Kodagu is one of the most picturesque districts in India. Kodavas, the proud people of Kodagu have served with elan and great distinction in our Armed Forces. Rare is the armed forces person who has not heard of Kodagu or the Kodavas. Only, most of the people refer to Kodagu as Coorg and to Kodavas as Coorgi or just Coorg. Kodagu has had a deep impact in my life too.
On my very first day in the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun the very first officer to whom I reported and mentioned my name asked me, “Which part of Coorg are you from?”
“Sir, I am not from Coorg” I replied.
“But I thought all Thimayyas and Uthappas are from Coorg,” he wondered.
“Sir, I am Thammayya Udupa, not a Kodava and not from Kodagu” I responded.
Fast forward to my last day in service. After his warm, affectionate speech, after handing over to me a memento, the Chief of Staff of the formation asked me, “So, now you are off to Coorg to look after your coffee estates?”
For the last time, in Army uniform and much to his surprise, I replied, “Sir, I am not from Kodagu.”And between these two days, probably on every single day I was asked if I was from Coorg and I had the same, standard reply.
But a few incidents do stand out in my memory. As a newly commissioned officer I reported to my Regiment and was ushered into the Adjutant’s office. He seemed to be a very friendly, apparently fun-loving and jovial person who made all efforts to put me at ease. He ordered tea for both of us. “Sir, please, no tea for me, thank you,” I said.
Adjutant: “Of course, of course, how silly of me, offering tea to a Coorg, ha, ha ha! We will get you some coffee.”
Me: “Sir, please, no tea, no coffee for me, thank you. Also, I am not from Coorg”.
It was as though he had been hit by a sledgehammer. All the fun-loving demeanour evaporated and looking at my service record in front of him and reconfirming from my name tab, in a very steely voice, he asked me, “You are a Thammayya and you are an Udappa, but you are not a Coorg?”
“Sir, I am Thammayya Udupa and I am not from Kodagu”. “But how can that be? All Thimayyas, Thammayyas,
Uthappas and Udupas are from Coorg.”
“Sir, but I am Thammayya Udupa and I am not from Kodagu”.
His office runner informed him that the Second-in- Command (2IC) was waiting for him and they were to go for an inspection. I felt quite relieved as I felt this discussion would quickly come to an end. But the Adjutant had other ideas, he called up the 2IC. “Sir, this new youngster has reported just now. There is some problem in his name and I will have it sorted out. Request postpone the inspection by half an hour.”
Suddenly, I realised the incongruousness of the situation: how could my name be a problem to him and what was there to sort out?
“Listen, Timmy,” he said. This was the first time somebody had addressed me as “Timmy,” which in due course became my nickname in the Army. “It is my hobby to connect names with places they belong to. Do you know the subtle difference between Sharma, Sarmah and Sarma? Or Bhat and Bhatt, Singh and Singha? I have done enough research on this to fill a book. But this is the first time somebody is trying to prove me wrong.”
“Sir, I was born in South Kanara District but was brought up in Bhilai, the steel city.”
Adjutant: “Ah ha, that’s it, I know South Kanara District. That’s the coastal district adjacent to Coorg, right? You must be a spill over case. There are so many instances of people crossing over from the home district to the one across the border. That doesn’t make you a non-Coorg” he said in a decisive tone. “Moreover, since you were brought up in an altogether different place up North, you have no idea of your roots. Both your name and surname are too typically Coorg. How can you not be a Coorg?”
“No, Sir. I am sure. I know my roots well. Moreover, my name Thammayya is common in South Kanara. In fact both my grandfathers were Thammayyas and that’s how I was named Thammayya. My surname is Udupa. Not Uthappa. Not Udappa”.
He almost jumped out of his chair, when he heard that both my grandfathers were Thammayyas. “That’s it. That’s very much it. It confirms that you are a Coorg. It is only amongst Coorgs that such things happen. So sad, you do not know your own roots. Why are you so ashamed of acknowledging you are a Coorg?” Before I could protest, he shot another question at me. “You must be having plenty of relatives in Coorg?”
“No, Sir, not plenty. There’s a paternal uncle, who is the Principal of a well-known private college in Kodagu. That’s all”.
Once again, the almost-jumping-out-of-the-chair action. “Uncle is Princey of a private college? Ha, you mean, Coorgs who are so educated and so talented, would make your uncle, a non-Coorg the Princey? What nonsense? Now listen, the decision is taken. You are a Coorg, and I do not have any time for your illogical arguments.”
He had no time for any more discussions and with a sense of relief as though he had cracked a mystery he was off for his meeting with the 2IC. And so it was, that I became a Coorg by order, in my Regiment. At every opportunity, in every gathering, he would introduce me as “our new youngster, Timmy, a Coorg, who does not know he is a Coorg.” This intrigued most people. And if a few decided to clear the air, there would be much fun and laughter at my cost. Some called me a non-Coorg Coorg, whatever that meant.
As far as the troops in my Regiment were concerned, I realised that they had their own way of addressing most of the officers. A Jaswal would become Jaspal Singh Sa’ab, an Arumugam was Murgam Sa’ab, a Shrivastava was simply Vastav Sa’ab. A Malleshi was Malaysia Sa’ab and Tshering would be either Sher Singh Sa’ab or T Shering Sa’ab or Shuttering Sa’ab. I considered myself lucky in this respect because there was no distortion of my name.
But how wrong I was became clear soon after I went on posting from my Regiment. I moved to a minor unit in Delhi and one of the small privileges there was that we had a civil telephone in the unit. Those were the days when Subscriber Trunk Dialling (STD) was beginning to make its presence in the smaller cities and towns of India. Just two days after I reported to my new unit, Bhilai, where my parents were then located, came on the STD map. So my father decided to surprise me with a STD call. With tremendous ingenuity, he found out the civil number of my unit and called the number late in the evening.
By that time the duty clerk had taken over the telephone duties. The duty clerk that day was Naik Balbir. He was preparing for an examination to enable him to become an officer. As a first step, which made him feel officer like, he had decided to delegate his responsibilities to the duty runner, Sepoy Jaishankar. Jai, our unit barber, was a graduate in commerce and was aspiring to change his trade to clerk. A great combination on duty; it allowed the officer aspirant all the time for his studies and the clerk aspirant an opportunity to be a duty clerk.
The STD call from Bhilai came through around 10.30 pm that night, after a million tries by my father. When it finally rang at this end, it was answered by Jai. Father asked for a message to be conveyed to Captain Udupa. “No such officer in this unit” was the terse response from Jai. Appa patiently explained to him that he was calling from Bhilai in Madhya Pradesh and was the father of Captain Udupa, the officer who had just come on posting probably a day or two back. “No Adoopa, Sadoopa in this unit, Sir. You must have got it wrong. We do have a new officer, but it is Captain Mathew” replied the clerk aspirant. This went on for some more time and finally Appa gave up and disconnected.
Balbir was in an adjoining room engrossed in his studies, but aware that some confusion was brewing in the duty room, when Jai, like a good clerk came to brief him about the call. “I told the gentleman, we do not have any Adoopa, Sadoopa Sa’ab,” he concluded.
Balbir: “What was that Mathew, Mathew that I heard you saying?”
Jai: “Oh yes, I told him that our new officer is Captain Mathew, not Captain Adoopa Sadoopa.”
Balbir:“What? What Captain Mathew? Who is Captain Mathew? The new officer is not Captain Mathew. He is Captain Mataiya, not Captain Mathew. How stupid you are? How will you ever become a clerk? Mathews are Kerala Madrasis. The new Captain Sa’ab is a Coorgi Madrasi, Captain Mataiya.”
Thus, even among the troops I had been classified as one from Kodagu, though I am yet to come across any Kodava named Mataiya. Many, many years later I was attending a course where we were lucky to have Brigadier Parry, a brilliant, battle hardened expert in military tactics as our instructor. It was a treat to attend his classes. The only problem was, he was notoriously poor in remembering names. As long as he could see your name tab, there was no problem, but the moment you were at some distance, you would be addressed by any name that came to his mind. Sand model discussions and central lectures conducted by Parry had some humour builtin, due to the unexpected twists and turns that his name calling resulted in. It was said that in some earlier courses, some student officers had tried to correct him. He dismissed such attempts with characteristic disdain, “In class, when I ask you questions, I expect the right answers. Telling me your name is not the answer I expect.”
In his first lecture, he threw a question and as was his habit, was looking for someone who he could pick for an answer. His eyes surveyed the general direction where I was sitting and locked on to me. “Yes, Bheemaiah,” he said. Since there was no Bheemaiah doing the course with us, in fact since there was not a single Kodava officer with us there, I realised that it was a cue for me to get up. The next time, it was Devaiah. Then Nanaiah, Karumbiah, Bopiah and Machiah. Never, not even once did he address me as Thammayya.
But 10 out of 10 for consistency to Parry on three counts: firstly, every time he addressed me by a Kodava name only. Secondly, each time it was some name ending in -iah (or, ayya) and thirdly, not once did he address me by a Kodava name ending in ‘anna’ (like Muthanna or Somanna) or ‘appa’ (like Nanjappa or Uthappa). I was lucky, there were no incidents involving names between me and Parry.
Not so, Chandrashekhar. He was a very hard working, highly intelligent officer who was heading for the best student award on our course. One day Parry addressed him as Prasanna. The next time it was Venkataraghavan. Then Venkatesh Prasad.Chandra became the butt of many jokes and good-natured ribbing amongst us. Someone pulled his leg saying, “No use of all your rapid fire answers Chandra, they are not getting you any credit from Parry. All his marks are going to Prasanna and Venkataraghavan.” This charged him up so much that he decided that he would let Parry know he was Chandra.
Parry was in full form in his next lecture. Finally, he paused and asked a question. Chandra, who was ready with the answer, held on patiently. Parry surveyed the entire class and noticed Chandra.“Yes, Srinath, you are giving very intelligent looks.”
Chandra did not budge. “Srinath, I am asking you.”
No reaction from Chandra, except, his eyes started giving more intelligent looks and he was itching to get up and be done with it. But, he held on.
“Can’t you hear me, are you sleeping with your eyes wide open? I am asking you, Srinath, the guy on Mukherjee’s right.” Pradeep Banerjee, who had already switched off and was dreaming of buying a second hand Harley Davidson Fat Boy, suddenly jumped up when he heard a name by which Parry was likely to have called him.
“Not you, Mukherjee, I want this to be answered by Javagal Srinath, on your right.”
Chandra got up triumphantly. “Sir, my name is Chandrashekhar.”
This lit up Parry and he fumed, “All these days you were answering as Srinath. Today, when you have no answer to my question, you have become Chandrashekhar. Next time you will call yourself Anil Kumble. OK, sit down, come on Pandit, you answer.”
Purohit shuffled to his feet, as Chandra sat down, bewildered, not knowing how this unplayable googly had knocked off all his three stumps.
Colonel K Thammayya Udupa was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers. He commanded a RAPID Engineer Regiment and took premature retirement in April 2007. Post retirement he served in the Indian Institute of Management, Indore. He is settled in Udupi-Manipal.