Monday 24 November 2014


Joining the National Defence Academy

"What do you mean, you want to join the NDA. You have lost your elder brother in the Indo-Pak war and you want to follow him? Who will keep the name of our family going? Forget it," his father had thundered when he had gone up to him and said that he wanted to join the Army. 

"But Dad" he had begun to reply when his father cut him off with a simple "I said, forget it. Don't even raise the topic again."

He had turned to his mother for help. She motioned him to wait. Later she had called him aside and said" Give me some time. I will bring your father around." He had said that he was not too good in studies and preferred an outdoor life, where he excelled in many games, all physical. Sure enough, his mother got him the forms to fill and within a fortnight had convinced his father that the Army was the right way to go. The Indian Union Public Commission Service test was not too taxing and he felt confident of passing. The results took two months and he passed. Soon thereafter, he had received the call letter for an interview to be followed by the Selection Process at the Services Selection Board at Dehradun. The SSB was easy as most of it dealt with outdoor activities and leadership qualities. In the final interview with the President of the Board, he was told he had done well and the fact that his elder brother was a martyr had helped considerably. He could be sure of getting the call letter to join the National Defence Academy at Khadakwasla in Poona. The call letter came as expected and his father accompanied him from Puri all the way to the NDA. Everything seemed so well organised that he felt that this was the right vocation for the likes of him.

The reception at the NDA was in the Cadet's Mess, the floor of which was waxed so well that he could see his face on the tiles. There were three Officers sitting at three tables, one each for the Indian Navy, the Army and the Air Force. There were hardly any formalities to complete. It as all over in fifteen minutes and the Officer told his father very politely that his son was now with the NDA and would be trained to become a man in every sense of the word. He also advised him to leave as soon as convenient as the Cadets had many chores to complete once they reached their assigned Squadrons. The farewell was emotional, as both he and his father choked back their tears. Ultimately, his father left in the coach provided for the accompanying parents or guardians. He was told that he was to go to Foxtrot Squadron and an orderly was detailed to carry his regulation black trunk, 40 inches by 24 by 20 and his holdall that contained his bedding. He followed the orderly who showed him around as they headed for Foxtrot Squadron. His life would take a meaningful path as soon as he reached his destination, Foxtrot Squadron.


The Initiation

As soon as they reached the portals of Foxtrot Squadron, he was accosted by a Cadet dressed in NDA uniform.

     The orderly was released and the cadet initiated him into life in the National Defence Academy.
"What's your name, you?"
"Ramesh Mishra," he had answered.
"Ramesh Mishra, sir, OK?"
"Bloody clot, I just told you to call me sir. You will call everyone here sir, do you follow?"
      "Yes, sir," he had replied meekly.
"What's my name?" he was asked. 'Now how am I supposed to know who this joker is,' he thought , as he said," I don't know."
"I don't know SIR, you stupid ass."
"Sorry, sir" he apologised.
"Is this your luggage," he was asked.
"Yes, sir."
"Good. Pick it up and follow me. Come on, you are supposed to be a grown up!" the senior Cadet said mockingly. He managed to get the trunk onto his head and picked up his holdall with his right hand. He followed his senior into a long corridor, balancing the heavy trunk on his head with difficulty. He found that his left hand was on the trunk and he must have looked a sight walking with both hands occupied in a comical manner. Halfway in, the senior stopped and got him to put his luggage down." This is the central lobby of Foxtrot Squadron. Your cabin is on the first floor, number 45, as you can see on the notice board. Pick up your luggage and follow me," he was ordered.

" Yes, sir," he replied and loaded himself again. They went up the flight of steps and soon reached his cabin, which was open. The cabin was fairly spacious, with a bed which had a mattress, a chest of drawers with a mirror and a writing table with a chair. There were three framed photographs hanging on the wall. Two showed the various types of uniform and how they were worn whereas the third showed how the cabin was to be set up. There was a mosquito net on the bed, which he had missed out, as it had been rolled up so tight that it escaped notice. There was no fan!

" What have you got from home to eat?" he was asked.
" I did not bring anything, sir. I have come from Puri."
" Open your trunk and show me what you have," was the next order. His trunk had nothing apart from the essentials, disappointing the senior.
" Which lock have you got? Don't ever use the issued Godrej one, anyone can open it," advised the senior.
" Right sir. I have a Chinese lock."
" Good. Deposit one key when the time comes with the Squadron Subedar, OK."
" OK, sir. I will do that. Thank you."

 "What thanks, dash it. Life is yet to start for you here. Take it all calmly, everything is for your own good. You will be ragged for two and a half years; as a first-termer, you will be ragged the most. Don't give up and run away like many guys do. You need courage and a lot of mental strength. Remember, at the end of it all, you will come out much stronger physically and mentally. There are some bastards who will bullshit the hell out of you. Some are vicious chaps. Learn how to stay away from them. Open your window and the grille beneath. Learn how to climb into your cabin from outside while your door is locked. Hide below your bed, as they will look for you through the ventilation grille. It has ten strands of wire. The seventh strand is called the 'seventh heaven'. You will go to heaven many times." 'I don't want to go to heaven just yet, stupid' he said to himself. Suddenly yet another cadet barged in and said, "Get lost, Shanks." His first acquaintance left quickly. 'Now what?' he thought.

" What's your name, you?" No preliminaries of any kind.
" Ramesh Mishra, sir" he answered.
" General Ramesh Mishra or Dr. Ramesh Mishra or what, clot?"
" Just Ramesh Mishra, sir."
" Cadet Ramesh Mishra, you idiot."
" Right, sir."
" What's my name?"
'Here we go again' he thought as he said," I don't know, sir."
"Find out and let me know."
“What’s my Service Number?”
"I don't know, sir."
“What do you know, dope. Find out and let me know.”
"Right sir."
"What is your father's name?" came the next query.
"Mr. PC Mishra, sir", an easy enough answer.
"Forget him. Your father's name from now on is NDA. Understood, clot?”   
      " Yes sir."
      " What's your mother's name?"
      " Mrs. Damayanti Mishra, sir."
      " You are a dim clot. Your mother's name is NDA. NDA, what?"
      " NDA, sir."
      " Much better. Now, get into the corridor."
      " Right sir," he said as he stepped out of his Cabin.
"Shout twenty times: my father's name is NDA and my mother's name is NDA," was the next step in his initiation. He started to shout what he was ordered to but was stopped immediately." Have you lost your lungs? I said shout. Shout, dope." He raised his voice to the maximum and did what he was told.
     "Better. Louder now."
      In response, he heard an echo of what he had just shouted, from below his feet." That is your brother, who is learning like you," he was told. He had forgotten the number of new faces that he saw that day, all of whom had asked that silly question: What's my name? How could he ever know? Apparently this was standard practice in the NDA. He himself would ask all freshers the same question in the 5 terms to come.


The Learning Curve

They had actually joined the NDA one week earlier than its scheduled opening. All cadets he had met were those who had been denied their mid-term vacations as they had failed in their end of term examinations and had stayed back for the period to get extra coaching prior to their re-tests. Failure in these re-tests meant relegation to their junior course and a loss of six months. Hell would break loose when the entire Squadron re-assembled a week later, he was told.

Among those who had been present during that first week were the Cadet Appointees as Supervisors, all from the sixth term. This meant that they saw their Squadron Cadet Captain or SCC and their Squadron Sergeant Major, or CSM. It was these senior cadets’ responsibility to look after the freshers and guide them through their first week. The first item on their agenda was a haircut. They had all trooped to the Saloon where a dozen barbers were waiting. The haircut was fast. The barber had put a beret on their heads and shaved off whatever was visible. After taking the beret off, they used their scissors with gay abandon and reduced the length of their hair to one centimetre.

After a shower, they had to walk around the entire Campus, a trudge of over 25 km, including the Gliderdrome, the Equitation Lines, Khadakwasla Lake, still known to old timers as Lake Fife, and the various establishments along the Perimeter Road of an area that encompassed some 23,000 acres of land. He could never have imagined how vast and complete the NDA was, with the imposing edifice named after the Country that had paid for its cost of construction, the 'Sudan Block'. The other imposing building was the Science Block, with a clock tower visible from anywhere to cadets. Its clock, the ‘Big Ben’ and its chimes was an exact replica of the original as the architect was British. All construction was solid and totally fault-free. No signs of poor or cheap construction that was so prevalent in Civvy Street.

The Library and the Auditorium were replicas of each other, down to the nearest detail, though their insides were different. The theatre was the largest in Asia with a seating capacity of two thousand in relative comfort. All lawns looked like new Billiards Tables, manicured to near perfection. All gardens were beautiful and a sight for sore eyes. The Cadets Mess could seat two thousand people though it was generally limited to one thousand six hundred seats, with the central wooden dance floor, waxed till it reflected even candlelight, cordoned off. The kitchen was huge, automated and spotlessly clean. The swimming pool was of Olympic Standards and the water pellucid. The Gymnasium was again huge and had every facility available; it could house six hundred heads at any time. The playing fields were neatly laid out, all twelve of them and all were of the size of a football field. The Stadium that housed the Cricket pitch was simply superb. It had hosted the West Indian team in 1956 when they played against the Services in a three-day match. The Athletics track was laid around the Cricket ground.  The Polo grounds seemed vast, nestled as they were between the foothills of the leeward side of the Western Ghats of India. The Quartermaster's Fort was just that-a walled Fortress that housed all items of uniform or kits for fifteen hundred Cadets. The layout inside was perfect, as expected. Nothing seemed out of place and the courtyard was huge; after all, it had to house fifteen hundred of them before marching out for the end of term Ceremony called the Passing-out Parade when they bade the 6th termers goodbye.

The historic Sinhagad Fort dominated the skyline, and the vagaries of Nature had crafted the peaks of the hill next to it to resemble what was then known as Ursula's Tit, so named after a prominent film actress of the current era. Later he would learn the names of the many hills surrounding the Campus, which was in a bowl of some kind and very similar to the famous city of Kandy in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. They were taken to the NDA Gate as the Portal to the Academy was called. From there, one got his first view of the NDA, which was so pretty and picturesque that it took one's breath away. Small wonder that all visitors to the NDA were impressed beyond words. The layout was so perfectly symmetrical that one couldn't but marvel at the vision of the Architects and Designers of this hallowed institution. Wordsworth could well have written his famous poem from there, so entrancing the view and so salubrious the climate.



Life in the NDA was far removed from the impression one got from the outside. The training schedule was punishing in the extreme, followed by hell in the Squadron for the first three months. He learnt to run errands of seniors, get them their morning tea and 'Chota Hazri', as pre-breakfast porridge was called. It was available at exactly 0500 every morning except Sunday, when the authorities gave them 60 minutes more. Life supposedly began at 0545, fully kitted out for the first session of the morning-either Drill or Physical Training. Every alternate day they had both with a ten-minute gap between the two. If it was Drill second, their orderlies would be present at the Drill Square, a 1000 x 750 yard tarmac, with their Drill kit. Khaki Cotton shorts and shirts with knife edged creases, never worn after return from the 'Dhobi' or washerman. The Drill boots had a special layer of leather that covered the toe-cap and this was waxed by their orderlies to shine like a mirror. They had to have exactly fourteen studs, symmetrically punched in. Their stockings were to end exactly one inch below their knees, and folded over by exactly an inch, with their Squadron Colour tags peeping out by exactly half an inch. They had to carry their ID Cards in their left pocket, along with their Blood-group chit and the NDA Prayer. The left pocket had to have just their measuring sticks, used to measure their stockings, nothing else.

All had to pass muster of the Academy Drill Sergeant Major, a hawk-eyed individual with a stentorian voice that easily carried across the vast Parade Square. His was easily the most commanding and impressive personality in the entire Academy and he was chosen from among over a thousand Subedar Majors in the Indian Army. Even the Officers were awed by his sheer presence. The slightest departure from the norms were met with punishment in the form of extra-drills, where one sacrificed one's tea break and a sixty minute reprieve from the daily routine. Instead, one went back to the Drill Square in Field Service Marching Order, an olive green overall with all appurtenances that one would take into battle.

Each defaulter was given a Rifle and spent fifty-five minutes running round the Drill Square with the Rifles above one's head. Punishment no doubt, but healthy in that no one spat venom or took out his ire on you. Severe defaulters were given harsher punishment that included reporting to the Duty Officer twice, the first being halfway during the Breakfast break in standard uniform. The second was late at night, fifteen minutes before Lights-out time, ie, 2145, in yet another Field Uniform called the Chindit Order, named after the famous British Officer who led the Guerilla-type war in Burma, now Myanmar, against the Japanese. The extra-drill routine was part of this punishment. Painful, a loss of leisure time, but not vicious.



But life actually began at 0415, to report to a 2nd termer at 0445 for a turnout check. He would then escort them to a 3rd termer for a further check. The 4th term Corporal Cadet would see them at 0515 and pass them for a check with the 5th term Sergeant Cadet at 0530. One of them would then be detailed to announce "Foxtrot Squadron, 5 min to muster," reminding the entire Squadron to hurry up. He would then announce the Muster at the top of his voice, so that all were down by 0540, with their bicycles at their side, fully serviceable and squeaky-clean. Muster would see them all lined up outside, split into three groups, one per floor. These groups were called Divisions, each Division having its own 4th term Corporal, 5th term Sergeant and 6th term Division Cadet Captain, or DCC. Each Division had an Officer in charge, of the rank of Captain or equivalent.  No 6th termer attended muster-the privileges of seniority. Muster was a sort of roll call, with the Sergeants reporting full strength to the CSM, who would then inform the SCC accordingly. The SCC would inform one of the Divisional Officers that the Squadron was at full strength for Muster, adding details of any Cadets who were ill or due to go to the Hospital at 0600.

The CSM would carry out a random check in the interim. God help any cadet checked. He would say, "See me at 1330 in FSMO" or any uniform that took his fancy. The Sergeant would be ticked off later and the defaulter would get it in the neck after the CSM had finished with him. Most punishments were rough, but healthy, like running around the block with one's bicycle held over one's head. They built up stamina. The most common punishment was push-ups. These were painful, yet healthy. Front or back rolling, i.e. somersaults forwards or backwards were acceptable, as they were part of one's PT and one had to pass a Front and Back Roll Test. Often, one was referred to a good cross-country runner and he would say, "PT rig at 1330. We will run up 2475," the name of a hill that was at an altitude of 2475 feet above mean sea level. It could even be 2562, another hill in the area.

Often, the punishment would be delayed to Sunday morning, when a number of defaulters would go up both hills or even Sinhagad Fort. The last was torture, as it involved an 8 mile run across the Dam that created Khadakvasla Lake, a steep climb to 4720 feet and an equally long return trip. Four tough hours of cross-country, but still acceptable.He learned to dread what was called a 'Cabin Cupboard', where his cabin would be checked for proper layout and cleanliness. There was no way out and he saw where all the seniors found dust. He had seen his CSM remove his tubular mosquito rod and put his little finger in to pull out dust. The CSM had ordered him to put the rod in his mouth and breathe in; he just couldn't forget the bout of chest-racking coughs that ensued. He naturally expected to be punished and duly was. 

Not all punishments were healthy. There were the sadistic bums who would call one out into the sun-baked tarmac in front of the Squadron, bikes over ones' head, but bare-foot. Blisters would develop as the soles of one's feet felt like they were being roasted. Sometimes, one would be ordered to strip to one's shorts and front or back-roll over the tarmac, each contact with the hot surface becoming more and more agonizing. Evening punishments saw one climbing to 'seventh heaven' and then carrying out pull-ups, leaving bloodied fingers as the strands cut through the skin. Sheer pain would force one to let go and drop. There were some unstable seniors who would spray the floor with thumbtacks, letting one drop onto them without a care in the world. Even worse was getting under the hut-shaped newspaper rack and running with it upstairs and downstairs. The shinbones hurt like the devil, one's foreleg got skinned but one carried on.

In a way even such punishments were acceptable as they increased one's threshold of pain by a considerable margin. Then came the stupid idiots who would order one to back-roll downstairs, getting hurt in the process. Such injuries weren't too severe, except when a sadist would order one to wear Riding uniform with the Chindit pack and its add-ons like a water-bottle and ammo pouches full of sand. The pack weighed over thirty Kilos, but that was of no concern. Fortunately the authorities banned this when one fresher sadly broke his spine in the course of his punishment. It was a pity that it took such a tragedy for the authorities to step in.

The worst was Mental Torture. The Squadron would be asked to fall-in in the Central Lobby in divisions at 2130 or so on Saturday and then be asked to stay absolutely still till 0600 on Sunday. Some junior cadets would collapse but that was their own demise. He would be picked up and dumped under a piercingly cold shower, only to return soaking wet and back into the line-up. Some times, punishments could be fun. One cadet named Dinky, since deceased, had an electric guitar and he would ensure that freshers each term would be punished together. They would all climb onto the cycle sheds in the rectangular area that was enclosed by the four squadrons that formed a Battalion. The guitar would blare and all freshers would dance on the roof of the sheds, to the generous applause of many.



Sometime the Academy Adjutant, invariably an Army officer from the Cavalry, would pass an order through the Subedar Major and his cohorts would execute them regardless of thought. One such order was that all cadets would carry their satchels. One could walk stark naked but if he did not have his satchel, woe betide him. Raincapes were not to be shared ; one heard the funny statement "Cadet, no two in one sharing rain!" Then came the turn of bicycles. As it was, the rule was that nobody, nobody other than 6th termers ever walked in the NDA. He ran. When the unserviceability rate of bicycles became high, the higher ups decided that all cadets would have their cycles with them, serviceable or not. So the militiamen executed the order as given to them. If the bicycles were not serviceable, then they were to be dismantled and all parts carried in the satchel, except for the frame and wheels, which were to become a garland of sorts, draped around one's neck. If a 6th termer's bike was flat, he would take a good one from the nearest 1st termer. The rest ran, as always. Good for one's stamina, as easily explained.

As many as four films were shown every week, one on Wednesday, one on Saturday and two on Sunday. One spent Monday discussing the last three films they had seen, Tuesday would go in anticipation of the forth-coming movie, Thursday went in the review of Wednesday's movie and Friday was spent awaiting the three films to come. Sunday morning films were generally cartoons for the kids, but who cared. At least one could get three hours of peaceful sleep, dead to the world. Not so with evening movies. The Adjutant would perhaps tick off the Academy Cadet Adjutant because the number of cadets on extra drills was too large for comfort. This was his way of showing who was boss. Nobody save the 6th termers could leave the auditorium. As soon as all officers and their families left, the ACA would stride onto stage and conduct a parade of his own. All cadets would be forced to stand motionless for half an hour and then return to the Cadet's Mess for Dinner front rolling all the way. It was just a question of luck.

But then, how could he ever forget the horror that followed the Hindi movie 'Yeh Raat Phir Kabhi Nahi Aayegi, which, when translated into English, read 'This night will never reoccur'. Over 1200 cadets had front-rolled eight Kilometres along the periphery and missed Dinner. The ACA had been punished and replaced by the Adjutant, but that didn't alter the fact that they had ruined their clothes and had to purchase replacements. Exceptions apart, one could hopefully sleep through the film and then get away for a quick dinner. Dinner on Mondays and Thursdays were formal occasions and one wore the appropriate formal dress and observed the decorum of a dining-in night, for a five course meal, eating timings synchronized with the senior-most cadet on the table. At times all officers would attend and the dinner became easier to digest. One often saw a cadet pushing a solitary bean on to the back of his fork with his knife and picking up a morsel of bread that was exactly one-sixteenth of a slice. Front-rollers would brush past one's knees to deliver messages from one end to the other. All in good fun, though, though not for the cadet crawling under the table. 

Squadron spirit was essential. They would all go to cheer the Squadron Teams whenever a match was in progress. As a good all-round athlete, he had played Football, Hockey, Squash and Tennis for the Squadron, right from his first term. They would be cheered as a team, even with first termers playing. The Squadron fund would pay for their post match soft refreshments like Cokes and peanuts. Camaraderie was built up this way, to stand them in good stead later. The NDA stamp was all embracing, the very word establishing rapport. Yes, those were the formative years that had developed in him a sense of belonging to his unit, whichever it be. This was the most enduring of relationships, which would continue life-long. In fact, there was an occasion when the three Service Chiefs were course-mates from their salad days.


Squadron spirit was essential. They would all go to cheer the Squadron Teams whenever a match was in progress. As a good all-round athlete, he had played Football, Hockey, Squash and Tennis for the Squadron, right from his first term. They would be cheered as a team, even with first termers playing. The Squadron fund would pay for their post match soft refreshments like Cokes and peanuts. Camaraderie was built up this way, to stand them in good stead later. The NDA stamp was all embracing, the very word establishing rapport. Yes, those were the formative years that had developed in him a sense of belonging to his unit, whichever it be. This was the most enduring of relationships, which would continue life-long. In fact, there was an occasion when the three Service Chiefs were course-mates from their salad days.

His three year stay had passed off so rapidly that many occurrences had been forgotten. Ragging and punishment was history, condemned to the remotest corner of one's brain. The change of stream was the wisest decision of his life, even though his Naval course-mates were Commissioned one full year before him while the Army cadets had gained six months over him, their Commissioning being that much earlier. One never thought about such mundane things; it was infra dig. He had been appointed the SCC of his Squadron, a matter of great pride, as he had excelled in sports and done fairly well in Academics.

But he got his greatest thrills in Gliding. They were flying the venerable British Sedbergh T-21B Glider, and were allowed a total of sixty launches before appearing for a Solo Check with the Flight Commander, where one either failed passed. The check consisted of two Sorties, the second being a test of reflexes in case of any failures, like the tow-line attached to the winch snapping during the climb out, etc. He had passed and was presented his wings by the Flight Commander. He had shown great promise and flew five dual sorties with his instructor pilot, who then cleared him for three solo sorties, all on the same T-21B, with a 60 Kilo pack as ballast in the vacant seat. He was the only cadet permitted to fly the Eon Baby, an aerobatic single-seat ultra-light glider. He recalled hitting a thermal and climbing upto 6,000 feet above ground, 5,000 feet higher than he had ever been before. NDA when seen from the air was a magnificent spectacle. Seeing the historic fort of Sinhagad below him was yet another truly awe-inspiring picture. From that day onwards, he had decided that he would become a fighter pilot. 

He remembered his Passing-out Parade with nostalgia. As the SCC, he commanded his Squadron through the parade till it was time to separate from his boys and line up in sixes to march up towards the 'Quarter Deck' as the large dais was called. There was a mast with sails, much like the ships of the past. The National Flag fluttered with glory at the peak and the NDA Flag was one level below it, followed by the Colours of each Squadron. He remembered the final salute as they reached abeam the Mast, marching past in Slow Order. The other Cadets also marched away in Slow Order and the view from Big Ben showed the symmetry of the two lots of Cadets marching away from each other. This view was truly magnificent, to say the least.

The rest of the day went in a haze, with felicitations all round. He had taken his parents to meet the Commandant of the Academy, a two-star General in those days. They also met the Home Minister who had presided over the Parade and taken the Salute. How they reached home remained a blur in the distant past, travelling with proud parents who recounted the experience of the three days that they had spent in the NDA with their son. First the round of the Campus in a coach, with a smartly dressed cadet as guide and historian, boating on Khadakwasla Lake, the three-hour Cultural Show, the Dinner Night, the Polo match and the various displays put up by the other Cadets for their benefit.  What a dream that was, all of forty-five years ago.