BY C UDAY BHASKAR
Callow young men, still in their teens, join Indias prestigious National Defence Academy (NDA) as cadets every six months and three years later they are well-trained military officers in the making and branch out to the army, navy and air force. The most cherished event is the 50th anniversary of the passing out from the NDA and this week. On June 15 the 36th course will meet at Khadakvasla, Pune for what is a poignant and perhaps last such course get together – the Golden Jubilee Reunion (GJR).
A memorial meeting at the Hut of Remembrance (HoR) to pay silent homage to those we lost in operations and otherwise is the most sombre and the course has shrunk in numbers from the original 270. The wives of course-mates who are no more are accorded a special status at the reunion and the bonding among the course-mates, many who would be meeting again after 50 years, is distinctive.
I was privileged to be part of the 270-plus young cadets who made our bewildered way from then Poona (now Pune) station to Khadakvasla in mid 1966 and certain memories and vignettes remain luminous as they are distilled through a shared experience of having been brothers-in-arms for half a century.
Officers from the 36th course were among the junior most who took part in the 1971 war for Bangladesh and later at senior ranks in the Sri Lanka operations and the 1999 Kargil war among other such exigencies. Every NDA course has its share of outstanding officers who acquitted themselves in the highest traditions of the Indian military and the 36th is proud to have four Vir Chakra awardees (P.C. Bharadwaj, Tamal Roy, A.S. Ahlawat and Rohit Sethi) and three Shaurya Chakra winners (P.C. Bharadwaj, Timki Randhawa and Thayi Hari). The 36th also nurtured an Army Chief and now union minister of state (V.K. Singh) and a large number of three star officers among others. Some were injured in combat and related operations (Anil Bhalla and J.J. Smith among others) and yes, there will be a few who have lost limbs or were differently injured while in service – but are still stoic and cheerful.
Luck and chance play a very important role in any military trajectory and I had my fair share, which enabled me to stay the course for almost 40 years in uniform. The alternate path was that I would have faced the ignominy of being discharged from the NDA as a first termer in 1966 for very odd reasons. My accidental benefactor was the commandant of the NDA, the esteemed Major General Ranbir Bakshi who had won the coveted Military Cross (MC) in World War II.
Within my first month at the NDA I fell ill with a high fever that was not responding to the usual medication and very soon I burst into a severe skin allergy with attendant puss symptoms. My condition deteriorated and I was shifted to the Military Hopsital (MH) in Poona where a team of specialists tried to diagnose my unusual condition. At the time I was a little over 15 years of age and knew little beyond what one imbibed in boarding school and through the books one read.
I noticed an odd pattern at the MH where my skin condition elicited much professional interest – local civilian doctors came to examine me (rather rudely) and I was shifted to an isolation ward. Unknown to me the preliminary determination was that I had contracted a rare STD (sexually transmitted disease), for the skin condition was apparently similar (particularly in the groin) to venereal diseases and suddenly I had become a medical and disciplinary case!
Various stern looking officers came to question me about whether I had visited the red light area on arrival in Pune, or if I had slipped away from Khadakvasla to indulge in the carnal pleasures of life! I was completely stunned and my condition was absurd. I was often strapped to the bed naked – to prevent me from scratching myself and had no one to speak to, except for a dour nursing orderly who changed my bandages and brought my food. Worse, he insisted on calling me ‘rangeela cadet’ (colourful cadet) and a ‘chhupa rustam’ (hidden hero), alluding to my alleged sexual detour.
I was informally told that I had contracted an STD and I would be sent packing home. Very luckily for me the skin specialist, a senior World War II veteran, Colonel M.L. Gaind, finally reviewed my case and concluded that I had a congenital allergy that was exacerbated by an antibiotic which had led to the skin flare-up. And as chance would have it, when I was lying unclothed on the examining table with a sheet over me, the NDA commandant General Bakshi walked in for a personal consultation.
Clearly the doctor and the general were friends from younger days and my curious case, as it had unfolded was explained to him. I was made to sit up and Gen. Bakshi looked at me empathetically and said: “So son, you are not the ‘rangeela’ I was told you are. Get well soon and join your course.”
To say that I was relieved would be the understatement of my 15-year-old life. I returned to the ragging, cycle lifting and front-rolling that first-termers at the NDA undergo with cheer and gratitude. But for the fortuitous visit by the NDA commandant on that particular day, I would have been denied the opportunity to be part of the 36th course for over 50 years.
This weekend a bunch of soon to be 70-years-olds will share their individual trajectories at the Golden Jubilee and recall General Baskhi and scores of other officers who molded the callow lads, as also Subedar Major Kanshi Ram, our drill JCO and the chance cum luck factor that shaped our lives.