Monday, June 2, 2014

Humor in and out of Uniform - ON A SLIPPERY SLOPE - An Oily Tale


(An Oily Tale)
Unforgettable Memories of my Navy Life

This story is a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This is humour to be taken with a pinch of salt
Copyright Notice:
No part of this Blog may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Blog Author Vikram Karve who holds the copyright.


The best thing that happened to me in the navy were the two glorious years I spent in Mumbai (then called Bombay) 35 years ago.

Both my ships were based at Bombay.

We sailed for a few days, sometimes visiting various ports, but for the remaining days we were tied alongside in Bombay Dockyard which is in the heart of the city.

I loved sailing,

But more than that, I loved spending time in a harbour like Bombay, which was most exciting as the vibrant metropolis had so much to offer for young bachelors like me with a zest for life.

It was the happiest time of my life.

And like I said, it was the best thing that happened to me in the navy.

The worst thing that happened to me in the navy was my unexpected to transfer to Jamnagar, which put an end to my happy time in Bombay.

I was looking forward to an appointment to a shore billet in Bombay, which would enable me to continue to enjoy the life of bliss in “maximum city” to the fullest.

In fact, a few months earlier, I had been informally told by a senior naval officer that I would be appointed in the Naval Dockyard at Bombay, as was the norm for young technical officers after appointments at sea.

But, someone pulled strings, and I was on my way to Jamnagar.

After a fantastic time in Bombay, the desolate naval base at Jamnagar was most disappointing, especially for a young bachelor like me who had a zest for life.

My only aim was to get out of that dreary place as fast as possible.

That is why, when the first opportunity came, a temporary duty to Bombay, I jumped at the opportunity.

And on my journey from Jamnagar to Bombay, happened this “Oily Tale” which put me on a “Slippery Slope”

Part 1

1000 Hours (10 AM) Sunday 26 October 1980 Navy Base (INS Valsura) Jamnagar

I was all set to proceed on Temporary Duty to Bombay (as Mumbai was known then – I shall refer to Mumbai as Bombay hereinafter since that was the name of the city when this story happened).

The 3-tonner truck arrived at my cabin in the Wardroom (Officers Mess) to pick me up.

“Why have they sent a bloody 3-tonner for an officer? I am going on duty. I thought they would send me a staff car or jeep,” I asked the driver.

“Sir, both staff cars are out – one is with CO who will be going to town with his wife for shopping and lunch – the other staff car has been taken by the Commodore who has come from Delhi – he left early in the morning with his family for pilgrimage to Dwarka and Okha – and the XO has taken the jeep to town – he has gone to see a movie with his family,” the driver said.

I seethed at the feudal culture still prevalent in the services where senior officers treated government resources as if they were their own personal fiefdom.

As an officer proceeding on duty I had the first claim on a staff car – but I would have to ride in a truck since senior officers had commandeered the cars for their personal enjoyment.

I took my small bag and got in beside the driver.

Instead of proceeding to the main gate, the driver diverted the vehicle to the Married Officers Accommodation.

Lieutenant Commander “X” (a “Schoolie” Education Officer) was proceeding on leave to Madras (now called Chennai) with his family and was taking a lift in the transport meant for me.

I got down, let “X” sit with his wife and small daughter in front with the driver, and I sat behind in the 3-tonner.

At the guard room, there were a few sailors and their families, proceeding on leave, and some libertymen, waiting to take a lift in the 3-tonner, to Teen-Batti, near the Jamnagar Railway Station.

In those good old “metre-gauge” days, there were only two trains from Jamnagar:

1. The Saurashtra Mail, which originated at Okha and passed through Jamnagar at 11 AM (1100 Hrs)
2. The Saurashtra Express which originated at Porbandar and passed through Jamnagar at 5 PM (1700 Hrs)

The morning Mail was convenient for those going towards Bombay and the south.

The evening Express was ideal for those going towards Delhi and “up-north” in the through slip coaches via Mehsana which were later attached to the connecting metre-gauge Ahmedabad Delhi Mail.

Of course, both trains had connecting broad gauge trains at Viramgam towards Bombay.

At the guard room, I reported to the Officer of the Day (OOD).

The OOD made an entry in the ship’s log book that I was leaving “ship” and proceeding on Temporary Duty.

Lieutenant Commander “X” had also followed me into the OOD office to make an entry regarding his proceeding on annual leave.

As I started to walk out, the OOD said: “Wait – you have to carry some items to Bombay.”

“Items?” I asked.

“Yes, you have to carry three oil tins,” the OOD said.

“3 oil tins?” I asked.

“Yes, and deliver them to these addresses,” the OOD said.

He gave me a chit with the names of 3 Commodores, their designation and phone numbers and their home addresses in NOFRA, written below each name.

Now, in those good old days, as far as Naval Officers were concerned, Jamnagar was famous for five things:

1. The Unique Colourful Bandhani (tie and dye) Sarees

2. Soft Lohi Blankets-cum-shawls from Digjam Mills

3. White Uniform Buckskin Shoes made to order by a cobbler in the heart of old Jamnagar city (nowadays, buckskin shoes are not permitted, I think)

4. Luscious Rasgullas and lip-smacking Farsan from Shrikhand Samrat near Mandvi Tower

And, last but not the least,

5. Groundnut Oil (which was much cheaper in Saurashtra than in Bombay)

I would have had no problems if someone had requested me to carry the other items.

But there was no way I was going to carry three huge cumbersome 16 Kg tins of groundnut oil.

I came out of the OOD office and saw some duty sailors loading 3 large 16 Kg oil tins into the 3 tonner.

The OOD had also come out of his office and was watching the proceedings.

I looked at the OOD and said: “Sorry, I can’t take the oil tins with me. Please ask the sailors to unload them from the truck.”

The OOD looked at me in disbelief and said: “What? You are going on Ty Duty to Bombay, aren’t you?”

“Sir, I am not going on Ty Duty to deliver those bloody oil tins – the purpose of my Ty Duty is something else,” I said.

“Don’t act smart. The Commanding Officer (CO) desires that you have to carry these oil tins and deliver them to the 3 Commodores whose names are written in the chit I gave you,” the OOD said.

I tried to reason with the OOD: “Sir, please try to understand. I just have one small bag. In Bombay, a Lieutenant does not get transport, so I intend taking Bus No. 123 from Bombay Central to RC Church and walk down to Command Mess. I can’t lug these three huge oil tins around, and I don’t intend hiring porters just to carry these bloody oil tins – and who is going to trans-ship these bulky oil tins from metre-gauge to broad gauge at Viramgam?”

“Look here, I told you once – you don’t try to act smart – the CO has directed that you carry these oil tins. All officers going to Bombay on Ty Duty carry oil tins,” the OOD said.

“Well, I am not going to carry these bloody oil tins for sure,” I said, “and now I have to go – otherwise I will miss my train.”

“Don’t try to take “panga” – I told you that the CO has ordered you to carry these oil tins,” the OOD said.

“Then you can tell him that I am not going to carry these bloody oil tins,” I said firmly.

“If you act funny and disobey orders, they will transfer you out,” the OOD warned me.

This was music to my ears.

So, I said to the OOD: “I would be the happiest person if they transferred me out of this godforsaken place.”

Lieutenant Commander “X” was hearing the argument between me and the OOD.

“X” looked at me and said in a patronizing manner: “Why are you making such a big issue out of this – everyone going on Ty Duty takes some items that senior officers want delivered.”

Bolstered by the support from “X”, who was a Lieutenant Commander, the OOD said, “You will bloody well have to obey the orders of the CO – do you understand?”

I had my doubts whether the CO had actually ordered me to carry the oil tins to Bombay, so I asked the OOD: “Why didn’t the CO tell me personally about the oil tins? I think you are bluffing.”

“Are you accusing me of telling lies?” the OOD said getting angry.

“I didn’t say that,” I said.

“You will not leave the base unless you take those oil tins – do you understand?” the OOD shouted at me.

“Listen, Sir – I told you very clearly that I am not taking those oil tins with me. I am getting late and I will miss my train. If you detain me any further I will not proceed on Ty Duty,” I said firmly.

As I said earlier, I thought that the OOD was bluffing that the CO had ordered me to carry the oil tins.

But it seemed that the CO had indeed done so, because on hearing my refusal, the OOD went all berserk – he picked up the phone, dialled furiously, and then started talking excitedly, about my refusal to carry the oil tins.

I wondered who the OOD was talking to, but the way he was saying “yes sir, yes sir” in an animated manner, it was either the CO or someone senior at the other end of the phone line.

Soon, I heard the OOD mention the name of Lieutenant Commander “X”.

And then, the OOD gave the phone to “X”.

Now, it was “X” saying “yes sir, yes sir” on the phone.

The upshot of the conversation was that now, instead of me, “X” would carry the oil tins to Mumbai.

On reaching Mumbai, “X” would dutifully deliver the 3 oil tins to the 3 Commodores in Bombay, and then he would catch the Dadar – Madras Express in the afternoon and proceed to Madras (Chennai) to enjoy his annual leave.


1200 Hours (12 noon) Sunday 26 October 1980 on board the Okha Viramgam (metre gauge) Saurashtra Mail just departed from Jamnagar Railway Station

I sat in the old style first class compartment (which you see in old black and white Hindi movies) in the metre gauge train which ran from Okha to Viramgam.

The berths were fore-and-aft, the compartment was bright, airy and roomy due to the three large windows on each side alongside the lower berths.

The train had left Jamnagar at 1130 (11:30 AM) and would reach Viramgam at 19:30 (7:30 PM) – covering a distance of roughly 300 kilometers in 8 hours – so you can imagine the slow speed of the train as it chugged along unhurriedly pulled by an archaic steam engine belching smoke and soot as it puffed along.

It was a most boring journey, with hardly any big railway stations, except Rajkot – and for a foodie like me, the only thing available was various kinds of fried “bhajji” (pakoras).

But I had come well stocked – a bottle of Hercules Rum, a “surahi” of drinking water (acquired at Jamnagar station and topped up with cool water from the water cooler), and some boiled eggs, aloo parathas and potato fingers (packed from the Officers Mess).

My co-passengers in the compartment were the “schoolie” Lieutenant Commander “X”, his wife and small 3 year old daughter – and, of course, the three big oil tins, placed strategically at a safe place near the bathroom door and guarded zealously by “X”.

The moment the train started from Jamnagar, I opened the bottle of rum and poured a drink.

In those good old days, passengers were permitted to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes in first class compartments provided other passengers did not object.

There was no question of the “schoolie” Lieutenant Commander “X” objecting, since I had poured him a drink too – though his wife was giving me dirty looks as if I were spoiling her husband.

At the first stop, a small station called Hapa, the Train Conductor appeared asking if we wanted to order lunch at Rajkot.

His eyes lit up the moment he saw the bottle of rum.

I offered him a drink.

He pulled out a large stainless steel glass from his bag, and I poured in a generous tot of rum.

He did not add water to the neat rum, but to my utter shock, drank the neat rum in one gulp – straight “down the hatch”.

“Sir, don’t worry,” the Train Conductor said, his morale high, “railway refreshment room food in Rajkot is not that good – I will get chicken dishes for you from Sher-e-Punjab so you can enjoy your drinks – the train stops for 20 minutes and the hotel is just outside the station.”

Three hours later, at around 3 o’clock, with half a bottle of Rum and generous amounts of tandoori chicken, butter chicken and rotis inside me, I was satiated enough for my afternoon siesta, and the moment I hit the bunk, I fell into deep sleep.

I woke up around 6 o’clock in the evening, and had a cup of refreshing masala tea, at largish station called Surendranagar Junction, where the train had halted for a long time for a crossing.

The moment that train started, I had a shower in the spacious old-style bathroom of the first class compartment, and was ready for the evening action, commencing with a “sundowner”.

It was still one hour to go for Viramgam – there was time for a drink or two.

The “Schoolie” Lieutenant Commander X” and his wife were sitting on the opposite berth with their daughter, looking utterly bored.

The Lieutenant Commander’s eyes lit up the moment he saw me taking out the rum bottle – but his wife gave him such a stern look that he refused my offer of a drink.

I noticed she had been giving me angry looks throughout the journey.

Maybe it was because I had made her husband drink in the afternoon.

Or, maybe, because she was annoyed that her husband was saddled with the three bulky oil tins, thanks to my refusal to carry them.

I think it some frustration was building up in her and she could hold it no longer, so she said to me: “We were thinking of visiting my relatives in Matunga and then catching the Madras Express in the afternoon at Dadar. And now we have to go all the way to Colaba to deliver these oil tins. Our full morning will be wasted. It is all because of you.”

“All because of me?” I protested.

“Yes – you refused to carry the oil tins so my husband is forced to carry them,” she said.

“He could have also refused,” I said.

“It is very well for you to say this – you are a non-bothered type – and you are a junior Lieutenant – but I am in the promotion zone – my Commander’s board is next year – and as it is in the Education Branch there are so less vacancies that it is very difficult to get promoted – so I have to do whatever they tell me,” the “Schoolie” Lieutenant Commander “X” said bitterly to me.

I felt bad for him, but I was not going to be emotionally blackmailed by him or his wife into taking on the burden of carrying and delivering the oil tins.

So I just looked away out of the window at beautiful sight of the setting sun and sipped my “sundowner” rum-paani and nibbled into the “mirchi pakoras” which I had picked up at a tiny station called Lakhtar where the train had halted for two minutes – these “bhajjis’ or pakoras were the only “small eats” available on this rather desolate stretch of railway.

By the time I finished my rum-paani, it was dark, and I could see that we were approaching the marshalling yard of Viramgam Junction, and the train was slowing down.

So I secured my bag and got ready to shift to the broad-gauge Saurashtra Mail which would take us to Bombay.

“X” was hovering around his precious cargo – the 3 large groundnut oil tins.

“Sir, why don’t you just leave the bloody oil tins over here and say you forgot them in the train,” I joked.

“Please keep quiet – you need not worry about the oil tins,” he said angrily.

“To hell with him,” I thought; and I took my bag and got down on the platform.

“X” was haggling with the porters for carrying the 3 oil tins.


2000 Hours (8 PM) Sunday 26 October 1980 on board the 6 UP Viramgam – Bombay (broad gauge) Saurashtra Mail just departed from Viramgam Railway Station

The new broad gauge first class compartment seemed spacious as compared to the ramshackle metre gauge coach.

Once again my companions in the four-berther were the “schoolie” Lieutenant Commander “X” and his wife and small daughter.

In the broad gauge, the 3 oil tins fitted in below the berth where “X”, his wife and daughter were sitting.

I sat on the opposite berth.

I polished off the remains of the bottle of rum.

This time “X” politely declined my offer of a drink, maybe because of the stern looks his wife was giving him whenever he looked longingly at the rum bottle.

By the time I killed the bottle, it was almost 9 PM, and Ahmedabad Railway Station had arrived.

I had a quick dinner of Puri Bhaji on the platform, and then I hit the sack.

I let “X” and his wife take the two bottom berths and slept on the top berth above “X” – the oil tins were on the opposite side below the berth where Mrs. “X” slept with her daughter.

I was in deep sleep when there was a big bang.

Then everything went topsy-turvy.

The compartment had toppled and was lying on its side.

My legs were on top of my head.

I realised that our train had derailed.

Suddenly the lights went off and it was dark.

“X” and his wife were shouting: “What happened? What happened?”

I told “X” and his wife that the train had derailed and they should remain where they were till I got the door open.

Luckily the compartment door was on the upper side of the toppled compartment.

The moment I swung my legs down, I hit oil.

Yes, an oil tin, or all the three oil tins, had burst, and there was oil all over.

Nevertheless, I got down, and tried to pull myself up to the door.

It was a slippery slope and soon I was covered with groundnut oil.

Suddenly, the compartment door was yanked open.

It was the Train Conductor with some people.

They had a torch.

They threw in a blanket and told us to hold it tight.

Then, and one by one, they yanked us out into the corridor – the lady and her daughter, “X” and me, and then we carefully climbed down out of the bogie.

Soon, after a small walk along the railway track towards the rear of the train, we were sitting on a bench on the platform of Miyagam Karjan Railway Station.

I looked at the station clock – it was 2 AM (0200 Hours on 27 October 1980, to be precise).

Talking to people, we came to know that it had been a freak accident.

Some wagons of a goods train coming from the opposite direction had got derailed seconds before our speeding train passed it, and our engine had hit the derailed wagons and gone off the rails, derailing the first few bogies off the track.

Luckily, ours was the last bogie to be derailed – the bogies in front had got badly smashed.

I thanked my stars that I was alive and well.

Suddenly “X” asked me: “Did all the oil tins burst – or only one?”

“I don’t know. I was worried about saving our lives, not about the bloody oil tins,” I said.

“I think we should go and try and get the oil tins,” he said.

“Are you crazy? I just about managed to get our bags out. The bloody train is derailed. The bogie is lying topsy-turvy. It is pitch dark. Sir, please lets thank God that we are safe and sound, and for heaven’s sake please forget about the oil tins,” I said.

“But the CO will be angry if I don’t deliver the tins,” he said.

“Sir, what’s wrong with you? Be happy that you, your wife, your daughter – all of you have narrowly escaped death. You want to go in there again to get those oil tins? Suppose you break your legs, or even smash your head and die? Is it worth it?” I said.

Suddenly his wife interjected and said to her husband: “Yes, yes – it is too dangerous. You don’t go anywhere.”

We spent the whole night at Miyagam Karjan.

At around 3 AM I saw the station master – I told him I was a Defence Officer and showed him my I-Card, and he kindly allowed us to sit in his office, and put a couple of benches for us to lie down.

I woke up at 6 AM, washed up in the Station Master’s bathroom and got ready.

“X” and his family were nowhere to be seen.

I asked the Station Master about them.

“Oh, your companions got up early and must having tea on the platform. A relief train has already arrived from Baroda (Vadodara). They have almost finished removing the derailed wagons from the down track. The moment the down track is cleared of the derailed wagons we will send you in the relief train to Bombay (Mumbai),” the Station Master said.


1130 Hours (1130 AM) Sunday 27 October 1980 on board the Relief Train to Bombay just departed from Miyagam Karjan Railway Station

The railway accident repair team did a spectacular job, and by 1100 Hours, they had cleared the down track.

First, a test engine was sent across the repaired track, and shortly thereafter, our relief train was on its way to Bombay.

As I came to my seat, I saw Mrs “X” and her daughter, but “X” was not there.

“Where is your husband?” I asked Mrs “X”

“He has gone to the brake van?” she said.

“Brake van?” I asked, surprised.

“Don’t you know? He finally went and retrieved those oil tins – two of them are intact. The railway porters were removing luggage from the brake van on the derailed train – he paid them some money and they got out the oil tins and they have put them in the baggage compartment of the brake van of this train. So he has gone to check whether they are secured properly,” she said.

“Is he crazy?” I said, instantly regretting my words.

“I don’t know what will happen now? We will miss our connecting train, Dadar Madras Express...”

“Don’t worry, Ma’am. We should reach Bombay Central latest by around 8 o’clock, maybe even earlier. You can catch the Bombay Madras Mail which leaves around 10 PM from VT. I know someone in Central Railway – I will see to it that you get a berth…”

“But he will insist on delivering the oil tins…”

“You don’t worry about those oil tins, ma’am – I will deliver the oil tins,” I said.


1900 Hours (7 PM) Sunday 27 October 1980 Bombay Central Railway Station

We, Lieutenant Commander “X”, his wife, his daughter, and I, were walking towards the exit of Bombay Central Railway Terminus when a man stopped us.

“Are those your oil tins?” the man asked, pointing to the 2 oil tins being carried by the porter.

“Yes,” I said.

“You have to pay octroi,” he said.

“Octroi?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said, “if you bring anything for sale you have to pay octroi.”

“But the oil is for my personal consumption,” I said, “ and I am a Defence Officer.”

“Oh – then show me the octroi exemption certificate,” he said.

I was in no mood to argue, and the amount wasn’t that much, so I paid up.

“The next time someone asks me to get an oil tin from Jamnagar, considering the porterage and octroi we have paid, I will just give him the difference in price between Mumbai and Jamnagar and tell him to buy the oil tin in Mumbai,” I remarked sarcastically to “X”.

We took a taxi to VT, dropped off “X” and his family, and I proceeded to the Navy Command Mess with the two oil tins.

Luckily, one of the Commodores on the list was posted in Headquarters, where I had go for my work.

The Commodore was not in office, so I told his PA to have two oil tins collected from my cabin in Command Mess – I had instructed my civilian bearer accordingly, so the tins could be collected anytime.

I gave her the list of 3 Commodores and told the PA to request the Commodore to deliver the second oil tin to any one of them.

When I reached back to my cabin in the afternoon, the civilian bearer told me that the two oil tins had been collected.

Disappointed at having lost one day in Mumbai due to the train accident, I caught the 5 Down Saurashtra Mail back to Jamnagar that evening as per my reservation.


One month later, after returning from leave, “X” landed up in my office at Jamnagar.

“You delivered the oil tins?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “Commodore “Z” collected both the oil tins.”

“The canteen officer is asking for money?” he said.

“What money?”

“For the 3 oil tins.”

“Didn’t you tell him we had an accident?”

“Yes. He said he will write off one oil tin – but he wants the money for the other two. Didn’t the Commodore give you money? Did you ask him for it?”

“Well, I didn’t even meet him – and I didn’t even know that I had to ask for the money – in fact, I don’t even know how much the bloody oil tin costs,” I said.

“Then what do we do?”

“Well, tell the canteen officer to ask the CO to write a DO letter.”

“That’s a good idea,” Lieutenant Commander “X” said.

“And Sir – make sure you include the porterage and octroi charges and the taxi fare as well,” I said, tongue-in-cheek.

Copyright © Vikram Karve 
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© vikram karve., all rights reserved.

This story is a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the story are a figment of my imagination. The characters do not exist and are purely imaginary. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright Notice:
No part of this Blog may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical including photocopying or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Blog Author Vikram Karve who holds the copyright.

Copyright © Vikram Karve (all rights reserved)

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