MEMORIES OF DAYS GONE BY

During our recent course reunion at the National Defence Academy, the first thing that struck me was how incredibly small the distances were between all the points of interest in the Academy, contrary to what it seemed forty-three years ago, when the norm to get from one place to another was mostly marching, doubling-up or by cycle. Of course, all these thoughts were coming to me while I was tootling along the sidewalk, deliberately keeping out of step with my retired course mates and trying to recall the exact spots where I was either lifting a bicycle over my head or doing a couple of front rolls. Memories flooded my mind, especially at the spots where I was ‘awarded’ Restrictions for doing something stupid.

NDA gives no space for ignorance of rules, even rules that I never knew, I didn’t have to know. For instance, once while walking back to the squadron from Sudan Block after extra classes two of us from my Squadron wandered off the well-worn path and decided to climb into the tank parked close to the road. I sat at the controls like a man marooned on a desert island, trying to breathe a little life into the machine. I imagined it coughed a little burp of hope as I prodded the throttle. My partner tried to move the barrel to point in the opposite direction. Maybe they had stripped off the tank with all its accessories, but I noticed that it had fewer toys than an Ethiopian boy on his 21st birthday. I loved the sound of a Vespa scooter or the strain of a Fiat car, but the sound that came from the rusted gears of the Tank seemed delightful. “What sound?” asked my partner. “Somebody is shouting for us to get out of the Tank!”

Unknown to us, a Drill Instructor who was probably returning home, saw the turret moving. And like all Drill Instructors, he began barking orders. But his shouting at a Tank parked in the dark did manage to raise a few eyebrows from passers-by and consequently their surprise turned into uncontrollable mirth as he went onto tell the ‘tank’ that it was no use remaining quiet in the dark. When we emerged from the tank a few minutes later, I noticed the Drill Instructor turned out to be from my own squadron and had seemingly turned purple with righteous indignation. For a moment I thought he would fill my trouser pockets with kerosene and set me alight. Instead, he simply marched both of us to the ‘Den of Inequity’, the Squadron Commander’s office, where he showed us with moistened eyes, the Restriction Chart for my Squadron, which looked like the Luftwaffe Air Traffic radar display in the 1940’s – up, up and away, with my squadron at pole position. Thanks to the chart, we happily got away with one hour of putti-parade the following Sunday afternoon, but the moral lecture we got from him left us floundering. He also mentioned that if we had trained the turret but kept the barrel horizontal, we wouldn’t have got caught. But that was a rule that we didn’t have to know!

In all my six terms in NDA I never used my handkerchief, the way it was meant to be used. In fact my six hankies used to be arranged like a bunch of flowers on the top shelf of my wooden cupboard, brand new, sparkling white, and folded evenly. I used to look at them lovingly, while snorting into paper tissues which I collected from the various restaurants in Pune over the weekend. The hankies were folded to perfection, slim-line and capable of fitting into the pockets of my shorts or trousers, without making me look like an FBI agent. But they were of rather less use to me than a trawler boat fishing for prawns in the Khadakwasla Lake. This silly habit of keeping well starched hankies in my pockets without using them continued till well after I got married, when my wife in a flurry of domesticity, used to demand them to wipe my daughter’s bottom. That’s when the old habit faded away. The squadron’s ante-room was a favourite place to hide out when we didn’t want to attend a compulsory swimming or athletics event at the stadium, since the squadron officers normally checked only the cabins for truant cadets. I once lost a bet for a wager of five donuts. Twenty bucks was a lot of dosh in those days for someone whose monthly stipend was just 35 bucks and whose wallet invariably said “insufficient funds”. So I agreed to skip the Lake swimming event and listen to music at a low volume in the ante-room for a quid pro quo deal, with the gates locked and the room in total darkness. That afternoon somebody from the squadron office opened the ante-room for some work. We managed to escape by the skin of our teeth by staying one room ahead of our assailant and by outrunning a Tornado jet to escape into the toilet, where we sat on our haunches for almost two hours till the rest of the squadron returned. Visiting the same wardroom after 43 years brought back these memories.

After the group photograph on the steps of Sudan Block we walked back to our individual squadrons for photographs. Standing near the Ashoka Pillar, I could visualise a traffic snarl that only the Pune roads can muster, when the ACA would summon an Academy Fall-in on a Saturday afternoon. I would usually be sitting in the library browsing through Mad and Punch magazines, till the traffic jam cleared and there was still time to enter the Mess for lunch.

A visit to the Equitation Lines brought back memories of how often I ventured risking a cardiac arrest. My smarter course mates used to always arrive early and take the best horses and I would get the last one standing called Bulldozer. Bulldozer was a horse no one wanted to ride. If you somehow managed to mount it, then it was just a matter of time before his front legs lifted high up followed by a scissor-cut kick with his hind legs, while you just sat there doing nothing till you hit the ground. Well, that’s what I used to do anyway. I always felt onlookers would be impressed by this stunt had they not caught a glimpse of my countenance before I fell. Bulldozer could buck and writhe, kick, shake and rattle, all at the same time. And he went through all the motions without even gently perspiring, and remained as unruffled as the Head Butler at a Dinner Night at the NDA Mess. As for me, I used to be dripping sweat and holding onto my pith hat or whatever was left of it because he loved to eat pith hats. Like me, there were a few others from other squadrons, who I saw fairly regularly, having a perpetually frightened look on their faces, heading off on their horses towards whatever horizon was available, from one Toli to another, ricocheting their way all over the Equitation Lines, in a sort of large scale demonstration of the Physics Law of Brownian motion.

Now, if I were to tell you that the final exam question papers in our sixth term had leaked before the exam, you would probably raise one of your eyebrows. And if I told you that our Drill Subedar Major was actually a closet Bharat Natayam dancer, the other eyebrow would surely join the first one. But if I told you that I cleared the ‘lane jump’ the first attempt, you’d probably flip over and die of laughter. Nevertheless, in my very first attempt, I emerged from the lane holding onto Bulldozer from under his neck. And because I hadn’t fallen off, technically I had cleared the jump and breezed past my fourth term without having to ride a horse ever again!

We had such fun in our ‘F’- classification classes. One of our professors would allow the smokers to go to the bathroom despite knowing they were going to enjoy a smoke. Another one never shook himself properly after a visit to the loo. And the third one always leaked the paper a day before the exams.

In my first term at NDA I had wished to God that I had chosen to become an accountant. But by my sixth term I was happy I had gone through NDA. There were lots of things I wish I hadn’t done at NDA. I wish I’d stopped predicting the question paper before every exam. I wish I could have looked Bulldozer in the eye and mustered the courage to sit in the saddle firmly.

But most of all I wish I hadn’t grown up so quickly and continued to have fun even at the risk of getting punished for it. I now know that I can now do all the things in NDA that I wished I’d done, without having to feel the embarrassment for doing it! Life has come a full circle for me.

I’ve been asked by people why go through NDA when you can enjoy college life and still join the Navy. My reply is usually with another question: why have a bar-b-que, when you have a stove to cook your supper, or why climb Mount Everest when you could watch it in a documentary?

Coming back to NDA after 43 years was like witnessing a waterfall with all its drama and power. In the three days it took for our reunion, I had my memories all sewn up.

Captain Anil Gonsalves, IN, (Retd) joined NDA in 1975 and passed out in 1978. He commanded Coast Guard ship Rajshree and INS Mahish in the Navy among his varied appointments. He took premature retirement in 2005 and presently is working in the Offshore Division of the Shipping Corporation of India as Master in their Platform Support Vessels.

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