Remembering Ronnie

Late Admiral Ronald Lynsdale Pereira, PVSM, AVSM, ADC, ex ‘Chief Of Naval Staff’ (CNS) is an illuminating chapter in Indian Naval history. It has almost been twenty years since he passed away. However, his memory still lingers and helps stiffen the spine of men, some young and some old, even those not from the Navy. Ronnie’s memory makes them march with pride and affection, whistling ‘Auld Lang Syne’. So what is it that these men remember about Ronnie ‘The Man’, and his incredibly gracious wife Phyllis?

Ronnie was born as a chirpy, bouncy, very huggable baby at Kannur, at the northern tip of Kerala about fifteen years before World War-II. Like all zestful young boys, he grew up in rural India with simple and achievable ambitions, either to be a doctor like his father, or become a dentist. But somewhere during his teen years, the salt laden sea breeze in Kannur and the hype of World War-II instilled in him a wander lust, quest for adventure, a perception that soldiering was more interesting than doctoring. He was drawn to the Navy, like fish to water.

He was commissioned into the Royal Indian Navy on his 20th birthday (May 25, 1943), given command of a homemade, quickly fitted out, leaky wooden fishing trawler masquerading as a gun boat, with a dozen sailors as raw as Ronnie, and immediately sent to fight the might of the Japanese Navy in the ‘Bay Of Bengal’. And fight he did, all his life, with just about everyone except his wife Phyllis whom he married in 1952. He had two exceptionally strong character traitsintegrity and moral courage. He stood up for what he believed was the ‘right thing’ and never let anyone bulldoze him.

HE WAS COMMISSIONED INTO THE ROYAL INDIAN NAVY ON HIS 20th BIRTHDAY (MAY 25, 1943), GIVEN COMMAND OF A HOMEMADE, QUICKLY FITTED OUT, LEAKY WOODEN FISHING TRAWLER MASQUERADING AS A GUN BOAT, WITH A DOZEN SAILORS AS RAW AS RONNIE, AND IMMEDIATELY SENT TO FIGHT THE MIGHT OF THE JAPANESE NAVY IN THE ‘BAY OF BENGAL’.

Like most of us, he often made mistakes. However, unlike most of us, he made those mistakes his stepping stones; unlike most of us he tortured himself to learn from those mistakes. As he grew up through the ranks of the officer cadre, first in the Royal Indian Navy, and then our own Indian Navy, he acquired tenacity, fortitude, resilience, charisma, a towering stature, a booming laughter that immediately endeared his subordinates to him, portrayed his self confidence, his merriment and spirit of adventure. At the pinnacle of his Naval career, he was appointed CNS and called upon to command the growing Indian Navy. While he grew up, and as CNS, he did this and that, went hither and thither, sailed about the oceans and trawled about Naval HQ, but unlike most, he was always at ‘Full Ahead’ with a sense of purpose and with utmost dedication. As Anil Kumar (now veteran) remembers, Ronnie would often say, ‘it’s your prerogative to have a Navy, and mine to run it’. His unflinching on matters military and national security or those which affected the operational efficacy or morale of his men are legendary. He never ever asked anything for himself. He had only one thought, ‘what can I do for the country and the men whom I command’. He was from the rare breed. Wow,….. what a man.

In due course, he retired. He simply went home to a house called ‘At last’ in Bangalore, drove around on a ‘Lambretta’ scooter from which he often fell off, broke most of his bones, caught cancer and died on Oct 14, 1993 at the age of 70 without once changing his colours on integrity and moral courage. He was an extraordinary mortal, a sailor’s sailor, with a contagious sense of honour and love for soldiering. Apart from the multitude of Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals, junior service officers in uniform crowding his funeral service, there was also a large gathering of ordinary sailors and civilian officials who came to say farewell to an ‘officer and gentleman’ they’d loved like no other. As his body was being laid to rest, they recalled the way he often summed up the essence of leadership: ‘Love your men, but don’t spoil them. Kick them if you must. Above all, make them proud of themselves, their uniform, the country and you’. What more can I say about Ronnie, the incredible, unforgettable CNS ? Oh…….I can say a million more words with conviction and affection, but I have a brief to keep this short.

He was an extraordinary mortal, a sailor’s sailor, with a contagious sense of honour and love for soldiering. Apart from the multitude of Admirals, Generals and Air Marshals, junior service officers in uniform crowding his funeral service, there was also a large gathering of ordinary sailors and civilian officials who came to say farewell to an ‘officer and gentleman’ they’d loved like no other

Let me begin with what venerable Adm Arun Prakash, himself a later day venerable CNS, had to say of Ronnie. Prakash recalled, ‘In a world of slipping ethical standards, where our young people desperately seek role models, Ronnie stands out as an iconic figure of impeccable integrity for three generations of Indian naval officers. While we quaked in the knowledge that any hint of wrongdoing would invoke the admiral’s messianic wrath, the kindness and compassion that he and Phyllis Pereira so often showed, earned them the Navy’s lasting love and admiration’. Adm Prakash made two glaring omissions in his eulogy. Firstly Ronnie stands out as an iconic figure of impeccable integrity not only for the Indian Navy, but is folklore for the Army and Air Force too. Secondly he earned the lasting love and admiration of not just the Naval personnel, but an incredible number of others in and out of all sorts of uniforms.

Amongst the many who still love and worship him are Cadets(Cdts) of the National Defence Academy (NDA), where he was Dy Cmdt in early 70’s, where he kicked butts and turned a whole generation of juvenile delinquents to socially useful and upright gentlemen. The very generation who now form the top echelon of the Army, Navy and the Air Force. This is therefore an eulogy not from Naval history, ward room tales, or chewing the cud by old Naval crabs, but a eulogy by the old goats who went on to wear the drab Olive Greens, Khakis and Blues, even from the ones who never wore a uniform because of him, all of them illustrious men in their own right. This is a eulogy by the ones who were fortunate to have been within arms distance of Ronnie, even for a few seconds. He touched all our lives, kicked our butts, breathed wit and wisdom into our ears and gave us a steady course to steer during the turbulent weather and heavy seas of our youth.

Air Cmde (Retd) M.M. Ali says …….. ‘I was Dy Dir Gen NCC of Karnataka and Goa Dte in late 90’s when one day an old lady walked up four floors to my office’, the lift was not working. After catching her breath she introduced herself. ‘I am Phyllis Pereira, the wife of late Adm Pereira’. I jumped out of my chair and stood to attention. ‘It is a pleasure to see you Mam’, I said with genuine warmth. ‘I came to thank you’, she said. ‘You see, I was crossing the road when a scooter knocked me down and three NCC girls in uniform who were returning from the parade helped me get up and cleaned me with the drinking water from their water bottles. They helped me cross the road. I have come to thank you for teaching the children the right values. I thanked the girls but forgot to ask their names’, she said with guilt, accompanied by an irresistible endearing smile. What should one say to a woman like that, except ‘Wow, Wow’. If she was like that, what would the husband & wife team have been like? Any guesses?

Ronnie’s rapport with the young men made him the ideal choice as Dy Cmdt of the NDA in 1971. He ran the place like one of his ships, seemingly everywhere, exhorting the cadets to play fiercely, study hard and march smartly. Nothing escaped his attention. ‘It wasn’t unusual for bleary-eyed cadets to stumble into the tea-room at dawn to see their Dy Cmdt tasting the dog biscuits or tea’, says Col (Rtd) Kelly Vishwanathan. So harddriving was he, weary cadets often joked, that if he barked ‘Quick March’ to the ‘Ashoka Pillar,’ it would start marching. Because Ronnie and Phyllis never had any children, they came to love every young man they met in NDA, especially the mavericks who were sent to him for displeasure. Ronnie addressed them as ‘Son’, a tradition that came to be in all services. Ten whole courses in NDA vied with each other to be called their ‘Son’, it was an honour for the Cdts. Although being at the NDA meant that Ronnie, to his great disappointment, had to sit out the 1971 war, his tenure there is still remembered by all his cadets, now senior service officers, as if NDA was Ronnie’s personal ‘Longewala’, a war zone. ‘He had a very clear vision of what an officer and gentleman ought to be’, says GS Malhi, now an accomplished veteran. ‘Above all, he wanted us to be mentally agile and morally upright, like himself’.

“I learnt so much from him,” recalls veteran SPS Bhalla, who was closest to Phyllis and Ronnie, almost an adopted son. ‘He advised me on all kinds of things, from the importance of treating my wife as an equal partner to the need to accept personal responsibility’. Once afterwards, when Bhalla boasted about what a good golfer he had become, Ronnie a keen golfer himself chided him rather dryly. ‘Please remember that your handicap does not figure in your confidential report, work well, as much as you play well’. His advice was significant, especially because Golf and the card game ‘Bridge’, and not work, was usually the route to career advancement even in those days.

One of the most undisciplined cadets during Ronnie’s time in NDA was Anil Mago, now veteran, who had already spent 9 terms instead of the usual 6. There was this time when Cdt Mago was relaxing in his Juliet Sqn cabin in a towel, while the rest of the academy was in class, when the indomitable Ronnie decided to make a surprise round of JSqn. If ‘caught’ Cdt Mago would have been thrown out of NDA for sure. Some smart thinking, and in a jiffy, Mago was in the clothes of Cdt Orderly Prabhu Dayal, sitting in the corridor outside his cabin with a ‘Gandhi’ cap, polishing drill boots. Prabhu Dayal in his underpants and vest was sent to hide in the toilet. Ronne was not fooled while he walked past briskly. ‘Good thinking Cdt Mago’, Ronnie barked. ‘I like people with imagination and quick reaction’, Ronnie swept past without stopping. He knew each of the 1500 odd cadets by face, by name and their antecedents and could not be fooled. Soon Mago was in trouble again and was marched up to Ronnie, then officiating as Cmdt. Mago was destined for relegation. Ronnie knew that if Mago was relegated again, he would be thrown out of NDA. As he was marched in, Ronnie roared. ‘Hold it right there Son. Your one foot is in my office and the other on a banana peel outside. Beware and evaporate’, he commanded. Mago did a smart about turn and ran for his life. He never, ever, slipped on a banana peel again and went on to become a very successful and decorated Artillery officer, just as Ronnie knew with clairvoyance. Ronnie was an incredibly sane and kind man and not at all officious or a mindless disciplinarian when special occasions called for it.

Air Vice Mshl M Bahadur recollects that when the local theatre in Poona would not lend prints of the movies ‘Patton’ and ‘Tora Tora’, for local screening in NDA auditorium, Ronnie took the whole NDA, about 1500 Cdts, to Poona simultaneously, in proper military fashion, in cycle squads like marching columns on Raj Path, supervised by Divisional Officers on scooters and motor cycles with a cycle repair truck, ambulance and a doctor in tow. Ronnie himself went from intersection to intersection, directing the traffic. There were ‘Nimbu Pani’ and sandwich stalls all along the way, an incredible feat of military logistic support planned and executed by him. ‘If Mohammed would not come to Mountain, I have brought the Mountain to Mohammad’, Ronnie commanded the owner of the theatre. ‘You are going to show us the movies free of cost. After all, these boys have to go and fight a war to help keep our enemy at bay’. Bahadur says that when Patton came on the screen, he perceived him as Ronnie.

Otherwise, Ronnie was quick to distribute very exhaustive physical punishments (‘Restrictions’ and his favourite ‘Singarh Hikes’), instantly demote cadet appointments, all of it with advice that juvenile delinquents never forgot. It helped pupa to turn to butterfly. He once caught a Cdt appointment punishing junior cadets wearing a dressing gown. He gave him a dressing down and de-tabbed him on the spot. ’Always be in uniform when you have to punish someone’, Ronnie counselled him. ‘Uniform gives you the authority, without it you are no body’. Ronnie was everywhere, ‘Omni Present’, ‘Omni Potent’, on horseback, on cycle, and sometimes hiding behind bushes, far before the cadets awoke and far beyond the time when they slept. He was always in his smart white uniform. To the last man, all Cdts of that generation remember him and eulogize him as a kind and generous man, a father to love and to cherish, though he was their nemesis.

‘Wow, Ronnie Pereira, I remember him very fondly’, says Anjit Bose (now an AF veteran) who was one of the worst of the juvenile delinquents converted to honourable citizen by Ronnie by stick and carrot. ‘Ronnie was a guy I would follow to the end of the earth. He nicknamed me ‘Goonda Bose’ in my second term in NDA after watching me fight in Novices Boxing. Well he was a smoker, and I was a smoker, looks like I got caught every time I took a puff, and as per Ronnie I was not old enough to have his privileges, so he kicked my butt and I loved it’.

Another veteran Rajan Phadke recalls, ‘Ronnie came by E-Sqn on a cycle one evening and caught me smoking. He asked me to keep reporting to him in different NDA dress, every hour and all night. At 8 in the morning I reported to his house in ‘Mufti’. When I reached his ‘Peacock Bay’ residence Phyllis was tending to the lawn. ‘Were you the one who was ringing the calling-bell all night?’ she asked kindly. ‘You must be hungry’, she said and offered me a sumptuous breakfast. ‘Ma, I was caught smoking’, I confessed to her without guile, and pointed at the 555 State Express cigarette packet lying on the table. She laughed aloud, like bells pealing. Ronnie came out to the lawn, and promptly lit a cigarette. ‘You are too young to smoke, wait till you are a few years older’, she counselled. ‘I know you are always on punishment’, Ronnie commented, ‘When you last went to Poona on Liberty?’, he asked with concern. ‘I don’t remember Sir’, I stammered. ‘It has been a year or two since I was let out of prison’, I told him with a quarter guard smile. Ronnie stared at me silently for a while. Afterwards he sent me on parole, ‘Liberty’ to Poona, in his own staff car, since I had already missed the 0930 bus. He even gave me pocket money to see a movie. I did not know whether to laugh or to cry, but that was the last time I broke the law.

Ronnie taught Johnson Chako and Nagendra Malik (both veterans now) to swim, simply by making them jump off the 10 mtr board and not allowing them to grab the sides of the pool. Ronnie in full Naval regalia walked along the sides of the pool, kept egging them on. ‘Kick your legs, stroke your arms, keep going’ he kept roaring like a lion. And when they did finally reach the other end of the pool, he declared them ‘Swimmers’ and gave them a pat on the back, equivalent to winning a ‘Param Vir Chakra’, they were just 17 years old.

Phyllis Bedell Pereira, now close to 90, has dementia and Parkinson and no relatives left except a grand nephew of Ronnie. She is cared for in an austere old age home in Bangalore run by the Catholic Sisters of Charity with no ostentation. Phyllis is in incredibly good health, but remains confined to bed. Quite possibly because without Ronnie for steerage, she has nowhere to go, she is probably like a boat that has beached. However, if she sees a man in uniform, she gets up immediately and says ‘He is my Son’. She starts beaming. She is sad when he leaves.

I can go on and on……., the tales from those who now sit at the top floors of Service HQs as well as subordinate formations, heads of corporate houses, entrepreneurs, retired veterans, all of them stalwarts in every walk of life. But I will simply and humbly say, ‘Ronnie Sir, we love and cherish your memory. Even in death you are closer to us than the distances that you have chosen to go. You shall live on, till the last of us who love you, and owe you, fall in our own mortality’. God bless you ‘Ronnie Sir’ and Phyllis ‘Mom’.

The author Wg Cdr Unni Kartha VSM (Retd) is an erstwhile test pilot and normally writes with the pseudonym “Cyclic”

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