was well known for his skills at basketball and volleyball and every cadet dreamt of imitating his ‘Fosbury Flop’ at the high-jump pit.
There we had Mr PTC on one end and Mr ILF on the other end of the physics department. A soft spoken thorough gentleman Mr ILF, I have never seen him upset or angry ever. The actions of both Mr PTC and Mr ILF were more like the Newton’s third law of equal and opposite reactions. Like the two unlike poles, Mr ILF and Mr PTC were attracted to each other and the physics department achieved many a glory for the school in all spheres.
I cannot forget his house then, the first building opposite the Administrative Block. It was aptly named மலர் (Flower) as Mr ILF had the best garden in the campus, brimming with many varieties of roses.
Mr ILF taught us electronics, his favourite subject in our grade 9, beginning with valves and transistors. Like many in our class, I can proudly say that the foundation for my knowledge of electronics was laid by Mr ILF.
My association with Mr ILF grew mainly during various physics club activities, the public address system management and light & sound arrangements during various cultural activities and plays the cadets and staff staged.
Mr ILF was a great Guru, silent ever, with a smile on his lips and knowledge up his sleeve. All the lessons he taught me – both life as well as academic – will be with me always.
Death cannot take away Mr ILF, he will always remain alive in our hearts. I feel lucky because I was one of his students who got to know him personally. It was such a bliss. I pray he is in the good place now, watching us from the right side of the Creator.
Recently on the social media I received a clip showing as to how an eagle blinks. Eagles as well as certain other birds like vultures, hawks, falcons, robins etc. have three eyelids. The inner or third eyelid is not visible from outside and is the called the ‘nictitating membrane.‘ This thin and translucent membrane is drawn across the eye for protection and to moisten it while maintaining vision. It also functions like a windshield wiper, sweeping across the bird’s eye from side to side. This keeps any particles from being lodged in the sensitive tissue.
On watching the clip about the eagle’s eyelids, I was reminded of my first movie at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Thamizh Nadu in July 1971. It was Mackenna’s Gold, a 1969 Hollywood film directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif. It was photographed in Super Panavision and in Technicolor by Joseph MacDonald. This movie was the last one to be filmed by him and was released in 1969 after MacDonald’s death on December 15, 1968 at the age of 62.
During our school days, a movie was screened every Saturday. The swimming pool doubled up as an open-air movie theatre with the viewers sitting on the stadium steps, and the screen was placed on the opposite side of the swimming pool.
As a nine-year-old watching an English movie while not knowing the English language at all, you can well imagine my plight. There had been much gossip amongst us cadets about the movie, mainly originated by those who had already watched it. The pre-screening hype was very high and I was anticipating a thrilling experience, though I was a bit scared.
After night fell on the open air theatre, the movie commenced with its opening song – Old Turkey Buzzard – as depicted on the video clip above. The song sequence was shot at Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border. The shot of the vulture’s head and its winking eye scared the hell out of me. I got so scared that I closed my eyes with both hands and placed my head between my knees. When I look back now, it is difficult to define the fear of the nine-year-old and nor could I assign an exact reason for it.
Here the skill of the cinematographer needs to be appreciated. Remember the movie was shot in 1968 with the cameras available then. To capture a vulture’s eyelid with such a precision with those cameras would indeed have been a herculean task. No wonder Joseph MacDonald was the most sought after cinematographer with 20th Century Fox and he filmed over 50 movies with them from 1941 to 1959. It is sad that he never won an Oscar Award though he was nominated thrice.
(Illustration by Sherrin Koduvath)
Back to the movie. Now I was looking down into the swimming pool waters and there it was – the reflection of the screen on the water below. To make matters worse, the movie having been shot in Super Panavision (Cinemascope), the screen covered the entire length of the 25-meter pool. Where ever I looked with my face tucked between my knees, I saw the all too scary image of the vulture’s head. That scared me even further and so I closed my eyelids tightly – luckily we humans have only one set of eyelids.
After about five minutes, I managed to fall asleep only to be woken up by my friends after the show ended. What a relief! I later watched the movie in 1980 while on vacation from the National Defence Academy and made for up what I had missed as a nine-year-old. It was only then that I realised the movie was an all time classic.
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. TS Elliot in ‘The Waste Land’
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 ten years old, as a cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Thamizh Nadu) in June 1970. 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, Chozha, Pandya and Pallava- named after the great ancient Thamizh 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, when 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.
As we waited for Colonel Anbu to get free, I asked the Subedar Major something that had intrigued me about the soldiers in Sikh Light Infantry: How does Colonel Anbu, with his quiet and pleasing manners, command the fierce Sikh Light Infantry soldiers so well?
That was when I got a significant military lesson from Subedar Major Swaraj Singh:
“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 – busting another Indian Army myth!
I must relate an interesting story about Brigadier Devraj Anbu when he 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 that 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 sensitize the soldiers about the regressive nature of this tradition, quoting examples from the scriptures, but 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 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 selected soldier, 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, this needs elaboration. 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 SainikSchool) 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, the 79ers, my batchmates from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar had our annual meet 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 be in 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.
When we joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Thamizh 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 Amravathinagar and Sunil Kumar.
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 (Thamizh 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 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 good 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.
(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.
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 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.
Cadets at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar (Thamizh Nadu) were divided into four houses named after four Thamizh Kingdoms – Chera, Chozha, 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 Chozha House dorm.
The most prominent object that would catch my eyes was the wheel of a trolley that lay unmoved in the Chozha 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, Thamizh 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 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 in our homestead 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 airtight 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 settled 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, Thamizh 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 wristwatch. 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!
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 Amaravathi River waters, the vessel in which it was brewed, or the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless. It 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. Some Cadets even claimed that it was made with donkey’s milk.
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 parked there, awaiting all vehicles to fetch up from either side.
During this wait, soldiers manning Sadhna Post served 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 snowstorm 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. 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 . 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 specialty of the Chinese emperors. But I am certain that it will pale into insignificance when compared with the Amravathi Special or the Sadhna Post Amrit!