Sunday, January 15, 2012

Remembering My Flag Lieutenant Days with Admiral Narpati Datta

An aide-de-camp is a personal assistant, secretary, foremost personal aide or adjutant to a person of high rank, usually a senior military officer or a head of state. In the navy, this appointment is referred to as ‘Flag Lieutenant’. Young Lieutenants are appointed as ‘Flag Lieutenant’ to the Chief of Naval Staff, the Commander – in – Chief and the Fleet Commanders. Closeness to authority, glamour and the excellent exposure the job offers, makes it a very attractive and sought after appointment. Many young lieutenants aspire to become ‘Flags’ to an Admiral hoping they themselves would become one at a later date.

It was summer of 1973 and I was serving on board the Cadet Training Ship INS Tir as the Cadets Divisional Officer (CDO) to the first batch of Bangladeshi cadets. One fine morning I was told to proceed to the Fleet Office to be interviewed by Rear Admiral Narpati Datta – The Flag Officer Commanding Western Fleet (FOCWF) – for appointment as Flag Lieutenant. A month later I received my appointment to INS Mysore the Flag Ship as Flags to FOCWF .I joined the ship in Chennai in the month of June 1973.

A Flag Lieutenant has a number of responsibilities to discharge and all of them revolve essentially around the admiral. ‘Flags’ makes all appointments for the admiral, accompanies him to all meetings, seminars, other official functions, ships’ sorties, and out station visits, manages his retinue of cooks, stewards, boat crew, coxswain as well as his household staff of dhobi, gardeners and chauffeur and coordinates receptions, cocktails and dinners etc. Essentially Flags is an admiral’s ‘Man Friday’ in uniform. From the time the Admiral gets up, the Flags is on call till he retires at night. In this niche job role, the Flags and the Admiral get very close and in a matter of time a special bond develops between the two, which is unique.

So over a period of 16 months as Flags, I developed a relationship which bordered on reverence, hero worship and total loyalty to the ‘old man’. During this period I went through a cocktail of emotions - excitement, enjoyment, exasperation, tiredness, stress and in the end I felt a deep sense of satisfaction. The job had its highs and lows, comic interludes, mad moments in addition to an urge to run away from it all. Eventually, I ended up the gainer, absorbing all the experiences and the learning that came along with them. I was too young and inexperienced to have observed anything at the tactical or strategic level – my recollections were mainly related to – my day to day life as a Flags.

I decided to capture these experiences and moments which were unique not only to that time and age but also to the Navy as it was then. Naturally all my recollection is related to my association with the Admiral – on one hand a 24 year old rookie naval officer and on the other, a very successful old sea dog.

As Fleet Commander
The admiral came to the fleet with rich and varied experience; having served in important and critical appointments in Naval Head Quarters, diplomatic missions abroad and having been in command of ships at sea. He looked very handsome with the broad forehead of a thinker, which he was. He was a man of few words, very polite, slightly shy and reserved. He was very polished, sophisticated and carried himself with a lot dignity. He enjoyed playing golf, sailing and playing tennis regularly till his shoulder would get dislocated – which happened quite often. He loved sports. A well travelled man; he had a well developed taste for good food and good living. He dressed nattily and surrounded himself with many ‘objects d’ art’.

When I joined him, the Fleet Operations Officer told me, “Flags, you will have a wonderful time with him, he can’t even hurt a fly”. A Fleet Commander’s job is probably the most demanding, challenging and accountable job in the navy – the pressures and expectations of the job is so high, it takes a toll on all who hold the office. All incumbents deviate temporarily from their set pattern of behavior and exhibit traits which occur only when faced with high risk and high profile jobs. Narpati Datta was no exception to this strange phenomenon.

  After a good lunch I was relaxing on the Quarter Deck of Mysore when the Fleet Gunnery Officer, Lt Cdr Keki Pestonji came and informed me that I would be accompanying the admiral for a ‘Cadet Class’ Dinghy race as his crew. My very first outing with the admiral was to the famous and elite ‘Royal Madras Yacht Club’ Chennai- It was the first sailing Club in the South of India. It was founded in 1911 by the then Chairman of the Madras Port Trust – Mr. Francis Spring, in what was called the Timber Pond area of the Madras harbor. Sailing is a very complicated sport and requires adequate practice before one attempts to enter a race. I had no clue of sailing and had never sailed. No amount of pleading had any effect on Keki and the dye was cast. Keki was a big bully and continued further with his third degree torture. He issued a stern warning, “At no cost should the admiral get to know that you are a rookie”. I felt ‘keel hauling’ would have been a safer option than crewing for the admiral.

The race started and we were blessed with good and fair winds behind us. In a short time we sailed through the first two legs with comparative ease. While making a turn, the admiral gave me a series of instructions which I could not follow and as a result we almost capsized. In the ensuing fright and confusion, I lost the card on which the details of the course were marked. Consequently the admiral had difficulty in identifying the marker buoys – one thing lead to another and we ended up last in the race. The journey back to the ship in the car was filled with an ominous silence. What a way to start my innings as a flags!

I ate all my meals with the admiral on his table. I was a permanent figure, while the rest of the staff came in turns and joined the table. I would sit for breakfast and watch the admiral with admiration, as he made an incision on the mango at its equator and inserted a spoon and slowly eased the seed out dividing the mango into two neat hemispheres, ready to be eaten. The whole operation used to be carried out very deftly with the precision of a surgeon. I had been watching this with the utmost interest and amazement for a long time until one day I decided to undertake this very precise operation. All was well on the operation plate until the seed jumped out and very nimbly landed on the admiral’s crisp snow white uniform. I had left an indelible mark. The admiral just said, ‘Oopsy Daisy!!!’ and continued with his breakfast chitchat.

At the time when the admiral took over as the Fleet Commander, due to a variety of reasons the Fleet House had been reduced to a dump. The Fleet House, located in Navy Nagar, Colaba, is a very fine example of the colonial style of architecture with a driveway, garden, fountain, several car garages and staff quarters. The main building stands majestically tall, with large drawing rooms, several bed rooms with tall ceilings and sky lights. One look at the house and the admiral refused to shift until it was restored to its original glory. The renovation work became my direct responsibility. Renowned personalities such as architect Charles Correa and artist Anjolie Ela Menon were his friends and they offered help – at the other end of the spectrum was an unimaginative and rule book oriented ‘Military Engineering Service’ (MES) - a dichotomy of sorts. With back breaking effort, we were able to restore the house in six month’s time and the admiral finally moved in. He invited the MES staff one evening for a drink and during the party a new MES chair came apart. That was last time I saw the ‘Garrison Engineer’.

Mrs. Uma Datta decided to join the admiral in Mumbai. On the way back from the railway station Mrs. Datta spoke nonstop in Punjabi to me – seeing me flustered and confused, the steward came to my rescue and informed her that I was not a Punjabi ‘Prabhakar’ but a South Indian ‘Prabhakar’. Within a very short time of her arrival the house appeared classy, neat and clean. The garden acquired a new look with Chinese grass, Chrysanthemums, Gerberas and Petunias. I learnt a lot about gardening under her tutelage.

During the holidays the entire Datta clan arrived - which included their pretty daughters – Malini and Radhika, a young son - Vivek, a cousin - Pinky, some girl friends and the admiral’s mother in law. Soon the house became a beehive of activity. I soon announced that I was getting engaged to Jayanti – with so many girls in the house, Mrs. Datta was visibly relieved on hearing the news. They immediately invited Jayanti for a formal sitting-in lunch at the Fleet House. The Admiral suddenly noticed that Jai was not making any progress. Jai was a vegetarian and I had not informed the steward, who by then had served her a dash of chicken curry. As I was chickening out, the admiral looked at me and said ‘Oopsy Daisey!’ his favorite expression, when things went harmlessly wrong. Jai’s plate was quickly switched for a new one and the lunch continued smoothly thereafter.

Initially the Fleet Office was located near the Destroyer wharf, above the Command Diving Team office. This ramshackle set up had no toilets and one had to use the overcrowded and filthy dockyard toilet for all nature’s calls. One fine afternoon I found the Admiral pacing in his cabin and feeling extremely uncomfortable. INS Trishul, which was berthed very close by, was immediately selected by me to relieve the admiral of his discomfort. A very stern looking admiral arrived unannounced at the ship’s gangway and without uttering a word headed straight to the Captain’s cabin. While the admiral was away, the ship staff gathered around me to find out why the admiral had come on board – to add to their woes – the Captain of the ship had decided to call it a day and had quietly pushed off home – the Engineering Officer said “I hope it’s not the oil contamination incident, how did he come to know, the Executive officer had a different theory –”we are overdue in submitting the ‘Board of Enquiry Report’ and so on. He left the ship immediately after exchanging a few pleasantries. The visit to the ship remained a mystery to many for a long time.

One evening I was relaxing in the Western Naval command Mess having a drink, in a bar aptly named ‘Elbow Bender’ when the Admiral’s driver Zakaria suddenly made his appearance and said, ‘Admiral sa’ab bula rahe hain. Sa’ab gusse mein hai’. On reaching the Fleet House, I found the admiral pointing to a whisky glass which had water at the bottom and whisky like liquid floating on top. When I started investigating this very rare and strange phenomenon with Leading Steward Om Prakash, I realized that the steward had served the admiral a large peg of ‘gun oil’ which was inadvertently stored in a Johnny Walker bottle. On pouring water, the oil naturally floated to the top and created confusion in the household. Whenever Mrs. Datta went out of Mumbai, she used to leave behind a bottle of whisky to be used by the admiral – this time around it was ‘gun oil’!

It was an extremely important week. The Western fleet was preparing for the ‘Prime Minister’s day at sea. Mrs. Indira Gandhi was to inspect the fleet. Preparations were in full swing. Two days prior to the PM’s day at sea a rehearsal was conducted taking all the foreign Naval Advisors and Attaches to sea. Many things went awry. The Anti Submarine Rocket firing did not go well; some ships were badly out of station, V/UHF communication was terrible and overall the admiral was displeased with the performance. We returned to harbor and the admiral by now was in an extremely foul mood, resembling a tempestuous, stormy and unpredictable sea. He then decided to have a haircut. Poor Master Chief steward Jayal got it in the neck for not carrying a spare set of uniforms – next in line was the khalifa (barber) whose hands started shivering with nervousness, making it impossible for him to cut the admiral’s hair. All this upset the admiral even more – rendering the khalifa totally non operational and hors de combat.

While all this was in progress, I was wondering when my turn would come. I dropped the admiral at the Fleet House and went to the mess to change into ‘Red Sea Rig’ to attend the evening’s reception for the visiting Naval Advisors and Attaches on board INS Mysore. I changed as quickly as one could with one’s left arm in plaster. As I reached the Fleet House, to my astonishment I found the entire staff at the gate. Unable to fathom the reason, I thought of the worst. They informed me that the admiral had left on foot to Lion Gate - a good 6 kms away. I started trembling in fear and finally managed to catch up with the admiral in front of the Army Mess which was nearby. The driver got such a terrible dressing down; I did not dare to accompany the admiral to the ship. Instead I walked back to the mess and sat with my close friend Rags and wept on his shoulder and decided to call it a day as Flags. An hour or so later the driver came to the mess and said, ‘Admiral sa’ab bula rahe hain.’ – by now a familiar phrase. I knocked at the drawing room door and he said, “Good evening Flags, come have a drink.” The whole atmosphere had changed and I stood there stunned. Gasping for words, I said, “No thank you sir, my friend is with me.” He said, “Ask your friend to join us too”. With tears of joy, I went back to the mess after a very refreshing drink.

DCNS,CNS Admiral SN Kholi,Fleet Commander and self 

The Admiral as a young lieutenant was Flags to Admiral Sir Charles Thomas Mark Pizey *GBE, CB, DSO & Bar the Chief of Naval Staff from 1951 to 55 , who was himself a Flag Lieutenant toVice-Admiral Sir W.A. Howard Kelly in the Mediterranean. As the story goes, Admiral Pizey would often take off from office for a round of golf, leaving young Datta to remain in the office with lights on, till such time the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, left South Block. During a reception the PM is believed to have said, “There are only two hard working people in my government – myself and Admiral Pizey.”

The admiral once told me how efficient he was as a Flag Lieutenant. To illustrate his point he narrated two incidents. On a visit to the old INS Rana, as his admiral was signing the visitor’s book the generator failed, enveloping the entire ship in darkness. In no time, young Datta pulled out a torch from his pocket and let the process continue - avoiding embarrassment all around. On another occasion in a reception at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, he saw Mrs. Phyllis Pizey sulking in a corner. Lt. Datta approached her and politely enquired if there was anything wrong; she is supposed to have replied, “The dance is on and I am not wearing dancing shoes.” To which the Flags said,” Not to worry ma’am, I have carried an extra pair in the car”. All smiles and face aglow, Mrs. Phyllis Pizey made her way to the dance floor. Such was his foresight.

On one occasion the admiral had invited a number of prominent people for a sitting in dinner in the ‘Admiral’s Cabin’ on board the flag ship INS Mysore. As all the guests settled down to a good dinner, they discovered Mr. Tarneja missing. Dinner was getting delayed and from the other end of the table the admiral gave me a sharp look – which when decoded meant, ‘What are you doing? Go fetch him at once!’. I found the missing guest in the toilet and informed him about the urgency and beseeched him to return to his chair. In return he pleaded delay, saying his dentures were refusing to cooperate. I had a tough time explaining ‘The case of toothless banker’ to the agitated admiral. His choice of guests for parties was extremely interesting – on one occasion we had Nutan the actress, Atom Bomb Raja Ramanna and the West Indies off spinner Lance Gibbs at the table - an explosive and spinning combination.

I learnt a lot under him. He used to say, “Whenever I call you to my cabin, you must come with a note book and a pen”. The day I took over command of a ship, the first thing I did was to present a pen and note book to all my officers and repeat what the admiral had said. Even to this day I follow his practice. He showed me the beauty of Burl tables, introduced me to the exotic flavor of ‘Glenfiddich single malt’ and developed in me a taste for crystal. I sailed to Bandar Abass and flew to Tehran with him and stayed with the Ambassador Mr. RD Sathe. He called on Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah of Iran. He wrote a very perceptive report of his visit to Iran, which resulted in the creation of a new post - ‘Naval Attaché’ in Tehran. We also visited Persepolis. Back home we visited Madurai, Meenakshi, Kanchipuram and drove down to Munnar from Kochi.I enjoyed travelling with him as one could get to hear about a number of interesting incidents. His dinner table talk with the High Commissioner to UK during the 1971 Indo Pak war – left a very big impression on the analytical ability of Commodore NP Datta.

As I look back, his handling of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s visit to the Maldives in 1974 was a huge success. She carried back with her a very good impression of the Western Fleet and appeared to be extremely impressed with the admiral. She was very generous and eloquent in her praise at the end of a state dinner.

I continued to meet him later on during my service in the navy. I made a number of visits to ‘Mazagon House’ when he was the CMD of Mazdocks. One afternoon I went along with him for lunch, where I happened to meet the Big B. He came home when we were in Marine Drive and I met him a few times in New Delhi as well.

The Financial Express article ‘An Officer and Gentleman’ reported In the early hours of October 10th 2003, the country lost one of its finest post-independence naval officers, defence planners and strategic thinkers. Vice Admiral Nar Pati Datta was killed by a speeding private Blueline bus in Delhi. He may have died tragically and in circumstances that raise larger questions about road safety, but he lived and worked a life of uncompromising dignity. Everyone who knew him was struck by that unique combination which is now so rare: impressive achievements moored to gracious charm and complete modesty.

May his soul rest in peace.

No comments:

Post a Comment