By the neck

By the neck


Designated as the Zulu Batch of officers, nine of us from various universities arrived at the Kochi Naval Academy for basic training.

With our Beetles hairstyle and drainpipes, we had to face Ustad Fursat Khan, the barber-in-chief, first. He started with me. A three-legged chair was placed in the verandah of our barrack, and a cracked mirror in front of me. His assistant wrapped me up in an apron and almost choked me while tying a knot.

Fursat Khan leaned over close to my ear and asked, “Any turbaned gentleman in Zulu Batch, sir?” I said we had two Sikhs. Fursat snorted at the loss of revenue, and then, wielding scissors in each hand, he did some kach-kach-kach preparatory to attacking my foliage. I closed my eyes to avoid looking at the barbarity as my curls rolled down on to my lap for a last caress of my hand.

Suddenly the scissors went silent. I opened one eye at a time, looked into the mirror and had difficulty recognising Jesse Kochar. A loud laughter came from behind; shipmates Pubby and Walia, both Sikhs, were pointing fingers at my head and saying, “You look like a freshly-shaven owl.” Fursat Khan gave a grunt, grabbed my apron and with one swift cover-drive drove my curls away from the verandah.

When I emerged from the bathroom, I noticed Master Tailor Thamboo Pillai, assissted by Kuttan, was busy measuring the Zulus for uniforms. When Thamboo placed an inch tape around my head, he announced, “6, 3/4”, for Kuttan to record. “Try again, Mr Pillai,” I said, “I’m sure my cap size is 6, 7/8.” “No need sir,” he replied, “Fursat Khan shrinks every head.”

We had our first meeting with our chief instructor Lt Themasp Mogul just before breakfast the next day. He watched us hawkeyed as some of us were found lacking in table manners: slurping, holding knife like a dagger, loud crunching of buttered toasts.

And later, in his introductory lecture, he told us that beside seamanship, boat handling, knots and splices and parade we would need tuning up our table manners. Lt Mogul also introduced us to our parade instructor Petty Officer Gunpat who was gifted with a voice box capable of generating 1,000-watt sound, enough to wake up a small town. Later, our bearer told us that the owner of a nearby hatchery had approached Mogul sahib not to appoint Gunpat because everytime he howled, the hens sitting on eggs walked away in a huff.

Despite Gunpat’s no-nonsense, humourless and mechanical methods of training, everything went tickety boo for a week. But the day we turned up in our sparkling new uniforms, he started nitpicking and ordering, “Zulu Batch One Round Parade the Ground!” for minor mistakes like wearing cap badge off the centre; rank stripes the wrong way; loose bootlaces or unpolished anklets.

Gunpat became a pain for us, and we decided to do something about it. Walia volunteered to have a go at him the next day. As planned, we committed too many errors while parading for Gunpat’s liking. “Zulu Batch!” he bawled, “Three Rounds Parade the Ground today.”

Holding the rifle straight up in both hands, we hopped around the huge ground and then, during the second chukker, Walia suddenly tossed his rifle away, tumbled and started frothing. Gunpat panicked and rang for an ambulance. I’m happy to report that Gunpat was replaced by a sober drill instructor, and the hens resumed producing healthy broods.

To teach us table traditions, Lt Mogul, assissted by Chief Steward, gave us a long demo lecture. The dining table was lined up with crockery, cutlery, silver dishes, tureens, carafes, wine bottles and a dazzling variety of glasses and tumblers. He introduced us to an array of wines, liquors and liquers and glasses meant for them. We were also told the difference between Cognac and brandy besides how one should pour wine. “Sub Lt Kochar,” he ordered, “Pour me a Madeira. Will you!”

I grabbed the bottle at its lean top and an appropriate glass for it. As I tilted the Madeira, Mogul shouted, “Stop, you dum-dum! Remember, the wine bottle is like a lady. Do you hold a lady by the waist or by the neck?”
“By the neck, sir.”