Thursday, September 10, 2015

Humor in Uniform – Shanghaied to the Literary Festival

Humor in Uniform at the Pune International Literary Festival 2015

A Spoof

Many years ago – much before I joined the Navy – when I was in school – I read a book called CATCH-22

I am glad I read this inimitable war novel – which marvelously brought out the rather bizarre aspects of military life.

“Catch-22” helped me understand military life – and it saved me from going crazy during my long navy career.

While I was in the Navy – almost every moment – I saw similar characters – and parallel situations – like those in Catch-22.

Life in the military is a crazy affair – universally – and I marvel at the ingenious way in which Joseph Heller has portrayed this “craziness in uniform” in his all-time classic World War II novel “Catch-22”.

Now – even after my retirement – whenever I come across “Faujis” and “Faujans” – I realize that nothing much has changed in the military – and – in fact – things in the “Fauj” are going even crazier day-by-day.

Well – in military parlance – “Fauj” is a generic term for the Military – Army, Navy and Air Force – and hence – a “Fauji” is a Military Man – and a “Faujan” is a Military Wife.

(By the way – it was an Army Wife who introduced me to the term “Faujan”…).

Coming back to “Catch-22” – let me tell you about a hilarious vignette that I witnessed last Sunday at the Pune International Literary Festival 2015 aka PILF2015.

But – before I do that – I shall briefly summon up an amusing anecdote from Chapter 3 of “Catch-22” – which has a remarkable similarity to the incident I am going to describe.

A “pen-pusher” Colonel from Rear-Headquarters comes to a frontline airbase – and the Colonel peremptorily orders Combat Officers to attend USO entertainment shows.

The Military Bureaucracy back home has organized these USO shows to raise the morale of the officers fighting the war.

However – the combat-weary officers are least interested in watching these boring USO shows.

The officers just want to survive the war – complete their required combat missions – and go home in one piece at the end of their tour of duty.

The only thing that will “raise the morale” of these warfighting officers is “orders shipping them home” – not USO entertainment shows.

So – in a “role reversal” – as per directives of higher-ups who have arranged these USO Troupes – the Colonel orders all Officers to attend these USO shows in full strength in order to “boost the morale of the artists” of the USO troupes.

The Colonel assembles all officers and gives them a “pep talk”.

Referring to the USO troupe artists – the Colonel says: “…these people are your guests – they have travelled over three thousand miles to entertain you. How will they feel if nobody wants to go out and watch them? What’s going to happen to their morale? ... I want every one of you who isn’t sick enough to be in a hospital to go to that USO show right now and have a good time, and that’s an order.”

Here – the Colonel was ordering his officers to “enjoy a boring event” – like the USO show – just to boost the morale of the artists.

Ha Ha Ha – what an irony – instead of the entertainers boosting the morale of soldiers – the soldiers are asked to boost the morale of the entertainers.

And yes – in the military – you can be “ordered” to have a “good time”.

Such incidents happened many times during my navy days – when we were ordered to attend events which we were least interested in watching – just to boost the “morale” of those who had come to raise our morale.

It must have been in similar style that military cadets were ordered to go to the literary festival to boost the “morale” of the author who had written a book to boost the morale of the cadets.

As I told you earlier – last weekend I attended the Pune International Literary Festival – a truly delightful event.

On Sunday afternoon – there was a book launch of a “military novel” on cadet life.

The author is an accomplished creative writer – a successful novelist – and – in her earlier days – she was a prolific writer of short fiction – and I loved reading her stories published in many magazines.

Also – the author is a “Faujan”.

So – who better than a “Fauji” General to launch her book.

Oh yes – for the book launch – along with the “Literary” General – there was a “Creative” Police Officer too – who regaled the audience with yarns from his police academy days.

Well – the book launch was at 3 in the afternoon – and we sat eagerly in the hall – waiting for the event to start.

Suddenly – we saw one of the organizers going berserk – a young girl – who frantically asked us to move forward as she screamed crazily:

“We need 300 chairs – the cadets are coming – the cadets are coming – 300 NDA cadets are coming…”

I am sure you know that “NDA” is the acronym for the elite “National Defence Academy” located at Khadakvasla near Pune.

The panicky shouts of the girl:

“NDA Cadets are coming – NDA Cadets are coming…” reminded me of the Hollywood Comedy Film I had seen almost 50 years ago in the 1960’s: “The Russians Are Coming – The Russians Are Coming…”

I was flabbergasted.

NDA Cadets – in a Literary Festival – it was unbelievable.

Why on earth would NDA Cadets want to waste a precious Sunday afternoon at a Literary Festival – when they could enjoy their well-earned “liberty” gallivanting on Main Street or FC Road or “birdwatching” in a Mall or watching a movie in a Multiplex?

NDA Cadets on a Sunday afternoon at a Literary Festival – it was baffling.

There could be two possible explanations for this.

Version 1: (Highly Unlikely)

Nowadays – things have changed from yesteryear – and – NDA is full of “literary” cadets – budding “litterateurs” – who were extremely keen to spend their Sunday afternoon liberty time attending a Literary Festival rather than having a good time hanging out in Pune or sleeping in their cabins.

Version 2: (Most Likely)

The “Literary” General had “desired” that he wanted to see a “house-full” – he wanted the entire hall packed with audience – when he launched the book. So all cadets enjoying their Sunday afternoon siesta in their cabins were rudely woken up – and they were rounded up and “shanghaied” into a bus which brought them straight to the Literary Festival venue in time for the book launch.

A witty young “faujan” sitting next to me commented that cadets were being given a taste of the “fauji” life they were going to face later as officers when they would be on duty 24/7 – even in salubrious peacetime.

We waited with trepidation for the onslaught of cadets – but there were no cadets visible even till 3:15

It seems that punctuality is no longer the hallmark of the defence services.

The organizers waited for some time – and – at 3:20 – they decided to start the event.

However – the “Literary” General and “Faujan” Author wanted the Cadets to be present when they launched the book – so the author spent time in “small talk” about how her “Fauji” husband had inspired her to write about cadet life – so it was quite clear who was the “protagonist” in her novel – maybe the “Fauji” husband wanted vicarious creative fulfilment – and he had asked his accomplished “Faujan” wife to write his “slice of life” story.

Around 15 minutes later – well past 3:30 – the NDA cadets arrived.

When asked why NDA Cadets had arrived more than 30 minutes late – we were told a “Tall Story” that the NDA bus had broken down midway.

Maybe the NDA bus had really broken down – but this was quite unlikely in view of the high standards of vehicle maintenance in the military.

Or – maybe – it had taken considerable time to search and round up “volunteers” to have a “good time” at the literary event – since most cadets must have gone into hiding trying to escape from being “shanghaied” to the literary festival.

This second explanation seems more likely – since – instead of the much touted figure of 300 cadets – there were just around 50 “literary” cadets – who the NDA authorities had finally managed to “capture” and “shanghai” to the literary event.

(It is also possible that some cadets may have escaped when the bus broke down midway on its journey to the literary festival).

The noisy cadets – dressed in the prescribed “mufti” civil uniform – soon settled down – and the book launch began in right earnest – and the book was released from its gift wrapping.

The author spoke about her book – and her earlier one – both stories based on cadet life in the premier military academies – NDA and IMA.

The “Literary” General narrated “memoirs” of his NDA days.

Not to be left behind – the “Creative” Cop harked back to his Police Academy days.

It seemed that these reminiscences certainly struck a chord with the “captive” audience – who were probably “enjoying” similar experiences during cadet training at the academy.

Suddenly – the author saw a “celebrated” novelist sitting in the audience and invited him on stage.

The “celebrated” writer told us that – many years ago – he too had been selected for NDA by the Services Selection Board (SSB) – but was rejected on medical grounds.

He lamented that had he been medically fit – he would have been in “X” course of NDA – and he wondered what his rank would have been today.

A smart young man in the audience stood up and said that he was from the same “X” course – and he informed us that was a Lieutenant Colonel.

The “Literary” General commented to the “Celebrated” Novelist that maybe his getting medically rejected was a “blessing in disguise”.

I wonder what he implied – was he saying that the writer would not have been able to achieve much in the “Fauj” – and that being a published author is much better than being a run-of-the-mill “Fauji”…

The cadets were listening intently – or – at least they were making a pretense of attentiveness – because – when you are a cadet – you even learn to sleep with your eyes wide open.

The author read out interesting excerpts from her novel on cadet life.

Then – there was a quiz for the cadets – and winners were given autographed copies of the book.

And – all of a sudden – the organizers announced that time was up – and the next event was about to begin in the same hall.

And so – the literary event ended.

All’s well that ends well.

I walked down to the lawns to attend another event of interest to “Faujis” – a book reading by a Retired Naval Officer who was the first Indian to circumnavigate the world solo under sail.

Yes – this redoubtable Navy Officer had achieved this awesome maritime conquest of sailing around the globe in a sailboat all alone – solo – and he had written a fascinating account of his adventures on the high seas.

I thought the NDA cadets would be interested in hearing the Navy Veteran narrate his nautical adventures first-hand – especially since the Veteran Naval Officer was an ex-NDA cadet.

But – the NDA cadets were nowhere to be seen.

Most probably – the NDA cadets had rushed to Pune City to enjoy what was left of the liberty.

Or – maybe – the cadets had been “shanghaied” right back into the bus – and transported back to NDA – now that their “Mission Book Launch” was over.

Also – I had expected the “Literary” General to attend the book reading session of his “brother” ex-NDA Navy Officer and listen to his seafaring exploits.

However – I saw him driving off in his “staff car” – maybe – to attend to his more pressing Sunday evening “duties”.

Introspecting of the conspicuous absence of the ex-NDA Cadets and Officers at their fellow ex-NDA Naval Officer’s book reading – and that too on a naval adventure – I wondered what happened to all that “camaraderie” – that ex-NDA officers so often boast about?

Hey – I am digressing.

This story was about military life – “humor in uniform” – about how you are “ordered” to “volunteer” – like the NDA cadets who apparently had been commandeered and transported to the Pune International Literary Festival – “shanghaied” and “shipped” – to the book launch – and instructed to have a “good time”.

In the literary festival – on the one hand – I observed the languid NDA cadets – and in contrast – I looked at the lively college students of the same age group.

And – I realized – that – though the world has moved on ahead – the military is still stuck in the past – as if in an antiquated “time warp” – at least culturally.

I was reminded of many such episodes in my Navy life – when we too were “detailed” to “volunteer” – and I must tell you about them – but not now – maybe some other time – right here – in my blog.

That’s the beauty of military life – you learn to have a “good time” – even when you are “ordered” to do so.

And – if you are thinking of a having life in uniform – do read “Catch-22” – it will save you from going crazy.

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1. This story is a spoof, satire, pure fiction, just for fun and humor, no offence is meant to anyone, so take it with a pinch of salt and have a laugh.
2. All Stories in this Blog are a work of fiction. Events, Places, Settings and Incidents narrated in the stories 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.

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