Arts Science Commerce or Drill?


I do not know about my friends and colleagues, but I had hoped that my selection into the ISW-AFA would relieve me from studies.   Somehow, I had felt that life as a ‘Cadet’ would be quite different from that of a ‘College Student’.  The ‘difference’ that I found between being a cadet and being a college student were indeed all very real and palpable.    Instead of colourful casual clothes we were now dressed in a uniform.   Instead of walking in to our class rooms in our own time we were marched to our destinations.   Instead of   sitting over a cup of tea at the café, we ate our meals in quick time at the mess at regulated times and of standard menus.   Changes were there every where.   However, the changes regarding ‘studies’, were overwhelming.    For our Matriculation into the University of Calcutta, we had to learn only six subjects: English, Bengali, Sanskrit, History, Geography and Mathematics.   Once we entered a College for our ‘Intermediate Science’, the number of main subjects reduced to Physics, Chemistry and Maths along with English and Bengali.   We were allowed to take a ‘fourth main subject’ which could be one from a long list of Biology, Zoology, Geography, Geology and the like, but it was not compulsory.     Compared to this, the list of subjects to be studied at the ISW-AFA was daunting.

 Our subjects of study were grouped under two heads: General and Service. 

General Subjects Service Subjects
English Drill
Economics PT
Compulsory Hindi/Advanced Hindi Field Craft
Maths MTDM
Physics Equitation
Chemistry Range Firing Practice
History Swimming
Geography Organized Games
Military History And Strategy Map Reading and Navigation
Foreign Language Service History and Administration
  Engineering Drawing
  Workshop Practice

 The number of subjects to be learnt was somewhat larger that anticipated!  The style of teaching was different too.  Unlike a college where a lecturer would lecture to a large class, at the ISW and later at the JSW, we were tutored in small groups.   For general subjects, we had a band of civilian instructors under a Principal.   A post of a Vice Principal was I think created and added later.    For the Service subjects, we had a large group of Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) instructors supervised by the officers of the training team.  

 We the cadets came from all parts of the country and from all types of schools using diverse media of instruction.  I for instance came from a Bengali medium school.  Theoretically, the college I went to for my plus two stage was ‘English Medium’.   However our strength remained in the vernacular.  Similarly there were many of us who were more comfortable in Hindi/Punjabi/Tamil/Marathi/Bengali than in English.

Those of us who came from English medium public schools like the Doon School or the PWRIMC (Price of Wales Royal Indian Military College) or other similar institutes had a clear advantage over others who come from provincial or small town backgrounds.   Our academic staff made sure that this initial advantage or disadvantage did not get carried over beyond the first three or four months.

 It must have been a rather difficult task for the academic staff to standardise us.   Like most military solutions, the method used by the Academy to standardise us was simple and direct.   On arrival, we were put through a scholastic test.   The results of the test were graded separately for science and arts subjects.   Each course was sliced into five levels marked -2, -1, 0, +1, +2.   The cadets who fell into the -2 category were placed on notice of withdrawal or relegation.   The cadets obtaining a +2 level were given a few privileges.    For tutorials, -1 / 0 / +1 levels were put into distinctive sections.   For most of the time, the number of cadets in levels -2 and +2 were insufficient to fill full tutorial sections; they were merged into -1 and +1 groups.   We were also ordered to use only English for mutual communication amongst ourselves.      The net result was a uniformity creeping in, initially within the tutorial levels and then through the total group.    We also became more individually adaptable.   We subconsciously learnt to recognize and account for subtle variations not only of pronunciations but also of structuring of sentences and even thoughts that were fundamentally related to our thinking in our vernacular.    Over a period of time, and I must admit that it happened without any conscious effort, we began thinking in the language we were using in our day-to-day life.   It was not English and it was not Hindi.   It had flavours of all major Indian language groups.    Instead of laughing derisively at what we felt was different from what we had learnt at home, we accepted and internalized the greater flexibility now available to our expressions.   We did not know then but we were in an intense cauldron converting us from provincial boys in to Hindostani Fauj.

 Our Academic department was headed by a gentleman named Mr. JTM Gibson who was the Principal.      He was a seasoned school master of the old school.     Neatly dressed and with penetrating eyes, he had a good memory for names and had a very clear conception of what he would accept from a student.   He came to the ISW/AFA from the Doon School where he was a House Master.   He is remembered by most of us, his students at clement town, with fond affection and regard.

 Under the principal we had numerous teachers for specific subjects.  It is difficult now to remember all of them after the passage of so much time.   However, some of them stand out in our memories because of specific incidents related to them or due to some mannerism in their behaviour that sticks to our memory.   Two very senior teachers were Mr Bhavnani and Mr Bhavani Shankar.   Neither of them taught at the sections I was in, but they were acknowledged as senior teachers.   Mr Bhavnani taught chemistry and he was fond of reminding us that he was ‘USA Returned’ with anecdotes and tales from his days at Caltech California.   Since he never taught the section I was in, I include this info only as ‘hear-say’ evidence!   In my section, which was 3rd course science +1/+2, the chemistry teacher was one Mr Surjit Singh.   We were rather unkind to him because of the strong provincial accent of his English.   Mr Surjit Singh’s bête-noir was a cadet in our class named Sudarshan Sing Bonga.  Sudarshan was a small-built Sardar, impish and jolly.   His own English pronunciation was nothing to write home about, but he would get after Mr Surjit with the greatest of enthusiasm.   I recollect one interaction between them, perhaps during the second term.    We had just gone through the chapter on alcohol.    Mr Surjit Singh began a new class by recalling the last class period.   ‘Wall’, he said; ‘in the last period we had learnt about al-cho-haal.   Now who is going to name three or four al-cho-haalik drinks for me?’   Sudarshan was up on his feet in a flash.   ‘Saar’, he shouted;   I can tell you aaal four and may bee five.’      We sat quietly trying to suppress our merriment.   ‘Saar’, Sudarshan continued; ‘number one – beeeer’.   He held a single finger up dramatically.   We knew what was coming and it was difficult not to laugh out loud.   ‘Number two’, Sudarshan continued – ‘Geeeen’ and he pronounced the G as a hard ga.    ‘Number three –  Chom-pug-nee’; there was no stopping Sudershan once he started.   ‘Number four – very popular drink saar – Rooom’.    We were in splits but Sudarshan was on a roll.   ‘And also saar – in my village there is tharra!  That is number five saar.’   Mr Surjit took a long time to get back to his lesson for the day!

 For English, we had Mr PN Krishna Rayan and Dr Jacob. (I must record my gratitude to the latter for my current abilities in the language.) I remember the principal taking a class or two in English, but that was a rare occasion.    One Mr BK Basu taught us geography.   He was a tall fair gentleman with a receding hairline who tried to speak English with a clipped accent and spent an enormous amount of time on European geography.   He had a long neck and his height gave him a slight stoop.   His initials, BK, when written in Bengali as Ba + Ka spelled Bauk which meant a crane in that language. We the Bong cadets called him Bauk. I remember an incident when Atindra Kishore Das (Atin) and I were sharing a bench in Mr Basu’s class and he was explaining the French midland plateau – the Massif Central.    While he spoke on about the crater lakes and hot springs to be found there, Atin got busy drawing a crane standing on one leg on a marsh looking at a high plateau on the side.   Atin was pretty good in pencil sketching and I got interested in what he was doing.   We did not realise that Mr Basu had come down from the dais and was standing just behind us looking at Atin’s sketch.   He startled Atin when he put his hand on his shoulder and spoke in his base voice: the crane looks good but there are no marshes near the Massif Central!

 For military history (and normal history) we had one Sri Jai Narayan Wanchoo.   He was quite passionate about his subject and made it quite interesting.   He was quite free with his criticism of generals who in his opinion made tactical or strategic errors in their battles.   We had named Mr Wanchoo ‘The Personal Advisors to all generals – Past Present and Future’.   The future generals were of course us!

 We had one Mr AN Tagore who taught Chinese and was full of stories of his Peking days.   We had Mr Samar Bahadur Singh for Hindi.   He was also a poet with a reasonable reputation.    Mr Maurice Benson taught French and German.   There were quite a few others whose names have receded beyond accessible memory even though I can remember some of them as vague figures.

 As far as service subjects and their instructors were concerned, the variety we had was fabulous.   I must admit that I do not remember of most of the NCO instructors; we never addressed them by name and their names did not appear in the training program.   We addressed them as Saab in the class and they called us as Cadet!   Still, our interactions were close and we remember many of them fondly.   Drill was a constant unwelcome activity that we were forced to engage in.  More that the drill actions, dressing up for drill was a hassle.   The starched clothes needed to have a knife-edge crease, the boots needed a mirror-like shine, the brass buckle on all the webbing had to shine like gold and the folding of the sleeves of the shirts and the tops of our stockings had to be just perfect.  It was, as I said, a great hassle. If anything was less than perfect, minor punishments visited us in droves.  

 In 1950-51, we had three or four British OR (Other Rank) persons who had stayed on in India for some time.   The senior most Drill instructor in 1950 was a gent named Burrows.   He held the rank of a Regimental Sergeant Major.     It was a rank without a clear equivalent in the Indian Army.   Instead of stripes on the upper arm, he sported a wrist band with a badge somewhat like a Warrant Officer.   An elderly gentleman perhaps in his forties, he was quite a terror on the drill square and we were some what afraid of him.     Amongst his British mates, I remember one gent named Sergeant Greenwood.   He was a jolly fellow and was extremely fit and active.   I do not think any of the other instructors could out-run him or hold more stamina than what he held.  I am not sure, but I thing Mr Greenwood stayed back in India and became a preacher at the end of his tenure with the NDA.    RSM Burrows went back to the UK at the end of 1950.  He was replaced by a Subedar Major from the Mahar Regiment.  I cannot recollect his name now.   However, he died of a heart attack suddenly.  He was then replaced by a very colourful character named Subedar Major Bora.  A very smart short JCO from Assam, he was an unforgettable character.   I am sure all the cadets from the first to the sixth or seventh JSW course will recollect him fondly.    From my juniors at the NDA I hear a lot about one RSM Ailing, another British NCO.   He must have joined NDA after my time.

 Our Physical Training (PT) Instructors were all drawn from the Army PT Corps, and they were all very good.   We had at least one period of PT every day and were worked upon by these gentlemen on the ground, on the mat and on the wooden horse.   The PT program was very well structured and we all became tough little lads with lots of stamina before long.    I find that Bobby Anindyo Chatterjee is an active participant on this blog.  Well, if I remember correctly, he was quite a rounded rolly polly boy when he had joined as a cadet of the 5th JSW course and was made to shed all his baby fat in six months time!   While talking about our PT Instructors, I must mention the officer on the training team who was in charge of it all.   He was one Major Nair, a short athletic person with an exceptional level of physical fitness.   I do not remember which   regiment he belonged to, but his ability on the horizontal beam or on the high horse was something I remember with awe even today.

 The teaching styles of the NCO instructors were direct.   The main points of the lesson were encapsulated into punch lines that were delivered with emphasis.   Even today I remember the Havildar Instructor of MTDM (Motor Transport Driving and Maintenance) teaching me the intricacies of the firing order of internal combustion four stroke engines. “Cadet yaad raakhegaa” He said, “Chaar cylinder ka inline engine me firing order tera sau batallis hota hai” (cadets will remember that in inline four cylinder engines the firing order is thirteen hundred forty-two). This cadet certainly remembered it for life.

 There were two subjects in the Service subjects group that really fascinated me.   These two were Engineering Drawing and Workshop Practice.   Both these subjects harmonized with my inner desire to become an engineer, a desire that I had nursed from my earliest childhood.   The workshop facilities available to us were varied and more that adequate for any thing we wanted to try.    Carpentry, Decorative Woodwork, Black-smithy, welding, casting, forging, turning and other machine shop activities were all available.   I really loved these periods and spent a lot of spare time with the NCO Instructors of the workshop. (I also collected good grades in these subjects).

 The two years that I spent in the JSW-NDA were short and busy.   Today it seems like a dream that finished too soon leaving a yearning for a revisit.  Perhaps that is why, without really meaning to do so, I have rambled on and have used too many word while revisiting those two years in my memory.


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