Induction into Arms

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Madras Central; Sunday 19 June, 1966, afternoon hours; a bunch of young men was assembled facing a small desk kept at one corner of the main passenger waiting area with a placard nearby boldly marked ‘OTS’ with lettering below that read ‘Gentlemen Cadets Report Here’. Having arrived by Cochin Express that forenoon, yours truly was one among the bunch so reporting. The moment was the culmination of a saga of an almost year-long military selection process we all undertook to be rewarded by admission to the Officers’ Training School (presently OTA) as Gentlemen Cadets (GCs). On the successful completion of the 11-month training there we all stood to be commissioned as officers of the Indian Army, a coveted honour those days that a great many young men in the country completing their undergraduate courses in universities vied for. Manning the desk was a soldier in his olive green uniform, the triple chevrons on his sleeve indicating that he is a havildar. Two other soldiers stood nearby, both wearing armbands variably lettered ‘MP’ and ‘MC’ (which stood for ‘Military Police’ and ‘Movement Control’ respectively as we were to comprehend later), the one wearing the former rather colourfully attired with a white belt and sash as well as a red beret. One by one the havildar scrutinized our call letters, ticking off the names in a list he had in front of him. The process went on till late afternoon when he finally appeared satisfied that all in the list have arrived, which nearly coincided with the arrival of an officer on the scene. He was a major as we made out from the Lion Capital he wore on his shoulder for his rank insignia. After a word with the havildar he turned to us. ‘All right Gentlemen, please get your baggage and move over to the transport outside’, he said brusquely before turning on his heel and marching off.

There was a sudden flurry of activity amongst us cadets assembled there caught unawares as to how to move our baggage which, in everybody’s case, consisted of a sizeable steel trunk (I do not rightly remember whether our joining instructions specified for us to bring these behemoths, but they were there with every one, all invariably painted black, each proudly proclaiming the name of the owner in white paint). Now let me explain the cause for the consternation: In my own case, which I’m sure couldn’t have been far different with others, since receiving the call letter I had envisioned a grand reception awaiting me at the Madras Central on my arrival. After all I was a President’s officer in the making and I expected nothing less than a car and a couple of attendants to carry my baggage to it. (Hadn’t they described us as the ‘cream of the nation’ at the selection board?) Now being brusquely ordered to lug our stuff on our own to whatever ‘transport’ waited outside (I didn’t like the sound of that word and with so many of us being moved to it in a group, I knew it just couldn’t be a car, and I couldn’t digest the temerity of someone to move future officers in a bus). Fortunately for us, many of the coolies were hanging around in the proximity (probably sensing that demand for their services was bound to crop up), which saved us from the humiliation of lugging the trunks across on our own. Once outside the station, we were in for the biggest surprise yet. The transport waiting for us, to which we were herded by the havildar and his MP assistant, were not even buses as we had visualized. These were half a dozen or so monstrous open trucks with metallic frames for superstructure (called ‘3Tons’ as we would be educated later). We hauled ourselves on to the deck of these trucks where the coolies dumped our baggage, feeling utterly disgraced and conscious not to glance around at the onlookers, certain that attired in our immaculate gentlemanly garbs we were making a miserable spectacle of ourselves for all those around. The vehicles moved off in a convoy without much ado and when I braved to look up I realized we were driving along Mount Road, the grand boulevard of Madras, where I had strolled that very forenoon head held high and looking forward to the army reception that awaited me in the afternoon. I cringed in shame, fearful of how silly we must be looking passing through such a posh area, riding an open truck like a bunch of labourers!

Travelling by Cochin Express I had befriended at least a half a dozen other cadets-select like me hailing from Kerala on their way to join OTS. We had stuck together as a group while assembling at the station, but in the pell-mell departure from the station had ended up boarding different trucks. Less than an hour’s drive later the trucks pulled up in a neat row in the OTS parking lot. The havildar who was riding in the cabin of one of the trucks stepped off and shouted for all of us to dismount. By now it was getting on to dusk and a couple of more uniformed soldiers, apparently assistants of the havildar, materialized out of nowhere joining in a chorus of shouting with their boss. Gone were the gentle manners the havildar and his team maintained at the railway station; they seemed to have developed a sudden propensity to howl at us for no rhyme or reason. Amidst their shouts, I and other Mallus who had got separated began calling out to each other desperate to remain in a group, as did others from various other states or regions who had similarly bunched together. Soon there were a dozen lingoes ringing out in the semi darkness. ‘Thomasse,nee evada?’ ‘Njanivide Somanethu vandeelayirunnu?’ ‘Sukhvinderu, tu kithe oui’ ‘Deepak, tu idhar aaja yaar’. The commotion came to a sudden stop when an authoritative command rang out in English, ‘Quiet, everybody’. The major had reappeared on the scene. ‘Stop blabbering amongst yourselves like a bunch of schoolboys and get into a line’, he commanded.

The havildar took charge as we all shambled around to form a line, repeating the major’s order in Hindi which I got the gist of though not the exact meaning of the words, ‘Ek line men khade ho jao’. Once he had us in a line, he split it into two by making us do an odd-and-even number count like they do with kindergarten children, ‘one, two’ ‘one, two’ and making the odd numbers step forward and even numbers step back. He followed it up with all kinds of weird manoeuvres, splitting and re-splitting lines which saw us being shuffled back and forth like a pack of cards, at the end of which there was no trace whatsoever left of the separate Mallu or Punjabi or whatever groups we had desperately tried to cling on to. I found myself among a bunch of absolute strangers with only English, spoken in a variety of accents, as our lingua franca. Separated into half a dozen groups or so we were marched off to different barracks with a soldier-guide in charge of each group. I don’t rightly remember how our baggage was moved to the barracks; probably the trucks drove up to the barracks carrying them where they were unloaded by the civilian orderlies, an emaciated looking lot who had appeared on the scene at some stage. These guys soon turned out to be our best guides telling us where is what (I didn’t know who did their allotment, but right from day one we all had these flunkies around, one for three or four cadets, though the only chores they performed were polishing our shoes and brass and getting our laundry done).

By the time we had all found our cots in the barracks and our baggage were in place, it was time for dinner and we were moved over to the Cadet’s Mess. The cadets from the course immediately senior to us were there as if waiting for us. They had us lined up in front of the mess building and one of them gave us a pep talk on proper conduct as GCs or some such crap I don’t remember. This was, we gathered, part of the ragging the cadets of each course was supposed to mete out to those of their junior course. Mercifully we had only had to undergo minimal amount of this bullying because the only senior course we had was one of techos (engineering graduates on technical course), and they, probably owing to their superior intellect and interests, didn’t find the exercise worth wasting their time on. In absolute contrast, when our turn came, we bullied the hell out of our junior course which was a non-tech one like ours and they in turn most certainly passed it down to the next course. (The juniors did of course get a chance to get their own back on the day before we passed out at the end of our course, which was traditionally treated as ‘junior’s day’ when they could, with absolute impunity, subject us to what were known as ‘blanket parades’ wherein they thrashed the daylights out of each of us after rolling up each one in a blanket so that the effects were not visible!) Thinking retrospectively, I have no doubt that a good lot of us would have cut a miserable sight during the dinner with our clumsy table manners, an area which we were to be groomed in only later during the week. Till then many of us would remain baffled by the assortment of cutlery – after all using a knife and fork as tools to feed oneself wasn’t exactly a norm followed in most Indian households as yet then.

Returning to the barracks we began getting acquainted with each other. The occupants of the two cots on either side of mine were the first ones I learned the names of. The one to my right was a Haryanvi Jat by the name of R S Malik and to the left was P C Saha, a Bengali, one as loud as they came. During the following day I learned a couple of more names in short order, all of those belonging to my immediate group, called a section. (The circle would expand multifold in the short span of a week to embrace the platoon and then the company to forge lifelong friendships that remain strong to this day, half a century later) There were, in the section, Gyan Chand Sachdev from Delhi and Harry Martin, a Bangalorean. There were two Tamilians too, Kannan and Jagannathan; but not a single Mallu; not that I cared anymore with the hectic activity I found myself in the midst of. It started off with the ‘kit issue’ at the ‘quartermaster store’ which smelt of mothballs. Here we were issued with all kinds of uniform items and other stuff which we had no idea how to wear or make use of and were named in the bizarre topsy-turvy manner only the army could conjure up so that a mosquito net became ‘net mosquito’ and an enamel mug became ‘mug enamel’. Fortunately we were also issued a ‘kit bag’ each, a canvas contraption of unlimited capacity, in to which we could stuff the entire lot and lug it over to the barracks. Barely had we finished this part we were all herded to the barber shop. There was already a queue there, but our fears of a long wait were soon dispelled as we found it was moving forward pretty fast, those who had gone in coming out within just about a minute or so, the least possible time a haircut would take. The only problem was that the guy who came out bore no resemblance to the one who had gone in. We watched aghast as one by one ghost like specimens stepped out with their entire skulls shaved off clean except for a pitiable tuft on top. Reconciled to my fate I too joined the rest in the jeering that went on as guys sporting trendy hairstyles – that often emulated those of the matinee idols of the day like Dev Anand or Dilip Kumar – went in and came out shortly with absolutely unrecognizable looks.

The treatment at the barber shop which could more aptly be called a ‘butcher shop’ was just the beginning of the saga that would see us learning to live with the weirdest of practices any mortal could imagine; like running with a bicycle held high above one’s head instead of riding it or doing a treadmill-style run known as ‘Dowd ke kadam chal’ except that there would be no treadmill beneath the feet but hard ground and you would be throwing the legs up knee high with each step all the while holding a rifle up above the head with arms fully stretched. (Imagine an adult individual performing an act as comical as that in public!) While all these and all the other insanity which we were to endure in the coming months made for many a hilarious experience, dwelling on them here would be well beyond the brief of this text.

For all the madness that went on however, anyone who had been there would vouch on his life that there is no better melting pot than the army to create a pan-Indian camaraderie, which has stood us in good stead time and again. Indeed the training was about buggering the life out of us, but a grand churning process it was that broke up our personalities and rebuilt them, leaving no inhibitions in us but a tremendous sense of oneness that could be forged only among young men facing hardships together. At the core of it was our capability to laugh, come what may. A small anecdote here tells it all: Our section was having a rest break during a gruelling route march with all of us stretched out by the side of a dirt road, bedraggled beyond care, leaning on our burdensome backpacks sharing a fag amongst us. Suddenly my good friend, Gyan Chand Sachdev, a cheerful guy if there was one, blurted out, ‘Are, abhi meri maa muche dekhne se kya hoga!’ – My God, what will my mom think if she sees me now!

[The Officers Training Academy (OTA), Chennai celebrated its golden jubilee in 2013, having begun as the Officers Training School (OTS), Madras in 1963, initially to train Emergency Commissioned Officers, later in 1966 changing its role to that of training Short Service Commissioned Officers through regular courses. The first Short Service Course (SS-1) passed out in 1966 and the second (SS-2) IN 1967. Yours truly who belonged to the latter had penned this narrative in a lighter vein some time ago as a facebook post and is inspired to post this here after the recent alumni reunion of my course to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of our passing out; an occasion which saw us, 70-year old veterans, reminiscing our time as cadets when we were 20-year old youngsters. During the half a century that came in between the OTA has turned out more than a hundred courses providing thousands of officers for the army while grooming itself into one of the premier training institutions of the army. The officers the institution produced made their mark in all the operations the Indian Army was involved from the late sixties till now. While many of them continued to serve beyond their short service contract and made a career of the army, others struck out to the Civvy Street to excel in sectors as varied as government, corporate or entrepreneurship.]
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