Life In National Defence Academy Khadakwasla
Col Anil Bali 52nd Course NDA
I joined the National Defence Academy in July 1974 after clearing the Services Selection Board in May that year. I had eagerly awaited the results which would come out in the national dailies those days. Sure enough, when they did, I was thrilled beyond words to see my name in print! A thick brown envelope followed by post soon enough, giving instructions regarding clothes, money, shoes and everything else as well as how to get there! My first impression of the Army was a good one- everything is cut and dried, just follow instructions!
In 1974, I was studying in Pre Med Class D A V College Chandigarh. On getting through NDA, my first thought was-thank God! I won’t have to slog for the Pre medical. At the NDA, I was assigned to FOXTROT Squadron.
Life as a first-termer was tough. You were either front-rolling in the corridor or doing push-ups in the Drill Square in front of the Squadron! And of course, there was a culture shock awaiting us when we went in for our first bath-everyone has a bath in the nude in NDA! (Rather embarrassing, you know,. My Roll Number which remains glued to my memory even today was 10936.( If I remember correctly, saikia was 10935 ). The Squadron Cadet Captain was Vinod Francis Pulligodan Verky, a tall, impressive southy ! The DCCs (Division Cadet Captain was DC verma.
There were 24 of us first-termers in Foxtrot Squadron. Its amazing how first-termers get “bull-shitted” in NDA! Let me recount a few of the ingenuous ways by which a guy can get sorted out. “What’s my name?” asks a second-termer covering his nameplate. “You don’t know MY name?” exclaims the President of the United States when you look back at him blankly. And then he roars-“Get bloody front rolling!” The reason I have a strong flexible back to this day is because I have measured the corridors of the first, second and third floors of FOXTROT Squadron umpteen times. And worse is to follow. Not satisfied with making me sweat, Mr Bill Clinton tells me to write down his name a thousand times and show it to him the next morning by muster. Another favourite one was- ” What does KLPD stand for?” And if you don’t know, its PT Rig at 1400 hrs in front of his cabin. Not only KLPD, I learnt many, many things and very, very quickly too! Like, for example, which are the Quartermaster’ s ——-
Seventh Heaven. The guys in FIGHTER Squadron NDA in Autumn Term 1974 could well teach a thing or two to the infamous UP Police! Let me elaborate. We first termers were told to climb to the “Seventh Heaven” as punishment, a real killer! This was the seventh wire of the grill above the door and we were supposed to hang on it using our fingers! Especially for me, this was pure torture ! And if you think that it is not possible to do a backroll up the stairs, think again, because I have done it at the behest of some joker of a second or third termer! But look at the brighter side- during the next PT period I did a demo back-roll on the mat as it seemed like child’s play!
I don’t know if they still insist on it, but in our time we were given a “topi-cut.”By this I mean that when you put on your beret, there should be no hair visible! And a haircut was to be taken every week without fail. If a Monday arrived without a cadet having taken one then woe betide him! The raw meat-eating Drill Ustaads would eat us for lunch! The erring cadet would be marched up to his Divo in the breakfast break that very morning and the least “Prasad” he could expect was 5 x Extra Drills. I still vividly remember that rather than go through the agony mentioned above I would go through the one-in-a lifetime experience of shaving the hair on the back of my head with my shaving razor on a Monday morning when I had slipped up. If there was one instance when I envied my Khalsa course-mates, this was it!
This is a beautiful metaled road that runs to the north of the Academy through hills and dale. Before long, we youngsters knew every yard of this road! And if we were destined to do a longer run, well then, the famous 2475 was just a little further ahead of the Periphery. I love hills but if there is one hill for which I don’t have the slightest affection it is 2475!
We had three periods before breakfast and five after, till lunch-time. More often than not, two of the three morning periods were PT and Drill and if they were one after the other, we had a job on our hands! PT – Drill was infinitely worse than Drill – PT because changing from a dirty sweaty PT rig to starched KDs (our khaki shirt and shorts) and putting on stockings, boots, and anklets and racing to the Drill Square on our bikes all within 15 minutes was quite an ordeal. Also, after a double-outdoor, one definitely needed a thorough bath with hot, steaming water. No, please don’t think I don’t like to bathe. Its just that a good bath takes fifteen minutes and every minute of the Breakfast-break was precious!
But God is just! He decided that after a couple of double-outdoors, every Course deserved a flat! On a flat, we started our mornings in our KDs, had about 45 minutes to eat our breakfast and by George, did we gorge? I’ll say yes. So much so that it was difficult to stay awake in the post-breakfast periods. Though some will bet that shut-eye came easier after double-outdoors! Talking of sleeping in the post-breakfast periods, how can I forget to mention Rooms No 99 and 100! These are huge, deep classrooms in Sudan Block on the top floor, away from prying eyes and absolutely ideal for a snooze during Library periods! Many were the lovely 40 minutes of forenoon that I spent in those rooms in well-deserved rest and recuperation!
And the 7 metre board was a spectacle of mirth and merriment for us weak swimmers, watching the fun from afar! At times, our PTO, would personally climb the 7 metre board and box the poor blighters who refused to jump! I have personally seen the most acrobatic feat by a cadet who after being pushed off a 7 metre board did some sort of a somersault mid-air and managed to hang onto the board! The guy will easily get a job in a circus! Sorry folks, he is a Major-
General in the Army today, so no names! But I bet he must still be having nightmares today.
The Drill Square
It was much later in life that I realized the full importance of that Drill Square in NDA. That was the place where we learnt what discipline is, to blindly obey what we were commanded to do. If your squad instructor gives a command- ” Dahine Mur!” you just jolly well do dahine mur’ without asking any questions! Some may argue otherwise but I am of the firm opinion that ” Drill is the bedrock of Discipline! Maybe that is why I soon became the blue-eyed boy of the Drill ustaads because when they ordered us to march faster, then that is just what I did (much to the consternation of my course-mates). I have yet to comprehend why our Drill NCOs used to call it “changing march.” My KD shirt would be dark with sweat after every Drill period and I became the butt of many a joke and was nick-named “OG. OG stands for Olive Green, a title given to those who toe the line, do what they are told to do. In retrospect, I think that that was the most important thing I learnt in the NDA- to do the CORRECT thing, something that I will always cherish.
This is a beautiful fort visible on the sky-line from NDA. A nice place for a picnic, you would think, imagining a lazy afternoon and lots of fun. Nothing could be further from the truth! A devious mind converted a trip to this magnificient fort from a pleasurable affair to a rape of the highest order! An act of indiscipline in the Academy could prompt a Divo to bark at the erring individual-” 5 x Singarh Hikes!” Besides the tremendous physical exertion in climbing up to Singarh, collecting a token and immediately heading back to the Academy-all within a stipulated time frame, what was most devastating was that these hikes were planned on Sundays! If on a Sunday late afternoon you saw a dejected, tired and sweating cadet in FSMO you knew exactly where he had been that day. No thank you, I don’t want to see Singarh again-I’ve seen enough of it! Yes, but there was always a silver lining to those dark clouds. There was an unwritten law, at least in FIGHTER Sqn, that the Sunday morning tea eats were the property of the poor blighted Singarh hikers! So whenever I did Singarh, there was a packet of Marie biscuits in each of my FSMO pouches and you won’t believe it when I tell you that I had downed them even before the climb started somewhere near IAT Pune!
Whether you liked it or not, you have to box in NDA-or get boxed! In something called “novices boxing” two poor blighted first-termers were put into a boxing ring and let loose on each other-with a stern warning that in case they did not do justice to this infernal sport, then the PT ustaads would come into the ring to show them how! So it was a devil’s choice for the poor buggars who rightly decided that they might as well swing their arms at each other and get done with it! I still remember how those three minutes in the ring seemed like three hours! But in all fairness I must admit, that there is no better way of getting to know if a guy is a sissy or otherwise. Then there were guys who just kept their gloved hands in front of their faces waiting to see what would happen! One solid punch to the nose would change their placid Gandhi outlook on life and it was pure fun to see how they changed their outlook from “defensive” to “offensive”! But one thing was common to all bouts-each contestant embraced the other warmly after the result was announced, in all probability due to relief that the agony was finally over.
But novices boxing wasn’t the last I saw of those gloves. To my utter horror, I realized that by current standards, I was categorized as a good boxer and expected to fight as part of the Squadron Boxing team in the Inter-Squadron Boxing Championship held every alternate term!
Gole Market. Coming to the Gole Market was like a breath of fresh air, as if we had been transported back to civilization from Kaala Pani.. Apart from shoe-polish and brasso, one could get delicious chikki and other eats in this market. In the junior terms it was possible to visit Gole Market only on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and that too in our “walking-outs” whereas the fifth and sixth termers went whenever they felt like in whatever dress code they felt comfortable! Thus by unwritten law or tradition or whatever else you may call it, we learnt that perks and privileges come with seniority and a senior is a senior and a junior is a junior! To this day, I address an officer of the 51st NDA Course as “Sir” even though he may have been superseded or retired and the same is true of every young man who has passed out from the portals of this wonderful institution.
What a misleading name for a cabin inspection! For that is what it was. Every item of clothing, equipment, shoes and other paraphernalia in the cabin had to be in its proper place to the last millimeter and sparkling clean. Every item of clothing in the cupboard had to have a measured piece of cardboard stuck in it to give it a correct rectangular shape, box to be in line with the edge of the bed, kit-bag in the corner of the room. I can never forget my very first cabin cupboard-taken by CSM 47th Course. As I stood at attention outside my cabin, reasonably sure that the Cadet Sergeant Major would be quite satisfied with the state my cabin was in, CSM glared at me as he walked in. He rubbed his index finger on the underside of the study-table and then wiped the dust-covered finger on my nose, if you please! “This is your bloody standard for the CSM’s cabin cupboard!” he roared. I realized then and
there that a lot more effort was required to be put in by me for him to be satisfied. When I see the mess made by my two KIDS in their untidy rooms, I wish that they could have been put through one of CSM cabin cupboards!
Time just flew by in the NDA. We would keep track of the days by an abbreviation -“DLTGH” (Days left to go Home). Before I knew it I was a second termer and it was my turn to bullshit the new entrants. But being a soft-hearted chap I really didn’t trouble the youngsters too much. And neither did I ask anybody my name! Every ACA of the Academy,( and there used to be just one every term, thank you God,) used to feel that when the discipline of the Academy was not up to the mark, he knew what to do. Once the Sunday movie in the auditorium was over he would order the whole Academy, less the sixth-termers, his course-mates, to front-roll to the Mess for dinner! And front-roll we did, with fifth-term sergeants urging us to “roll faster” with Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachan or whoever it was who acted in the movie soon forgotten! Yes, I know what Sudan block looks like upside down! And the shortest route to the Mess from the Auditorium is via the Naval Training team, folks, don’t I know it!
We second-termers were introduced to camp life in Camp Greenhorn. We were taught to pitch up bivouacs and tents and how to live neatly in Camp. Map reading was fun after I realized that contour lines did not represent tracks on the ground! It was nice eating in our enamel plates and drinking hot tea in our enamel mugs. TIPSY PUDDING was a thing we could never forget. The last item of the Camp was the josh run from the camp site back to the Academy-it was the biggest test of stamina and endurance that I had experienced till then. Anyhow, I did it and even carried the stretcher for a large part of the run. The josh run ended near the PT gym and I drank almost four enamel mug full of nimbu-pani which was made freely available.
At the beginning of each term every cadet is issued with a bicycle which remains his personal property throughout that term. I can still remember that my bicycle in my first and second terms was F 73 In order to ensure that it was not taken away by anybody else, I religiously used a chain and lock, like everybody else. But you can’t use a lock and chain to keep the tyre valves intact! So, all of us had our GS Reserve of cycle valves! There was discipline while cycling too. Every cycle squad had a squad leader who would be in the lead, and the rest would follow in twos. When an officer passed by from the opposite side of the road, the squad leader would holler-“Saavdhaan Chal” and all cyclists in the squad would pull their arms. Once the danger’ had passed, the rear-most cyclist would yell-“Vishraam Chal.” And so on so forth! Our valiant steeds were really a boon. Without them we would never have been able to reach our outdoor and indoor classes in time, especially if we had a Weapon Training class or Equitation Periods. And God help us if we were caught cycling without being in a squad by an appointment or a Drill Ustaad – “Lift up your bloody bikes!” the order was barked out at us and then it was our bikes which were doing the riding!
Tant Policeman Bajri Order
I notice that you are looking a bit puzzled. What on earth, you are asking yourself is this animal called ” Tant Policeman Bajri Order”! I shall enlighten you in a moment. “Tant” is a nickname for a guy from Maharashtra derived from a historical figure called Tantya Tope. ( I don’t know why, but calling a tant a tant always raised his hackles!) And bajri order is Chindit Order with lots of bajri in the big pack.
So if you were unfortunate enough to be called in this rig, you would have to put on KD shorts, White Patrol jacket, Black Web Belt, Blue Patrol cap, riding patties and chappals! And then, of course, the bajri order on top of that! And if the senior who had called you in this rig was in a sour mood or wanted to have his fun you would be standing in the corridor directing traffic like the good policeman you were supposed to be, much to the amusement of fellow cadets passing through!
One big item on the agenda was the Inter-Squadron Cross-Country Competition which was held every term and which counted towards the Inter-Squadron Championship Banner.
In our time, it was a 13 kilometre run starting from the Glider drome past the Lone Tree Hill and then over hill and dale till we could see the flags fluttering in the distance and the taped enclosures back in the Glider drome! And the hordes of gaily-coloured vests would make a dash for the finish point hoping to make it to the early enclosures! No matter how hard I tried, I could never do better than the fourth enclosure.
I remember that I tried so hard to better my performance in my fourth term cross-country run that I fainted about a kilometer short of the finish. a fifth-termer of my Squadron, literally almost picked me up to get me over the finish line. to make it to third enclosure at last !. Such was the Squadron spirit! This was what the NDA taught us- do or die for the unit you belong to. And it remains drilled in the mind of every young man worth his salt who has passed out from it..
If there is one institution in the National Defence Academy which holds pride of place, it is the Cadets Mess. It is huge, yes HUGE! It houses tables for all Squadrons, is spick and span at all times, and has two side entrances besides the imposing main entrance. There is a big flight of steps leading up to the main entrance. Central Mess houses the VIP tables. Once a week we used to have Dinner Night in our Patrols, White or Blue, depending on the time of the year.
The most astonishing quality about the Mess is its capability to cater for the voracious appetite of 1500 cadets all at one go, especially at breakfast time, with everyone wolfing down toast after toast with one eye on the clock! I never did manage to go down to see the kitchens, but I believe that they are state-of-the -art. They must be, to be able to have this capability.
Time just flew while we were at the NDA. Before I knew it, I was a third termer. Third term was supposed to be a cushy term and somehow we got many more flats than in the previous terms. Also, nobody really bothered us as there were plenty of first and second termers to bullshit. And of course, the more enterprising and “bull-shitter” types amongst us started having a field day with the youngsters.
Whether we liked it or not, we became physically fit in NDA. There were PT tests which had to be cleared every term, like back roll, rope-climbing, wooden horse and dive-roll and God knows what else, with the threat of relegation hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles. The PT periods were always 40 minutes of violent, sweaty exercise with Havildar Singh making sure that not a second was wasted! Also, with cross country being held every term, you jolly well learnt to run! And carrying your bicycle gives you good biceps-I’ll vouch for that! Add swimming to the list, not to mention Drill and evening games. In Drill, Subedar of the Rajputana Rifles and Havaldar Singh had us by the short hairs! And cycling at full speed to get to Sudan Block or Science Block or wherever on time during class hours-the mixture was too rich! No wonder then that we slept like logs when our heads hit the pillow at “Lights Out, GOLF SQN.( MY SQN CHANGED )”at 10 p.m. every night to be woken up by the clarion call of a first-termer at 5 a.m. the next morning-“Tea is ready, GOLF Squadron.”
Foreign Language versus Latin Hungarian
We were made to sit for a Minimum Hindi test in our second or third terms, I forget which. Those of us who cleared the test were given a choice of foreign languages to study while those who flunked it had to continue studying “Latin Hungarian”(Lower Hindi). I cleared the test and opted for TIBETIAN. LAMA T D BHUTIA was our TIBETIAN teacher. We were taught so many subjects in NDA that I lose count. Let me remember-there was Engineering Drawing, Welding, Foundry and much more over and above our academic and Service subjects. We worked at lathes too! I remember that I became pretty good at welding after I used a light hand to hold the welding torch! My favorite subject was Military History-Mr Bhandari, a tall gentleman, took our classes in this subject and by the time that he finished teaching us about the North African campaign, we all had become fans of that great German general, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Geography was boring and most of us fell asleep during Mr Siddiqui’s classes!
Clothes that Stand
You must be wondering that this guy has got it all wrong-what the hell, how can clothes stand? Yes, they can, and let me tell you how! Our khaki KD shorts were starched and pressed so many times that they could stand! During the breakfast break, the orderlies used to sit around in the corridor and “pull” our KD shirts through these very shorts so that we looked nice and smart! And then we would march to the Mess, those very KD shorts pointing forward!
The moment a guy got relegated, he became a “Dada”. He had the best of both worlds! RANDY (RANDIP SINGH SAHU ) was relegated from 51th to 52th Course-so when 51st Course was called in PT Rig by an appointment, Randy very conveniently belonged to 52nd Course and when 52nd Course created some gaddar, of course, Randy was 51st Course! The once relegated types were known as “Brigadiers” and the twice-relegated superheroes were “Generals”! If the top shirt button of a guy was open, well, in all probability, he was a Brigadier or a General! Looking back in retrospect, relegation was really a terrible punishment and for such stupid reasons-Bhushan Nanda got relegated for Ragging, somebody else for going on a ganna-raid.
I strongly feel that the authorities must never relegate a cadet except for the most serious lapses. As an officer, one gets 6 months loss of seniority after being found guilty often serious offence by a court-martial, but as a cadet, you can get relegated at the drop of a hat! How did that hat drop?
XYZ was unable to jump over that bally wooden horse with his legs straight out, so he gets relegated! How utterly ridiculous! This was the only thing that really got my gout in NDA- I really feel very strongly that relegation for a cadet is a most abominable punishment, except for the strongest reasons.
Before we knew it, we were 4th termers! This term was a very important because of CGPA. So we really slogged during this term on our studies and made sure that our PT tests were cleared on time. And towards the end of term, we had Camp TORNA, a real slog of a camp.,.
And then, what do you know, we were fifth-termers!,
We hardly ever saw our officers-our squadron appointments were our mothers and fathers! Yes, we did come across them at Dinner Nights. I remember that old BA HUSSAIN used to always have a huge helping of pudding and then would express-“Oh, my gosh, I didn’t realize how much I have taken!” But this happened far too often for it to be true! If ever a cadet was called to the Squadron Office, it meant trouble for the poor blighter! Either he had been called for getting Extra Drills or Restrictions from his Divo, or to get a moral lecture as his marks in Academics were very poor, or to be told that he jolly well pull up his socks as far as his PT Tests were concerned!
Inter-Squadron Games and Sports
In the major troop games such as football, hockey, basketball and volleyball each Squadron had to field six strings in the Inter-Squadron Competition! So, whether you liked it or not, you were in some string team or other! I remember that I would land up playing for the fifth string teams in most sports.
I remember that GOLF won the first string football finals in our third term, kind courtesy a great lone goal by KULDEEP SINGH, our ace centre-forward. I have a photograph of the entire Squadron standing and cheering with the football trophy.
That evening during Study Period, the entire Squadron went around the Academy clanging mugs and spoons and congregated on every Squadron parade ground. ”
End of Term Squadron Social. This was something that all juniors looked forward to. And something that few sixth-termers dreaded! Especially those who were callous in their bull-shitting and had the juniors for no rhyme or reason.
The Social used to begin with an entertainment- cum-variety programme in which ” sab ki pant utar di jati thi!” Even the Squadron officers were not spared except possibly, the Squaddie and everybody was mimicked and their idiosyncrasies and takya-kalaams brought out into the open, much to everybody’s hilarity and amusement.
And then, after tea and eats, the officers used to leave, and the real fun began! This was the one and only night when, by unwritten custom and tradition, the juniors could say and do anything to the passing-out Course! And so there were sixth-termers rolling, doing push-ups, or just doing the bidding of their juniors, those very youngsters who had been at their mercy throughout the previous terms!-
Sixth Term was good fun -it was bound to be, as we were the kings of the Academy! We had all the privileges and nobody to punish us! Of course, all appointments had all the responsibilities -ensuring the discipline of the juniors and seeing to it that the Squadron did well and got the Championship Banner.
Towards the end of term we suddenly realized that life at the NDA was coming to an end and soon we would be in a different place and environment. Also, we realized that our dear friends and course-mates who were Airforce and Naval types would be going their different ways and we wouldn’t be seeing them again.. Anyhow, at least we Army types would still be together at IMA, albeit in different Companies and Battalions– – that was the silver lining to an otherwise dark cloud.
Before we knew it,it was June 1977 and it was time for 52nd Course to pass out from the National Defence Academy. My Father And Mother came for the POP. RV KANITKAR, BCC of Number 3 Battalion was awarded the Gold.
So that is my narrative about the three wonderful years of my life spent at the National Defence Academy, Khadakvasla. A place where I learnt what life is, what duty is, what is right and what is wrong-in short, they were the most formative years of my life. The friends I made there are my friends for life.
Today, I still look back at those three years with nostalgic affection. The moment you meet an ex-NDA officer and tell him-“I’m 52 FOXTROT!” an instant bond forms between you and him, whether he is senior or decades junior. May God bless NDA!….