Imagine if your world were to shrink into a steel capsule crammed with unwashed bodies and only stale air to breathe in the monstrous depths of the restless seas?
If the thought of going without a bath for over two months in temperatures of about 55°C makes you queasy, you weren’t cut out for the dangerous art of submarine crewmanship.
But Commander Vinay Kalia is just as comfortable sipping tea in his air-conditioned office in Sena Bhavan, Delhi, as he is biting into a loaf of bread refrigerated for over two months in a submarine.
Submarine service may be a high-risk enterprise, but Kalia wouldn’t trade his job with anyone else’s in this world.
He doesn’t mind sharing the toilet with 40 men or wearing the same soiled vest and lowers for four days. The Dolphin badge — the mark of a submariner — comes at a price.
The Navy never ordered Kalia to the tight confines of a submarine. Serving on these underwater killers is voluntary.
He told HT: “Small things you are so used to on land become a luxury in a submarine. The man on your left and the man on your right become your world. I haven’t regretted my choice... ”
In his 20 years of naval service, Kalia has been the skipper of three German-built HDW Type 209 submarines (Shishumar class) operated by the Navy. The navy’s existing fleet of 16 conventional diesel-electric submarines includes 10 Russian Kilo-class, four German HDW-type and two vintage Foxtrot-class vessels.
Kalia has lived in cramped conditions for most of his career. The 64-metre long HDW type submarine carries 40 men and the navy assigns more than one crewmember to a bed to reduce berthing space (called hot bunking in naval parlance).
Kalia learned to share a bed long before he assumed the command of a submarine and along with it came the ultimate privilege of having a separate cabin. But even for the skipper, a mug of water for morning ablutions is considered luxury.
Ask Kalia if has ever experienced claustrophobia, isolation or frustration spending months underwater and the 40-year-old laughs it off.
“The ones who are unlikely to endure the rigours of submarine service get weeded out during probation. We are combatants whose lives depend on each other...” says Kalia, who schooled in DPS, RK Puram.
Being a submariner is the ultimate test of nerve, the readiness to make any sacrifice to keep the flame of honour burning bright.