On our very first day at the National Defence Academy, Captain Sajjan Singh Batti, our Divisional Officer addressed us on 12 January 1979. One sentence of that address still hangs in my mind – “All those from the Military/ Sainik Schools, don’t presume that you are ‘Smart Alecs’ and know all the tricks of the trade.”
That was the first time I heard the phrase ‘Smart Alec.’ From the context I made out its meaning to be a person trying to outsmart the system and get away with it.
Recently I researched into the etymology of Smart Alec.
Oxford English Dictionary defines a Smart Alec as ‘a person who behaves as if they know everything and likes to show people this in an annoying way.’
If Oxford defines so, what does Cambridge define it as – ‘someone who tries to appear smart or who answers questions in a funny way that annoys other people.’
Mariam Webster Dictionary In my view gives a better definition ‘obnoxiously conceited and self-assertive person with pretensions to smartness or cleverness.’
One must have come across many Smart Alecs and one must have turned into a Smart Alec in some situation. Generally Smart Alecs are known to be boastful, appear very friendly, giving out ‘expert advice’ on anything and everything under the sun. When the Smart Alec becomes a quite person, scheming his plans, keeping his cards close to his chest, he becomes dangerous.
Did you know that Smart Alec was a real man – a New York pimp named Alexander Hoag, who operated in connivance with his prostitute wife Melinda? The same is chronicled in ‘Studies in Slang’ by Missouri University professor Gerald Cohen.
In the 1840s, Alexander Hoag with his wife Melinda devised a ploy to hustle men Melinda enticed and brought to her apartment. Melinda made her victim remove and hang his clothes. Alexander who hid behind a secret panel entered the room and disappeared with all the valuables in the victim’s dress pockets.
After some time, Alexander banged on the door, and Melinda made her customer believe that her husband had returned early from some trip and was at the door. The victim grabbed his clothes and bolted out of the room through the window.
When her customers complained to the New York Police, Alexander bought out two corrupt police officers with an agreement to split the booty. The police soon discovered Alexander was cheating them out of their share by this new tactic and arrested Alexander and Melinda.
Investigators of New York Police were dumbfounded by the smartness of Alexander’s operations that they started referring to him as Smart Alec. Then it became a police slang for a criminal who was too smart for his own good, or whose cockiness led to his arrest. Its first known printed use was in an 1862 Nevada newspaper article, used the term to refer to a ‘know-it-all’ convict.
The term ‘Smart Alec’ got prominence in the early 20th century but became part of everyday speech as a slang only around 1950. A porn film Smart Aleck was released in 1951, justifying the slang’s origin to a pimp and a prostitute.
We were issued with a ‘Housewife’ on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979. Why a housewife to a 16-year-old cadet? That too an item which was neither male nor female, and wasn’t even a living being.
It was a simple Khaki pouch containing needles, thread, thimble, buttons, and a pair of scissors, meant for sewing on buttons, darning socks, and mending uniforms. It was called the ‘hussif’ by the officers at the Academy and housewife by many Cadets and the soldiers who were the Havildar Quartermasters at the Squadron.
Housewife morphed into “Hussif” and first appeared in print in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1749 suggesting that it had already been in common use. The term appears to have possibly originated as a dialect of the shire of Lancaster, England. However, the term is now banned in modern armies which acknowledges that the gender specific term is not only outdated but also offensive to women.
By the mid 19th century these rolled-up sewing kits became standard army issue. Before the invention of safety pins for a quick fix, sewing needles were used to remove splinters and, at times, even sew up the soldier’s wounds! When I joined the Sainik School at the age of nine we had to carry a small plastic box with contents like the hussif.
I hardly ever used my hussif at the Academy during my three years other than for sewing some lost buttons. Behold! It had to be carefully maintained as it had to be produced during kit muster held at the beginning of each semester at the Academy. The hussif was part of the small pack we carried in the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO.)
The name hussif comes from a time when it was common for mothers, wives and fiancés in the 18th and 19th centuries to personalise these kits with embroidery for their menfolk to take to war. It was often packed in the holdall and stowed within the man’s haversack. Few hussifs of those days were covered with flowers or other feminine motifs and colours if the hussif was a gift from a needlewoman in their life.
The humble hussif played an important role in both the World Wars. Embroidery was widely used as a form of therapy for wounded soldiers, especially those recovering at the hospitals. The bright environment of the hospital was the perfect place for them to engage in embroidery as an activity, which helped in their rehabilitation. The imagery and stories they stitched were often reflective of pride in their regiment, the battlefields they had fought in, or messages of love to a distant sweetheart.
Armies and Navies, from Britain to Australia to North America, issued hussifs as part of the standard kit to their serving troops, at least up to the Korean War era. The British Army continued to do so, well into the 1960s and the Indian Army until the early 80s.
Another remarkable object that is etched in my memory is the Button Stick. These were used by the civilian bearers or orderlies to polish all the brass buttons, shoulder titles etc of our various Academy uniforms, though I never saw them later in my Army career.
These button sticks were used by soldiers to polish the buttons on their uniform without spilling any of the polish on the fabric. During WWI, when soldiers were out of the trenches, they often had to ensure that the buttons of their uniform were polished using Brasso. While tedious and time-consuming, soldiers used this brass button polishing guard to avoid staining the fabric with excess polish which left a nasty brown stain on the Khaki or Olive Green uniforms.
It could well be that the button sticks used by the orderlies of the NDA may date back to the World War days!
Why did the armies over the world have done away with the hussif? Repairing or darning the uniform, stitching a lost button… are still needs of the day!
We were about 30 of us who landed at Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu from Kerala in July 1971, armed with little communication skill in our mother tongue Malayalam. English, Hindi and Tamil 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 Tamil or Hindi as our second and third languages.
Tamil as a second language was out of question as it required us to cram the Thirukkurals onward. Tamil 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.
Tamil was our third language, taught to us by Mr MV Somasundaram and Mr K Ekambaram. We commenced with grade 1 Tamil textbook in grade 5. The only saving grace was that they put an end to our agony in grade 8 with a grade 4 Tamil 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 Tamil?
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 Tamil 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.
Upon completion of the Artillery Young Officers Course we, the Second Lieutenants, were appointed as the Gun Position Officers (GPO) in our Regiments. The GPO is the commander of the gun group and is responsible for the reconnaissance and deployment of the six guns of the battery in a gun position. With the help of his Technical Assistants at the Command Post, he is responsible for calculating and passing the technical parameters of bearing and elevation for the guns to engage targets miles away.
Deployment of a battery of six guns to engage targets in depth commences by reconnaissance (recce) of the allotted Gun Area. The map coordinates of the Gun Area is passed to the GPO with any restrictions on movement or administration.
On reaching the allotted Gun Area, the GPO recces the area on his vehicle to find a place suitable to deploy his six guns. When the GPO finds a suitable area, he alights from his vehicle to carry out detailed recce on foot to mark the placement of each of the six guns and the Command Post.
The moment the GPO alights from his vehicle, the driver drives the vehicle to an area which offers maximum cover, to avoid detection from air. The LMG detachment – a Gunner and his assistant – appear in front of the GPO and the GPO deploys the LMG for protection of the Recce Party – both from air and ground attack.
The LMG detachment travels in the Battery Havildar (Sergeant) Major’s (BHM) vehicle. BHM is an appointment given to one of the senior Havildars of the Battery. He is responsible for all aspects of duty and discipline of the NCOs and soldiers in that Battery. During the deployment of the Battery, he assists the GPO.
The LMG Gunner is generally the ‘Detail Master’ of the Battery. He is the understudy to the BHM and is the soldier with good handwriting and skill at mental maths. He provides all secretarial help to the BHM and his most important task is to prepare the Parade State of the Battery the evening before, to be handed over to the Regimental Havildar Major, who compiles the Regimental Parade State after receiving the same from all Batteries.
The assistant LMG Gunner is a tradesman – the Tailor or the Janitor – who generally does not have any specific combat duties.
After the deployment of the LMG detachment, the GPO carries out his recce, decides on the platforms for his six guns and the Command Post and gives out orders to his party. The Gunners now prepare their gun platforms and the Technical Assistants prepare the technical parameters. During all these actions, everyone is expected to run and walking or slouching is a taboo, until the guns arrive and deploy.
After the guns are deployed and when the GPO confirms that the guns are correctly positioned and all technical parameters are correctly set on the guns, he gives a ‘Ready Report’ indicating that his guns are ready to engage targets.
Immediately on giving the Ready Report, there appeared Gunner Mathukutty, our LMG Gunner, with a steaming cup of tea. That tea was the one I earned by my sweat. By the end of the deployment, with all the running around – especially in the Rajasthan deserts – I was drenched in sweat. The tea tasted too good to describe and it always enthused me and removed any tiredness.
During our training exercises, we had many such deployments, at times about eight in a day. Every time the Ready Report was given, Gunner Mathukutty served me the very same tasty cup of tea. I wanted to know as to how Gunner Mathukutty prepared the tea, when he was the LMG Gunner.
During one of the deployments, I kept a close watch on Gunner Mathukutty. He jumped out of the BHM’s vehicle with the LMG, followed by his assistant who had the stove and kettle. After I showed him the position of the LMG, they deployed the LMG there. While I recced the gun platforms, they both recced for a covered position to prepare the magical tea.
After a fortnight of training, we had our final exercise which in artillery parlance is called the ‘Practise Camp.’ This exercise involves many tactical deployments of the battery culminating into a final deployment in the firing ranges. After the final deployment is live firing to engage target as per the tactical settings.
On the final day of our exercise, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of our Division visited us in our Gun Area. I briefed him in detail about the deployment and the tactical scenario. He appeared satisfied by my briefing, but wasn’t all too happy about my LMG. True Infantry General that he was, he said “Your LMG is not deployed correctly. It needs to move 20 meter to the left.”
Captain Raj Mehta, our Tactics Instructor at the National Defence Academy (now a Veteran Major General) had taught us all the nuances of section tactics, especially the deployment of LMG. He had drilled it in us to such details that all of us will deploy the LMG at its apt position even in our sleep.
‘I deployed it in less than ten seconds,’ I thought. It could well be that the General did not realise that the LMG was deployed for both air and ground attack. I still do not know as to how Gunner Mathukutty could have identified any aircraft flying overhead to be hostile. In case he sighted any aircraft in our vicinity, friend or foe, he might have ended up emptying the entire magazine of his LMG by firing at the aircraft.
India’s Supreme Court on August 18, 2021, allowed women candidates to appear for NDA entrance exam scheduled on September 5, saying debarring them amounted to gender discrimination.
There has been a raging debate over the judgement among the Veterans community, with many voicing against the court ruling. Some passed some scathing attacks on women while some came out with interesting memes and jokes.
Some questioned the physical abilities of Lady Cadets. One theorised that the larger number of cases of stress fractures among Lady Cadets in comparison to their male counterparts was attributed to the difference in bone structure of women that the female hips are not meant to take the same stress as males because they have widened pelvis to enable child bearing.
With all these inputs, I decided to study the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC), the military college of the Canadian Armed Forces and, since 1959, a degree-granting university training military officers. Like the NDA, the RMC mission is to educate, train and develop Officer Cadets for leadership careers of effective service in the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army.
RMC opened its doors for the Lady Cadets in 1980. The program introducing female cadets has worked well, mainly because the move was carefully planned, integrating both men and women. Lady Cadets are required to maintain the same exacting standards as Gentleman Cadets. They run the same obstacle course – a mandatory ordeal for which first-year recruits earn the right to wear the RMC uniform. They also compete in mixed inter-squadron sports.
2.4km Run – The Aerobic Component. This portion consists of running 3 laps of an 800m course in the fastest time possible.
Push-ups – The Upper Body Muscle Endurance Component. During the test the candidates are required to perform their maximum push-up repetitions. There is no time limit and the push-up execution must comply with the Canadian Armed Forces push-up protocol
Agility Run – The Speed Component. This test consists of sprinting 6 x 9 m by weaving around four obstacles (chairs) without touching any of them. Two trials are permitted and the best result is compiled.
Sit-ups – The Mid-core Muscle Endurance Component. This test consists of a two minute evaluation during which the candidates must perform their maximum repetitions of sit-ups according to Canadian Forces protocol.
Standing Long Jump – The Leg Power Component. The candidates are required to jump from both feet without hopping. Two trials are permitted and the best result is compiled.
RMC Physical Performance Test (RMC PPT.) As part of the program, the students are being physically assessed two times a year. The completed evaluation is being scored out of 500 points where each item is worth a maximum of 100 points. A minimum of 250 points is required to successfully complete the RMC PPT. Five physical fitness components are evaluated through different testing items: the 2.4km Run, push-ups, agility run, sit-ups and a standing long jump.
Standing Long Jump
Fitness for Operational Requirements of CAF Employment (FORCE) Evaluation
The FORCE Evaluation is a reflection of the CAF minimal physical employment standard related to common defence and security duties known as the Universality of Service principle, which stipulates that “CAF members are liable to perform general military duties and common defence and security duties, not just the duties of their military occupation or occupational specification.
FORCE was developed by experts who looked at more than 400 tasks performed by CAF personnel in all environments over the past 20 years. Using the data collected from CAF personnel, subject matter experts, laboratory and field measurements, the research team developed a revised fitness component of the minimum operational standard required based on the following six common tasks:
Escape to cover.
Pickets and wire carry.
Picking and digging.
Some trades within the CAF require higher levels of fitness or operational readiness, but the minimum standards for the FORCE Evaluation are meant to reflect the baseline CAF physical employment standard that everyone must meet.
The FORCE Evaluation is designed to capture the movement patterns, energy systems, and muscle groups recruited in the performance of the Common Military Task Fitness Evaluation (CMTFE).
The FORCE evaluation comprises of three sections, which are as follows:
A health appraisal questionnaire where the candidates complete a health appraisal evaluation and the evaluator records vitals (heart rate and blood pressure).
An operational fitness evaluation. Four job related simulations are evaluated during the FORCE evaluation.
An exercise prescription where the evaluator provides the candidates with a program detailing the activity frequency, duration, intensity and rate of progression.
The FORCE Evaluation consists of four test components, each designed to measure different physical capabilities:
Sandbag Lift: 30 consecutive lifts of a 20 kg sandbag above a height of 91.5 cm, alternating between left and right sandbags separated by 1.25 m. Standard: 3 min 30 sec Intermittent
Loaded Shuttles: Using the 20 m lines, complete ten shuttles (1 shuttle = 20 m there, 20 m back), alternating between a loaded shuttle with a 20 kg sandbag and an unloaded shuttle, for a total of 400 m. Standard: 5 min 21 sec 20-metre
Rushes: Starting from prone, complete two shuttle sprints (1 shuttle = 20 m there, 20 m back) dropping to a prone position every 10m, for a total of 80 m. Standard: 51 sec
Sandbag Drag: Carry one 20 kg sandbag and pull four on the floor over 20 m without stopping. Standard: Complete without stopping
If a member has not met the minimum fitness standards, a re-test can be attempted three months later.
Isn’t it high time the Indian Armed Forces take a re-look at the Physical Standards requirements for its cadets and recruits, considering women making their entry at all levels?
It may be pertinent for those in power and the Veterans to read “The Stone Frigate: The Royal Military College’s First Female Cadet Speaks Out” by Kate Armstrong, one of 32 women to first enter RMC in 1980 and graduate four years later. Her memoir captures the dominating, misogynistic world of one of Ontario’s most patriarchal institutions and her experience challenging it.
On the eve of retirement of my dear friend, Ravi Prasad, hanging up his boots after nearly four decades of military service and five decades of being in uniform, I sat down to reminisce about our association. We met for the first time in 1979 at the National Defence Academy (NDA) – E Squadron/ 61 Course – and have had a similar journey until I called it quits in 2004. We did many courses and were posted together at many stations with the last one at the Military Intelligence Directorate, Army Headquarters in 2000.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, retirement is defined as a recoil, pullback, pullout, retreat, withdrawal, disengagement – more of Artillery terms. Related words include flinch, recession, revulsion, disentanglement, shrinking, etc. Retirement has also been defined as seclusion from the world; privacy; the act of going away or retreating. If that’s retirement, Ravi you are not going anywhere. Retirement is the time when everybody calls you for crap you don’t want to do because they think you have more time.
Now you are a Veteran and a Veteran is someone who, at one point in their life, wrote a blank check made payable to The Bharat Mata, for an amount of up to and including your life. A soldier like you cannot be separated from or surgically removed from the uniform, which you got into at the age of nine in 1971 at Sainik School, Korukonda, Andhra Pradesh. Your blood runs Olive Green. The uniform has been more akin to Karna’s Kavach – his body armour – which made him near-immortal.
Dear Friend! After all these years of hard work and loyalty to the nation, you have earned this much awaited retirement. You have been a phenomenal friend to me who was always out there to help and hold my hands in difficult situations. During my service days, I wanted to be like you – honest, cool, calm, unruffled, smart, handsome, intelligent and more importantly, a great human being. As parents Marina and I were so proud of the way you and Lalitha parented Tejaswi that we took a few leaves out of your book when it came to parenting our children – Nidhi and Nikhil.
At the end of the day what counts most are reputation and the ability to look in the mirror and know you made decisions based on mission and taking care of your soldiers and their families. You served the nation with loyalty, to the best of your ability, and made the Regiment of Artillery proud, capable, resilient, battle-hardened, well led for which we all are proud of. Your discipline, hard work and love for humanity have earned you all the respect. Now is the time to take the time off and enjoy life.
This is the time for you to revel in all your achievements and take stock of all those humans who helped you to swim through at different stages of life – Parents, Siblings, Teachers, Friends, Colleagues and so on. Reflect on them and you will have volumes to write about. Please do it so that your children, grandchildren and others of the coming generations will have something to feel proud of and also motivate them to achieve higher glory.
As a soldier you never had a holiday in life; but retirement makes every day a holiday. Plan to make your holiday fun loving and entertaining. One suggested way is a visit to Canada. We extent a standing invitation to you to visit Canada. This is a fabulous place for a second honeymoon.
Retirement is not a work status, it’s an attitude. You don’t need to follow orders, discipline, restrictions, etc of the military life. The retirement life is meant for careless living with only fun. Retiring is not a sad ending. It’s a chance to let loose and totally unwind.
You may presume that you are your own boss, but wait! You now left your old boss and start a life with your new boss, your wife. You are now a ‘Go Getter’ – Lalitha will now order you to go get something and like an obedient husband, you will go and get it for her – which was your last priority in your military life.
At the railway stations, there are Retiring Rooms and at night we Retire to bed. In life there is neither any Retiring Rooms nor you Retire. It is never retiring but it’s all about retrying. Retry all those hobbies/ interests you tried before, but gave up due to exigencies of military service. It’s also time to reinvent yourself and pursue new hobbies/ interests, which you never dreamt of.
Veteran Lieutenant General Pankaj Srivastava, who was Ravi’s predecessor as Director General of Artillery says:- ‘Ravi signifies purity, sincerity and dedication. He is a gem in the crown of the Regiment of Artillery. I wish him good luck and success.’
Veteran Air Commodore Joseph Paul has this to say about his Army buddy at E Squadron at the NDA – ‘Ravi as a Cadet, was a gentleman among gentlemen. He did make a vain effort to strike terror among his juniors, but later gave it up as a bad joke. The juniors were fascinated by his accent, which distracted them from the threat of retribution he wished to convey. In particular, was his inability to pronounce the ‘ch’ as in chew, which exited his mouth as ‘soo’. Caused a lot of hilarity among the juniors, till someone more qualified in linguistics came along and made them measure the corridors in units of front rolls!!‘
Veteran Colonel Abhay Mall recalls: ‘Having known Ravi since Academy days and commissioning into Regiment of Artillery; and subsequent fortune of being together on numerous occasions while on postings and training courses; where we shared great bonding and I take pride in being associated with him. Ravi is a very sincere, hardworking with perceptive mind and focused individual. He has been a gifted and result oriented leader, highly competent and well accomplished person; rising to the highest position to head the Regiment of Artillery. Our heartiest congratulations to Ravi on having achieved huge laurels during his distinguished career; and best wishes for the second innings.‘
Lieutenant General VS Sreenivas, PVSM, VSM** writes:- ‘Ravi, my dear friend and I joined Sainik School Korukonda in 1971 – with our roll numbers 1062 and 1063. We joined the same NDA course- 61 NDA and then 71 IMA. Thereafter we grew together in the Service through promotions, courses, school get-togethers, mutual visits and tenures together in Army Headquarters.
I have admired Ravi for his sincerity, simplicity, competence and being a good human being. He contributed immensely for the organisation, quietly, without any self projection. It is a matter of great pride that an alumnus of our School became the Director General of Artillery.
Lalita, a gracious lady, complements Ravi in every way. They are experts in the typical Andhra meals- complete with banana leaves, varieties of rice, sambars, pickles, papads etc – beating the famed 26 item Onam spread any day! We wish Ravi and Lalita the very best in their retired life. I will also be retiring next yr in Jun and we shall be neighbours in Patel’s Signet.’
Veteran Colonel Punna Rao Vesangi, Ravi’s batch-mate from Sainik School Korukonda reminisces:-‘Ravi exhibited leadership qualities from school days and his appointment as House Captain is a testimony to that. One aspect which helped him remain cool and composed was his disciplined life and love for literature and the poems he penned during those blossoming days at School.’
Veteran Vice Admiral MS Pawar proudly remembers:- “Ravi, my friend of 50 years, what an innings you have played! With passion, fairness, humility and leadership par excellence; all along displaying a fine confluence of head and heart. A spirited Saikorian Classmate you made us all proud by your reputation as a top notch professional reaching the highest echelons as the DG Artillery. You headed the Arm with aplomb during a very crucial period.
Lalita, the ever cheerful and gracious lady in your life has been a role model herself; the wind beneath your wings enabling you to fly high. Thank you both for the friendship and your company which we were privileged to enjoy.
Meena and the children join me to wish you and the family continued fair winds and following seas as you now prepare to embark on yet another voyage together. Remember, we are a safe Anchorage should you need one along the passage.’
Veteran Colonel Durga Prasad pens:– ‘Ravi, We are honoured to convey our greetings on the eve of your retirement from service on 31 July. We are associated for the past five decades as Classmates since July 1971. You have held the coveted position of Director General Artillery since 06 March 2019 and inspired all ranks by your professional commitment and exemplary conduct. We will always remember your support to Brig Sravan Kumar in organising our Class get together at Nasik in August 2013. We adore you and Lalitha for the positive and helpful nature. Our best wishes to Tejaswi and Pushyami. Wish you good health, active long life and a pleasant stay at Secunderabad.‘
Veteran Commander TLP Babu says:– ‘Ravi and I go back a long way, to our School. But we became fast friends only during the latter years. We bonded over our love for music, movies and literature. He is a thoughtful, compassionate and diligent soul. Although we were in adjacent squadrons at the Academy, the busy itinerary ensured minimal interaction. We bonded again through long letters after we left NDA for quite some time, but the Army postings and the Navy sailings meant we drifted apart slowly. Pre social media days spelt minimal interaction and it was after nearly twenty five years that we met again, at our School social. I found that he’s remained the same down to earth self who wore his rank lightly. He organised our most memorable getaway to the northeast when stationed at Tejpur. We’ve been generally in touch since and it was heartwarming to see him scale the pinnacle of his career. Good guys do finish last! Look forward to seeing more of him at the city of Nizams and looking back on the years gone by!!’
Veteran Major General ML Mohan Babu writes:- ‘Ravi, the name I always loved, happened to be one of my best friends, I made for ever. First met Ravi in Feb 1971 at Eluru when we were appearing for the entrance examination to join Sainik School Korukonda. My parents fondly know him as the boy from Kamavarapukota. Spent the next eight years in the same House. He was extraordinarily talented and was the most wanted when we had to face our Telugu examination. He was our savior because, with just a day’s guidance we could clear the Telugu exam easily. I caught up with Ravi again, while preparing for the Staff College entrance examination at Devlali in 1994. Yet again, we were together in Delhi in 1998 & 99, before he joined to fight the Kargil War. Undeterred of the war conditions he exemplified the role of Battery commander and Second in Command of the Regiment, which he never served before. Once again joined Ravi for the Higher Command Course and interestingly, together for the Foreign Countries Tour and North East Area Tour also.
He served in nearly six Regiments and yet rose to the highest rank an Artillery Officer could. No small feat. It’s the outcome of his four decades of dedicated efforts. It’s indeed rare to find an Officer and Gentleman of his nature and clean character. Proud to be associated with Ravi during the last fifty years and I consider it as a God’s grace to give me a friend as Ravi. His support all through the School days and till recently at Delhi when Sunita went through a major surgery (Hip Joint Replacement) is immense and invaluable. I’m indeed indebted to him and can’t be paid back in this lifetime… Thankful to God Almighty for giving me such a friend… Many thanks to the beautiful Lady, Lalita Garu who stood with him in every measure and made our friendship only stronger and better. Her hospitality was unmatched and hence made us regular visitor to their home.‘
Veteran Major General BV Rao touching base with Ravi:- ‘On the occasion of your retirement on 31 Jul, we congratulate you for the noteworthy and dedicated service to our great Army and the Nation. You have been a notable influence on all those who knew you with your simplicity, calmness, dedication, logical decision making and above all likeablity. Coming up from a humble background,being a quiet achiever, holding the highest possible post of DG Arty in a challenging environment speaks volumes of your sterling qualities. Of course we will always cherish your boisterous laughter, being a fantastic host, and delicious authentic Andhra meals so fondly served by Lalitha Garu. Our congratulations to Lalitha Garu for being a pillar of support and being through the thick and thin of your challenges. Here is wishing you an equally joyful second innings to do what you like. Once again Sujatha and I wish you and your family a Happy, Healthy retired life.’
Veteran Brigadier YS Kumar fondly recollects:– ‘Ravi, my fellow traveller of 50 years (of course, he was leading the way!!!) says Goodbye to the Olive Greens, but in all probability continue to be one at heart for a lifetime. Looking back; the apt summary of his journey of life could be what Quintus Curtius Rufus , a Roman historian said; “ The deepest rivers flow with least sound”. A quiet Doer, with no frills and of course NO bombast.
We had journeyed quite often together in service together in the same formation. A Leader’s mettle is tested in adverse situations; and he was the calming effect when things had not gone as planned with guidance/ suggestions on what to do in minute details and leading right in the front. Empathy, dedication, and service before self was what he practiced. One who truly practiced Nischkama Seva (Selfless Service.) Lalita Garu, his Lady Love was a true Companion whose hospitality, taste and eye for detail we all appreciated and looked forward to. A fantastic host; savoured traditional south Indian food lovingly served personally by the couple on Banana leaves.
Most of our kids had one serious complaint with uncle and aunt – as all parents took Tejasvi to be the reference point for excellence in behaviour, obedience, academics as also extra curricular activities to be followed to no avail!!! Of course, in due time forging the best of relations with the next generation too. We wish Ravi-Lalita a great second innings and I have no doubt they will have a larger canvas to touch more people while pursuing things dear to them : Happiness – Joy, enjoying simple things, friendship and being a good Samaritan.’
Veteran Commodore SVR Murthy, Ravi’s classmate recalls:– ‘Ravi is very sincere from the heart ,down to earth and very caring in nature. He always led a disciplined life and did very well in school and passed out as a House Captain. He was admired by his juniors and peers too for his admirable qualities. The very fact he rose to be a three star officer and retire as the DG Artillery of a 1.3 million strong Indian Army bears testimony to his service record and professionalism. Knowing Ravi, he rose because of his sterling qualities and nothing else. Lalita remains a pillar of strength for Ravi as also both his mother and mother in law who usually stay with him out of affection for Ravi. Lalita complements Ravi in being as “cool as a cucumber” with her calm and affectionate nature and broad smile. Archana joins me in wishing both Ravi and Lalita the very best as Ravi hangs up his uniform and swallows the anchor.’
‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’ : — Winston Churchill.
Water is one of the most important elements of a soldier’s life – it is vital for all human beings, animals and plants. Our body is made up of almost two-thirds water. Blood contains 92 percent water; the brain is 75 percent water; muscles are 75 percent water; and bones 22 percent.
Hydration, or consuming enough water is crucial for humans: to regulate body temperature, keep joints lubricated, prevent infections, deliver nutrients to cells, and keep organs functioning properly. Being well-hydrated improves sleep quality, cognition, and mood.
Soldiers used to carry water for personal consumption in a water-bottle, attached to the belt. Today’s soldier needs a hydration system that is effective, allows freedom of action, and is easier to carry and use than the current water-bottles. An ideal hydration system will encourage the soldier to drink more water, resulting in better performance in battle and facilitate in delivering personal combat power- surely not an obstruction.
My tryst with the water-bottle began on joining the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1979. We were issued with the Field Service Marching Order (FSMO) with the all important water-bottle. In the Scale A version of FSMO with the bigger backpack, the smaller haversack was attached to the belt on the left and the water-bottle on the right. Most soldiers were right-handers and for easy access the water-bottle was placed on the right. In the Scale B version where the small haversack became the backpack, the water-bottle was attached to the back of the belt.
Scale B was used for most training as a cadet – for endurance runs, weapon and tactical training, etc – and the water-bottle hanging by the belt at the back kept pounding one’s butt as we cadets ran. It was more of an encouraging tap on the butt that kept many of us going and the wet felt outer casing did cool our butts in the warm Indian afternoons.
This water-bottle, officially known in the Indian Army as Bottle Water Mark 7, owed its origin to the British Army’s 1937 Web Equipment. Made of blue colored sheet metal welded at the shoulder and at the bottom with outer side convex and the inner side concave to fit with the contours of the human body. The spout was closed with a cork stopper and the stopper was attached to an eye on the top of the bottle with a string. The outer felt cover protected the metallic bottle and when kept soaked, evaporative cooling kept the water inside cool. These enamelled water-bottles were manufactured in India mostly by the Bengal Enamel Works of Kolkata and also by the Madras Enamel Works of Chennai.
The British Army originally called the water-bottle a Canteen. A canteen is a place outside a military camp where refreshments are provided for members of the armed forces. This very ‘place of refreshment’ became the water-bottle that the soldier carried on a march. This canteen’s design and use have remained the same since 1937. It appears that the technological revolution marched right past one of the Indian soldier’s most vital personal equipment – the water-bottle.
After we were commissioned in 1982, the Indian Army introduced the plastic cousin of the age old enamelled water-bottle, officially known as Bottle Water Complete M83. This water-bottle continued with us as late as 2002. While in command of the Regiment in operational area in Rajasthan when the Indian army was deployed along the Indo-Pak border in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, we ordered for the water-bottles, but the Ordnance Depot did not supply us with any.
The new plastic water-bottle consisted of a green, plastic, square shaped bottle with a screw-on cap. It had a plastic cover on top with handles made of aluminium, and could be used as a cup when detached. The whole set was inserted into a canvas carrier lined with a thin layer of foam. This helped to keep the contents of the bottle warm in winter and cold in summer . Though the water-bottle had straps to be attached to the belt, most soldiers carried it in their backpacks,
These plastic water-bottles were manufactured by some unheard-of private plastic manufacturers, located in and around Delhi. Though it was supposed to be made of food-grade High Density Poly Ethylene (HDPE), the water stored inside these water-bottles had unpleasant odour and left an after-taste. Cracks developed as a result of any accidental drop or extra-pressure exerted by the soldier on the water-bottle, especially while resting after a tiring long march. That was why our soldiers carried their water-bottles in their backpacks. By 2003, the Indian Army withdrew this plastic water-bottle.
The soldier of the future will have a heads-up display on his helmet, a sophisticated weapon and a computer wired to his pack frame. The soldiers operating in such an environment will have little time for a nap or to get a drink of water. A quickly accessible hydration system close to the soldier’s mouth will help the soldier take small sips on a regular basis.
The CamelBak hydration system is a plastic water bladder connected to a length of hose that fits into an insulated bag that can be strapped on the soldier’s back or attached to a backpack. The mouth of the hose is positioned close to the carrier’s mouth for easy access. The ‘bite’ valve at the end of the hose makes the water readily available to sip or drink.
The Indian Army could develop its own hydration system that would be less expensive than a CamelBak system. A change to the current water storage and delivery system is long overdue. A potable, palatable, easily available hydration system that allow soldiers to move easily and quickly on the battlefield and encourage water consumption would be an important force multiplier. Importantly, soldiers under fire on the battlefield should be able to get a sip of water without taking their hands off their weapons.
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 (Tamil 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, Chola, Pandya and Pallava- named after the great ancient Tamil Kingdoms, which somehow paled into insignificance in the History of India as devised by the British. It may be a coincidence that the present Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM from our batch too was the Chera House Captain in 1978.
His smiling, soft spoken demeanour concealed a firm, no nonsense attitude – no wonder he was appointed the Cadet Sergeant Major (CSM) at the NDA as well as at the Indian Military Academy (IMA). He was awarded BLUE in Athletics and Physical Training and Merit Card in Basketball – an envious record for any NDA Cadet. As a young officer he continued to excel in sports and competed with the soldiers at the highest level.
General Anbu was commissioned into 14 Sikh Light Infantry in June 1980. He served in all operational environments – Siachen Glacier; Counter-Insurgency Operations in Kashmir and Manipur; Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, United Nations Peace Keeping in Namibia, etc. He was awarded the Sena Medal for a very daring operation, showing exemplary leadership and gallantry during operations in the Siachen Glacier.
During my visit to Hyderabad in 2001, he organised an impromptu get-together of all our school mates that evening. There I met Mrs Gowry Anbu – a down-to-earth and compassionate lady who mirrors the very same qualities of her husband.
He was in command of his battalion during operational deployment in Rajasthan deserts and that is where I met him in 2002, 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.
Few years ago an Indian Army Officer undergoing a course at Canadian Forces College, Toronto came over for dinner. During our conversation he said that one evening he walked into the sauna in the gym to find the Commandant, a General, sitting nude, enquiring his welfare. He said that he felt a bit embarrassed to face a nude General. I asked “That means you are surely not an ex-NDA (National Defence Academy)?” And I was dead right.
Bathrooms at the NDA are all open ones with neither any cubicles nor any shower curtains. There are only shower heads, all in a row. It is mandatory for all cadets to shower before breakfast and in the evening after games. As time is always at a premium for any military cadet, the ritual had to be as short as possible, with many waiting in queue – hence an elaborate bath was near impossible. The highlight of the bath was not its brevity, but by tradition implicitly enforced by the seniors, the cadets are not allowed to wear any clothing – it’s all nude and pretty natural. `
I cannot really say with any great emphasis that bathing nude is hygienically a huge plus as compared to bathing with a small brief on. However, it is more than a century old tradition in many military training institutions the world over. The open shower system meant that a large number of cadets could use the facility within the limited duration of time available.
To my mind, bathing nude has two distinct advantages. It helps one to overcome one’s inhibitions about being nude in the presence of others thereby developing a sort of self confidence about one’s own being and physique. When one learns to overcome this pretty strong inhibition, one automatically develops the capability overcome a lot of other inhibitions of less intensity. The second is that with everyone down to his skin it builds a sort of camaraderie with the fellow trainees.
There is no awkwardness, nobody made any stupid dick jokes and nobody stared. There was just complete utopian nonchalance about the whole thing as cadets from all regions, religions, castes and creeds bathed under the same shower. In everyone’s consciousness he was down to mother earth, a sort of nude common denominator. The act was indeed a great leveler. The common Indian mentality is that public nudity is obscene and vulgar and therefore should be abhorred. I do hope that as a nation we can learn to tolerate public nudity, no matter what our personal inclinations are in this regard.
Communal bathing and spas have been around for thousands of years, especially in the Indian context. However, the concept of modesty is a relatively recent one and was mostly dictated by the Victorian British norms. Many indigenous people still play sports without any covering and athletes in ancient Greece competed naked. In fact, the Greek word gymnasium means ‘a school for naked exercise,’ but in English it means only athletic exercise.
Men and women bathed nude in Roman baths of first century. Emperor Hardin is believed to have issued many decrees against co-ed bathing. There were baths of varying levels of luxury and also at varying levels of propriety. At one extreme were the ones for prostitutes and at the other the ones for royalty. These baths showcased Roman architectural expertise where new and innovative building styles were tested.
It was mandatory for students to swim nude in Chicago high school swimming pools till 1970’s. In those days filtration and chlorination techniques were not as advanced as of today. Nudity ensured that the swimming costumes they wore, mostly cotton or wool, did not leave any fibres that clogged the pool.
Bathing complex of Friedrichsbad Baths, Baden-Baden, Germany, opened in 1877, catering to European aristocracy. It is still open to all and visitors who indulge in a 17-step Irish-Roman bathing ritual – a sequence of hot air baths, steam rooms, showers, pools, and massages, soaking in curative mineral waters. Here on some specific days of the week and on holidays, it is co-ed nude bathing and on other days it is gender specific nude bathing.
In most gym and swimming pool locker rooms for men in Canada, the baths are all open without cubicles. Cubicles are provided in family locker rooms used by children and parents. It is natural for people to have differing standards of modesty, based on their cultural/ religious background and upbringing. Some are comfortable striding around the locker room naked and some prefer to change their clothes more discreetly. People around are neither stealing glances nor are they being judgmental. I generally go to swim in the afternoons which is the time designated for adult swimmers. I surely do not have a body to flaunt and no six-packs to flex. Everyone around me also passes the same muster with respect to their masculinity.
One has to shower before entering a swimming pool to keep dirt and germs out. Post a swim-session, it is meant to rinse off salt, chlorine and other harmful chemicals. You cannot do this well with your swimming costume on. It is said that the concept of the open bath came to Canada with soldiers returning from World War II when most able bodied Canadian men got enlisted to fight the war in Europe. The only country where it is a rule to have a nude bath prior to entering a swimming pool is Iceland. Here the bath may be in public or in a cubicle.
Nudity in public bathroom may offend some people, but most will not react to it though they may avoid it. The argument that nudity is natural may fall on deaf ears to the puritans who refuse to accept their ties to the natural world.
Sleeping without underwear is another military tradition proven to be good for one’s genitals as per many medical studies. Underwear tends to trap moisture, creating a breeding ground for bacteria. For sure, allowing that area to get some air helps to keep it dry and clean. Royal Marines tend to sleep naked for a similar reason and also to ensure they don’t hold all the juices and skin flakes emitted from their bodies in their clothes. From this came the expression ‘going commando‘ which means going without wearing any underwear.
In Western militaries where men and women serve together the bathrooms are shared. Here too there is hardly any awkwardness or sexual discrimination. In 2011, a woman soldier of the Norwegian Armed Forces complained about being asked to bathe naked with 30 men and in front of other male officers during a field exercise. The Norwegian Armed Forces initially gave the male officer who ordered the bath a harsh disciplinary warning for his behaviour and a fine of 2,500 Kroner, but cancelled the official reprimand after the officer appealed the decision. After two separate internal reviews, Norwegian Military ruled against making any changes to its bathing policies, meaning that other female soldiers could find themselves in a similar situation due to Norway’s gender-neutral military conscription policy.
I must here quote from the book ‘Immediate Action’ by Andy Mcnab. He was a member of 22 SAS Regiment and was involved in both covert and overt special operations worldwide until he retired in 1993. Teaching young infantry soldiers as an Instructor at the Regimental Training Depot how to bathe, he writes ‘We had to show them how to wash and shave, use a toothbrush… Then I had to show them how to shower, making sure they pulled their foreskin back and cleaned it.‘
To be NUDE or not to be – it is your choice – rules permitting.
On 13 January 1979 I joined the National Defence Academy, Pune India as an Army Cadet. National Defence Academy is a Joint Services academy of Indian Armed Forces, where cadets of the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force train together. This is to ensure jointmanship amongst the three services.
We, the Army Cadets, were often referred to as Pongoes or at times Grabbies, especially by the Naval fraternity – both officers and fellow cadets. It often intrigued me as to from where these terms originated. In fact, I disliked it, like every other Army Cadet at the Academy.
The word Pongo is seemingly used in a somewhat derogatory sense evoking a sense of both stupidity and a bad smell, something like a ‘stinking moron’. Although a bit derogatory, the word is often used by the Naval guys in a friendly manner when they referred to the Army guys.
It is interesting to go into the etymology of the word.
Pongo is a British slang dating from the mid nineteenth century meaning soldiers. The word itself stems from expressions used by comedians in theaters and music halls to get a cheap laugh. The two most common quotes were “where the army goes the pong goes”, or “when the wind blows the pong goes” – pong meaning stink. This quickly became pongoes meaning soldiers (plural) and pongo meaning an individual.
Another possible explanation is that the soldiers were being likened to a large, hairy, smelly ape called a pongo. The expression is still in use today although not common, confined mainly to those who saw service in World War II or in Korea or who did National Service in Britain while this was still compulsory. (www.urbandictionary.com)
There is another explanation given in a blog post ‘Be Proud to be a Pongo’ at www.theobservationpost.com. During the Napoleonic wars, the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written pão (this could also be the origin of the Indian street bread – the Pav पाव), and pronounced pong. British soldiers coined the term pongo as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of pong. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time was that sailors lived on biscuit while, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting army soldiers and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of pong might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – meaning bread eaters.
Pongo was also used by members of the Royal Navy or RAF. Sailors noted the similarity of the sand-apes’ colour to the rough brown (khaki) uniform of the British Army. They believed that a Pongo was an ape that when alarmed did not climb trees, but dug holes and hide itself on the ground reminding the onlooker of the infantrymen. They said a pongo dug holes and filled it for no rhyme or reason. However, the only mention of Pongo – the ape – I could find was in National Geographic website which refers to a new orangutan species, Pongo tapanuliensis, or the Tapanuli orangutan—the rarest great ape species on the planet – found in the high-altitude Sumatran forests.
The term Pongo comes from the days when soldiers were stationed on board ships to protect the Navy when sailing abroad. Usually the first to be sent ashore when the ship docked, soldiers carried out all sorts of different tasks. One important (the most important… surely) task being setting up of a brewery. The main part of it, the still (apparatus used to distill alcoholic spirits) being called a pongo. Hence the nick-name given to the soldiers who were sent to do the job “send the pongos ashore”. The name seems to have filtered down through the years and is used today by the Navy towards members of the Army. (www.arrse.co.uk/wiki/Pongo)
Our childhood adventure series – Enid Blyton’s Famous Five – in its fifth volume, Five Go Off in a Caravan (1946), has Pongo as a main character who is a circus chimpanzee. In David Foster Wallace’s novel – Infinite Jest – refers to Checkpoint Pongo, a border post of the Concavity near Methuen, Massachusetts.
That is all about the poor Pongoes, but how did they get their nickname Grabbie?
It is said that the poorly fed soldiers on boarding a ship scrambled to the Galley – the ship’s kitchen – and would grab anything and everything edible
Here I would quote from The Sea Regiments published in The Navy and Army Illustrated Magazine – October 1806, where it says ‘The Marines, in a word, are a military force maintained by the Admiralty for service in the fleet. “What’s the good of ‘aving leather-necked grabbies aboard ship?” said an ordinary seaman once to a private of the Royal Marines. “To keep you flat-footed, ginger-whiskered swamp rats from eating one another!” was the prompt and unexpected reply.’
Another reference to grabbies I found was in the book The Cameronians – A Concise History by Trevor Royle. ‘Amongst the officers of my Regiment, nice fellows as they were, only a few cared for the Army as a profession. All were proud belonging to splendidly drilled Light Infantry Battalion – drilled according to the practice of War in the Peninsula, before the introduction of the rifled musket. They thought themselves to be socially superior to the ordinary Regiments of the Line, which were always spoken of as grabbies.’
In the book Seven Sailors by Commander Kenneth Edwards ‘The history of British Empire is rife with examples of devotion of British sailors to their brothers in army. These reached their zenith at Dunkirk, not only among the matelots and the grabbies, but all the way down from the Admiral and staff to the over tired infantrymen.‘
Matelots, a Naval slang, refers to a sailor and originates from 19th century from French, variant of matenot, from Dutch mattenoot meaning ‘bed companion’, because sailors had to share hammocks in twos.
Whatever you call a soldier, especially an Infantry Soldier, Victory is still measured on foot.
Delivering the Commencement Address at University of Texas at Austin in 2014, Admiral William H McRaven, a retired United States Navy Admiral who last served as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command from August 8, 2011, to August 28, 2014 said “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day.”
‘Making the bed’ ritual was all important first task of the day one accomplished as a Cadet at Sainik (Military) School, from the age of nine to sixteen. On joining the National Defence Academy (NDA), morning shave became the first important task of the day. During early school days, one did not have any facial hair and in senior classes, shaving was a ritual only during weekly haircut, executed by the barber. On joining NDA, morning shave became mandatory for all cadets and it continued through my over two decades of service with the Indian Army.
One winter morning in the eighties, I, a young Lieutenant and Senior Subaltern of the Regiment, received a message that an important political leader had passed away and the day was declared a holiday. I had by then shaved and was changing. I came out of my room, dressed in whites for physical training (PT) and I found all other Lieutenants also ready for PT. “We have shaved and put on our PT dress. Let us all go for a run. Once you have shaved early morning, holiday or not, it makes no difference ” I said.
In the Army, being a uniformed service, discipline is judged partly by the manner in which a soldier wears a prescribed uniform or a dress, as well as by the individual’s personal appearance. Thus a well-groomed appearance by all soldiers is fundamental to the Army and contributes to building pride and esprit-de-corps. There is a need for every soldier to be self-disciplined and also be proud of being part of a noble profession. It is the prime responsibility of all commanders to ensure that soldiers under their command present a smart and soldierly appearance. All commanders have to ensure that soldiers take pride in their appearance at all times, in or out of uniform, on and off duty. A properly shaved soldier, sporting a mustache if preferred, will surely give a soldierly appearance.
Soldiers sporting a clean shaven face can be attributed to Alexander the Great. It is believed that he ordered his soldiers to be clean shaven so that the enemy might not grab them by their beard and throw them to ground.
In Indian Army, soldiers are expected to be clean shaven other than the Sikhs, who are allowed to grow their beard. Mustache if worn must remain above the upper lip. British Army, from where most traditions and regulations came for the Indian Army, orders regarding shaving can be traced back to the Eighteenth Century. Until then, British soldiers were all clean shaven and did not wear a mustache. Soldiers of Hussar Cavalry Regiments wore mustaches to intimidate their enemies. This mustache trend spread across British Army. At this time, a mustache differentiated a soldier from a civilian. Influence of Indian Royalty and Indian belief that mustache indicated manliness could have also played a role. By late Eighteenth century, mustache became popular among British civilians, so also sideburns.
Sir Douglas Haig with his army commanders and their chiefs of staff – World War I – (Image Courtesy Wikimedia).
During World War I, Commonwealth soldiers found it cumbersome to maintain their mustache, while fighting trench warfare. Many soldiers and officers preferred to shave off their mustaches and it even led to some sort of a revolt. A few soldiers were even court-martialed for not complying with the order of a mustache. In 1913, General Nevil Macready investigated the matter and submitted a report that orders regarding mustaches be withdrawn. No action was taken on this report and in 1915 King George reinforced the necessity of a mustache for a soldier. General Macready resubmitted his ‘mustache’ recommendations in 1916 and on 8 October, order was passed, doing away with a mandatory mustache for a soldier.
Iconic poster of World War I with Lord Kitchener, sporting a handlebar mustache, persuading everyone to join the army still stands out (Image Courtesy Wikimedia).
It is a myth that hair tend to grow thicker and darker than before due to shaving. Mildred Trotter, a forensic anthropologist debunked this myth back in 1928, when she asked three college students to shave their legs, ankle to knee, twice weekly for eight months. Using a microscope, she compared each student’s hair growth rate, color and thickness. She concluded that shaving had no impact on hair’s texture or growth.
Wrestlers are mostly clean shaven as Olympic rules require them to have either a full beard or none at all, as stubble can irritate an opponent’s skin. Swimmers are mostly clean shaven – they remove all possible body hair – as body hair can slow them down a bit.
Married Amish men sport a beard with a trimmed mustache in place of wearing a wedding ring.
For reasons still unclear, Parliament fired the personal barber of Charles I of England. Famously slow to trust others, King Charles never shaved again, for fear that a new barber would try to kill him.
During our childhood the suit, boot and tie were associated with the English, the higher officials and the movie stars. We as children were mostly dressed in shorts and shirts and sometimes with rubber slippers. Most of the time we walked barefoot – to beat the water and mud splashing on to our clothes from the slippers and at many a times due to the fear of losing the slippers. May be we always forgot our slippers home as it proved to be an impediment to faster running and climbing trees. Wearing a suit and the boot always remained a distant dream.
On joining Sainik School at the age of nine, we had to wear the shoes at all times and it took me a lot of effort and time to get used to my feet being covered with the socks and the shoes. Then we were all measured by the tailors and after three months we all got our suits. A dream came true to most of my friends and me. We all wore our coats with the school insignia with a lot of pride during the winter months. In the next letter I shot off home, I wrote as to how different (smart) I looked in my coat. At that time one never realised that this piece of dress was going to be on me for a long time to come – over thirty years.
On my first vacation home I realised as what this change had done to me. I could not step out on to the courtyard of our home or walk along the paddy fields or climb trees barefooted as my soles had gone soft due to constant wearing of socks and shoes. That is when I realised that the socks and shoe had also become an integral part of me rather than being a piece of dress.
This trend with the clothes continued at different stages of my military career, at the National Defence Academy, Indian Military Academy and with the army unit I was commissioned into. Every where the tailors measured me and I got a new suit every time. While attending various courses in the army in different parts of the country, one realised that each military station had a set of tailors waiting to measure you and provide you with a new suit. Most of these military stations were established by the British Army and had the best climate and picturesque sceneries. Some of these tailors stitched the suits and would put Armanis to shame, as they and their forefathers had been in this business of suit making from the era of the British Army. They were ready to finance you and would accept post-dated cheques for over a year to make good your bill. Those were the days when credit cards and credit ratings were non-existent. These tailors had a system in place and the only credit check they needed was your credibility as an Indian Army officer. The customer service they provided was exemplary compared to any standards of today. They seemed to know all the officers of our units as they also had made suits from them. They would alter or repair your suits at no cost which were send through other officers of the unit who went for the course. May be it would be an interesting research subject for the management students like the “Dabbawallahs of Mumbai”.
Wearing a suit was mandatory for us in the army for many a formal occasions. The dictum for us was that it is safer to be formally dressed in an informal occasion than being informally dressed for a formal occasion. A tie was always a saviour that at many a times it converted an informal attire into a formal one. To help me overcome this dilemma, my driver was always handy. He always carried a set of ties during the summers and a suit during the winters. While being driven, I could comfortably switch from informal attire into a formal one in minutes. On retiring from the army, I thought it was time for me to shed my formal attires and become comfortable in the informal dresses. When I took my flight to Canada, my baggage did not have any suits or ties.
On landing in Canada in the summer, I was happy to find that most men were casually dressed in their shorts and sandals and I too followed the dress code. My neck and feet must have enjoyed the wimp of fresh Canadian air. The few men I found dressed in their suits were the real-estate agents or insurance agents. The offices I went for my initial documentation all had people dressed in semi-formal clothes or work clothes and not in their suits.
On Sunday, I went to attend the Holy Mass at the Syrian Orthodox Church in Toronto and I found many men dressed in their Sunday’s best suits. The curiosity in me made me to ask a young man as to why he is wearing a suit to the church. He said as to where else will he ever wear a suit other than to the church. He narrated as to how he got two suits stitched. Based on the advice he got from a few friends that it would be much cheaper to get the suits in India than in Canada, he got two stitched. He came to Canada with the impression that every one wore suits, but after landing, he realised that he needed working-overalls and safety boots and not the suits. Now, where else will he wear the two suits he got stitched other than to the church on Sundays.
The above is an image of our classmates from Sainik School Amaravathinagar, in front of the Cadets’ Mess at the National Defence Academy (NDA) during our reunion in December 2015. The reunion was hosted by Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM, then Commandant, NDA. Everyone is standing with their hands off their pockets, a rarity in such images of today. Most images one receives on the social media have men standing with their hands deep down their pant pockets.
My mind went back to our school days-from 1971 to 1979, to the times when a cadet with his hands in pockets, was taunted supposedly for playing Pocket Billiards. At times they were queried as to which ball is winning – the Right or the Left one. Owing to this rigorous discipline instilled during the formative years, even after 37 years since our graduation, mere thought of putting one’s hands in pockets will never occur to our classmates; even in their wildest of dreams.
A detailed report on the reunion appears on my blog (Please Click here to read). If you study all the photographs taken both at formal and informal events, you will hardly observe anyone playing ‘Pocket Billiards’. It could all be courtesy the taunts our classmates received. We did not even spare our teachers – especially the new entrants- from similar taunts.
Pocket Billiards is mostly a men’s problem. This is not a sexist view point but a factual one. Women rarely put their hands in their pockets, except perhaps on a cold, chilly day. They generally do not enjoy the liberty of putting their hands in pockets mostly because their attire, even while wearing pants. Women’s pants generally come without pockets and even when they do, the pockets are too shallow to accommodate a whole hand. Women’s pants or jeans are often too tight, thereby making it uncomfortable to shove their hands in. Thus it remains mostly a masculine issue.
Why do men put their hands in pockets? Body language experts and psychologists have different takes on the issue. Is it that they are obsessed with their family treasures? Some experts opine that that there is a subconscious male urge to perpetually hold on to one’s genitals. But holding on to one’s genitals in public is surely an indecent social display and the only way to be close to their genitals is by way of putting their hands in their pockets. It could be that they are scared that their family treasures would fall off or someone would steal them!
‘Pocket Billiards’ by a speaker on a podium is sure to distract and also put off the audience. Such speakers do not know what to do with their hands and try to find places to hide them and this leads to Pocket Billiards. This body language theory is sometimes contradicted by some world famous orators who can hold the audience spell bound, with one of their hands remaining in the pocket. It becomes somewhat obscene when Pocket Billiards is accompanied with a posture of legs wide apart and hips thrust forward. Even so, some psychologists opine that this combination is a confident gesture of the dominant male who wants to tell others around who the boss is. Whatever the theory, it is not a pleasant sight to behold!
One of the most evolved part of human anatomy is our hand – with the wrist, palm and the five fingers. The relationship between our hands and our brain has been well established by scientists. In fact, our hands have become another communication tool.
We salute when we meet a superior officer in the military and we shake hands when we meet someone. All these greetings are done with the open palm and has been associated with truth, honesty, allegiance and submission. Many oaths are still taken with the palm over the heart, or over a holy book. In the olden days, it was to show that you are unarmed and therefore not a threat and from there evolved various salutes and handshakes.
Most common body language theory is that hiding our hands is an instinctive reaction to nervousness while keeping our hands out in the open indicates confidence and also that we have nothing to hide. Pocket Billiards tends to encourage slouching and that is why the militaries around the world have strictly forbidden it, even while off-parade.
Many men feel that they project a cool and confident look with their hands in their pockets without realising that the converse is the truth. More often than not, they project a nervous look, without knowing what to do with their hands. Some psychologists suggest that the habit also demonstrates unwillingness, mistrust and reluctance and is often associated with liars. Be careful, everyone with hands in their pockets need not necessarily be a liar. It may just be a biological need to ward off the cold. Some experts also feel that pocket billiards is merely indicative of a person’s desire to listen rather than speak. Some even differentiate between one hand and both hands in the pocket. Theories abound but the general consensus is that the habit is one of negative body language and needs to be got over.
How to get over the Pocket Billiards syndrome? Like most good habits and bad ones too, they all begin at home. Children take on to it seeing their parents or other adults doing it. By putting your hands in the pockets, you are surely setting a bad example for your children. In case you observe a child putting his hands in pockets, it is best to explain and make him understand that with his hands in the open, he would look smarter and more confident than otherwise. Teachers at schools also have a similar role to ensure that their students do not end up playing Pocket Billiards. Friends and peers are the best to help you out of this dreadful habit. Our classmates, both in the military and civil life, are a sure testimony to this. Another option is to stitch down your front pockets or pin it close. You can always use the back pockets to store your wallet or cell phone.
One needs to pay attention to one’s hands and ensure that they are clean, hygienic and presentable. Make sure to rub a cream or lotion and also a sanitizer on your hands prior to meeting anyone or while going to a gathering. Ensure that you consciously use gestures that will get your message across to those that will help you build alliances and influence people. With your hands in your pockets, you would mostly end up as an ugly duckling.
Our family friend took part in this year’s Tour De Mississauga, a 30/60/100 KM cycling event. This year it attracted over 1600 cyclists of all abilities from all around the Toronto Area. Cyclists of every age or ability, on every kind of bike (including electric assist), participated. The aim of the event is to familiarise cyclist with the various cycling trails and lanes available in the city, to develop a spirit of adventure and also to encourage cycling, both as a sport and as a physical activity. The event was well organized and truly lived up to its motto ‘THIS IS NOT A RACE – THE JOURNEY IS THE DESTINATION!’
As is the case with all such community activities in Toronto area like marathons, climbing the CN Tower, parades, etc, in this activity too there were hardly any participation by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. When will we learn to amalgamate with the Canadian society? Participating in such events will not only develop community spirit in the participants, but will also raise money for some charity. It develops leadership qualities in children and encourages the spirit of adventure in them. Preparing for the event and participation will keep everyone healthy and improve one’s confidence level. Completion of the event will give you immense pride and sense of achievement. It will prove to you that you are physically healthy to undertake such difficult ordeals.
The local governments are doing their best to encourage cycling as a daily activity. Most of the roads in the Toronto Area have either a bicycle lane or off-road cycling paths. Bicycle Lanes are typically 1.5 m to 2 m wide, and designate a space on the roadway exclusively for the use of cyclists. Motor vehicles are not allowed to drive, park or stand in the bike lane. Off-Road Paths include trails through parks and along the arterial roads. Cyclists, skaters and pedestrians often share these paths.
On arrival in Canada, I saw a something like a crash-guard which we have on the front bumpers of the cars back home on the buses in the Toronto Area. On inquiry I learnt that it is a cycle carrier to carry two cycles. Many commuters feel that cycling or taking the bus just doesn’t compete with the convenience of a car. But in Toronto Area, “biking and bussing” is easy. You can cycle to a bus stop or station and then bring your bike on the bus. By biking and bussing you’ll not only improve your health, but also help reduce gas emissions.
In Toronto, bicycles are permitted on buses, trains and subways at all times except weekdays during peak hours. Bicycle transportation is a growing activity in Toronto and throughout North America, due in part because of the many benefits cycling offers. Transportation by bicycle is the most energy efficient mode of transportation, and generates no pollution, except in its manufacture. Cycling is often the fastest mode of transportation from door to door for distances up to 10 km in urban cores. Ten bicycles can be parked in the space required for a single automobile. Short distance motor-vehicle trips are the least fuel-efficient and generate the most pollution per kilometer. These trips have the greatest potential for being replaced by cycling and walking.
BIXI – Bike Share Toronto – is designed to be a convenient way to get around the city, and is ideal for short rides and one-way trips. The members get access to 2,000 bikes across the city. They can pick up a bike at one of 200 stations, and drop it off at any other station when done. One need to become an Annual Member or buy a Day Pass to be able to use Bixi. An Annual Member can insert a bike key into a dock to unlock a bike. Day Pass holders will get a ride code, which when typed into the keypad on the dock, unlocks a bike. The first 30 minutes of each ride are included in the membership or pass price. One can keep a bike out for longer, but additional usage fees will apply.
Reducing auto trips will mitigate ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, ground level air pollution, photochemical smog, acid rain and noise pollution. Cycling contributes to personal health by enhancing fitness and providing an enjoyable, convenient and affordable means of exercise and recreation. Increased physical activity, such as walking and cycling, can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and the cost of medical care, decrease workplace absenteeism, and maintain the independence of older adults. Cycling benefits one’s health regardless of the age at which one takes up cycling.
During our training at the National Defence Academy, Pune, cycling was the only mode of transportation for the cadets, else one had to run. The Academy campus is spread over 7000 acres and to reach various training event sites, a cadet had to cycle an average of 20 km per day. While cycling, one had to maintain proper squad discipline and pay proper respects to passing senior officers.
Any minor infringement ensured that the cycle was on you rather than you being on the cycle. Every semester begun with the cycle issue and always ended with the cycle return, after which was a month’s vacation. We used to have a weekly cycle maintenance parade to wash and repair the cycles. Thus even today, the cycle is the most ardent companion of every cadet at the academy, without which life would have been much more difficult.
Walking our dog in the mornings and evenings is a ritual undertaken every day. On such a walk, we came to a pedestrian crossing and the signal started to blink red. There was a mother with her two teenaged children trying to cross. The mother started crossing and was howling at the top of her voice in Punjabi, instructing the children to follow her. The children did not move and were advising the mother against her action. The mother crossed over and the children were left behind. Here the generation gap became evident both physically and mentally. From their diction, it was evident that the mother was brought up back home in India and the children were nurtured in Canada.
On one such walks, we were accompanied by our son and I was about to take the dog across the crossing when the light had started blinking red. Our son advised me not to do it and further added that this act was very much like running over a red light while driving. Even now I do get an itch to cross over in similar situation, but I always remember our son’s advice.
One always wondered as to how come we have that itch to break a simple law – it neither saves time nor is it any way more convenient. One can attribute it to the ethos we had practiced back home and also to the denials we faced. The spirit of winning a competition by using any means and to push forward one’s agenda could have resulted in this.
The competition we faced back home always prompted us to cross-examine our children when they came home with a report card or a test result. We always wanted to know as to who got the maximum marks, where does our child stand in the class, etc. I also followed this when our daughter came home with her first report card in Canada. She said it Is indecent to ask someone their marks in Canada and the marks are confidential and is never announced in public. My mind raced back to our school days and even our army course days; where no marks were ever kept confidential and were mostly put up on a notice board. What an injustice, especially to those who did not fare well.
In Canada, the end-of-term report cards come home in a sealed envelope and there is no discussion about the student’s performance or there is no parent interview.
The parent-teacher meeting is held after six weeks into the semester. One has heard most teachers saying that the child is doing well, whether the child had scored marks or not. In one such meeting I asked the teacher as to what he meant by saying that the child is doing well. He said that the child is doing well to his ability and your effort. My mind went back to the parent-teacher meeting we had back home where it was more of a slew of complaints than any compliments.
After an important presentation of our son in high school, I inquired as to what the teacher had commented on the presentation. He said that the teachers do not make any comment in the class and all assessment aspects would be covered on the marking sheet. The marking sheet is a rubric given to student well in advance, showing all aspects that would be assessed with complete marking scheme. This leads to more objectivity and less subjectivity. During our Long Gunnery or any Army Course teaching practices, we neither had any rubric nor were aware as to how the session would be assessed. A lot of subjectivity was left for the assessor. Each session ended with a detailed commentary by the assessor, many a times touching a high level of ridicule. The said aim of such commentary was that it would bring out the lessons for others, but at what cost?
Our course-mate from the National Defence Academy, Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph, VM, VSM, visited us in June 2016. At the end of his stay with us, I asked him as to what he is taking with him back to India. He said that the lesson he learnt in Canada was that in case everyone did everything correctly and the best way they could, this world would be a great place to live. He was convinced that in case everyone followed the rules and regulations, life would be much better, and breaking rules lead to corruption and chaos, causing inconvenience to one and all.
Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe), our course-mate from the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Sophie Joseph visited us during the last week of May 2016. Joe and I hail from the same village -Ayarkkunnam – in Kerala, India. Joe was surprised to be invited to many homes of people who had migrated to Canada from the very same village.
Prior to leaving India, everyone wanted to know as to why he was only visiting Canada and not the US. Most sub-continental travellers presume that Canada has nothing much to offer and a journey to the North American continent essentially was limited to a handful of US destinations. Joe was however convinced after reading many of my travelogues on my blog that Canada has many fascinating unexplored areas, unknown to even many who have settled here for decades.
Casa Loma (Spanish for Hill House), was a dream house Major General Sir Henry Pellatt built. It still stands out as the biggest residential place ever built in Canada. It was General Pellat’s dream castle.
Casa Loma took three years and $3.5 million to build (today’s worth about $75 million). General Pellatt filled Casa Loma with artwork from Canada and around the world. With soaring towers, tunnels and secret passageways, it was a castle than a private residence.
Casa Loma has 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, three bowling alleys, an indoor swimming pool, and a rifle range. The original internal telephone system is preserved till date. Casa Loma had 50 telephones, one in each room, when the whole of Toronto had only 250. It served as a location for many movies such as X-Men, Strange Brew, Chicago, The Tuxedo, Love Guru and The Pacifier.
The main floor opens with the Great Hall which leads into a library and the main dining room. In the main dining room, the Pellatts hosted many formal dinner parties. The 10,000-book library had the Pellatt family coat of arms carved into the ceiling, with herringbone oak floor pattern creating an optical illusion of different shades from each end of the room.
Pellatts had a Serving Room which was also used as a breakfast room. The room was inspired by Roman carvings. This room was the staging area into which the kitchen staff brought the cooked food for the waiters to carry to the dining room.
General Pellat’s Study on the main floor had a marble fireplace with carvings of Hercules on the mantle. The walls had walnut panels which concealed a secret door on either side of the fireplace – the left one leading to the Pellatts’ bed rooms and the right one to the basement. The room also boasted of a desk that was the exact replica of Napoleon’s writing desk.
This floor also had a Smoking Room for a game of chess or cards. Adjacent to it was the Billiard Room where General Pellatt and EJ Lennox, the architect of Casa Loma and his neighbour, often played in the evenings.
The second floor housed Genral Pellatt’s Suite, separate from Mary’s. The walls are of mahogany and walnut. The tiger skin on the floor was imported from India in 1920. The bathroom has a shower structured to completely surround the body with spray by using 6 taps that controlled 3 levels of pipes.
Lady Pellatt’s suite adjacent to her husband’s suit had walls painted in her favourite colour: Wedgwood blue. Lady Pellatt’s bathroom was smaller than General Pellatt’s. It had a bidet, a rare feature in Canadian homes at the time.
General Pellatt had five guest rooms, all suited for the royalty. He dreamt of having the Royal Family as guests at Casa Loma. This room was named Windsor Room after the Royal Family in England. It has a nineteenth century walnut bed with dolphins carved on to the posts representing Venus.
This suite for guests is decorated in Chinoiserie style with a large red lacquered dresser imported from China. The walls are covered with Chinese inspired patterns of phoenixes and foo dogs. It also has a Chinese screen with carvings of flowers and trees and a mother-of-pearl peacock.
The Third Floor housed the servants’ rooms and the Queen’s Own Rifles Museum. General Pellatt enlisted as a rifleman with The Queen’s Own Rifles on November 2, 1876. He rose through the ranks and eventually became the Commanding Officer. In 1905. In recognition of his services, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor by King Edward VII.
In 1910, Pellatt took the entire 600-men regiment (including its horses) to England for military training at his expense, to mark the Regiment’s fiftieth anniversary from 13 August to 03 October 1910. General Pellatt later served as the regiment’s Honorary Colonel and was promoted to the rank of Major-General upon retirement. When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, General Pellatt went to England with some men and officers of the Queen’s Own Rifles to be part of the honour guard.
In the basement was a Wine Cellar. Ammonia and brine-filled pipes chilled the collection of nearly 1800 bottles of exotic wine and champagne.
The Stables are connected to Casa Loma by an 800-ft tunnel. The tunnel also housed a coal based heating system to heat the entire building. Canadian army used the tunnel as a secret base to build a new SONAR system during World War II.
The tunnel ended at the stables and garage. The stalls for the horses are constructed of mahogany and the floors covered with Spanish tiles so that the horses did not slip. Each horse’s name was inscribed on the wall in 18 Carat Gold.
Major General Sir Henry Pellatt was born to British parents in Kingston, Ontario on January 6, 1859. General Pellatt left his studies when he was seventeen to pursue a career in commerce in the family business. By the age of 23, he became a full partner in his father’s stock brokerage firm Pellatt and Pellatt. He married Mary Dodgeson whom he met when he was twenty.
He achieved fame in 1879 for beating the US amateur champion in one mile. As a partner in Pellatt and Pellatt, he founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883. By the time he was 30, the Toronto Electric Light Company enjoyed a monopoly on street lighting of the city of Toronto.
In 1892 his father retired, enabling General Pellatt to invest with more risk. By 1901, he was chairman of 21 companies with interests in mining, insurance, land and electricity. In 1902, he won the rights to build the first Canadian hydro-electric plant at Niagara Falls. All these he achieved while serving with the Queen’s Own Rifles. After retirement, in 1911, he began building his dream castle – Casa Loma.
Unfortunately, General Pellatt’s fortunes nosedived and he went into debt. The one sure source of income from the monopoly of electrical power vanished when the government took over the company without any compensation. He then invested into the airline business, to be taken over again by the government towards the war efforts for World War I.
Post World War I economy of Canada slumped. So did General Pellatt’s fortunes. He owed the Home Bank of Canada $1.7 million and City of Toronto a heavy tax bill. He had no choice but to auction off his prized possessions for a fraction of their worth and to abandon his dream home – Casa Loma. After moving into many smaller homes, he last lived with his trusted chauffeur.
Though he lost a great fortune, General Pellatt never lost his spirit of philanthropy, a character trait for which he was honoured late in life. His service of fifty years with the Queen’s Own Rifles was celebrated on June 27, 1926 with a march past of 500 men complete with the fly-past of three military planes. A dinner was hosted at the Royal York Hotel, a reunion of the Queen’s Own Rifles, for his 80th birthday, including a telegram of congratulations from King George’s wife Queen Mary. General Pellat was moved to tears.
He died two months later, in his chauffeur’s arms. Thousands lined Toronto streets to witness his funeral procession. He was buried with full military honours befitting a soldier who gave so much to his country.
The first cross-country race (Marathon in North America), I ran was as a Grade 5 student at Sainik (Military) School Amaravathinagar. It was a 5 km run along the base of the Western Ghats on the North side of the school. With every passing year, the distance increased. with it the difficulty. On joining the National Defence Academy (NDA), the cross country race became a ritual in every semester (half-year) and thus I ran six races in three years of about 14 km. During the first 10 years of service in the Army, I ran seven races. On reaching Canada, I ran two such races, in support of charitable causes.
Running a marathon is one of the largest physical challenges you can set, often it is more of a mental challenge – the mental strength to complete the race despite the panting, tiredness and pains. It results in an accomplishment every time, irrespective of your age. It does not matter even if you are the last, you are part of an elite club of people that have completed the race successfully.
At the NDA, the cross country race was more of a team event. The Squadron which won the trophy every semester claimed more bragging rights than the cadet who came first or second. It was a matter of pride for the cadets that their Squadron did well and hence every cadet put their heart, soul and body into doing well at the race.
The practice for the race at NDA began nearly a month prior with all cadets running a full race almost every evening and morning on Sundays and holidays. The final race was on a Sunday morning, starting at the famous Glider Dome and ending there. One witnessed cadets completing the race despite physical injuries – a cadet finished the race after he fractured his leg halfway. There have been many cadets running the race with fever. All to ensure that they do not bring in negative points for their Squadron and let the team down.
In 1987, our Regiment was located in Gurgaon near Delhi and we formed part of the Brigade stationed at Meerut – about 50 km from Delhi. Cross country race was a closely contested competition among the regiments and our unit had the rare distinction of winning it for the previous five years. 1987 was the final year at Gurgaon as the unit had received its move order to the Kashmir Valley.
Our Commanding Officer, Colonel Mahaveer Singh called Late Captain Pratap Singh, Maha Vir Chakra and self to his office in March 1987 and briefed us that we had to win the cross country competition for him. We both were Captains then and by virtue of being the senior, I became the team captain. Among young subalterns, one was away on a training course and the other admitted in the Military Hospital.
The team to be fielded for the competition was to consist of one officer and 15 soldiers. We started practicing for the race – two officers and 20 soldiers. Every morning at 5 we were picked up from our residence and the team used to be dropped off about 20 km from the regimental location. Now everyone had no option but to run back to the regiment. The faster one did it, lesser the agony.
After a month’s practice, we decided to move to Meerut a week before the race to carry out a few practices there. The race was scheduled for 11 April, Saturday to commence at 6 AM. The day we had planned to leave, Pratap’s mother took seriously ill and he had to hospitalise her and take care of her. I told Pratap to reach Meerut by Thursday evening the latest.
As Pratap had not practiced for the last week, I had made up my mind to run the race. Pratap landed up in Meerut on his motorbike on Thursday evening. On Friday I showed him the route and told him to be stand-by.
In the evening we reached the Officers’ Mess for dinner and all the young officers participating in the race were there. Seeing the senior Captains set to run the race, Lieutenant Atul Mishra wanted to know as to who amongst us was running the race. Pratap said that the person who woke up first woke up the other and the latter will run the race. Everyone believed it as the same was narrated by Atul after a decade.
After the race, I received the trophy from the Brigade Commander and after a few minutes there was Pratap with his motorbike asking me to get on to the pillion. We rode off and as I was too tired, I hugged on to him and slept off. I woke up only on reaching our regimental location after over an hour of drive.
We handed over the trophy to Colonel Mahaveer, who appreciated us for the efforts and wanted to know where the rest of the team was. Pratap said “Please do not come out with your clichéd question as to who is commanding the unit, I have ordered them to relax at Meerut for the next two days and also to visit the Nauchandi Mela“, Colonel Mahaveer passed his unique smile as a sign of approval for Pratap’s actions.
Nauchandi Mela is held every year at Meerut in April-May. It is a rare symbol of communal harmony with Hindu and Muslim shrines – Nauchandi temple and the Dargah (shrine) of Muslim saint, Bala Mian. Visitors pay obeisance at both the shrines irrespective of the religion they belong to. The mela, which originally brought sellers and buyers of utensils and domestic animals together, now includes various kinds of goods, entertainment and food.
Colonel Mahaveer had a knack of delegation and had immense trust in all of us. He always encouraged the young officers to be decisive and whenever we goofed it up, he always held our hands and took the responsibility for our actions.
One day our teenaged son came up to me and asked me if he could borrow my ‘Wife Beater.’ I lost all my balance and composure and I told him that I neither ever had beaten their mother nor ever intend to do so. I stopped short of telling him that the idea did sprout in my mind a few times, but good senses always prevailed over my impulse. Our son understood my predicament and explained that he wanted the sleeveless white vest I used to wear while in India. Hardly seen anyone wearing it in Canada; could be something to do with the weather and reduced perspiration level.
Our son explained that in the TV show ‘COPS‘ had a lot do with the creation of this word. Every time they showed a guy getting arrested for beating his wife, he was shown wearing one of those sleeveless vests.
Some say that in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, when police arrested a local man (James Hartford, Jr.) for beating his wife to death, the local news stations aired the arrest and elements of the case for months after, constantly showing a picture of Hartford, Jr, when he was arrested, wearing a vest and constantly referring to him as ‘the wife beater.‘
I always marveled the simple in design white sleeveless vest for all the services it rendered. It never even cared where it ended up after its owner threw it out after clinging to his skin and exploiting it to the hilt. They mostly ended up as a shoe-shining cloth, a mop, a duster, etc. Why should someone discard such good quality pure white cotton cloth?
I never understood why any more layers than absolutely necessary are worn in a hot climate, but I always felt that it absorbed the sweat. It absorbed the sweat, got wet, making me feel a bit uncomfortable at times, but it always stopped the passage of the sweat to the outer layer of the Olive Green (OG) Uniform. The white salt left on the shirt after the sweat dried up was rather un-soldierly. My skin never felt comfortable touching the thick clothed OG shirt. The poor banian maintained an impregnable gap between my skin and the thick shirt.
Some of my friends in the Army wore a banian with sleeves. I always preferred the sleeveless version to avoid ‘Sunday is longer than Monday‘ syndrome. This happens when you wear a short sleeved shirt or T shirt, under which you have worn a sleeved banian and the sleeve of the banian creeps out of the shirt sleeve.
On joining Sainik School Amaravathinagar (TN) at the age of nine, my box had a dozen banians. We had to wear the banian for the morning Physical Training (PT). The aim was to observe the physical development of the body and to ensure that there were no skin infections. This practice of wearing the banian for PT continued on to the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA), till I was commissioned as an officer, after which I started wearing the white T-shirt as was the practice for all officers. The men still wore the faithful banian for PT. I still enjoyed the banian clinging to my skin and ensured that I had it on at all times.
My sahayak (helper) in the regiment was Sepoy Hukum Chand, who served me with at most dedication, love and care. He was my accountant, my personnel assistant, my bodyguard, my radio operator, my buddy in all aspects. He ensured everything for me – from when I got up, my morning tea, my cigarettes, my uniform, my room, my wardrobe, my outfit for the evening party etc. This continued for long seven years until seven year itch erupted – I got married and Hukum Chand refused to be dictated to as to what dress I wore for the evening party. My wife did not approve the suit Hukum Chand had chosen for me to wear that evening as it did not match her saree. My wife won and Hukum Chand lost.
Sepoy Hukum Chand had observed my keenness to wear the banian at all times and every six months he bought a dozen of them from the regimental canteen (he paid for it with my money as he was my accountant and I had no clue about the expenses). On enquiring as to why he bought new banians every six months, he told me that they become yellow on washing repeatedly in brackish water used by the waherman. He used to snip off the shoulder straps and cut open the trunk and it became a shining cloth for him to polish the leather boots and the belt and also the brass badges of rank. He said that the yellow shining-cloth available at the regimental canteen left yellow lint on the OG uniform and the black boots and looked awesome and he had to put in extra effort to clean-up after polishing. Used and many-time washed white banian was best suited for it and one did not have to pay to buy the shining-cloth – What a costly saving? He had the thin cloth for the leather boots and belt and the thicker ones for the brass.
After five years of postings on staff and various long courses, I returned to the regiment at Sikkim as a Battery Commander. Sepoy Sri Chand was this time assigned as my Sahayak and Hukum Chand was by then promoted to the rank of a Havildar. A few days after I rejoined the unit, Havildar Hukum Chand came to my bunker while I was having my afternoon siesta and started admonishing Sepoy Sri Chand as he had not maintained the Saheb’s bunker as per standard. Hukum Chand started advising Sri Chand about my likes and dislikes, my preference of tea, food, clothes, cigarette, etc. At the end he said “Saheb likes wearing a banian at all times, even while he is sleeping.” That was the time I observed that I was sleeping in my favourite lungi-banian. He added that I preferred wearing the thick banian under the uniform and the thin ones under the civil dress. A preference I never had and may have been cultivated by Hukum Chand to ensure that he had a constant supply of thin and thick cloth for polishing the leather and the brass.
Many a times your preferences and habits are not self-developed, but thrust upon you by the environment.