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Book Review

The title could be somewhat misleading; what with the image of a uniformed soldier for cover picture, a reader could easily be led to believe that it’s a high-octane thriller featuring a deadly army commando. Far from it, it is the rib-tickling story of a teenager plucked out of his carefree college life and thrown into the turbulence of the training regimen at the National Defence Academy. The ‘Killer’ here is a cadet of the Kilo Squadron of NDA (one of the 15 such squadrons from Alfa to Oscar for alphabets ‘A’ to ‘O’ wherein cadets of each one assume a collective name beginning with the alphabet denoting their squadron); and the ‘Autobiography’ covers barely five months that make the first of the six terms a cadet spends at the institution. It’s an innovative attempt to encapsulate the life of a cadet at NDA by the author, who is a serving officer of the Indian Army now.

The unfolding of the tale with the familiar all-Indian narrative of an academically bright college kid of middleclass background being bitten by the soldiering bug and his parents’ exasperation when he wants to leave university and join the NDA makes chucklesome reading, with the Punjabi outburst of the father ‘Ae Munda Meri Jaan Nu Bhangra Paayega’ and the author’s attempt to translate it. The bewilderment of someone from a purely civilian background, with absolutely no knowledge of military hierarchy and protocol, caught up as a fresher in the confusing web of the disciplining process at the academy is hilariously painted. The protagonist, a college student from Delhi habituated to addressing fellow students as ‘Hi Guys’, is in for a rude shock when he is chastised for not ‘Sir-ing’ the cadets of the senior courses and even the cadet appointees of his own course. He is in for further confusion when he is told he is an ‘Undie’ (for ‘Under-Study’) for a senior, who is of course his ‘Over-Study’, who is personally responsible to break him in and is at liberty to punish him at will. Punishments, which can vary from front rolls and push-ups to midnight workouts, are meted out liberally in groups or individually even for the silliest of ‘crimes’. Lessons in table manners are almost comical with most first termers habituated to eating with hands.

The training sessions with its physically rigorous schedules of drill and PT interspersed with academics see most cadets dozing off in classrooms. Then there are the weird rules that forbid cadets from being seen walking (they should always be running) and riding bicycles without forming squads of at least four. Through all the maddening rush, the only consolation that a first termer finds is that his seniors have seniors too and they too are quite often taken to task. The grueling regimen finds every cadet losing weight rapidly, giving them all an under-nourished look despite the excellent diet the Cadets Mess provide. The gigantic appetite of cadets any time of the day make the ‘Gole Market’ their favourite jaunt, where they stuff themselves with countless number of ‘aloo paranthas’. Occasional visits by parents of one or the other cadet invariably leads to others, especially the seniors, raiding his cabin for the goodies that would certainly have been brought to him from home. The academy always has a heady mix of cadets from all over India. The senior-junior equation overriding every other consideration, the protagonist, a Sikh, finds himself in a ludicrous situation of being tutored by a Maratha and a Tamilian on how to tie his turban. The protagonist’s much-cherished love affair with his college sweetheart, whom he refers to as ‘her’ all throughout, runs as a subtext to the main story adding a touch of romantic flavour to the narrative.

The various tests and competitions the cadets have to undergo and participate make riotous reading; the DST or the Drill Square Test without passing which a cadet cannot get out pass to visit the nearby city of Pune on weekends, the swimming test where a number of cadets struggle to do the mere 15-metre stretch across the pool required to pass the test, the equitation lessons wherein the cadets vie against each other to find the most docile mount, the boxing lessons wherein many have to be coaxed or even bullied to fight, the cross country runs testing the limits of everyone’s endurance, all go in a blur while the cadets overcome their initial apprehensions and homesickness and develop a sense of belonging to their squadron and the academy; the initial phase of their induction into the profession in arms.

The author has followed a lucid style of writing which makes the book an enjoyable read. Reproval if any, could only be that the text could have been better edited to weed out minor errors like ‘return back’ that have crept in.

All in all, an absorbing read.

The Autobiography of a Killer
Col Harpreet Singh Kohli
Diamond Books, New Delhi, 2019

Pages: 196
Price: Rs. 195.00

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