Life was difficult in the Navy when I joined it as a Midshipman early one morning in mid 1970. More so at sea, on a WW‐II vintage leaky ship INS ‘My‐Sore’ which was paradoxically and exclusively ‘my sore point’ as a Midshipman. Unlike the taste of aged wine, even in a bottle that has just received a coat of new battleship grey paint, the taste of life for Midshipmen wasn’t any better in that kind of ship in the bottle. The bad taste for the Midshipman perhaps was because everyone on board thought that they were very ‘salute‐able,’ huggable and kissable, officers and gentlemen, while the Midshipmen were to act like ‘Yak & Yeti’, a beast of burden and an abominable seaman, without character, not be seen or heard while the ship was in motion and very ‘un‐touchable or un‐kissable’ when in port.
So it was that I began my watch in the Navy as a genetically thoroughbred Yak & Yeti, unknown to all, unrecognised and ‘non salute‐able’ to all, except Dasan. Well Dasan, he was different. He was our civilian orderly and the incentives that I offered to him in cash and kind (Rum) was reciprocated with smart salutes, though I had a sneaky suspicion that his opinion about midshipmen was also below the water mark of INS ‘My‐Eye‐Sore’.
Once in a while, a pastor would be detailed, just to ensure that Midshipmen were redeemed. He would peruse though our records of NDA as well as the reports of the ‘officer on watch’ and try to find us gainful employment, usually to pump out the bilge. Venerable Cmde Shepard was once detailed for such pastoring and counselling when I was a Midshipman.
“To pump out the bilge, you have to be a graduate, you are not even that,” observed Cmde Shepard with great sagacity, wit and wisdom while perusing the illustrious life history of Midshipman SK Gaur. Gaur was nonplussed. He sat up in the chair mustering all the soldierly visage that he had acquired in Room No 100, in NDA, where we usually slept and dreamt of our life in the Navy.
“Why are you giving me a sleepy look” queried Cmde Shepard?
Midshipman Gaur was a fine product, cast in a mould in in Hitler’s workshop (The Hitler referred to was the officer in charge workshop and engineering drawing while we were Cadets in NDA. None amongst my generation remembers his actual name, only his nom de guerre, ‘Hitler’), adept at handling superior officers with quick and smart thinking. “Saaaaar,” Gaur retorted, “I may look sleepy, but I assure you I am a very smart chap”.
Cmde Shepard immediately sent him to man the bilge pumps, the dirtiest place on INS ‘Eye Sore’.When my turn came, Cmde Shepard had run out of ideas for my gainful employment. There was no Crow’s Nest on Eye Sore and in those days the Navy also did not trust Midshipmen on the Anchor winch lass, or Boson’s store.
“My, My,” Venerable Cmde Shepard remarked dryly after reading my reports. “Your dossier says that you ride and box with guts and determination. Why can’t you do the same in the Navy,” he asked with insatiable curiosity?
Not to be outdone by SK Gaur, I sat up ram rod in my chair with my eyes wide open.I cleared my throat, took a sip of Cmde Shepard’s holy water kept there by a steward in a large wine glass. “Saaaaaaaaaar,” I mimicked in a parade ground voice. “My report in your hand, the one from NDA, it is talking about horses,” I said with zest. “But in the Navy, there are only mules,” I observed with candour. Cmde Shepard sniffed and sent me out for ‘Bridge Duties’. I think in his opinion, that was where ‘Eye Sore’ had a corral for the ‘Gadhas’. That is how I became a dysfunctional member of the ‘Bridge Gang’ as a Midshipman. While everyone was referred to as ‘Officer On Watch,’ I was generally not referred to as anything, perhaps just simply called a ‘Gadha’.
While the officers on watch, all of them, had special privileges to sleep in very comfortable bunks, as also on the ‘Bridge’ while on duty, Gadhas were not allowed to sleep at all. Hence, no formal sleeping accommodation was ever allotted to Midshipmen. They were to find their own ways and means to catch their 40 winks, mostly aimed at the winch lass and not any pretty lass.
Since Eye Sore was a mighty warship of the fleet, it was also the chariot of the ‘God’. The Admiral of the Fleet, had a specially fitted out and super luxurious cabin adjacent to the Captain’s cabin. Captain Russi Ghandi was then the boss of Eye Sore. Both cabins were out of bounds for Gadhas or Midshipmen. It was common practice those days to have the keys of these cabins, as well as other important keys of Eye Sore, all in a bunch to be kept safe on the bridge, hanging around the neck of the ‘officer on watch’. Since it was a bulky bunch, ungainly and oily, giving a rash to the officer on watch and also soiling his pristine white uniform, the key bunch was promptly hung around the neck of the Gadha on watch. That is how my service career started as the most valiant and responsible person on board INS Eye Sore, the keeper of the key to the Fleet Admiral’s cabin and toilet.
There is an old saying that, ‘You can leave RIMC and NDA, but habits of RIMC& NDA don’t leave you’. So it was that I made a dye cast of the key to the Admiral’s cabin on a bar of soggy Hamam soap and soon got myself a duplicate key. After I acquired the duplicate key, I did not have to be allotted sleeping quarters. I allotted myself the best cabin on the ship, the Admiral’s cabin, which he rarely used because he was happier to sleep on shore with his wife than on ‘Eye Sore’. I was a principled rascal. Though I had no qualms about sleeping in the Admiral’s cabin, I had moral issues about sleeping on his bed. So I went to the Boson’s store and got myself issued a lace up type ‘Death Shroud’—a canvas bag usually used for burial at sea. It was as comfortable as a sleeping bag and very cosy if I turned up the Admiral’s special air‐conditioning and lay down on the Admiral’s carpet with his rolled up bathroom mat as a pillow. Soon I began to enjoy life as Gadha on watch on the bridge of INS Eye Sore with the Nelson’s Eye perception that ‘God helped only those who helped themselves’.
Some weeks later, after a stressful night on the bridge, when the gale and monsoons made Eye Sore pitch, yaw and roll at the same time making the heavy key bunch swing to and fro on my chest, I crawled into my ‘Death Shroud’ at the foot of the Admiral’s bed and so over slept. I tried to sneak out next morning with the rolled up death shroud under my arm.
Leaving the death shroud under the Admiral’s bed was not only sacrilege but also leaving behind evidence after a crime. I was a smart Rimcolian and ex NDA. Habitually, I obliterated all evidence after every crime. I also mentioned the Admiral’s name in my prayers, that his wife should be kind to him so that he would never have the need to come on board Eye Sore at least till I could graduate from Gadha to a Sub Lieutenant, the exalted position after which I may have won a lottery and inherited a bunk of my own, to sleep in.
Lo and behold, as soon as I locked the Admiral’s cabin and was about to disappear down the corridor, out comes Captain Russi Ghandi out of his door holding his ‘Piss Glass’ with Brandy and water. Promptly I raised the bulky roll of the death shroud to cover my face and walked past nonplussed.
‘Jai Hind Sir’, I mumbled to the Captain.
‘Kaun Hai?’ Russi Gandhi enquired in a very anglicised accent peppered with Brandy. I had to keep the conversation to the minimum and yet not spook him.
“Dasan hai Sahib, civilian orderly. Kamra Saaf Kar Raha Tha,” I said with an admirable Malayalee accent and immediately scampered out of sight.
Afterwards, I heard the Captain counsel the Exec, ‘I say old chap, keep an eye on this Dasan fellow, the civilian orderly who cleans the Admiral’s cabin. I don’t want the Admiral complaining that any of his things have gone missing’.
I assured the Captain, not then, but after I had been promoted to a Sub Lt, that Dasan was a man with an exemplary character. I confided that it was not Dasan, but I who personally kept the Admiral’s cabin ship shape, only depleting his treasure chest of Scotch Whisky once in a while. The tragedy was that after I became a Sub Lt, after the confession to the Captain, and given a bunk to sleep in, I was referred to by all on INS Eye Sore as ‘Dasan On Watch,’ perhaps a shade better than ‘Gadha On Watch’.
Editors Note: This article was written for Capt (IN) Arvind Kumar by Wg Cdr Unni Kartha.