A tumbledown yet majestic yellow Harvard aircraft parked in the frontage of the academic block of my alma mater -- the Sainik School, Kazhakootam, Kerala -- had always been a cynosure.
I found the metallic kite irresistible the very moment I spotted it. Bewitched, this impressionable boy clambered into her cockpit, randomly moved the creaking joystick with boyish abandon and could not cease marvelling at the squeaky movement of the ailerons and elevators my uninhibited exertions produced. Later, I yanked the propeller blade to set it going but it never budged. I was all of nine years then.
Till I left school, whenever I got the time, I would lean against her nacelle and chew over why only birds flew and the science of flight. I wanted to defy gravity, to soar and swoop like an eagle. In January 1981, I joined the National Defence Academy at Khadakwasla in Pune, to pursue military aviation.
Expect the unexpected
We (294 cadets of the 65th course) were split into two squadrons and spent the first of six terms at the NDA Wing in Ghorpuri (Pune). One unforgettable officer at Ghorpuri was Captain N S Nijjar, a strapping Sikh officer and a strict disciplinarian, one of the divisional officers charged with instilling military character in us greenhorns.
In time we discovered that he had a tender core beneath his hard shell, and a puckish sense of humour to boot, which incurred the sobriquet 'Humour in uniform!' As evident from the following anecdote, he had a propensity to bite into an apple to see if he had an appetite for orange.
As expected of freshly mustered red-blooded youngsters, there was this jostling among us to establish one's primacy and overselling ourselves to gain that was the norm. Inter-squadron contests were round the corner, and selection to various teams was imminent.
One evening Captain Nijjar asked those who had represented their school basketball team to raise hands. He was clearly unsurprised to see more than half of us with elevated arms but, for effect, he ambled here and there in deep thought, mutated his face to convey an expression of someone confronted with a tenacious puzzle.
Pretending to have cracked it, he raised the bar and bid for those who had played basketball at the national level. Lo, two dozen arms went up before he could complete his invitation! He then cherry-picked a dozen and motioned them to fall out and line up before the squadron. The chosen twelve sported a triumphant smirk at having outsmarted others.
As they were savouring their moment, Captain Nijjar, in character, hailed the cadet-in-charge and ordered, 'Jhala, take them for boxing!' Needless to say, the twelve grinning visages turned downcast instantly. They would have preferred to vanish into the bowels of the earth rather than suffer our ribbing for life. And nobody missed the deadpan look that Captain Nijjar was trying hard to sustain.
Well, we distilled the right message from this baptismal episode and learned an abiding lesson.
In pursuit of horse sense
Hurting from the saddle-bite I picked up during my maiden riding, I could not but wonder why future military officers should undergo horse-riding. Only later it dawned on me that riding made horse sense. Having put up with a generation of cadets, the NDA horses knew who was adept and expressed its exasperation at lousy horsemanship by shaking its muzzle in disbelief, neighing, bucking and kicking. The rider had to earn the respect of the animal, period. Analogically, an officer had to earn the respect of his subordinates to become an effective leader.
With time, the arduous regimen augmented our physical and mental capacities, and upped the thresholds. One facet of NDA-conditioning that we loathed was moral lecture by senior cadets. ML, as it was known, may have been well-meant but it generally panned out into torturous loquacity that bored the living daylights out of us! (If only our police realised its utility as third degree technique to bore criminals to tears and then obtain voluntary confession.)
As earmuffs would be caught, as yawns could be mistaken as compliment that might inspire the perpetrator to intensify his verbal flourish, we needed a potent counter. We serendipitously discovered the horses to be blessed with the faculty to sleep while standing! Quick on the uptake, we aped this special skill and it became a handy tool in our survival kit.
Atop the summit, and after
Among the buildings that grace the NDA, the Sudan Block crowned by a 72-feet-diameter dome made of red sandstone stands out. The imposing edifice is named after the African republic that gifted 100,000 pounds in 1941 for the construction of a memorial as gratitude to the gallantry and sacrifices of Indian troops in the defence of Sudan during the Second World War.
I have often gaped at the Sudan, not to admire its architectural splendour but to suss out how P P Davis -- two years senior to me in my alma mater -- scaled its gigantic dome disregarding the hazards. (For the record, though I badly wanted to, I could not emulate Davis.)
According to a scrap from NDA folklore, with the proverbial stealth of a thief in the night, he and his buddy, after dodging the sentry on the beat, hid their footwear, unscrewed the padlock of the door of the stairwell with a borrowed screwdriver and tiptoed up the stairs. From the rooftop, they shinnied up the tiny rungs a la Spiderman. To reach the apex of the dome from the top rung, his buddy Bipin Bakshi lifted and seated Davis on his shoulders. Balanced precariously on his perch, Davis tied a handkerchief around the lightning rod.
To their chagrin, nobody seemed to notice it the next day and did not create the flutter they wanted their exploit to. Undaunted, Davis repeated the feat a few weeks later, this time with A R Hudlikar as his cohort. To attract eyeballs, he placed a riding pith hat right on top of the lightning conductor.
As they desired, their derring-do did not go in vain; it was noticed by no less than a visiting Soviet general who was being conducted by the NDA commandant! 'Shto eta? (What's that?)' queried the general pointing skywards. Though taken aback by the sight of the scummy, frayed pith helmet, his quicksilver wit enabled him to concoct a timely response. "Er... ah, that sir is an exotic bird's nest!" he replied. Bobbing his head in appreciation, the general exclaimed, 'Khorosho, oochin khorosho, oochin priyathna! (Good, very good, that's lovely!)'
Though it impressed the general, the commandant was not amused by the caper. In fact, he was livid. Soon, 1,500 cadets were on the thoroughfares, doubling, rolling, some bounding about on their haunches, some trotting with their bikes (pompous alias of ordinary bicycle!) hoisted overhead. True to type, nobody owned up nor sneaked, and took it as one of those days.
The NDA way of doing things
One could never deduce any rationale for the punishments meted out to us as much of it was neither expiatory nor deterrent by nature; just like the hills hemming the campus, punishments too were woven into the warp and weft of our life. Collective punishment (entire academy, squadron or course) for an individual's indiscretion or transgression may seem daffy or illogical to an outsider but believe me there is a method in the madness.
Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, the English scientist and inventor of the bouncing bomb of Dambusters fame, had philosophised: 'Struggle is the sauce of life. Character is developed by endurance, by constantly facing and beating hardship.' Given the strenuous nature of the cadet's life, I guess the NDA was inspired by the Wallis doctrine that our putative talents develop best only when catalysed by pressure and tension!
The camaraderie we fostered at NDA was cast in shared sweat, hunger, torment, fracas, even tomfoolery. Since our ties were borne out of enduring hardship together, ours are 24-carat bonds that would easily pass the test of both time and trials. To me, this steadfast camaraderie is the most perdurable gift NDA gave us, and this togetherness is what makes the alumni an unbeatable force, in both war and peace.
The cadets at NDA are a microcosmic representation of India. The Academy's fundamental objective therefore is to weave this heterogeneous collection into an organic whole with Indian-ness as its soul. The NDA is a true crucible of the manifold constituents that make this great nation, where the sub-identities are coalesced to yield a national identity.
Though we hailed from diverse backgrounds, spoke multiple tongues, we never judged anyone by his religion, caste, creed, parentage or such pigeonholes.
Esprit de corps: What NDA means to me, what it has meant to me over the years
Like our bureaucracy, the military too churns out burdensome bumf and bunkum, contrives work from thin air, but I found out that the three years in NDA had equipped me to winnow the farcical from the essential tasks, the acumen to not mix up the two, and to focus my energies on what mattered to the service and to shirk the redundant chores.
The NDA training incessantly asked tough questions and the cadets had to come up with appropriate answers. Whether it was inventing alibis or managing kit, feigning ignorance or making oneself scarce when the officers/seniors turned the heat on, the Academy primed you up to save your neck. It taught one the language and grammar of survival.
When I look back, the Sainik School, NDA and the fighter cockpit were what made me what I am. The attributes -- discipline, composure, alertness, application and, above all, aggression -- demanded by the fighter jet from her jockey were sown and grown in Sainik School and NDA.
In a quirky instant 20 years ago, a mishap reduced me to a wreck of a combat pilot. From the fighter cockpit to a wheelchair, from a bird's-eye view to a worm's-eye view of the world... life was never the same since.
I shall not dwell on the rebirth it forced on me, but suffice it to say that I relied on the survival skills I learned and honed at the Sainik School and NDA to bounce back into the arena of life. The rigorous regimen at NDA made us hardy individuals and it prepared us to prevail over adversity.
NDA's contribution to the nation
George Yong-Boon Yeo, the foreign minister of Singapore, has served in the army and the air force. Being a tri-service academy, he visited NDA in 1988 to learn from it, and the then commandant invited him to address the cadets. Here I paraphrase what he said in a recent interview to a television channel:
'It was an impressive gathering of cadets; there were tall Pathans, turbaned lads from Punjab, youth with Mongoloid features from the east, boys from the peninsula. There I realised that this is a key institution holding the Indian Union together.'Need one say more?
The National Defence Academy is 60 years old and is now celebrating the diamond jubilee. While rejoicing this milestone, I take this opportunity to salute the alumni who made the supreme sacrifice in the line of duty to preserve the integrity of our motherland.
Service Before Self. That's the NDA motto, and it embodies the quintessence of this first-rate cradle of military leadership. Viva NDA!