Sunday, February 20, 2011

The “Non Encounter” - with LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran

I took over command of INS Dunagiri a multipurpose frigate in Nov 1988.

As the transfer was in the middle of the academic year, the navy allowed me to retain my accommodation in Mumbai while I stayed in Vizag. In June 1989, I came back to Mumbai to pack up my luggage and move the family. The first day was spent in bonding with the children and wife. As I was away for a long time there was a lot to catch up on the home front – children’s studies or no studies – wife’s BEd course –packing – arrangement at Vizag and many other pressing topics. In the evening, we went to Dore’s house for dinner and spent the night there. We returned to Ahilya in the morning. As I was opening the door, I saw a note addressed to me which said “Please contact Maritime Operations Room (MOR)’ immediately. I rang up the MOR and was told that a transport would be coming to fetch me and the rest would be informed in person.

Lot of thoughts passed through my mind, especially the safety of my ship which I had left behind in Vizag – picture of the ship engulfed in flame, flooding, accident of some crew member and many such ghastly and horrible thoughts flashed in front of me. I looked at the news paper to see if any war had broken out or any catastrophe had hit Vizag, fortunately all was well with ‘Mother India’ and nothing untoward or unexpected had happened.

On arrival at the MOR I was quickly escorted to the bomb proof underground briefing room and was informed that my ship had sailed from Vizag with my Executive Officer Cdr. Thakur in command along with the Admiral on board. I was to proceed immediately to the military area of Santa Cruz airport and would be transported to Chennai in a special Air Force aircraft. I said, “Listen, I am on leave and I am here to pack up my luggage and take my family to Vizag – what is all this about?” and the curt reply I got was that the operation was all hush hush and I would be told all the details in good time. I said, “What do I tell my family?” and I was told, “Say something, anything- I can’t tell you what to tell your wife.” After this extremely reassuring explanation, I returned home.

I was immediately under attack, “Are you mad? How can you leave me alone again with the children?” “Are you crazy even to think of this?” “I will run away to Bangalore with the children –the hell with your navy and the rest”. There was no further communication and silence descended on the house. Again she said, “I am sure you have organized all this only to get away from packing!” In all this rigmarole, my eight year old brave daughter wanted to know if she could come along in the aircraft. “Promise, I will not come in your way”. That’s when the door bell rang to announce the arrival of the transport to take me to the airport. After a round of hugs and kisses. I stood there like ‘General Douglas MacArthur’ and uttered the now famous three words, “I shall return".

I reached the airport and was hurriedly taken to yet another briefing room wherein I was told that a posse of armed commandos would be coming along with me. Even then there was no explanation of the all important “WHY”. As I waited there, I was told that my ship was off Chennai and I would be helicoptered from Meenambakam to the ship. Suspense and the waiting only added to the overall feeling of anxiety, excitement and frustration. By now I had pieced together a few possibilities like - rescue of a head of nation, landing the dreaded commandoes in Sri Lanka for some covert operation, some problem in the Republic of Fiji Islands. My day dreaming was interrupted by an announcement, asking all of us to proceed to the waiting AN32 aircraft.

Inside the aircraft, it was unbearably hot and humid. I was drenched in sweat in no time and it was becoming intolerable to stay any longer on ground. On the other hand excitement reached a crescendo followed by a sudden release of adrenalin and heavy breathing – I was beginning to feel like CDR James Bond on a top secret mission to save the world from evil forces – my exploits screaming on all the front pages of national dailies, medals, awards and national recognition. All the dreams were shattered when an Air Force officer told us to disembark as the whole operation was called off by the Naval Head Quarters at New Delhi.

I returned home safely to a warm welcome by a happy and contented wife and children.
Ooooops I almost forgot telling you the ‘WHY’ part. The LTTE supremo Prabhakaran was secretly proceeding to Singapore from Trincomalee on a merchant vessel. Imagine the headlines screaming, “Prabhakar catches Prabhakaran!”

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Agony and Ecstasy of Transfers.

Many people have a great affinity for the city of their birth. They refuse to cut the umbilical cord. They study, work, live, retire and finally die in the same city. I really do not know if this is good or a bad experience, but it’s very unique. My father was unique – all phases of life happened to him in Bangalore. In that sense, I am not unique. I was more like a Salmon fish – whose life starts in a fresh water stream; they stay for 6 months to three years in their natal stream and proceed to sea. The salmon spend about one to five years in the open ocean and the adult salmon then return primarily to their natal stream to spawn. Unlike the fish, between Bengaluru, which I left in 1967 and returned to Bangalore in 1995, I took refuge in many cities and houses.

As a bachelor I stayed on a ship most of the time or in naval messes whilst posted ashore. Either way we didn’t have to worry about any of the mundane activities related to housekeeping, packing, unpacking etc. The system looked after us. In the seventies both the government and the navy had no money to build either ships or houses. There was acute shortage of naval accommodation, especially in big metros such as Mumbai. Hiring houses in metros, with the meager allowance given by the government, was an exercise in futility. Getting married was easy, but finding accommodation was extremely difficult. Lot of officers waited till they were transferred to smaller places such as Vizag or Kochi to tie the knot. I decided to become a householder in 1977. Even though my in laws had a house in Krishna Mahal on D Road Marine Drive, both Jai and I were keen to start off on our own. Naval accommodation was not yet on the horizon and chances of moving into own house looked remote. That’s when Jai’s close friend Azmina, who was getting married to Ibrahim Patanwala, suggested that we move into Ibbu’s bachelors pad on the eight floor in ’Sonarika’ overlooking the sea on Carmichael Road. This was a true manna of biblical proportions. They were proceeding to USA for his further studies in Cosmetology. The house of Patanwalas was the forerunners in cosmetics; brand ‘Afghan Snow’, India's first beauty cream and various other cosmetic products belonged to them. They also regularly sponsored the prestigious Navy Ball in Mumbai in the seventies. The surrounding area was very up market and snooty - I went shopping once and asked the vegetable vendor the price of capsicum, to which he said ”Sahib, people who ask the rates of vegetables do not shop here”

I started my married life in June 1977, with just one suitcase and shifting to Sonarika posed no logistic problem. Ibbu’s pad was run like a five star hotel. The caretaker come home to clean the house, change the linen, replenish the fridge with beer and generally tidy up the place. It was great fun living in such a pad. The honeymoon lasted till October when I had to proceed to Riga.
On my return in May 1978, I was allotted a ground floor house in ‘Colaba Chambers’ on Wodehouse Road in South Mumbai. My first naval house. The house was extremely dilapidated and rundown, requiring urgent repairs. Ruins of Hampi appeared modern. It was centrally located and lot of my friends made it their watering hole on their way back from work. One day a thick slab of cement fell from the roof, on a chair breaking its arm. My son who was by then a year and two months was blissfully sleeping two feet away. Then on he slept wearing a helmet. I used to sail a lot and keep frequent watches ashore, which meant that wife and sonny boy spent the night, all by themselves. Being a ground floor house in Colaba meant waging a constant battle against huge rats running helter - skelter throughout the house. Jai used to sleep with a bag full of plastic building blocks and throw at the rats. What a change from Sonarika. Every time a BEST bus went past the house, the entire house, window panes and our bones rattled in unison. Vivek took his first step in this house. In spite of many disadvantages, we had a nice time – it was our home.

Colaba Chambers - Son learning to walk

Lucky crib - Colaba chambers

Dad with GS - Colaba Chambers

Come January 1979, we shifted to a brand new house ‘Swati’ on the 8th floor in Navy Nagar Colaba as its first occupants. It was navy’s first high rise and a lot of planning had gone on to construct these houses. We had an excellent view of the sea and the golf course from our flat. Jai went to great lengths to do up the interiors and made the house look lovely. Savitri – a Kannada speaking lady with her young daughter Elizabeth moved in as domestic help into the attached quarters. Two decades later we caught up with Elsie, who by now was a smart girl and an owner of a bakery in the Navy Nagar. Vivek had his own room to run around. He also learnt to throw the feeding bottle after every meal, out of the window - a costly and tiring game for us. Long walks in the golf course, frequent dips in the pool, visits to the children’s park kept the entire family busy. Jai took time off from the daily house chores and decided to complete her BA (Eng Hon) from St Xavier’s. I took leave to look after Vivek. Every morning I used to drop my son with my in laws in Marine Drive and proceeded to the ship to chit chat with friends and have a glass of beer. That was some looking after.

Son with maternal GF in Swathi

Stay in Swati was very short lived (6 months) and we were transferred to my Alma Mater ‘INS Dronacharya’ (Naval school for guns and missiles) in fort Kochi. This was our first out of station transfer, which meant packing all our belongings in wooden boxes and steel trunks. I shared a truck with Deshpande and sent the luggage in advance to Kochi. Transfers are painful – leaving behind the comfort of settled house, known environment, good friends, above all the familiar surroundings. Jai was leaving behind her parents, Mumbai, friends, collage, Marine Drive and a bagful of childhood and adolescent experience, for the first time. We reached Kochi on 10 Jul 1979 and Jai’s father passed away on the 11th of Jul and the Sky Lab crashed on the 12th on earth. All flights were cancelled and we had a tough time reaching Bangalore.

After we returned to Kochi we took up residence in a colony outside the naval establishment. Our 4th house was a duplex with assortment of small, dingy and purposeless rooms. The only thing I remember is – a parrot in the house opposite – which would endlessly repeat ‘Cat came and ate the Parrot’ in Malayalam - Vivek was fascinated by its talk - boy named Manoj whom my son used to call ’Buttonnne’- Vivek wearing my drill boots and falling down – throwing a boot polish tin into the toilet. Within a few months I was allotted a first floor house, inside the naval establishment – what a relief – we spent our entire life in that huge house sitting in the balcony and watching the sea, boats sailing, ships leaving and entering harbor, sea gulls flying in gay abandon, waves breaking regularly, fascinating sunsets, hearing the constant rustle of the sea and taking in lungs full of fresh sea breeze - we couldn’t have asked for more. Our second child was conceived in this house. The beach was just hundred yards from our house and the families loved taking their children to play and frolic in the sand. Beach parties with barbeques and camp fire were common. Our happiness was abruptly terminated and was transferred back to Mumbai – they said it was “Good for my career”. Like a bad coin I was back to Mumbai in June 1980.

We shifted into Krishna Mahal. My new job involved lengthy sea voyages and long absence from home. Vivek joined a very interesting school ‘Balvikas’ near the Brabourne Stadium. Jai, by now was three months pregnant, a huge house to look after, manage Vivek and my absence - a lot to ask for, from a twenty four year old. Akhila joined us in December 1980. Both our children were born in the naval hospital ‘INHS Ashvini’. An interesting aside. I had to pay an astronomical sum of Rs 16 and later on Rs 22 as hospital charges for delivery of our son and daughter in Ashvini. The family was complete. We used to have a constant flow of relatives and friends visiting us and Mumbai. 18 months in this house, it was once again time for packing. In the ensuing time we had added a few more packing boxes and one more person to look after. Travelling by train was great fun and all of us used to look forward to it. We generally got a coupe or a four berther to ourselves.

The problem with transfers is having to live in different houses – the curtains never fit exactly, glasses and crockery break without informing you and the eternal fear of losing your entire luggage in one go is always there to haunt you. I still remember the case of Commander Sabarwal.He was transferred to Port Blair – Andamans. He requested his air force friend to ferry his household effects in a Dakota aircraft. On route, over the vast expanse of Bay of Bengal, one engine of the aircraft failed and the pilot had to lose weight to remain flying on one engine. Sabarwal’s entire household effects were the first to be jettisoned in preference to goats he was carrying. Just when the LOH has taught the domestic help all the tricks of the trade, it’s time for transfer. The tea never tastes the same; chapattis come in different sizes and shapes and we have no quality control over our neighbors.

We reached Wellington – Connor in December 1981to commence my Staff College. We moved into a beautiful house on the Gorkha Hill, overlooking a valley. New school for my son, pony rides every evening, fresh vegetables, array of flowers everywhere in the house, picnics, endless parties, treasure and scavenger hunts were the new addition to our way of life. The children had to battle constantly with fleas, till we learnt to rinse all their clothes in eucalyptus oil. One learns a lot on transfers. I suddenly realized that my whisky was losing potency by the day and was unable to pin point the reason. One cold morning I caught my domestic help old Velamma having a swig directly from the whisky bottle. Later on I came to know that she would add equal amount of water to fool me. I struck a deal with her - she would bring fresh flowers every morning and barter it for a shot of rum – her husband was a gardener. The deal worked exceedingly well – the house wore a new look and Velamma appeared more spirited. Our domestic help ‘Rukmini’ looked after the house so well, Jai had all the time to enjoy Connor. It was time to move again.

Pony rides for the children - Coonor

Receiving my Post Graduation Certificate from Field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw

We reached New Delhi in December 1982, when the whole city was preparing for the Asian games. The grandeur of the city and its ancient history showcased in various monuments, buildings, roads and parks can unsettle a first time visitor. This is exactly what happened to me. I was awe struck. There was a new sense of pride and belongingness in its citizenry due to the games. The city looked resplendent in the winter. We shifted into a hired house in the quiet environs of Sarvodaya Enclave. Architecturally the house was disjointed and inconvenient. The owner seems to have added one portion after another as his resourses permitted. Fortunately we were coming from Connor and were able to adjust to Delhi winter. Vivek joined Mother’s International School and Akhila joined her first preschool – a Play Home very close.

Delhi has its own character. A city of extremes – a very harsh summer followed by a biting winter. The entire attitude, lifestyle, dress, eating habits changes so drastically from winter to summer. Life revolves around coolers and air conditioners to heaters and sigdi. Weather plays a very important role. The weather is very healthy and the children rarely fall sick in the dry climate. Being the capital of India, Delhi never sleeps; there is something always happening. In fact Delhi is not a costly city to live; a lot of things like petrol, milk, electricity are far cheaper than the rest of the country. Food is another preoccupation with Delhites. There is variety of food to suit every palate and purse. LOH kept herself busy teaching English to students of Mother’s school. The extra money that came in was extremely handy. Jai’s sister- Girija, hubby Shankar and children Shreya and Karin moved to Delhi at the same time. We had a rollicking time together. My parents came and visited us twice and I was able to take them to Kashmir on a wonderful trip. After spending two and a half years in Sarvodaya Enclave we shifted to our official residence in Dhaula Kuan. The house came with domestic help ‘Jaganath’ and his entire family consisting of wife, daughters - Guddi, Muniya, Bittu and son Rajesh. The whole family looked after us extremely well – I had never experienced anything like this earlier. The entire family kept in touch for many years thereafter. When we retired nine years later in 1995 and returned to Bangalore, Jaganath came to collect a cycle from me and wish me good bye. Within six months of this royal existence came our transfer to Port Harcourt Nigeria. Like all Indians going abroad, we gave away a lot of household items to Jaganath and the rest we sold. Courtesy transfers, we were once again reduced to just 4 suitcases.

My parents with GC - Dal Lake Srinagar

We reached Port Harcourt Nigeria in Jan 1986.I have said a lot about Nigeria in Setting up a new house in Nigeria was an interesting task. The house was huge and had to be appropriately done up to receive dignitaries on behalf of the Indian Navy. As the Senior Officer Indian Naval Training Team we used to host all official receptions in our house.

With Shri Deb Mukharji Indian Ambassador to Nigeria

Giving haircut to son. Nigerian barbers are chary of cutting straight hair.

Jai sparking - Deepavali in Port Harcourt Nigeria

After 18 months in Nigeria, we were back in Mumbai in August 1987.Fortunately I got an out of turn allotment of accommodation, as I was taking up a critical job. So we moved into our 11th house in 10 years of married life - ‘Ahilya’ located next to naval hospital ’Ashvini’. We had a beautiful view of the sea from our bed room. Our luggage came by air. All my crystal had been shattered during the transportation – a great loss. Lot of time, effort and money was spent in doing up the house all over again. Finding a school for the children in August, in Mumbai was a herculean task. Finally we got seats in Dunnes Institute Colaba run by a navy wife Mrs. Roy Milan. In spite of all its short comings, Dunnes was an oasis for naval children who landed up in midterm looking for admission. You could find children who had returned from Russia, Germany, Nigeria and England – an international congregation of sorts. Vivek took up sailing and crewed for Nitin Mongia the World and Asian O K Dinghy champion in the ‘International Cadet Class World Sailing Championships 1988’ held in the naval sailing club and won a medal. Jai completed her BEd from Bombay University with distinction and life moved on. Jai’s cousin Shyam met Shree in our house and selected each other as life partners. It was a very happy and lucky house. I was transferred to Vizag in November 1988 to take command of a warship ‘INS Dunagiri’

Son at the Naval Sailing Club

Vivek with "World Cup" in hand at Ahilya

Once again we got an out of turn allotment of accommodation and moved into the 9th floor of ‘Meghna’ overlooking the Eastern Ghats and Dolphin Hill. I was constantly at sea. Jai took up a teaching job and the children got busy with their new school and catching up old friends. It was here the four legged sweet heart ‘Button’ joined the family. More about him at - experienced our first robbery, when a chap broke into the house in broad daylight and took away a VCR and some silver jewellery. Very often we had power failures and had to climb up nine floors – not a very pleasant task after a good dinner. I believe, a gentleman had more drinks than usual one night and was slightly disoriented. He climbed ten floors with great difficulty, only to realize in the end that he had come to a wrong building. He was high alright. Come December 1990, I was transferred to New Delhi once again.

View of Rishi Konda beach - Off Vizag

On the Fore Castle of INS Dunagiri

Initially we spent six months in the Kotah House on Shahjahan Marg. The accommodation was a makeshift arrangement, consisting of one room, enclosed balcony and a bath. We led a totally carefree and happy existence – Munna Lal brought the morning tea, breakfast and the food from the mess and kept the cabin clean. Dhobi did all the clothes and we did not have to lift a finger. In one big deluge, water got into the luggage room and we lost some precious paintings done by Jai’s sister Bharati. Our dog button had a whale of a time hopping around in the grass and pretending to be a rabbit. Rest of the time he was busy chasing ‘Baldy’ the mole. We finally got our authorized accommodation in SP Marg, where we stayed till June 1995, after which we moved to our present location in Jal Vayu Vihar.

Farewell party to a friend in SP Marg

Sons room - SP Marg
In a span of 18 years, we had pitched our tent in 15 houses, children studied in as many as 12 different schools and we lived in 8 cities. The first thing I did, when we reached Bangalore, was to get rid of all the wooden boxes and iron trunks. It was a pleasure to finally move into our own house which we could call ‘Home’ for the first time. When I look back at all the frequent transfers, upheavals and constant uprooting of the family, it appears frightening and I sometimes wonder how we did it and was it really worth all the trouble. Family was exposed to different people, cultures, traditions and languages – in fact each place was a new way of life. The exposure made us confident and wise. We learnt to deal with the vagaries of life – head on. We made lot of friends where ever we went and they were always there to hold our hand and guide us. The navy often steps in as family and provides the much needed ‘support system’. Transfers added more spice to our lives and in the end made us better people, more tolerant, less rigid and accommodative.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Clean Miss - I have started GOLF

I consulted the Bangalore press almanac and 28th January turned out be a very auspicious day to start any new venture. So I started learning golf from that day. Lot of planning and preparations had to be done. The first thing was to forget my previous attempt at golfing. In 1998, I went and bought a second hand half set and became a member in ASC Golf Course. I also bought a pair of new shoes, shorts, cap and few shirts to go along. Hired a coach and said to myself ‘boy bring on Tiger Woods’. Two months into practice, I had to go to sea and that was the end of Attempt No One. I gave the set to my nephew ‘Vishu’, who is now a good golfer. That was about the only good thing to have happened in that episode.

The problem is, all my friends are avid golfers and one is a confirmed addict. The conversation during get-togethers and parties invariably revolves around golf. They would introduce me as “meet pubs he does not play golf”; hello brother not playing golf is not a crime, I would say it myself softly. At times, the conversation, jokes and anecdotes used to literally fly over my head like a ‘High Ball’. Even the ‘Golf Widows’ would condescendingly say “don’t worry pubs this is all golf talk”. I was missing out on a lot of things. I said ‘enough is enough’ and decided to take the ball by the club. Only this time my dear friend Prassu gave me his old set and encouraged me to egg on or tee off or whatever. That’s how I landed up in ASC once again and handed over my application for club membership.

Rakesh my coach had a bag full on new balls ready and the battle commenced with all the trimmings. Eyes on the ball, aiming, interlocking grip, distance between the legs, swing, shoulder, follow through, concentration and a dozen other instructions from the coach kept me busy for the next one hour. One quickly learns that, to remember all the points is very difficult and mistakes happen by the dozen . I consoled myself - after all I am a human being – even Tiger Woods made a mistake – so what it was after playing 18 holes. The ball never goes where you want – I suspect, it has a mind of its own. Just when you think you have got the knack of hitting – the club slices a patch of green and misses the ball completely. In spite of all the shortcomings, I finished ‘day one’ with my enthusiasm and resolve intact. I lost 9 new balls and set a record of sorts.

One thing you notice early in golf is that the old timers feel extremely happy and elated to meet a rookie. I suspect that their position becomes secure, seeing somebody struggling and reminding them of their own shaky days. All of sudden they become jovial and vocal– full of advice, encouragement and offer of help. “Hey Pubs what are you doing here” – come on dash it nobody goes to ASC golf course for vegetable shopping or just to meet friends – someone adds “he never misses anything free, I am sure he is here to have free lime juice” and so on. These jibes are to make you feel at ease and join the gang. When I mentioned that I bought 50 balls – almost everyone said “you should have told me – I would have given a bag full of old balls” – this is all “cock and ball” story. Each pro has a different story to tell how he started off. Some learnt golfing in their mother womb and the remaining were happily teeing off within a few days. Somehow I do not get to hear the struggle in the learning days which are full of frustration, disappointment, anger, elation, ecstasy and feeling of helplessness which accompanies a rookie.

As I get into my 2nd week of golf practice, the peripheral rewards of golf are already noticeable – soaking in lots of vitamin D, lung full of fresh air, exercising the mind, body and soul, sipping tea and chit chatting with friends – three hours well spent. I have bought a lot of cheer to the caddies and the coach. Apart from the caddies who constantly lose balls and later on retrieve them, the coach who prolongs his lessons, the LOH is also very happy that I have started golf.

When I get to the core of golf, I will post again, until then wish me luck.