Books, Belts and Berets Tanushree Poddar
RS 295 PP 223
There is an inverse relationship between the high esteem in which soldiers are viewed and the subsistence level of their emoluments.
Recently, after the unveiling of the Sixth Pay Commission's recommendations, India's three service chiefs collectively met the Union Defence Minister to express their unhappiness with the meagre compensation that was in store for the armed forces. Near simultaneously, hundreds of officers put in requests for premature retirement out of disgust for the treatment being meted out to everyone in uniform.
Tanushree Podder's book on the crucible of leadership in the country - the National Defence Academy (NDA) at Khadakvasla, near Pune - is a timely reminder to decision makers of the quality of leaders the country has chosen to decry.
To the military, the NDA is a brand built over the bodies of martyrs that put country before self, every single time. The title, Boots, Belts and Berets, is wholly appropriate to the apolitical nature of the book, dedicated by the author to "all cadets of NDA - past, present and future - the sentinels and pride of our nation".
It is a pity that those who will deny the uniformed fraternity an honourable existence are unlikely to ever read this absorbing account of the making of a warrior, warts and all.
The barely fictionalised account is through the eyes of Nikhil Dutta all of around 16 years of age, with a conservative bent of mind that eschews extremism of any kind.
Nikhil arrives in a state of apprehension as a first term cadet at Pune Railway Station with worldly possessions that are restricted to a black metal trunk and bedding. Dutta is one among dozens of his contemporaries who are all equally nervous about the bullying in store for them, but still bursting with naIve enthusiasm and justifiable pride - for they have survived a severe culling process where four to five of every thousand applicants are selected to enter the hallowed portals of the NDA.
The narrative is based upon a factual background of the NDA - a uniquely Indian concept of not segregating candidates selected for the army, the navy and the air Force - into separate training establishments, but keeping them together in a world-class establishment for the initial three years of training.
From there they take away a unique ethos, a culture, a sublime bonding of the spirit, and a cavalier disregard of lesser mortals that will transcend family, service and tribal loyalties of various hues forever in pursuit of endeavours for the national good.
The book unfolds through the trials and tribulations of a group of four cadets with widely different temperaments, and natural talent drawing sustenance from each other as the brutally rigorous regime of converting raw youth into leaders of substance rolls out.
Crude micro-haircuts meant to destroy notions of individuality, demeaning repetitive punishments, demanding academics, military skills acquired through a harsh and demanding environment where perfection is an expected norm, rigorous physical training swimming, shooting, riding and forced marches with full loads to Shivaji's erstwhile citadel at Sinhgarh is the stuff of this book.
Rampant libidos and fanciftil boastings of sexual conquests, wistful fancies of spending a night in a five star hotel, and pranks played - all give the reader something to readily relate to. All in all, an enthralling narrative of ordinary young men transcending their innate DNA and occasional episodes of human pettiness to emerge progressively into erudite, physically toughened, morally upright young leaders who have created the precious space for many decades for India's billion people to find their way
Birindra Singh Butalia is a retired brigadier