Monday, June 04, 2007
Life in a Retro (Part I)
As far as I can remember, I always wanted to join the Armed Forces. Growing up in a residential school in Mussoorie only kept fuelling my aspiration. On every trip to town every second Saturday of the month, watching the Gentlemen Cadets from Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun made the decision stronger and determined. I have never liked green as a color, courtesy our neighboring country. Hence, most shades of green never got my attention. The olive green Army Uniform was one shade I could never take off my mind.
The Combined Defense Services (CDS) which I took in my final year of Graduation gave me a chance to get to IMA. I knew there were many avenues to apply and join the Forces. What was not known until I went for my Service Selection Board (SSB) was the meaning of dreaming to wear the Army Uniform. It dawned on me only when I started interacting with other aspiring candidates. I was rejected in my first attempt by an earlier SSB. I was attending my second SSB. There were boys who were attending their eleventh!! Yes, eleventh. One can apply for NDA atleast once and sometimes twice after Class XII and atleast twice through CDS. Some lucky few with birthdays below the eligible dates, can apply thrice. Then there is an entry for NCC ‘C’ Certificate holders, an entry for Engineering Graduates, a University entry scheme and a Short Service Commission entry. There were boys who had applied for most of these, if not all, and the highest count was indeed, eleventh attempt. It was inspiring to be among them and sometimes felt embarrassing too. Inspiring, as even after being rejected ten times, these boys keep coming back, just for the love of the Uniform. Embarrassing, because if one was rejected ten times, how can he even pronounce it! I could never do that. But it felt great to be among them.
It has been a long time since then. But the days spent at SSB stay clear in my memories. The first day being received at the station and taken to the SSB Campus in an Army Bus was a high in itself. We were issued a Chest Number to wear which would be our identity for the number of hours / days we would be at the SSB Campus as the first day itself, out of 96 boys only 46 stayed back. After a battery of written tests and group discussions, a short list was announced and more than half were rejected. Poor souls could not even open the luggage they had brought, prepared for the whole SSB stint. The real fun time was at the barracks. More than 100 boys in the barracks, as there were parallel batches of candidates attending SSB, reminded me of my hostel days. Only that I knew no one in this crowd. But that was the first night. All inhibitions were gone by the next morning. On the first day, a Colonel in his Welcome Address gave instructions on the format of selection process, the schedules and general information. His one sentence still remains ringing in my mind. He said, “The gates would close at 2130 hours. 2129 hours is early, 2130 is on time and 2131 hours is late”. It gave me goose pimples then. We used to visit the city market in the evening. But no one ever came in late. Some words never fade. May be, those words had become a daily ritual for him. For us, it was religion.
Our day started at 0430 hours with a Malayali voice shouting ‘Chaaya le lo’ for ‘chai’, serving tea early morning at the barracks where all candidates were put up. Rushing to the loo, freshening up and being at the breakfast table by 0730 hours was the priority as everyone felt there were eyes keeping a watch on us for discipline and time keeping. The written test grill and then the physical drill took up the rest of the first half of the day. Once back at the barracks, boys became boys. There were non-veg jokes being shared at the peak of voices, some boys played antakshari, others played cards. Cigarette smoke was all over. Among all this, some managed their siesta too! The barrack revelry continued till late in the evening.
After 4 days of rigorous intelligence tests, high emotional stability exercises and tough physical endurance drills, the D-day arrived. All 46 candidates in my group were made to sit in a hall and a general motivational speech was rendered by a senior Rank Officer. I don’t think anyone even listened to what he said. All eyes and brains were on the piece of paper in his hand which had the Chest Numbers of people whose names would be called out after this never ending talk. The ordeal was not over though. The names which would be called out would be undergoing 3 days of medical check up and examination by the SSB Medical Board. I had heard people discovered there was some medical problem in their bodies for the first time from the Medical Board examination. To a lay man, some of those medical issues would sound ridiculous and a non-issue. When you have to entrust a Nation’s security in the hands of a soldier, he has to be the best and the fittest, mentally and physically. The parameters of ‘a fit body and mind’ were very different in the Armed Forces. The ones who would be short-listed would be given a fresh set of Green Cross Chest to wear to identify them as Medical candidates.
The senior Ranking Officer finally finished his talk. There was pin drop silence in the hall. I could hear heart beats. I was not sure if they were mine or a chorus of all 46 hearts. The Officer said, the result is not very encouraging. “The number of people who have been short-listed is low as compared to what was expected” is what he said. All hearts skipped a beat and sank, simultaneously. The hall did not have an air-conditioner. But I suddenly felt cold for a moment.
I had called back home when I was short-listed the first day after the initial written tests and group discussions. My mother told me 7 is a lucky number for me. So, did my Chest Number being 34 help me on the first day? I don’t know. After 6 days at this SSB, among all these competitors, I surely needed the number 7 to help me. I did not believe in numerology. I still have my doubts. But on the 7th day at the SSB, the number 7 could not fail me. I also found myself praying, probably for the first time, consciously. I needed the numerological powers to help me, the Gods in Heaven to bless me and The Devil to grant me that one last wish to hear my Chest Number, even in return of my soul.
Only 5 boys were short-listed of the 46 in the group. I don’t know if 2 more names, making it 7 in total would have assured my confidence in numerology. But I thanked the Gods and The Devil. Chest Number 34 was announced.
There is a reason behind all decisions. There is a decision behind all reasoning. I had reasons. I had a decision to make. I did make one. Do I regret it now? No.
Or may be, I do. Or else, I would not be writing this column.
(Why am I not in the Armed Forces? Well, that’s a brand new story. Let me assure all readers, though, I am mentally and physically fit. No issues with my body and mind).