Anecdotes: Humour in Uniform

A Tale of Two Trunks at Kalyan and Pune Railway Station

My momentous journey as a member of the Indian Army began on the evening of 2 January 1980, when Jimmy Bhullar and I boarded the Punjab Mail train from Ferozepur to Pune, carrying all our stuff in unique customized trunks (flattish and broad) that are specifically made for Army travel as they can be conveniently pushed under a train berth or a bed in a barrack and can easily be fitted into awkward grooves and niches. The voyage began with an interesting incident at Kalyan station where we had to switch trains for Pune.

Since we were carrying a lot of luggage crammed to the brim in the two trunks, the ticket checker ordered us to pay a fine of Rs 80 for our overweight trunks, a royal sum in those days. Alarmed at this hurdle even before reaching our destination, we meekly told the ticket checker that the total cash both of us were carrying collectively was less than this amount, and we were in no position to pay the huge fine. So, the gentleman that he was, he took pity on two budding young soldiers of the nation and helped us by suggesting that we could do an inter-trunk transfer of the excess weight in one box, making the other one fine-free, while some excess items could be shoved into a shoulder bag (jhola) that was available at the Railway Station itself (he also told us where it was being sold). This exercise helped us balance the weight distribution in the trunks, thereby substantially reducing the fine. Needless to say, this early lesson also helped me in managing the weight of my luggage during my numerous travels by air or train later in life. The term ‘manage’ is frequently used in NDA/IMA and the Army, literally meaning ‘Beg, Borrow, or Steal’ (metaphorically speaking) to turn an adverse situation to our advantage. We learnt our lessons well at Kalyan Railway Station on the morning of 4 January 1980, prior to even entering the hallowed gates of the NDA. Later in the evening, we arrived at Pune Railway Station.

Since we had reached Pune a day before the scheduled commencement of training on 5 January 1980, and having saved some precious cash at the Kalyan Railway Station, we made elaborate plans to stay in a hotel for a day and binge watch some of the latest movies, which was our favourite pastime. However, this was not to be as the Subedar Saab from NDA who was present at the railway station immediately recognized our trunks, bundled us along with our luggage into an Army 3-ton vehicle waiting outside, and took us to Ghorpuri, Pune, where the first-term training of NDA used to be conducted. This dashed our dreams of watching films, which would now be possible only when we would be granted ‘Liberty,’ that is, permission to go to the city on a Sunday once or twice during the entire training term of six months.

The ‘Puri’ that Never Was

‘Liberty’ is a concession given a few months after the commencement of NDA training when the cadet passes the Drill Square Test, a test to check his proficiency in drill movements. Aptly named, ‘Liberty’ actually implies liberation or getting permission to make a short visit to Pune town on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and is eagerly looked forward to by all cadets, since prior to this, they are not allowed to leave the NDA campus at all. Both Jimmy Bhullar and I were desperately awaiting the announcement of ‘Liberty,’ as belonging to a small town in Punjab, we had not seen much of the outside world until then, and Pune seemed like a veritable El Dorado for us. Armed with our meagre pocket money of about Rs 10, we set forth towards Pune town, wondering how we would manage to finance a bus ticket, a movie, and lunch/snacks with this paltry amount.

In the town, Jimmy and I were drawn towards a street vendor selling ‘Bhelpuri’ at an affordable price of Re 1, and the word ‘puri’ immediately brought visions of hot deep-fried bread back home in Punjab, a very welcome wholesome snack to launch our first ‘Liberty’ experience. Little did we realize that Bhelpuri, a Maharashtrian Street food, has nothing to do with the puffed puri. After having consumed the ‘initial’ serving of what we presumed was an appetizer, we kept waiting in vain for the vendor to serve us delectable puris and he kept waiting for us to make the payment after he had served the dish of puffed rice mixed with spices and vegetables.

Eventually, we paid up and walked out dejected at being deprived of our ‘puris.’ Hence, our first Liberty ended with a lesson in the diversity of Indian cultures and cuisines, and an empty stomach, as our budget had collapsed, preventing us from buying any more food. I must, however, issue a disclaimer here that Bhelpuri remains one of my favourite snacks till date.

Dinner Nights

The notion of Dinner Night, which was conceptualized by the British, is an integral component of NDA training, comprising detailed lessons and demonstrations on table etiquette. The cadets are expected to exhibit these etiquettes and put their training on table manners to good use during Dinner Night, when a special three– or four-–course meal is served in the Academy mess and is partaken of by both cadets and their instructors, all of whom have to report to the NDA mess in a pre-specified uniform.

It was in the course of one such Dinner Night during my third term that one cadet, a term senior than me, decided to sit next to the instructor to impress him. Ironically, this very proximity to the instructor had a negative outcome for him—he was struggling to eat the chicken dish with his cutlery whereas those of us who were seated at a safe distance from the instructor were heartily enjoying the chicken, surreptitiously also abandoning the fork and knife and using our hands to dig into it.

At one point, the cadet’s not-so-perfect handling of the dish with his fork and knife embarrassingly caused the drumstick to fly off his plate and land in the middle of the table. Unable to conceal our mirth at this display of acrobatics by an inanimate chicken, we visibly smirked at his discomfiture, but soon had to pay the price for mocking a senior. He got back on us for our ‘insubordination’ by subjecting us to a concomitant punishment—we were made to roll under the very same dining table across which his chicken piece had been flying a little while back!

In retrospect, all these incidents make us realize the immense value of the training at the NDA, which is equivalent to the most complete and comprehensive education that a youngster can ever imbibe—in fact, every single activity at the National Defence Academy is designed to hone us into becoming better individuals to be able to face the good and, more importantly, the not-so-good times with unflinching fortitude. These core attributes of brotherhood and camaraderie are nowhere more evident than during a war or a combat situation where soldiers automatically fight as units with utter disregard for individual preservation or safety, and we end up making friends, nay brothers, for life. The most abiding friendships I have forged are with my co-trainees at the NDA, who, even today, are among my best buddies, often even closer than relatives, as they have been part of my life for over four decades.

Chicken Sandwich

Let me recount another hilarious incident that occurred while we were still in Sikkim, but planning to soon set off on our journey to Udaipur. The Corps Commander was visiting the unit in Sikkim, and Lieutenant Colonel Trigunesh Mukherjee was the Commanding Officer (CO) of the unit. In view of the vagaries of the weather, the optimal timing for the helicopter flying to our high-altitude venue was from sunrise till about 11 am after which aerial journeys to the mountain locations were not advisable due to receding visibility and expansive cloud cover. Thus, senior officers visited us quite early in the morning to be able to conduct a brief but effective reconnaissance of the area of responsibility of a particular unit. Such visits by senior officers involved the aerial survey and briefing by the CO from a vantage point from where most of the area of interest was visible.

We got the intimation that the Corps Commander would land early morning at a particular helipad and would be there for an hour for briefing and discussion with the CO. The staff at higher headquarters also informed us that since it was early in the day, the Corps Commander would not have had his breakfast and he may be offered some light snacks while the briefing was in progress. As the CO was well versed with his operational tasks, the briefing per se was not a matter of great concern. However, the issue of ‘light snacks’ led to an animated discussion on the prospective menu for the breakfast to be served to the eminent guest during his short visit. After many suggestions were considered and brushed aside, it was finally decided to serve him a simple but filling breakfast comprising a chicken sandwich, along with the usual accompaniments of additional slices of bread, butter, jam, eggs to order, juice, and tea or coffee. The Mess in-charge, Havildar Ram Kishan, was given an extensive briefing on the chicken sandwich to ensure that the bread was fresh and the chicken was properly cooked. Complacent that nothing could go wrong in this simple fare, we left it to Havildar Ram Kishan to work his magic in the temporary cooking area located in a bunker conveniently tucked away from the main briefing view point, and turned our attention to more pressing matters.

On the day of the visit, I was assigned the critical task of pointing out the physical landmarks on the simulated enlargement hung up on a wall during the briefing. The CO and Corps Commander were facing the area in front, whereas from my position, I had a bird’s eye view of the entire area while also keeping an eye on the incoming mess staff from the makeshift cooking bunker, which would be hidden from the CO’s horizon. Things were going absolutely as per plan until Lance Naik Ram Dhani, the mess waiter, emerged from the cooking bunker with a tray laden with the Corps Commander’s breakfast. Lo and behold! I could not believe what I was seeing—as the waiter came inside and uncovered the much-debated dish, the ‘chicken sandwich’, there lay a steaming hot ‘chicken’ (roasted) on one plate and a plain buttered ‘sandwich’ on the other! The detailed instructions to serve a chicken sandwich had been innovatively interpreted by the mess staff, offering chicken ‘outside’ instead of ‘inside’ the sandwich. I was the only one who could see the potential disaster heading towards us from the kitchen towards the briefing bunker but there was little I could do to remedy the situation. The CO looked at me in astonishment when the tray arrived but I just looked away discreetly.

Mercifully, the Corps Commander did not seem to notice anything amiss, and proceeded to thoroughly enjoy the light snacks, asking for a second and even a third helping of the chicken part of the ‘sandwich’. Interestingly, news of this unique meal spread far and wide and other units would often call us up to ask what we had served the Corps Commander when he visited our unit. The ingenious ‘chicken sandwich’ rustled up by the chefs thus inadvertently became a huge hit and has dominated archival tales in the unit since then.

Never Leave Your Bicycle Behind

Each cadet was issued a bicycle to help him navigate the expansive NDA campus for the entire duration of the training. This mode of transport, however, came with its own strings attached, and more often than not, the bicycle was riding the trainee rather than the other way round. While riding the bicycle, we had to follow a rigorous set of rules, including the stipulation that we could never ride the bike alone and had to mandatorily move around only in a squad of six or minimum four, or that riding into certain areas was absolutely taboo. Whenever there was a tyre puncture or we were caught flouting any of these regulations, the comeuppance was to lift the bike and run while carrying it on our shoulders—the stricture was that the bicycle was now an inherent part of our life on the campus and we could never abandon it, come what may!

These incidents of bearing the burden of the bicycle created a lot of angst among us at the time but their import came home to us later when we learnt that shouldering the weight of the bicycle was actually a precursor for not leaving anything or anyone behind on the battlefield during a war or during a counter-terrorist operation—the numerous scenes of soldiers running with injured or dead colleagues on their shoulders on a battle front that we have witnessed in movies have been part of Army routine and are living examples of the burdens that we were taught to bear on our shoulders through the simple regulation evoked by a popular nursery rhyme: ‘everywhere the cadet went, the bike was sure to go’. ‘Leaving no one behind’ is a commonly followed maxim in most armies of the world, but is more pronounced in the Indian Army where it is virtually a religion, as we never leave anyone behind, not even our dead.

In fact, I believe that the NDA bicycles became an intrinsic part of our bodies, as they were always carried wherever we went.


Lt General KJS Dhillon, PVSM, UYSM, YSM, VSM was commissioned into 4th Battalion The Rajputana Rifles in Dec 1983. He commanded operationally active 15 Corps during the most challenging environment of Pulwama IED blast, Balakote air strikes and Abrogation of Article 370 & 35A.He is presently Chairman Board of Governors IIT Mandi. He is MSc. MPhil. PhD. He authored a National Bestseller, ‘Kitne Ghazi Aaye Kitne Ghazi Gaye’.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *