Saturday, 31 May 2014

Hemantha Kalam - 21 'Clipped Wings - Shining Hands!'

This is dedicated to all those Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) who helped me condition myself to be prepared for any eventuality and for disciplining me; and to all my comrade cadets in NCC for the fun and values we all shared together.

One morning, I was furiously shining my shoes in my hotel room when the room attendants, clearly shocked to find me bring out my shoe-shining kit, volunteered to do it for me. But, as is wont of me for over 40 years now, I refused to accept their assistance and went on about my work. For, the ‘shining’ story started, sometime in July, 1973 in my college.

On that fateful day in July 1973, I saw a small group of students crowding at the notice board of my college and I also ventured into the crowd to see what was attracting them. Being a runt that I was at that time, I could squeeze from down under the guys and could read in more comfortably than the others who were trying to crane in from all different angles. It was to read a notice, calling upon cadet volunteers for NCC. That was the first opportunity I had, to volunteer for the NCC, as a cadet.

While at school, I could not get into NCC as that school was not attached with the NCC and had only the Boy Scouts, which in our school was a lack-lustre affair and did not take in much imagination of the student volunteers.

The National Cadet Corps (NCC) is the Indian military cadet corps, open to school (as junior division) and college students (as senior division) on voluntary basis. NCC is a Tri-Services Organization, comprising the Army, Navy and Air Force, engaged in grooming the youth of the country into disciplined and patriotic citizens. The Cadets are given basic military training in map reading, small arms and parades. The officers and cadets have no liability for active military service once they complete their course but are given preference over normal candidates during selections based on the achievements in the corps (Courtesy Wikipedia).

It is estimated that, at any point of time, there are about a million voluntary cadets being trained by NCC, across the country. And most of the times you can recognise them even without their uniforms by their attention to the National anthem.

So, elated at the finding, I rushed in to the college quadrangle where there were already quite a good number of volunteers gathered and I too joined them. The selection was vague. Our college was offering only three regiments - Artillery, Armoured and Infantry. Without even knowing how, I found myself being selected as a cadet for the 1 Tamil Nadu Armoured Regiment, Senior Division.

Our names were taken in and we were asked to report at the Armoured Regiment’s ‘Office’ for taking in our kits. The kit consisted of 1) a pair of khakhi trousers 2) a grey shirt 3) a pair of solid thick and heavy boots with khakhi socks 4) a web belt 5) a beret 6) a panache of feathers 7) an emblem of the regiment to be pinned on to the beret and 8) a pair of cloth regimental insignia loops to be inserted through the epaulets. As a cadet we did not need a whistle or a lanyard, yet. That would be required only when one becomes at least a Lance Corporal.

The kit issuance is a matter of great interest, as all the material, excepting the pair of socks, was old, used and re-cycled. Year after year, there have been hilarious moments, at the time of kit issuance; fat boys used to draw very thin trousers, tall boys got short trousers and shirts, thin boys used to get tent like shirts which virtually could drown them. Web belts, even after adjusting to the full level were sometimes either still loose or very tight depending on the girth of the cadet concerned. Long trousers were much in demand but short trousers were normally dime a dozen.

While issuing the clothes, not much time was allotted but with shoes it is a different matter. By and large the boots were issued based on the size mentioned by the cadets. However in one or two rare cases some boots used to be a size or two larger and I know cadets who used to stuff either cardboard or wads of cloth to fit. But one can only imagine the trouble they have to undergo, using those boots, and especially while marching. And instead of silk thread laces, one was issued good leather thongs for lacing the boots.

I was lucky to get a reasonably well fitting uniform. We were instructed that the real parades (classes) will start from the next Saturday and that we should present ourselves in prim and perfect appearance using the kits that were issued to us.

Till such time, I had never worn dresses or clothes used by others. I was half thinking to ask my father to get me a new set of uniform but a few of my co-cadets talked me out of it. So I lugged the kit home and during the next two days, I soaked the dresses in a bucket full of hot water mixed generously with liquid Dettol. After a couple of days of such soaking and washing, I had to learn the art of washing them with ‘Starch’ to ensure stiffness for the uniform. And then the minor alterations and sewing of broken buttons etc. Once done, I had to find a person to iron them with knife edge creases. With the ‘toy’ Iron box that we had at home, I was not confident of doing justice to my uniform. That confidence came in eventually though.

I had polished my boots so much that I could see my reflection well on the toes (a benchmark). I never spit and polished though. Adjusting the web belt was not a problem but applying ‘Brasso’ on to the buckles of the web belt required deftness. If you apply brasso and shined the buckles, they were smudged with shoe polish later when you polished the rest of the belt. If you polished the belt first with shoe polish and applied the brasso to the buckles, the brasso left white telltale smudges on the belt later. So shining the shoes was half the challenge of shining the web belt.

By the time I was done with and prepared for the next week’s appearance, I found to my chagrin that my pair of trousers was quite loose and I was looking a bit pregnant, so to say! So I quickly went in for a little alteration, but the pregnancy look was retained till next year when I was issued with a different kit.

Even for senior division, there would normally be 2 classes / parades of 2 hours each, every week; but our college people talked the NCC unit office into collapsing both the classes into one four hour class to be held on Saturday afternoons as Saturdays were half day working for the college’s regular classes.

After the first two hours, we had a break for about half hour when we were treated to refreshments which included a special tea that was not made available during the regular canteen hours.

Steadily we progressed and all the cadets could now be formed into files and ranks and do decent parades. Came in December 1973, when we had to attend ‘my first’ NCC camp. The camp was designed to be located in Kancheepuram some 75 kms away from Madras (now Chennai) and which I was visiting for the first time. We camped in the Men’s Pachaiyappa’s college (Little did I realise then, that once, in future, one of my offices would be located bang opposite to this college and that I would be instrumental in negotiating the price for buying a parcel of land there for our office).

We had some 12 days of camp (the entire Christmas vacation was spent here). I had the fun of my life here when some days we were in concrete barracks and some days in tents, pitched for the purpose. One night I was on the sentry duty for four hours, for the quarter-guard providing security to a make believe-cash chest which was supposed to be ‘robbed’ by ‘adversaries’. As the college was surrounded by rice paddy fields, it was utterly cold in the December winter and by the time I dismounted from the guard duty at 6-00 am, my right hand, holding the .303 rifle (9 lbs or 4.09 kgs with fully loaded magazine of 5 bullets), was frozen.

I was allowed only a 2 hour rest and was supposed to join the breakfast queue by 8-00 am. Breakfast normally would be ‘Khichidi’ (rice semolina cooked with salt and seasoning) accompanied by a Kadi. The khichidi used to be so gooey that even when we fully turn over the plate, upside down, the khichidi never used to fall down. Tea was hot, but watery, and the common joke was that it should be issued to us early in the morning to be used for brushing our teeth with instead of using the ice cold water.

We used to have theory classes on map reading, small arms, tanks and Armoured Cars and driving and maintenance. In which, I could gain significant amount of proficiency. It was here that under the guidance of NCOs that I had first attempted to drive a 6 tonner truck.

Once, while the stripping and assembling of a .50 Browning Machine Gun (BMG) class was progressing, I was caught discussing with another cadet on the guns (my knowledge came from reading any number of war and western comics). So I was punished by drawing an extra guard duty to guard the BMG. I took the special permission of practicing the stripping and assembling while on this punishment duty and yes, as you guessed it; I could strip and assemble the entire BMG in matter of seconds and that year I stood the topper in that subject.

Camp life really taught me the discipline that I did not have so much earlier. I needed to wake up early morning before 5-00 am and be ready for the roll call at the sound of the bugle. I had to share bath room showers with other cadets, as there were only a few available. I ate such food which I would never have touched in my life; boiled rice to be mixed with watery garlic ‘Rasam’ (soup like liquid) with just two or three pieces of raw banana curry. Curd and buttermilk were literally unknown.

We had to make our beds and every morning when we woke up we needed to redo and arrange the bed rolls with our plate and mug resting neatly on top of them. This is one practice I follow till date.

As mentioned earlier, I was very short and also a bit effeminate and for this ‘glamour’ I was chosen to stand in one of the Armoured cars and salute on the last ceremonial parade. Though I went through all the training and rehearsals, while also basking in the glory for the special recognition, when the final ceremony day approached I was replaced by somebody else. That was the beginning of many opportunities in my life that came very near to me and which I had lost, that steadily steeled me in not getting disappointed while facing failures.

On returning from the camp I had graduated to become a Lance Corporal from being a cadet and now I could proudly put up one stripe / chevron on my sleeve. The hierarchy was Cadet -> Lance Corporal -> Corporal -> Sergeant -> Sergeant Major -> Under-Officer – the under officer can wear a cross belt too and his position is exclusive and very visible giving a status symbol in the college.

During 1974, just after the second camp (we had this time in Madras itself),  I was short-listed for the most coveted Paratrooping and I was indeed looking forward to jumping from a plane with a parachute and to have a couple of wings that I can proudly pin on to my chest. In the summer holidays the ‘D’ day for the selection came and I found that I was one among the eight who have been selected from all over Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and the Andamans. I really put up my best appearance and presentation. 

The officer, who was interviewing, was a giant of a man and he made us all stand in a single file and being the shortest (I think I was something like 135 cms or so at that time - I really grew up in a hurry the next year) I was on one end of the flank and the tallest at the other end. Some question was posed and even before I could open my mouth and answer, the officer interviewing us moved on to be with the fifth or sixth person. And that’s it. I lost my opportunity. I was crestfallen and on the verge of tears. My imaginary wings were clipped even before I could earn them and wear them.

Later I tried to get into Mountaineering at Pachmarhi Cantonment or to get a course of being attached to the Army Camp at Ahmed Nagar. But as I was short-listed for the Paratrooping selection, the opportunity for the other two had to be given to some other deserving candidates. So I lost them too. Finally when I was in the third year of my college, I was called to join the contingent preparing for that year’s Republic Day Parade at Delhi, which in itself was an honour, as I was invited without my applying for it or being recommended for, and only because I could be short-listed for the paratrooping.

But as we needed to spend 2-3 months practicing at Wellington (India), my parents were worried that I would lose my study time. Not that this really helped my studies in anyway though. How I envy my dear friend Basheer Ahmed Moosa, from New College, who did all that I had missed, don’t know how. Though he too was short, he was a little more bulkier than I am, with a thick handle-bar moustache and his chest swelled with ribbons and medals and most importantly the magic wings that eluded me (soft spoken Basheer Ahmed Moosa later went on to providing sound systems, single handedly, in many cinema theatres of Hyderabad and mostly in Rayalaseema and Telangana areas of the then undivided Andhra Pradesh, India).

It was in the second year that I graduated to being a Corporal and I did my ‘C’ Certificate which gives a bit of a privilege if I wished to get into uniformed services, later.

I was all set to become the under-officer in the third year when I started realising the realities of life, a bit more practically. The Lieutenant in-charge, of our flock in the college, preferred to promote a couple of guys - one who was a neighbour to his house and another who spoke his language. And I languished to be a corporal for the next two years. I am one of the very few NCC cadets, in the country, who passed the ‘C’ Certificate as a corporal, for normally a ‘C’ certificate holder was at least a Sergeant or once he got hold of the ‘C’ certificate he automatically was promoted to be a Sergeant if he was not one already; neither happened in my case.

And ever since, I started having deep ‘love affairs’ with my bosses. Finally I realised that I just did / could not master the art of pleasing my boss; any boss so far.

Though I used to be afraid of the uniformed Police, my love for a military related uniform had always existed. After I completed college, I did make some attempts to get into military as a second lieutenant but my father refused to sign a discharge letter (I, being the first son of the family, apparently needed to provide one such letter in those days, if I wanted to get into the Defence), thus putting a stop to any such aspirations for me.

Yet, the enchantment for the Khakhi that entered into my life at a very young age - at about 10 years of my age, as part of my school uniform, stuck to me - and now almost 50 years hence, I still have a couple of Khakhi trousers, which I proudly wear quite regularly. When they become old, I keep buying new Khakhis.

Even today, the moment I wake up from my bed, I need to roll away my blankets and neatly arrange them on the pillow. Shining the boots was another thing that stuck to me, not to mention of the knife-edged crease on my trousers and shirts. And the driving and maintenance lessons still echo in my ears that I meticulously follow.

And as a beard man I don’t need my shaving tackle to be packed while travelling, but as a weird man I certainly need my shoe shining tackle.

NCC might have ‘clipped my wings’ but it certainly did leave me with some great habits and a pair of ‘shining hands’. Hasn’t it?

You tell me! 

Till then, 

Krutagjnatalu (Telugu), Nanri (Tamil), Dhanyavaadagalu (Kannada), Nanni (Malayalam), Dhanyavaad (Hindi), Thanks (English), Dhonyabaad (Bangla), Gracias (Spanish), Grazie (Italian), Danke Schon (Deutsche), Merci (French), Obrigado (Portuguese), Shukraan (Arabic), Shukriya (Urdu), Aw-koon (Khmer), Kawp Jai Lhai Lhai (Laotian), Kob Kun Krab (Thai) and Asante (Kiswahili).

Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy

Chennai, India


  1. Polished English, shining words. Great.
    I look forward to your story of very good English.
    Lucky, u did not fly, we could hear this story live.
    Agreed, it requires big officers to discipline guys like us.
    It is another dimension,u continuously surprise me. Do more.
    Wondered about khakhi pants, not anymore.
    Do schools offer this in dog-eat-dog world.
    Should not NCC made compulsory?

  2. Thank you dear Logs! In fact while with ACCL I used to wear the Khakhis deliberately and especially while on collection work. Between me and Dina we were changing roles what with his clipped hair style, he indeed used to look like a cop too! :-)

    Yes, I think not only NCC should be made compulsory to all but also that the government insists that every student educated by government funds and subsidies (which would cover almost everybody) for a minimum 3 years of uniformed services. :-)

    Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy

  3. I really do not understand where you learnt the art of writing a refined English yet make the lay understand. I love your blogs and will continue to be in love with even in future.... Your blog reminded me of my father's achievements in NCC, stories amazing. I relieved them, just like when my father tell me.

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  5. Thank you so much dear Christina Dorthy, for the kind words!

    Even I wonder about that. Till I finished My SSLC in 1972 I was proficient only in Telugu on all counts and English while writing. If I had to speak, it was always either Telugu or Tamil. Something happened somewhere along the way, in my life, wherein I started picking up languages and also the proficiency! :-)

  6. Very conscientious and socially responsible writing, progressively becoming more relevant and stunning. Keep going. Best wishes of many, apart from mine, should both guide and encourage you.

  7. Thank you so much for your kind words Ramesh Gandhiji! I shall endeavour to continue. Bus dhua aapki! :-)

  8. Your style of writing is vivid and with wodhousian humour. Your article reminds me of my days in ACC/ NCC. Thank you, for it is very nostalgic. I enjoy your posts.

  9. Dear Narayana Rao garu,

    Thank you for your kind words. I am glad that I could help you reminisce your old ACC / NCC days.

    Interestingly, whether you believe it or not, till date I never read even a single P. G. Wodehouse book. :-)

    Best wishes and regards
    Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy