IT was August 1959, our NDA third term. Khadakwasla gets heavy rains in August. It was raining as we went for our morning PT period one day. Physical exercises were being conducted inside the big workshop sheds. Our Havildar Instructor (HI) from the Army Physical Training Corps took us for a road run. There were 12 of us in the squad.
It was no fun running in wet socks along the deserted road in front of the Hut of Remembrance. One of us suddenly devised a diversion. After running four normal steps, he would stamp heavily on the next four. It soon caught on and in no time all 12 of us were running one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. It became our running tune.
The HI halted the squad and asked us not to do it. But in our teenage logic, we were neither breaking the law, nor breaching discipline. Therefore, when the running resumed, we continued stomping. The HI reshuffled our order but it changed nothing; stomping became only louder. The class ended with the HI declaring that he would register a complaint.
After the classes and pre-lunch, we were produced before the Squadron Commander in ‘drill order’, and marched in by our Squadron Cadet Captain (SCC). The loud sound of 12 pairs of nailed boots banging in unison on the concrete floor was ominous.
The Squadron Commander, Major PZ Kothawala, was a renowned horse rider from Cavalry. “You are all accused of insubordination and disobedience,” he said without preliminaries. “I want to know who is your ring leader.” Not getting a response, he bellowed, “Tell me who the hell is the hero among you.” We continued standing with parade ground stiffness.
Having vent his anger at us collectively, he then addressed us individually.
“You Bhatia, the bristles on your chin can be counted on the fingers of a single hand, and you had the audacity of defying an instructor?”
“Mehta, you!” he shouted, “your face gives an appearance that even butter won’t melt in your mouth but you had the temerity...”
“And you Chowdhury,” he told the next, “if you had shown half this aggression in the boxing ring, you wouldn’t have lost in the finals.”
And so on. After having tongue-lashed all, he again asked, “I want to know the real culprit who misled the others. Just tell me who took the lead so that I can hang him by the heels.” He could have been talking to the wall.
Changing his line of attack, he said, “Rest assured, there will be a red line in all your dossiers.”
It was too early in life to worry about career. But sensing its seriousness, the SCC tried to intercede, “Sir, I will sort them out.” But his plea appeared ignored.
“For your next PT period,” the Squadron Commander continued, “I will come on my horse and trot alongside. You can stomp as much as you like. I will make you run till you sweat from every pore.”
“March them out,” he thundered, and turning to the SCC, said, “I want to see you alone.”
And we marched out swinging our arms, unsure of what next.
The Squadron Commander, still angry, had not been able to soften his voice and we could overhear him. “The scoundrels do have strong team spirit.”
“Yes sir,” the SCC said, “they are a motivated group.”
For the next seven days, we had to present ourselves daily in front of the SCC’s cabin. It was a very brief activity where the SCC made cryptic comments like ‘Watch out’, ‘Be on your guard’, ‘Mind your discipline’, etc. Significantly, the SCC himself wore full drill order like us, though he didn’t have to. Since he was not a co-offender, there was no reason for him to be a co-sufferer. His identifying himself with us made us all resolve never to let him or the Squadron down in any way.
Team spirit is what we had. This key metric of military life did not come from textbooks, it was nurtured by the habitat.
It was this very spirit that helped us win most of the team events in our final-term camp, Torna, just a fortnight before we passed out of NDA.
As we handed over the championship banner to our Squadron Commander, Maj Khader Ahmed, the gleam in his eye and his “I am proud of you boys” was our reward. The overwhelming pride it generated among our juniors was our legacy.
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