FOOD AT FAR-FLUNG FRONTIERS – EPISODE-4
In my latest post in the Colours of Glory WhatsApp Group I mentioned about my good fortune to have been entrusted with the command of my Infantry Battalion, 8 Maratha Light Infantry, at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a prestigious and unique assignment to work on, under the Naval Fortress Commander A & N, in an amphibious role. The concept was at nascent stage in India and we had to innovate and improvise in joint-manoeuvre. It was a challenge that tested our teamwork and lateral connections between platoon and company levels of army with the LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks) of the navy. While attending to serious matters of tactics and battle drills in SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) the comparative quality of life of soldiers and sailors was also a major concern in maintaining high morale. Some anecdotes follow in this episode:
The Induction: Our Battalion was at Bangalore as part of the famous ”Scorpion Brigade“ under its Illustrious commander, Brigadier (Later Lieutenant General) Narahari. When we got the order for relocating to A & N Islands, to be the only Battalion there at that time, excitement and curiosity grew among all ranks and families. We moved to Chennai that was Madras then for embarkation. Would you believe it! A whole cruise ship of the Shipping Corporation of India, “SS NANCOWRIE”, was commandeered to take the Battalion with its paraphernalia. families and followers to the islands. On the jetty, rectangles were marked in chalk within which we had to fit in our belongings to optimize the lower deck baggage space. Some so-called knowledgeable friends and relatives mourned the move to “Kaala Paani”, where our freedom fighters were incarcerated in the cellular jail in the hoary past, and wondered if we had been to any mischief to deserve this punishment.
The D Day: We embarked and settled down at various cabins and different decks as per the manifest and were excitedly looking forward to the cruise on duty! During the passage we were treated to dolphins racing and dancing alongside, and of course the inevitable seasickness for many. Notwithstanding, the mess deck was very popular. We had one large dining area with seating for all ranks and families together. There was a small raised platform for the captain’s table, where the commanding officer of our battalion dined with the ship’s captain and other officers were invited in rotation.
The rest of all ranks shared the tables on first-come-first-served basis, All ranks and families with kids mingled here, initially with a little reservation, but freely thereafter with our coaxing. A la carte menus were displayed for all meals and we could choose as per our appetite. Here came the catch! The ship’s crew was mostly Konkani and Marathi. They instantly connected with our men and their families of similar origin from their homestead in patriotic bonhomie. The crew insisted and changed their orders from a la carte to “All items one plate each!!“. We also observed that the men and families were getting preferential treatment for a change and we approved of it in good humour.
The Food: Once arrived at the islands and settled down, we learnt that our logistics originated from faraway places that the Islanders called the “Mainland”, namely Madras, Vizag and Calcutta on peninsular India. Sea supply took 4 to 5 days in fair weather and was uncertain during the monsoons. The foul weather spread over 4 to 5 months a year, many cyclones fond of staging from there. Air maintenance was costly, scarce and very uncertain. Those days, there were only two commercial flights per week. The air force staging post was at Car Nicobar Island.
One surprise in store was that there was no local source of milk in the islands. The milch cattle suffered from an udder disease, causing the milk unfit for consumption.
We mainly depended on milk powder from mainland and some scant imported varieties from visiting naval ships. There was no livestock breeding and the meat and poultry had to come all the way from mainland. How this difficulty was resolved is an interesting story of turning a problem into an opportunity.
Agriculture was scant in the islands and one of the deterrents was the marauding hoards of deer that roamed wild, ate the crops and ravaged the fields. It was a great spectacle to see the deer hoards swim en masse across the sea from one island to the other nearby! The deer menace was countered by the civil administration headed by a Chief Commissioner by declaring deer hunts legal and more than that, by an award of Rs.5 per pair of deer ears and tail presented as proof. Also, after much deliberation, it was concluded that venison (deer meat), could be a good substitute for mutton. Thus, all ranks were treated to the luxury of local venison, which proved to be absolutely fresh and more nutritious and palatable than cold storage meat. We also reinforced our supplies by buying locally available coconuts and seafood at very reasonable rates.
Barter trade from mainland was also popular then. M/s Jadwet and co, came all the way from Gujarat coast in their small ships to collect coconuts from the inhabited islands in barter trade for bicycles that were much in demand for local commute!
How we coexisted with the navy, I will take on in the next episode. Thanks for your patronage.