Relegation warning list….

I lay no claim whatsoever to the hallowed portals of motivational speakers, writers and the like. I don’t have the fire-n-fury of verbiage or oratory that can swing your emotions from one end of the pendulum to the other. I humbly wish to tell you a short story. A story of those few moments of deep regret, frustration, helplessness and more, out of which was born a new Me… the form of which, is still alive 40 summers gone and counting

My childhood belong to that era, where you were a son not only to your parents but to your entire neighborhood; where you identified with all elders as worthy of equal respect; where you played and rejoiced with abandon with an empire of friends, no-holds-barred. A minimalistic, simple Delhi Govt colony living, sans of such devils as ‘peer pressure’, ‘parent-pressure’, ‘career pressure’….nothing but the Google CEO…. and the like.

Sample this question at the Services Selection Board (SSB) asked to this 15+ youngster

– What game you play?
– Football Sir.
– Oh! Which position?
– Position??? I looked at him in surprise.
– Yeh, I mean which is your position on the field?
– Oh sir, our house as a part of 12 houses that form a square, one house is one goal, other house is other goal, we play everywhere on the square.

Same question (and the only one) by the Board. Same answer. Two out of our batch of 36 ( or was it 56?) selected. Thus started the journey of this football player. A story that would span a full 44 years in big boots … and continues out of it, till date.

Once in the National Defence Academy (NDA), I realised how one was different and ‘much less endowed’. I saw a different classification of humans and some strange norms of ‘privileges’. There were many ‘types’ like the ‘Sainik School types’ ‘King George School types’ or the RIMC types etc.

Coming to privileges per se, I saw that the senior cadets belonging to these hallowed institutions took their ‘First termers’ (fresh entrants) under their protective wings and generally saved them from the harm’s way. I remember such privileged ones amongst us were called ‘undies’ (I mean understudies) of so and so.

What was the harm’s way – nothing but unbridled and endless sessions of punishments that went by the generic name of ragging (or was it toughening up the soft civilian boys to Army’s way of life!). I used to hear such names as Kapurthala, Chittorgarh, Satara, Goalpara, Amravati, Kunjpura and even Ghodakhal ….the places one missed to study only to end up as ‘nobody’s baby!

So me, and a few of my likes, hung often on the ‘seventh heaven’ (seventh wire in the cabin’s wire mesh of the senior) , till the wire started to cut into the little finger, or stood in ‘bajri-order’ ( big haversack filled with bajri hung on the back) from 4 AM till morning muster, or ‘baked’ our hands on the extra heated, iron manhole cover in the squadron fore-ground doing endless bend-stretches…. Going from one place to other? No issue, just get rolling.. was the norm well accepted and expertly executed with ease and speed … the list can go on.

While all the above were off hours fun-and-games, parade hours was a greater surprise. The academics portion seemed to be a familiar turf having done that all my 10-11 years of school, all others was NO GO. Compared to many of my course mates who put on the ‘bada boot’ when the likes of me were bathing in ‘joys of the teens’ one was far, far behind. The ‘horse’ for me meant a four legged animal and not that awkward looking wooden structure getting on the other side of which, in the pose and poise desired, seemed as insurmountable as climbing the Everest walking backwards!.

Most of our squadron first-termers having lost all their issued kit on way to squadron from the Issue Point (QM Fort) by some ‘smartie’ of F (Foxtrot) Squadron (that is a full story again) added to our woes. For a few like me, the drill square was synonymous to doing ‘Flat Foot Carry on’ (a punishment requiring repeated jumps with landing on a flat foot) as we tried to pick up the finer points of ‘dahine dekh’ repeatedly doing khali-khali-ek (learning the basics in which several of my elite course mates were perfect from day 1).

I remember running the cross-country for the first time. By the time I landed, my course mate and later a dear friend Sumer, after having led the whole academy ‘had already gone off to sleep’. Yours truly, in some 13 th enclosure. I don’t think there was anyone behind me!

I vividly remember my first visit to the NDA swimming pool. It was off hours, in the early afternoon of a Sat (or was it Sunday?). One of our worthy seniors (can’t forget his name) got hold of a bunch of us, first termers, showing great concern to teach us swimming as a few amongst the lot starting with me, were ‘total non-swimmers’.

Once at the pool some briefing started. More than his briefing, my attention was towards that blue expanse of water – which one first look appeared no less than the Mediterranean sea. How will I ever get through this one? I wondered in fear and unease. Suddenly our self-appointed well-wisher said, ‘ OK, let me take you for ‘NDA darshan’ . Most of us fancied some trip around the campus. Now? In swimming trunks? Later you fool…,-my mind did a quick chatter. No, it was to happen then and there as the boss, guided us all to ascend to the 10m board. Once there, the ‘darshan’ started – this is this, this is Science Block….try to spot our squadron he said. We were just looking around…when suddenly , I realized that he had pushed me off the 10 m board by deceit.

I didn’t know what hit me till I felt an excruciating and a debilitating pain in my groin. Coming tumbling down, I had fallen like a sack on the water, legs apart. The pain was so killing, that I no efforts to save myself any more till I realized, somebody pulling me out. I was still writhing in pain. Our darshan was thus complete and so was my first rendezvous with the swimming pool!. I believe down the years, this ‘darshan act’ took the life of a cadet who in utter shock, landed outside the pool instead of in the water ( sic).

With such an outstanding demonstrated performance, my results were all on expected lines. Failed in all PT ( physical training) tests except one odd, failed in drill square, I don’t remember the swimming and equestrian results – I think, failed there as well. All this and more made my humble academics performance look so small and meaningless. I had earned a torch (distinction in three or more subjects).

The day of reckoning arrived. My Div O ( divisional officer- can never forget him addressing me with his face writ large with anger and ridicule, to have had such a non-performer in his division). Post counting my achievements he sternly delivered the result – ‘You are herby put on the Relegation Warning List ( RWL) . You will be detained here for the term break to do extra practice.

If you fail to make the grade YOU WILL BE RELEGATED. Can’t forget the vengeance in his tone and tenor as he stated these words. For him I was already a relegated weakling!

I have never felt more sad and deprived than the day, I saw my course mates leave for their most well-earned ‘first term break’. Like all others I also used to count my DLTGH (days left to go home) with great excitement. While for others it had become zero that day – for me the count had re-started!

Next day onwards, the mat, the horse, the beam and the ropes became my abiding partners. Everything looked so impossible. I remember, after the scheduled session with PT ustads, a few of us , continued to practice on and on till our bodies ached. I had found a buddy (my dear friend from Lima ( lion) squadron) who was in the same boat. Our practices continued late in the evenings in the battalion quadrangle. There was nobody to ridicule, no fear of ignominy, nobody to say – fail, fail, fail…, only helping hands to receive me on the other side of the horse, a friendly push to touch my legs on the beam, a comforting word from my buddy – common VK you can do it…

Something was happening. Something was changing. The feeling of deep remorse was slowly giving way to some sort of a resolve – I can, I will…What looked impossible and beyond imagination started slowly to be visible, albeit hazy. One day it suddenly happened, I could for once show my legs pulled straight back over the ‘ghoda’ before landing. A feeble ‘shabash’ emerged for the first time from my PT instructor. The tip from my buddy had worked. It was a ‘ureka moment’. I could not believe that I had made the grade for passing the horse test. I was finding a new me – more strong, more confident, The sense of having lost out on the term break was slowly evaporating..

Both of us practiced hard with a new’ josh’ every single day. I ultimately got the right knack for falling straight back for the back-roll test – the young blood took the associated hurt in the back during the learning process in its stride.

Days later, I could not believe it was me – a RWL case, pulling up my legs up for the ‘toe-touch’ on the beam, or could hold the rope steady with my legs enabling me to take the next leap up. The PT instructor no more looked a ‘devil’ and the rope not the ‘gallows’. I had something new in me which I never knew existed. Me and my buddy were strength for each other and a partner in success and repeated attempts in attempting to get there.

Rest is history. The new term started with a new ‘me’. That me, for whom PT tests were no longer an ‘impossible proposition’. I gained strength on small achievements which others, these would be non-things – able to land on my two feet after doing the once impossible ‘hand spring’, able to touch the top iron beam from the which the rope hung, coming out ‘pass’ from the swimming pool. Small joys… big strengths.

I bummed along rolling away to glory, making my bike ride me ( put around the neck during mass punishments) more that I could ride it. My 5 star torch meant nothing to me when compared to my +1 in PT (passed all mandatory and one extra test) or that shining bayonet which one got doing close combat drill ( ghop-nikal) as a Pongo ( army cadet). As the years rolled, physical fitness became a passion and running became a love-of-life. In my final term, I made it to second enclosure in cross country 13 to 2. My little joy would out-beat Usain Bolt’s!

As a one piper, when on morning PT in the unit , when felt ‘a spike of pride’ deep in the chest’ when starting to run behind the whole regiment ( as officers normally do) , one kept crossing squad by squad and landed almost with the leading one. The reward came quick and fast as I heard ( during initial days in the unit) a low whisper of one jawan running alongside in the squad, telling his buddy –‘Saab Kam Janta hai’ . I realised how the first assessment criteria of our men is – physical fitness of their officers. Decades later, the same ‘junoon’, the same adrenaline kept rushing through the veins as then, the Commandant of the Army Air Defence College ran and kept up with almost the first squad of trainees or started in the end and finished among the first few ( on the way….. a sore discomfiture to several brother officers! Won’t say a word more).

Oftentimes it happens even till date during my morning routines….. I see a U turn. On this U turn there is a billboard on which it is written – RELEGATION WARNING LIST…. I increase my pace…. Pride playing or vengeance? I don’t know.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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