Jostling with Ethics – 3 – : Having a Drink

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I am unashamedly from a ‘Moddhyo Britto Bhadro Poribaar’ from ‘Poorbo Bango’ . In plain English that would translate to being from a Middle Class Gentle Folk from Eastern Bengal. Like every other social group in this world, this social group also has its baggage of ‘do’ s and ‘dont’s just as it has its own set of behavior considered socially right and socially wrong. One of the values for this group during the first half of the twentieth century was abstention from alcohol. I must add that this value system was transient. It evolved during the Bengali renascence of the late nineteenth century and was swept away by the social upheaval of the Partition of the country. I was a protected child deeply shielded by parental system of values. When I stepped out of my home to join the National Defence Academy, I had no doubt in my mind that consumption of alcohol was not ‘good’. For the first two year in uniform, that is, for the period of my stay in JSW Dehradun, the concept was not tested. The cadets were not allowed to drink. My value system was not challenged.

The situation changed when I reached the advanced stage of flying training at 1AFA Begumpet. The rules permitted the Mess Bar to serve Beer to cadets of the advanced stage over week-ends. Some of my friends began to have a glass of Beer before lunch on saturdays and sundays. Because of my ingrained inhibitions, I did not join them for quite some time. However, over a period of time, many of my friends began to enjoy their glass of Beer before lunch. A constant imploring of ‘have a drink’ began to erode my resolve. Finally the peer pressure got to me and I decided to join the gang. Being a Bong that I am, I had a prominent sweet tooth. Beer tasted bitter; the taste did not appeal to me at all. After trying it out for a couple of weeks I went back to sweetened Nimboo Soda as my favorite refresher before lunch. It tasted better. It was also easier on my pocket, an advantage not to be ignored. It was also easier on my conscience, a fact that I did not want to acknowledge even obliquely. In any case, flying kept me busy. I was doing well as a cadet. The satisfaction of achievement was heady enough. I took my abstention from alcohol to be dictated by taste; i did not feel any urge to join the gang. The question whether my abstention was influenced by my ethics did not arise in my mind. Was not doing what I thought was right the normal thing to do?

Days rolled by and March 1953 came to an end. By about 20th of the month our final results were ready but had not been officially announced. It was expected that Karan Kalsia would bag the sword of honour. We had started practicing our passing out parade. At that time, three of us were ranked as Cadet Under Officers without any specific inter-se seniority. When Karan was asked to command the parade, it was indication enough for us that he had topped. I was asked to command the passing out flight. Dadachanji, the third Under Officer was placed as a Supernumerary in the passing out flight. I wondered about my final position in the course. On the 28th, all doubts were removed. We were allotted our service numbers and Karan was the top ranker while I had bagged the second spot. Karan was officially asked to change his shoulder badge to that of an ‘Academy Under Officer’ albeit only for the remaining few days that we had left in the Academy.

On the last day of March no official work was left. Even the last of the practice parades had been done on the previous day. The Nizam of Hyderabad had accepted the invitation to review the parade and give away the wings to the newly commissioned officers. We wondered how the frail old man would cope with the task of standing up in the sun for the duration of the parade. Before our farewell lunch in the cadet’s mess, most of the instructors gathered at the bar for a glass of beer with their pupils. Flight Lieutenant Dilbagh Singh (who later became the Chief of Air Staff) was my instructor. When he offered me a glass of beer, I thought that it would be impolite to refuse. One does not get a Presidential Commission every day.

I do not recollect how many glasses followed that one glass offered by my instructor. I found that the bitterness of the drink was not palpable after some time. The strange elation that I felt was also not bad. Strangely, there was no conscious ethical conflict in my mind while having this drink. We went in late for lunch. Post lunch gossip was also protracted. We were all full of ourselves at having come to an end of our training. By the time I got back to my room it was pretty late in the afternoon. I just wanted to reach my bed and flop down. (As a Cadet Underofficer I had the privilege of having been allotted a room to myself.) I reached my room through the rear verandah where I found my orderly polishing my shoes for the parade next day. He had a friend of his next to him, another orderly serving other cadets. Both of them greeted me as I passed through the verandah. As I entered my room however, I overheard them referring to my gait. ‘Saab aaj piyela ahe’ I heard my orderly say to his friend in his Hyderabadi Marathi. (The Hyderabad State had large number of Marathi and Kannada speaking citizen from the Marathwada and Raichur regions of the state.) I was stung and was surprised by the strength of the perceived insult that welled inside me. Had I consumed too much beer? Was it that clearly visible to an outsider? How come I did not feel inebriated while an outsider could see it that clearly? Much of the happy feeling I was carrying with me disappeared in an instant.

Human mind is an amazingly resilient machine. We, the cadets of the 60th pilot’s course were on the verge of taking a momentous step; we were to be commissioned into the Air Force on the morning next that was only a few hours away. The sheer excitement of this impending event washed away all other thought in my mind for the night. What ever irritation I might have felt in the preceding few moments were soon forgotten. I spent a peaceful evening and night in expectation of a joyous day to follow.

The passing out parade went off well. We paraded, we listened to a short speech, we received our shoulder tapes and flying brevets individually one after another and we marched off the parade ground into the Air Force as Pilot Officers of the Flying Branch. It was a heady morning. After making merry and embracing all and sundry exchanging congratulations and receiving good wishes, we were taken to the officers mess for our first meal as an officer. Our instructors joined us at the mess bar and beer flowed freely. Our shoulder tapes were ceremonially dipped into the instructors mug of beer and were put back. The favorite students claimed and exchanged their brevets with that of their own instructor. I pipped my co-pupils P Gautam, John Phillipose and Suresh Sane to claim Dilbagh Singh’s flying brevet and put it on my chest and felt very proud. I consumed the celebratory beer without any pangs of conscience bothering me, even though I limited the consumption to two glasses.

Later that evening we held a celebratory dinner where all the newly commissioned officers participated. On that evening I was still short of my nineteenth birthday by more than three months and for the first time in my life I was offered a glass of whiskey before dinner. I had not thought out my course of action for this eventuality. I accepted the glass. The strong smell of alcohol was initially offensive. After a few sips of the drink however, it tasted good. The warm feeling that spread through the body was also enjoyable. I finished the glass and took a refill. Inherent good sense however prevented me from wandering into uncharted territory beyond the second drink. The party lasted for a long time. We had not shifted to the officers mess till then. By the time we came back to the cadets’ mess for the night, it was almost two in the morning.

I awoke in the morning with a splitting headache. I was well and truly hung over. I had no option but to admit to myself that not withstanding the warm oozy feelings experienced the night before, net effects of those couple of ounces of pure Scotch were painful. It forced me to perform a cost-benefit analysis of ‘moderate’ and ‘controlled’ participation in ‘social drinking’. When I began this chain of thought on the morning of 2nd April 1953, I was astonished that I had no deep rooted ethical objection to that activity I was examining. I really did not have deep objections in my mind to ‘social consumption of alcohol’ that was ‘moderate’ and ‘controlled’ . I also noted that my parents had not, directly or indirectly, placed any injunctions against drinking in moderation though no one in my family consumed alcohol. On deeper introspection, I realized that notwithstanding the puritanism of the new and western educated Bengali Middle Class that went under the label of ‘bhadro Lok’, use of alcohol was prevalent and socially acceptable to a large segment of the people of Bengal. Fermented rice beer and fermented Palm-tree Juice were staple drinks for the rural folk. Use of alcohol as ‘kaaran baari’ was also acceptable to the practitioners of the Shakti cult that was popular in eastern India. This realization comforted me; emotionally I was now free to decide for myself whether I wanted to have a drink or not based entirely on my own judgement. Having been commissioned barely twenty-four hours ago, I took my self and my decision making ability rather seriously.

It was clear to me that if I wanted to drink I would have to acquire a taste for it. So far, the taste and smell of Beer and Whiskey had not attracted me. In my very limited forays into the use of alcohol, I had however experienced an enticement that was undeniable. The first debate was therefore whether it would be worth my while to teach myself to like drinking of smelly and foul tasting fluids for the sake of after effects they produce, and immediately I was faced with another inconvenient fact of life. It felt nice after a drink or two. But I had to admit that the state of happiness was also accompanied by a loosening of self control. I was too used to a self image of being fully in control of myself. Did I like that warm woozy feeling that came after a drink of two enough to accept a lowered level of self control? It was a tough question and I did not know the answer. The splitting headache that I was suffering from that morning was also a clear disincentive. I did not know whether this affliction would forever be a corollary to imbibing whiskey or whether it was merely an initial hurdle. I was left undecided.

The day was full of administrative activity. We were given an advance of pay on commissioning to defray our immediate expenses. I do not recollect how much it was, but it was a princely sum of about two hundred fifty rupees or so. I had unfortunately lost my service cycle about a week before the date of commissioning. It had been stolen and had remained undetected. A court of inquiry had taken all of one hour to decide that it was all my fault had decreed that the cost of the cycle was to be recovered from me. A recovery voucher had been duly raised and handed to my. To compound my felony, I had misplaced that little piece of paper while packing up my room in preparation of my moving out to Hakimpet after commissioning. Now, while I tried to get my clearance paper from the Academy signed off by all the sections, it was rejected by the accounts section. The Senior Accounts Officer of the Academy, Flight Lieutenant KM Rishi, was very cross. What did I mean by saying that the recovery voucher was lost? A registered recovery voucher was an acknowledged financial paper and a loss of a financial paper by an officer was a cognigible offense. Did I wish to face a new court of inquiry on the first day after my commission? It took a lot of persuasion and loads of apology to mollify his anger. One hundred and twenty rupees were taken away from my recently received advance of pay as the cost of the cycle lost. My internal debate about advisability of abstention from alcohol receded into some inaccessible corner of my mind and was not heard of for many days to come.

Later that day 22 out of 33 of the newly commissioned officers were moved from the Academy at Begumpet to the CTU at Hakimpet. We were to start training on Spitfire aircraft there. We however found that the previous batch (59th Pilots Course) had not completed their training schedule. It was not possible for us to start flying till they were through. In a few days time we were sent off on leave for sixty days. We returned by the middle of June and began our ground training of the new aircraft. By the end of the month we started our training flying in the two seat Spitfire IX. On 9th July 1953 I was considered fit to fly solo in a single seat Spitfire XVIII, the first one in the course to do so. The event was exciting. I almost crashed in my first attempt to land but managed to abort the attempt and put the damaged aircraft down safely in my second attempt. Flying was called off for the rest of the day and every one gathered at the officer’s mess bar to celebrate the occasion. It was a triple event for me; My lucky escape from a possibly nasty accident, my first solo flight in a Spitfire and my 19th birthday. Celebrations were certainly called for. However, I got a signal from my deep subconscious mind. Without any evident reason, I declared that I have decided that I do not drink. It was a strange decision even in my own eyes. I do not know why I asserted it in public at that particular moment. I just did it. Surprisingly it did not create an issue at the bar at that moment. Every one was ready to drink and celebrate my triple event and they did it with gusto. I just nursed my usual refresher and accepted all the good wishes that came my way. It seemed so easy. No wrestling was involved,either with my conscience or with my ethics.

Fifty eight years have gone by since that morning of 9th July 1953. I can now look back on that day and dispassionately analyze what must have happened in my mind. I had just completed my 19th year; this sudden announcement was perhaps a farewell gift to my teen years in the form of an undertaking that I knew would be difficult to keep. Was I daring my self ? Was it a bit of a bravado? Was I showing off to my friend who were taking up drinking as a new passion with a shout – Hey guys! look at me. I can be openly different from you all. I set my own agenda! I am an adult and I make my own decisions? Perhaps it was all of that. But can I deny that my inner strength stood on a subconscious admission that I did not like to drink, that subconsciously I felt that drinking was not ‘good’, that I would be happier carrying my moralistic baggage rather that flow with the tide and do what every one else were seemingly doing?

So, I became a teetotaler on the spur of a moment. Were was the wrestling match with my ethical self as promised by the heading for this post? Well, let me assure my readers that a long drawn wrestling match was about to begin that would last for a number of years, but that would become another story to be told later.

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5 responses »

  1. that was a really fascinating story. it might be interesting to compare notes, so to speak since I come from a similar background, madhyobritto ‘bhadrolok’ family with origins in east bengal.

    Although, growing up in the 90’s meant being separated from the undivided bengal era by a full 50 years and I have never seen my ancestral place.

    the social taboo against drinking is still in place, albeit weaker. my personal code took the form of a middle path, viz
    no ‘nesha’ with baba’s money (I smoked my first cig with money I got for giving tutions, my first glass of vodka was funded by a Dept of S&T scholarship !)
    &
    never lose control.

    happy to say, it’s been more than ten years and I haven’t violated the codes once.

  2. Sir,
    I felt miserable reading your story. Imitation of western habits and culture at its brutal best. It was shameless demonstration of cultural destruction of Indian
    ethos and values.De-funct air force leadership of fiftees had no vision of
    building organisation culture. Hence it has remained as an average organization
    in respect to efficiency, quality and productivity.
    Regards

  3. I am glad you did….I am content today…to be able to say….’my father chose not to-and kept his word!’ It is an inspiration i have carried with me throughout my growing years! Temptation came and knocked…often…with close friend opportunity hand in hand….and this talisman kept me safe…I needed nothing beyond this! Thank you.

  4. Sir, nice to see you recounting those early days. Would have been a different world then as a trainee. Particularly the clash of social mores, just after partition , would have been harder to resolve. Drinking and smoking today for youngsters, in and out of the Air Force , is not a big issue now, though they still fall foul of the law , if they do it during the training.. Relaxed social ethics and easy availability of alcohol is a given. The societal divide or the isolation of the ‘ fauji’ from the world around him is almost dead. Things have changed, for the better or worse, I won’t judge, since it can be very subjective.
    Even in the seventies, the number of guys on ET, restrictions and hike to Singhad in NDA because of being caught smoking or drinking was rather high. So we need not despair. The change has been gradual and spread over these six decades that you straddle.
    Thanks for the lovely blog and warm regards.
    Gp Capt V Raghavan (Retd)

  5. As an aside, what is the gentleman, I would assume he is one till I meet him, doing on this blog, virulently running down the IAF, with virtually no connection between the original blog and his rant. C’mon allow an old soldier to recall what happened. You can’t go back to 1953 and sit beside him and moralise how his life should have panned out. I thought it was the person’ s inner struggle with his set of ‘ethics’ that was the central piece of the blog.
    C’mon loosen up .. Have a drink, if it helps. Hehehe.
    Rgds and no malice at all. Just being myself.
    Raghavan

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