By – Commodore Srikant B Kesnur (Retd)
Today, Tuesday, 19 Jul 22, marks exactly 40 years from the date, I joined the National Defence Academy (NDA), in Khadakvalsa, near Pune, as a naval cadet. The NDA, as a prestigious tri-services academy, is focused more on initial grooming for a long career in the Armed Forces, and, therefore, introduced one to Service specific subjects – the Navy in my case – only in the final year of our training there. However, with the NDA as the springboard, the rest of my 37 years were spent in the ‘whites’ until my superannuation, recently, on 30 Jun 22. While the Academy deserves a separate essay, today let me focus on the Indian Navy and why I would choose to join it all over again, if I were given half a chance to do so.
Looking back though, my joining the Navy was entirely fortuitous. Like many Indians, I did not have too much acquaintance with the sea and, while belonging to a state in peninsular India (Karnataka), I had my first view of the sea at the Gateway of India, as an eight-year-old. I was terrified of it, though it may seem amusing today considering that the Gateway, mostly, has placid waters through the year. A brief visit to Karwar, many years later, was all that I had to add to my ‘marine exposure’. Consequently, like many of my classmates, at Sainik School Bijapur, I opted for Army as my first choice when filling the form for NDA, in the autumn of 1981. There was also the rather naïve belief that we all, friends and classmates, who together opted for the Army, would stay close to each other for the rest of our lives. That evening, my Father who taught in our school, and who had just returned from a short visit out of town, cursorily asked me, as to what had transpired over the past couple of days. I filled him on the news and, in passing, told him of filling up my NDA form. When queried by him as to what I had opted for, I replied ‘Army’. “Why not Navy?” he asked. Years earlier, when he joined the school as teacher, he was most impressed with the school Principal, a Navy Commander, who cut a sharp figure in his whites and who, apparently, was quite a ‘charismatic’ personality. ‘Not too many from the school join the Navy’, he reasoned and ‘you will do something different’. I was not sure, if I was persuaded by the argument; but in those days, children listened to their parents and, thus, the next day, I went and amended my form, to read ‘Navy’ as first choice. The die was, thus, cast.
Truth be told, I was not too keen on a career in the Armed Forces at all. I fancied careers in law (fed on a vast diet of Perry Mason books), media (as a crusading journalist) and politics (believing that I somehow had it in me to be successful in that field). However, in small town India of those days, there was not much traction for such ideas. Moreover, being a student in Sainik School meant it was blasphemous to entertain such thoughts. Above all, I felt deeply for my father’s expectations – he had been born in poverty and raised in penury and badly wanted that his son become ‘a Class 1 Gazetted Officer with a Sarkari naukri’. Given my good academic background qualifying for NDA and getting the adequate high merit for Navy (considering the limited vacancies) did not pose too much of a problem. What posed problems though were life in NDA and its mental and physical challenges? Consequently, my performance dunked, my confidence ebbed and I somehow managed to just stay afloat and pass out with my course. My stay there had mixed memories – some good, some not so much. It took a tenure as a Divisional Officer, few years later, for me to understand the ‘DNA of NDA’ and the method behind the madness.
It leaves me with a bit of wonder even now, but I was able to recover my mojo, almost magically, on breathing the sea air at Kochi and embarking INS Beas, our Cadets Training ship, in July 1985. From then, it was a long, eventful, fun-filled journey of 37 years until my retirement. Musing about it, the one refrain that comes back to me and which I mentioned in my farewell speech to my colleagues is ‘I would want to join the Navy all over again’ even though mine, was by no means, the perfect or model journey of a naval officer. Incidentally, it is a feeling that many of my friends and other veterans (now that I am in their camp) share. Why is it so? Why do we feel these emotions? Is it just a bit of nostalgia laden syrupy sentimentalism or is it something more? While I will leave it to psychologists to analyse this aspect, let me simply try and break down into some ‘component parts’ why we think this way. It may help readers of ‘Mission Victory’ to either relate to their own set of experiences (for those who have served in uniform) or it may help provide some understanding (for those aspiring to a career in the Whites).
Pride is the first emotion that comes to mind. This operates at several levels. There is pride in wearing uniform and in being recognised for it. The uniform gives one a distinct identity. Of course, there is associated glamour and, even though, I am biased, I think Navy has the smartest uniforms with resplendent white and black outfits and gold in the form of stripes, sword, buttons and other accoutrements. Wearing of uniform is a respectful ritual, the moment one dons it, you tend to stand taller, smarter and tauter. But the pride also goes beyond the mere pomp and show and the preening. The uniform is not a modelling club, it is about a certain association with the larger ethos of the service. The pride is hence about the service itself and the inherent nobility of soldiering. Without any disrespect to any profession, it’s an accepted fact that some like medicine, nursing, teaching, armed forces are regarded as noble and being much more than about merely making a living. Highly professional navies ensure that such ethos seep in, drip by drip, but constantly, into one’s veins. A call to arms in the service of the nation can sometimes be heroic but is always euphoric. Without making it feel like a cliched stereotype, there is a distinct feeling of quiet pride in serving our nation.
As with many people who have served in the Navy, I faced many disappointments and setbacks as part of life and these were taken in stride as best as they could. But I am sure, they or I never had the feeling of ‘what am I doing in life?’ That was a question we never had to worry about. Sociologists may blame it on indoctrination, but when you live in a world where phrases like ‘duty, honour, country, courage, commitment, service’ are part of the lexicon and ethos, you are bound to be affected. Mind you, I am not a ‘triumphal drum beater’ of the standard military vocabulary and as a wannabe academic, I was often uncomfortable with exuberant displays of set catchphrases or choreographed drills. Yet the beauty of Armed Forces and, especially, a thinking service like the Navy, is that it allows one a certain latitude to interpret values and virtues and contextualise them. Therefore, old world values or a desire to live by them do not become unfashionable in the Navy. Thus, the pride is a combination of many factors – some distinct and others inchoate, but one feels the highest sense of purposefulness when doing one’s duty. And that contributes to the joy of working.
High Quality Of Life
Notwithstanding the above, it is also true that humans cannot live on love and fresh air, or honour, alone. One doesn’t need to invoke Maslow or any other management Guru to emphasise the simple point that anyone seeking a career or joining a profession would place a premium on quality of life and material factors such as salary, perks etc. While none of us joining NDA in teenage years thought much of these, it was because we had been told that ‘life in faujis generally good’, whatever that term meant then. In any case, without good material conditions any organization will find it tough to retain its people and, thus, it stands to reason that the government, and indeed, the Armed Forces, will strive to give the best that they can to their personnel. In recent discussions, opinion is divided among many commentators and analysts as to whether our ‘pay, allowances, perks and other hygiene factors’ are good enough and whether we are far behind corporates and other agencies in this regard. That is a debate for some other time and one where I don’t necessarily have the competence to comment.
For my family and I, from what we saw and experienced, the Navy gave us a high quality of life and that’s what mattered. It is often said that people in the services are ‘rich people with no money’ and I guess that makes sense. At the end of day, rich or poor, even in purely financial terms is relative and contextual. Personally speaking, I also believe that in a country like India which has many poor and less privileged and we figure in the top 5 percent, a certain social awareness and conscience is necessary. While we must indeed work and strive and seek riches and prosperity, it cannot be our only purpose in life. Viewed against that perspective, the Navy ensured that we were always materially comfortable and provided the amenities and facilities that allowed wide range of hobbies and sports to be pursued. Dwelling in the best parts of towns, not having to commute long distances for work and getting a chance to indulge in our interests was more important than the bank balance. The pay and allowances were good enough (for me) but any lingering doubts about them were offset by the charm of staying in cantonment areas and military precincts which were clean, green and orderly. The Navy, additionally, gives one the bonus of residing in big cities and coastal towns, which have their own catalogue of attractions. To breathe pure air, to stay close by the sea (or sometimes, as we experienced, in the hills) and to transact business in an efficient environment is a blessing hard to describe. It is true that much more can be done about our living conditions, especially with respect to accommodation, but it is better to view the glass as being half full in this regard.
One of the most important aspects that stems out the good quality of living is that it actually allows an individual to have a clean life – in terms of financial probity at least. Arguably, when you are provided for adequately, the inducements for corruption or the incentives for ‘shortcuts’ for making money are less. Whether this corelation is correct is for experts to judge, but it is indeed true that Armed Forces life is, by and large, free from issues like corruption, bribes, pilfering, money laundering etc in our day-to-day life. It is nobody’s case that our systems are perfect but it is true that our daily lives and most of our transactions are untainted by many of the blemishes and ills that plague society outside. It is a truism that most of us sleep soundly at night, because the seductions and tyrannies of corruption don’t hover around us.
While pride provides us with a sense of purpose and identity and quality of living makes our life comfortable, our memories of service life are made by our experiences. In that respect, Navy has given me a treasure trove of memories. And this is one arena where Armed Forces really score over the rest. For one, there is enough adventure even for those of us not inclined to be adventurous. Be it the act of getting into sea-boats and being lowered at sea, be it crossing the Jackstay or moving from one ship to another in helicopters and landing on tiny decks, be it firing exercises or crawling through tiny spaces to reach the Aft Steering Position (ASP) or climbing high to go onto the Crow’s Nest, be it negotiating heavy seas in small ships or traversing from ship to the beach in small inflatable craft, even an ‘ordinary navyperson’ will have enough hair raising moments and enough to talk about to one’s grandchildren. Conquering or coming to terms with seasickness, vertigo, claustrophobia or many other queasy moments is not easy but you go through them anyway. And after a while, you find at least some experiences giving a high. For most, that’s adventure enough.
There are also other sorts of thrills and beautiful moments that make for life in the navy. I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed some of the most glorious sunrises and sunsets and some spectacular moon rises too, all at sea. The sea provides a vibrant canvas showcasing nature’s beauty and fury across a widely diverse range. The calm seas or the roaring seas are beautiful in their own way just as a moonlit sky and a dark sky are equally magnificent invitations to unravel the mysteries of the universe. Starry nights or stormy ones, blue seas or grey ones, bright days or cloudy ones, dusk or dawn, the seas offer unparalleled vistas. One doesn’t have to be a romantic to be moved by the splendour of the seas and vastness of the oceans, but if you are one like me, then you will be blessed to experience some of the most thrilling moments at sea or by the sea.
Not all experiences need to be adventurous or awesome to be memorable. Sometimes, one is plain lucky. The enormous opportunities to travel in the Navy means that over the many years in service, I have been fortunate to visit more than 20 countries around the world and several exotic places within India including some ‘remote’ corners. The visits and stay abroad gave us a chance to absorb other cultures and systems, see their famous spots and locations, enhanced our exposure and broadened horizons. The visits in different parts of India helped us understand our own country better. While guide books and travel magazines will write in great detail about tourist attractions, life in Fauj gave us unique experiences because of our access and position. Thus, it was humbling seeing our soldiers, up close, at the borders in Arunachal Pradesh or Sikkim or Jammu and Kashmir. It was thrilling flying over the Siachen glacier or landing in small amphibious vessels on small islands in the Nicobar group of islands. And there were numerous experiences of these kind.
The exalted position of being a representative of the government also meant that in such visits, especially abroad, one was welcomed with certain respect and given privileges and access that were not available to others. Frequently, this also enabled one to meet authorities in higher echelons of government and private companies. The idea is not to boast about them but underscore how that helped one to get closer look at governance structures, strategic concerns and policy issues and how one was able to meet leaders and statesmen and, how all of that helped my own growth. For example, representing India in international conferences gives one a big high, to have the national flag on one’s desk is a matter of honour that one cherishes and remembers for long. In short, it is the abundance and uniqueness of our experiences that makes life in Navy so memorable and triggers the desire for ‘action replay’.
Great Friends & Super Shipmates
If experiences provide the skeletal framework for our memories, the flesh and blood into that is put in by our friends and acquaintances. And once again, Armed Forces are fortunate in this regard. The inherent need for team work in all our endeavours, the camaraderie engendered by facing difficult situations together and the fact that we just don’t work together but also live together makes for the unique alchemy that defines our relationships. The Navy does not have a regimental system like the Army but the (comparatively) small size of the Navy, makes it possible to imagine the whole of the Navy as a regiment. And, because, ‘you sink or swim together’ on the ship, relationships in the Navy have a different hue.
Naturally, therefore, some of our best friendships and bonds have been built in the Navy. The same holds good for our spouses and children too. Even where there is not necessarily deep friendship, the camaraderie of some association – coursemate, ship mate, squadron mate, same building type, etc – enables bonds to be made which are reliable and stable. In adversity, the Navy mate is both your first port of call and the last resort. And in good times, they are great fun to hang around with – hassle free, non-transactional and, usually, solid.
Serving for as long as 36 years and moving up many senior positions has meant that I have also had the privilege of observing and working with our men – the sailors. Sailors, Soldiers and Airmen are the very essence of our services, the heart and soul of the Indian Armed Forces. Simple folk at heart, most of them drawn from India’s villages and small towns, they are, arguably, the best human resource one can ever get. They serve with great sincerity and devotion and with wants/needs that are far more spartan than other sections of society. They give so much and ask for so little. This not only makes our work satisfying and fulfilling, but also enables better sociological understanding.
To quote the great Navy veteran, ship designer and corporate leader Captain Mohan Ram (Retd) who in his book “My Ships Sailed the Seas but I stayed Ashore” paraphrases a Honda Club advertisement to conclude “You meet the nicest people in the Navy”. This is a sentiment we all share, which is one reason we seek people of our ilk. Civil Society uses a phrase called People Like Us (PLU) to describe this phenomenon. However, PLU has a kind of snobbish tinge, advertising exclusivity and elitism. The bonds built in the Navy, on the other hand, are anything but that. We were people thrown together in the crucible. Region, religion, language, caste, creed, financial status does not matter, what matters is the common association of being in the uniform. My Father, long back, very perceptively, told me that “In India, it is only the Armed Forces and Bollywood that reflect the full diversity of our country and its infinite variety”.
Opportunities For Human Resource Development
The combined result of all the factors elucidated above form an excellent ground for what Maslow calls ‘self-actualisation’ needs. In simple words, life in the Navy provides an optimal avenue for us to maximise our own human resource potential. It provides us the ideal platform to be the best version of ourselves. I think it was Paulo Coelho who once said “It’s the possibility of one’s dreams coming true that makes life interesting”. The Navy makes it possible for many of our dreams to come true. I will give examples from my own life not with any trace of immodesty but merely to illustrate how Navy made it possible for a boy from “middle class, mofussil India to experience the most incredible riches”. This would be true for many others too.
Here I invoke author Joseph Conrad who said ‘the highest time-honoured title of the seafaring world is Captain’ to thank the Navy for choosing me to be the Captain (Commanding Officer) of two frontline warships of the Navy. It is, of course, a position one aspires to, as part of seeking growth, upward mobility and recognition within the system. But at the end of it, you realise it’s a privilege, to be able to lead a fine set of people and to be able to do one’s bit at the sharp edge of the fighting force that the Navy is. Experiences of other leadership positions resulted in similar feelings – of humility, and gratefulness for being given opportunities to shape a grand enterprise. One’s own growth, during such appointments, in terms of understanding human behaviour, motivation and concerns of the naval apex is invaluable.
While the Command tenures were important, my entire naval journey was one that constantly enhanced my skill set or knowledge. It was the Navy that facilitated my authorship of many books, it was the Navy that made it possible to acquire many educational qualifications, it was the Navy that encouraged my pursuit of PhD, it was the Navy that further fuelled my passions for history. It is courtesy the service that I had a most memorable diplomatic assignment in East Africa and had exposure to many facets of international relations, foreign cooperation and also some significant events that occurred then such as maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden region. It is because of the Navy, that while being firmly anchored in operations, I could also extend my arms to meet and interact with academics, scholars, think tanks, media-persons, museology experts and a whole range of interesting people who piqued my curiosity and helped me learn more. It is because of the Navy I was able to serve in a variety of tri-service institutions and assignments and get a purple tinge to my white uniform.
If I can misquote the famous author CLR James and borrow from his memorable lines to argue “What do they know of Navy who only Navy Know”, and bring out how important it is for an individual to know much more about the wider world to better understand his own profession. The good thing is that the Navy itself believes in this credo. As an adaptable and agile service that places equal importance both to reflex action and reflection, the Navy provides maximum avenues for ticking several items in one’s bucket list. The Navy as a thinking service places premium on scholarship and gives incentives to creativity. While it may not reflect the external aura or breezy informality of Silicon Valley startups, there is enormous place and respect for innovation, imagination and intelligence in the service.
Above all, the Navy cares. It is possible to argue, at least theoretically, that an upwardly mobile life in the corporate world too may have fetched similar rewards. But does the corporate world score when it comes to caring? I will just give one instance here to emphasise my point. Circumstances worked in such manner that both my father and mother passed away in naval hospitals (a decade apart) when they were staying with me. While the ultimate outcome was decreed by God, the extraordinary care and compassion with which they were treated in naval hospitals throughout their convalescence was touching. My shipmates and other friends coming together to arrange everything from the last rites to paperwork, or before that, visiting my parents and looking after them in our absence from station was very humbling. Above all, my bosses gave me long leave to look after their treatment and post death formalities.
Such acts, in turn, makes one to respond similarly when we are in a position to help or be useful. This creates a virtuous circle of goodness and kindness. Let me emphasise that I am not suggesting that life in navy is all ‘treacle and honey’ full of saintly people. Far from it. In fact, I am suggesting that we are ordinary men with ordinary impulses but it is the creation of an ecosystem like the navy that enables group dynamics to be of high standards and outcomes where the total is more than the sum of its parts.
the good things about the service is endless. The wonderful aspect about this journey is that each of us will have had ‘similarly different’ experiences. The people, locations, chronology, nature of our experiences may be different but the characteristics and conclusions are essentially the same.
To conclude I can do no better than to quote Capt Mohan Ram again “I think the best reason to join the Navy is that one can have great fun. There is an innocence, playfulness and devil care attitude to life in General. We are serious about our work but do not take ourselves seriously. The Navy builds character, gives one resilience and the adaptability to meet any unforeseen emergency. I am what I am largely due to my years in the Navy. Once in the Navy, always in the Navy. Some love affairs never end”.
Life in the Navy completely transforms an individual. Which is why even though I believe (immodestly perhaps) that while I may have made a hot shot lawyer, a successful politician or a rockstar TV anchor, given a chance I would want to join the Navy again.
Cmde Srikant Kesnur (Retd), VSM, PhD (Retd) superannuated recently, on 30 Jun 22, after 36 years in the Navy. An alumnus of NDA (68, D), DSSC (55 th SC) and Naval War College (NHCC 20), the officer is a specialist in Communications and Electronic Warfare. His Naval career saw him command two frontline fleet ships – INS Vindhyagiri and INS Jalashwa, apart from numerous operational, training and staff appointments. He has also been Instructor/Faculty at NDA (Div Offr/AQ), DSSC (DS/HOTT Navy) and NWC (Deputy Commandant and SI). He also did a tour of duty in a diplomatic assignment as our Defence Adviser, in the High Commission of India, Nairobi, Kenya, with East Africa as his area of responsibility. A PhD from Mumbai University, he also holds five other post graduate degrees. He has been the Lead Author/Chief Editor of 11 books/monographs published by the Indian Navy. Prior to his retirement, he was the Director of the Maritime Warfare Centre, Mumbai and also the Officer in Charge, Naval History Project.
Courtesy: Mission Victory India