Running Away From Studies

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.

Regimental Training for a Young Officer

On commissioning I joined 75 Medium Regiment in January 1983.  The Regiment then had an interesting class composition – one battery of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.  Today the Regiment consists of soldiers from all classes from the entire nation.

I was allotted the Brahmin Battery commanded by Late Major Daulat Bhardwaj.   He was a Brahmin and his first advice was “To command Brahmin soldiers, you got to be a Brahmin yourself, beat them in all aspects – physical, mental and spiritual. You got to be mentally alert and morally straight, else they will never respect you. Once you earn their respect and confidence, they will blindly follow you.

You got to be a better Brahmin than your soldiers.  You are a Christian from Kerala and you got to beat the Brahmins in spiritual aspects too.  You attend Mandir Parades with the soldiers every evening; learn by-heart all the aratis, slokas, mantras and hymns; understand their meaning and apply them to your everyday life.”

Within a month, I could sing the arati and recite the slokas fluently and thus became a ‘Brahmin.’  Even though the first of the Ten Commandments the Christians follow say ‘You shall have no other Gods before Me‘, for any officer of the Indian Army, the religion or Gods of the soldiers they command come before their own. While praying to the Hindu Gods during Mandir Parades, in my heart I was praying to my Lord and Saviour Christ.  In fact, now I was praying to a God I did not believe in for the soldiers who believed in me.

The soldiers, especially the ones who manned the guns called Medium Gunners were all well-built and nearly six feet tall.  They were selected keeping in mind that they had to handle the eight-ton 130mm Russian gun, the toughest being bringing the gun into action mode from travelling mode and vice versa.  The shells the guns fired being heavier also dictated this.

Training for the gunners involved bringing the gun into action, laying the gun at the specified bearing and elevation to engage targets far away, loading the shell into the gun and firing. This training on the gun is called Gun Drill in artillery terms.  Among these giant gunners, I stood as a Lilliput.  I had to look up to meet their eyes when I spoke to them. Rather than they are looking up to me, now I was looking up to them.

The first place I lived in the Regiment was the soldiers’ barracks.  My bed was placed next to Havildar Brij Bhushan Mishra’s, who was better known among the soldiers as BB Major. Soldiers address Havildars as Majors, short for Havildar Majors.  He was then the senior most Gun Detachment Commander and was well known for his gunnery training abilities. BB Major spoke in a soft and low voice and the soldiers had to strain their ears to listen to him. He did not believe in talking much, but the soldiers of the Battery respected him, and many were scared of him; all because he knew his job well and he had a reputation of being a tough detachment commander and also, he sported a ferocious looking handlebar moustache. He believed in the doctrine that soldiers and brass – they shine well when rubbed hard and polished well.

I commenced gunnery training as any other recruit soldier on joining the Regiment would do – to be the Number 9 of the detachment. I attended Gun Drill classes with the soldiers under the watchful eyes of BB Major. As days passed by, I was ‘promoted’ until I became the Gun Detachment Commander in two weeks.

I was pretty impressed with my ‘promotions‘ until the day I goofed up while bringing the gun into action. My omission at that time could have jeopardised the safety of the crew, but timely intervention by BB Major saved the day for me.  He ordered “Stand Fast” – meaning everyone to freeze as they were. This command is used when a commander or a trainer feels that safety of the soldiers is at risk. BB Major pulled me out, shook me hard and said “Saheb, you have got to take care of the soldiers under your command. You got to be alert at all times. You cannot risk injury to your soldiers because of your callousness.” Major Daulat Bhardwaj who was witnessing the training called out “BB, तेरे  मूछों  में  दम  है  [therey moochon mein dum hai] (there is strength in your moustache).”

I did not speak a word, for I was shaken up and also feeling guilty of committing a major goof-up. After this incident BB Major and I developed mutual respect. While conducting gunnery training later on, BB Major often quoted the incident to the young soldiers and how well I took it in a positive stride. He also added “If I could do it to the Lieutenant Saheb, you guys better watch out.

Who will Play the Butcher?

In 1997 after the Technical Staff Course of 18 months, I was posted back to my parent unit 75 Medium Regiment. In those days the unit had three batteries, each with different class composition of soldiers. Now it has men from all over India, comprising of all classes. A battery is a sub-unit of an Artillery Regiment consisting of six Guns and about 125 soldiers to operate them along with vehicles, radio sets and other technical equipment.

The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery was of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.

In those days, any Young Officer posted to the Regiment served with each of the batteries for one or two years in order to make them familiarise with the soldiers. I too went through this rotation until I moved out for the Long Gunnery Course for 13 months. On my return from the course in 1990, I was appointed the Battery Commander (BC) of the Brahmin Battery. After two years I moved on posting to a staff appointment and returned after two years, again I was handed over the reins of the Brahmin Battery until I moved out for the Technical Staff Course.

On my return to the Regiment in 1997 after the Technical Staff Course, the unit was located in the high-altitude area (10,000 feet above Sea Level) of Sikkim, where families were not permitted to live with the soldiers or officers. After the customary ‘Dining-in’ in the evening at the Officers’ Mess, our Commanding Officer (CO) Colonel PK Ramachandran spoke welcoming me back into the fold and ordered me to be the BC of the Brahmin Battery. “Oh! Not again” was my instant reply and the CO was a bit puzzled.  He later spoke to me in person and I requested that I need a change and I wanted to have the experience of commanding another battery. The CO had his own logical reasoning for his decision and I did accept the same without any remorse as I too got convinced. Col Ramachandran had earlier served throughout his army career with a Regiment which had only Brahmin soldiers and I realised the he exactly knew the ‘horse for the course.’

The first week I spent at the Regimental Headquarters, carrying out the acclimatisation drills laid down for any soldier on arrival in high-altitude area. Our Battery was located about three km from the Regimental Headquarters. I luckily had two energetic and hardworking officers – Captain Samya Saurav, the Second-in-Command and Lieutenant Manish Wahi, the Gun Position Officer – both are presently Colonels, who effectively commanded their units. I delegated all my duties to the two and they did an excellent job that I hardly ever visited the battery.  Our CO wanted me to stay with the Regimental Headquarters to assist him, hence I had to delegate most duties to my junior officers.

After the week long acclimatisation, I decided to pay a visit to the Battery in the morning. When I reached the kitchen area, I found six sheep grazing there. In high-altitude area live sheep are supplied as rations in place of dressed meat. These sheep are called ‘Meat on Hoof (MOH)’ but are mostly ‘Meat on Knees‘ as the sheep are nearly dead after traversing through the difficult mountain roads from the plains.   The soldiers usually feed them well for a week to bring them back to life before they are slaughtered.

On inquiry I realised the problem of the sheep – the Brahmins did not want to slaughter the animals, but like good soldiers, wanted to partake the meat. I ordered the Havildar Major (Sergeant Major) Kanti Prasad to assemble the entire battery at 12 Noon in front of the kitchen and the BC will slaughter the animal in their presence. After that I went back to my room in the Regimental Headquarters.

In my youth, our household had fowls and animals and whenever I went on vacation, my brothers entrusted me the task of slaughtering. I think I did a good job of it as Amma, a stickler regarding the way the meat is cut, was pretty happy about my job. That was why I was sure that I will do a smart job of slaughtering the animal – if my mother could not find anything wrong – I was damn sure no one on earth could.

By 11 AM, our Havildar Major knocked at my door and reported that the sheep was stewing in the pressure cooker and I need not return to the battery at 12 Noon.