Thursday, 2 December 2010


Life’s little things are the ones that teach you more than bigger events. I spent thirty-seven years in the Indian Navy and I am convinced my life was moulded because of the small nuggets that came my way. I shall periodically try to recollect some of these in this blog. This is the second of these nuggets.

I was posted on INS Himgiri for obtaining my Bridge Watchkeeping certificate. Himgiri was the second of the indigenously built Leander class frigates (the first one being Nilgiri). It was a fully air-conditioned modern frigate with the latest in weapons and sensors. However, my next ship, INS Karwar, a Hunt class minesweeper appeared to be a big letdown. It was old, leaking (especially at the forepeak where the previous ship's company had banged it whilst going alongside at Gateway of India whilst practising for President's Review of the Fleet) and as far removed fron the luxury of a Leander as possible.

In addition to the pathetic state of the ship, I suddenly found myself in a position wherein I was responsible for my job (unlike when I was an under-trainee on Himgiri) and could not turn to anyone for advice about how to go about doing the various tasks that I was expected to do.

I had been on board for about a week. On one night when I was the Officer of the Day, at about the time when the last libertymen should return, there was commotion in the water near the ship's berth on South Breakwater in Naval Dockyard, Mumbai. Kuldip Singh, Seaman First Class, Radar Plotter, Third Grade, had fallen from the brow into the water. It came out that he was in the habit of returning drunk on board and that the incident was bound to happen one day or the other.

Anyway, I got him fished out of the water. Kuldip had lost his turban and his Identity Card, two of the things that he should have guarded with great care; one protecting his izzat (honour) in civil life and the other in navy life. The next day he was marched before me and thereon to the Executive Officer (second in command) and to the Commanding Officer (the Navy Act and Regulations for the I.N. gives powers to those in authority to summarily try and award punishments). He was awarded Punishments numbers 14 (Reprimand, that was recorded in his Service Documents), 12 (Stoppage of Leave for 30 days), and 11 (Extra work and drill for 7 days).

On the same day, my CO called me and told me to get in touch with the concerned staff officer in the Bureau of Sailors and have him transferred out of the ship and ask for someone smart.

I was about to make the phone call to the said staff officer when I gave it one last thought: what would be achieved by transferring him out? Instead of being a headache to us he would become a headache to them. He should either be boarded out (which punishment we had not given him) or reformed. But, who was going to reform him?

The next day, Kuldip was standing before me for another default verging on insubordination; he had refused to wash the mess utensils as a mess man on duty. Instead of putting him on defaulters I consulted my XO. Despite the setback, he was very encouraging of my plan to reform Kuldip and never told me that the idea was doomed to failure. He, however, commented upon how bad Kuldip was in anything that was entrusted to him. As a Radar Plotter he was simply awful.

When I called Kuldip in the evening I wasn't sure where to start. I asked him about his family. He told me he came from a small village near Jalandhar in Punjab. I enquired about his parents and siblings. I then told him that at my parents place my mother always did the cooking and even washed the dishes. Suddenly Kuldip warmed up to the commonality and said that at his village too his mother did the same.

We talked for well over an hour and I discovered that Kuldip was not bad at all. He was only rebellious as most young men at that age. Indeed, he joined the Navy as an act of rebellion against his father who wanted him to do something worthwhile at his village.

I also discovered that Kuldip had many things to tell me about his village, his family, his stern father and his goddess-like mother. At one point when he was describing the food and sweets his mother would make, I intervened to tell him how much I loved the Shakkerparas (Jaggery coated sweets made of flour) that they made in our villages.

I gently led to the topic of his drinking. It came out that initially he did it as a macho statement prevalent in Punjab villages. Later, he was drinking because he felt nobody would understand him.

In all this I only listened rather than offering any platitudes. Kuldip left and I switched on my Sony portable tape-recorder that I had acquired on my last ship Himgiri during a cruise to Aden. Elton John's 'Talking Old Soldiers' was playing. Some of the words that I remember are:

You're right there's so much goin' on
No one seems to want to know
So keep well, keep well old friend
And have another drink on me
Just ignore all the others
You got your memories...

The next evening as I was getting ready to go to the United Services Club to play Bridge, there was a knock at the cabin door. There stood Kuldip with a paper-bag. He was sweating due to the Extra Work and Drill and it appeared that he had gone straight to his locker to fetch the paper-bag after that.

"This is for you", he told me, "My mother made them and you would like them". I called him in and we again started chatting whilst having the Shakkerparas. It came out that Kuldip was very fond of reading, football, jokes, and serving langar (free community meal) at the gurudwara. I told him about my own interest in reading, writing, badminton, squash racquets, bridge and chess.

I did not go to USC for Bridge that evening; indeed, for several evenings after that.

A few days later, when our Navigator's Yeoman was to go on leave, I suggested to XO that Kuldip could be entrusted with the job. All apprehension about his careless attitude were proved wrong when, to our pleasant surprise, we discovered the neatness and correctness of his records.

That year, Kuldip got the Proficiency Award for the best sailor on Karwar. Next year he was promoted to a Leading Seaman. That's when I left the ship. Many years later I learnt that Kuldip rose to become a Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest that a sailor can reach.

At about the same time I was informally referred to see a psychiatrist by the edgy and pompous medical specialist at the Navy hospital in Mumbai. I was suffering from a skin affliction called Psoriasis and the doc did not like my wasting his time by discussing my situation with him. He felt that my being overly worried about my situation (seen from the fact that I needed his reassurance and wanted him to tell me the progress of my disease) was making my condition worse.

At his behest I saw the psychiatrist on three occasions in the next week and we had long sessions of discussions tailored to find my abnormalities. At the end of these, the psychiatrist pronounced me normal and balanced.

This is what he told me: "If only your medical specialist had spent fifteen minutes with you, you did not have to come to me".


  1. Sir - regarding the last three paragraphs. If that happened about 18 to 24 months back then I think I had a similar experience with the same doc. Is the service powerless to handle such "pompousness" and insensitivity?

  2. I don't think there is any law against it! Hence, one has to make a personal choice: to listen or not. Do you remember Caine Mutiny: when Keith was describing Captain Queeg's various idiosyncracies in the Court Martial? He was asked, "But did he (Queeg) do anything that was against the regulations?" Keith's reply was a classic one, "No, but he demonstrated how much can be done whilst staying within regulations." This exactly fits this doc we are talking about.


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