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A Phaeton*, a Horse and an Admiral (Rather a Vice Admiral)

by Late Vice Admiral MP Awati, VrC

(From the December 2018 edition)

During a fairly long stint in the Navy, I was sent to New Delhi just once, during 1979-80, for exactly twenty one months as Chief of Personnel, a period in my career which I would rather cast to amnesia. It was a forgettable period in an otherwise happy service in the Navy. New Delhi, during that period in my career, was a city growing and spreading in all directions. But I have deviated from the story I set out to tell, about an Admiral in his self-driven, horse powered phaeton, buggy, if you prefer.

The story is surely symptomatic of how the equine breed continues to be associated with royalty, with the high and the mighty and therefore with prestige and pomp even with a bit of envy in a democratic dispensation. Our esteemed President wishes to dispense with the honorifics preceding his name and be addressed as simply Shriman (Shri, for short). Why not? It is all a part of shedding the vestiges of undemocratic usages.

But let me get on with my story of the horse and the buggy. It happened like this to me, in New Delhi of 1979-80. On April Fools’ Day, I assumed the chair of Chief of Personnel at Naval Headquarters, the very day that Ronnie P became Chief of the Naval Staff following the retirement of Jal Cursetji. I had never served in Delhi before and on hindsight I was not destined to go there again.

Thankfully! The date proved to be ominous for me, the next twenty one months, a tale of misery, deep distrust and near despair, dealing with uncomprehending (deliberately so) bureaucrats, attempting to improve Navy’s human resource management, recruitment and training for a more strident, purposeful Naval force. It was like bashing one’s head against a rock wall. You made no impression except to show a bleeding head.

I came to dislike the place, Delhi, intensely – pompous, insecure and inane, as it appeared to me. After being accosted twice on my early morning walks along its deserted avenues for the watch I normally wore, I gave up walking along the roads and did my walking on the spacious lawns of No 21 Safdarjung Road, our Lutyen’s bungalow at the opposite end of No 1, the PM’s residence. That was to be my undoing one day (I mean No. 1 Safarjung) the following year, which was to bring IG to power, as the reader will discover from the narrative.

Delhi in 1979-80 seemed to me to be a place for lunatics, gadabouts, political, bureaucratic and military who seemed to operate with one aim in view, no two, really; one-upmanship and keeping up with your apparently more successful neighbour. Very fortunately, we could not fall into that

* phaeton = a light, open four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage

trap because our neighbour was AB Vajpai, the Minister for External Affairs until end 1979 and after that an MP in the opposition, at No. 19 Safdarjung Road. We could not have had a more affable neighbourhood. Across the road was a wood, behind which were the polo grounds, Safdarjung Race Course and horses, plenty of them. Horse became the redeeming agent for me through those dismal months of despondency, of intense heat after March and intense cold from December. It was a place of extremes, as it still is, no doubt, a humourless political jungle. Delhi, Shahjehanabad, Indraprastha of the Mahabharat, has been the capital of Bharat that is India longer than one need, count.

It has, through history, not been lucky for those who moved there to make it their capital. The latest movers and shakers in Delhi, by then New Delhi, went thither in 1920 from Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta). In less than thirty years they had to pack up their bags and leave, not only Delhi but India, the Jewel in their monarch’s crown. Some Vaastus have this strange reputation, onerous history. They are not kind to those who occupy them. The present occupants have been there sixty years plus. The saving grace for them may be that they did not go there from somewhere else. They had been tenants there long before they became rulers.

Be that as it may, the horse and the buggy came to my rescue, allowing me to see my dismal situation in perspective. Colonel VP Singh, my old friend, now Commandant of the President’s Body Guard offered both to me, together with a smart Lance Daffadar, to lend the right airs to the mode of transport. “Nobody uses them any longer. At least the animal will be exercised regularly and the buggy will not fall apart through disuse. It is a fine piece of workmanship, well sprung and an excellent drive,” he said. I gratefully accepted the offer of the princely mode of going to my office in Sena Bhavan and began using it almost immediately. I had used this mode of commuting at the National Defence Academy not so long ago.

Every morning I would go clip clopping to my office, with me in the driver’s seat, reins in hand, in my working whites, complete with a VAdm’s car flag in the whip socket, with the Daffadar in his white vardi and red safa, smartly in attendance right behind me. It must have been quite a spectacle, judging from the number of heads which turned to gaze at it, as we passed along Safdarjung Road and the other wide avenues of South Delhi to Sena Bhavan. They must have thought that an apparition from the Raj, now gone some thirty years, had resurrected itself, complete with horse and wagon and a bearded sahib driving it. I used to look forward to that drive and after a while the morning walkers must have got used to it, judging from an occasional wave from some of them. I believe many of them appreciated the return of a bit of colour to an increasingly drab Delhi.

One day, I deliberately drove along Rajaji Marg, past the homes of CNS and COAS and then the British High Commissioner’s residence. Someone out in the grounds in a summer frock waved to me vigorously. I waved back in appreciation. I had a call that morning from Ronnie P who thought that it was just like me to do such an outlandish thing. He was appreciative. That was all that I needed to continue the charade. So I did through 1979. The Daffadar would take the outfit back to PBG until the next morning when he would arrive promptly at 0830, ready to take the General sahib of the Navy to his duty. I have a sneaking feeling that the cavalryman of the 61st enjoyed the drive as much as I did, with those appreciative people all around us. I especially recall the sharp winter mornings. Delhi was then at her best, crisp and business like.

Much work would be done during those winter months and I thought I would request VP to let me have the transport for the homeward journey. Unfortunately that plan broke against the uncertain times I tended to keep in the office clearing my table before home. It had to be the universal road transport of all government functionaries, the trusty Ambassador, in the hands of my trusted Thomas, a local Christian and a most competent driver. Then as suddenly as it had begun, the idyll came to an unexpected end.

In January 1980, IG came back to office and to No1 Safdarjung Road and I, unsuspecting, continued to drive past that address as I had done for the past months. Then one fine, clear and cool morning in February the telephone rang. Ronnie P was at the other end. He said in a matter of fact way, “Manohar, the Prime Minister wished to know who the naval officer is who drives past her residence every morning in a horse buggy, and where does he go? I told her because I know that it is you and that you go to Sena Bhavan to your office. She was amused and wanted to know why he does not use a car like all the others. I wanted to tell her but I stopped short. She evidently does not like you going past her in that horse drawn contraption. So will you please discontinue and get back to your car as of now, please?”

Now that was an order and it implied that I must not go past the PM in the morning. So I changed course and began taking a dog leg along Aurangzeb Road. All went well for a few days and then somewhere short of the round about the PM passed my carriage in her car. She must have noticed because the telephone in my office rang. Ronnie P was on the line. “Manohar”, he almost yelled out the name in his best gunnery voice, “I thought I told you to quit that silly contraption and get into your car. Now please do that forthwith. The Prime Minister does not like you going about the city in a horse and buggy. Please for God’s sake do that. I do not wish to hear from the Prime Minister again.”

I said, “Aye, aye sir.” The horse, the phaeton and the Daffadar were returned to Colonel Sodhi, VP’s successor at PBG with my grateful thanks for those many enjoyable morning rides, accompanied by that wonderful aroma of horse dung! It had been a great interlude. IG brought back a semblance of order and discipline to the country which surely included a return to an accepted and acceptable mode of road transport by an apparently wayward senior naval officer!


Epilogue by Cdr Arun Bhattacharya (Retd)

Those days (1979 – 80s) I happened to be in Naval Headquarters as first Project Officer, Naval Academy Project. Initially the Naval Academy was to come up in Chengalpattu near Madras. This was because there was no place in Cochin to expand the existing Naval Academy there, housed in temporary hutments since 1969.

Having come from the NDA as its Commandant, he had many ideas to share and I was singularly fortunate to have had the privilege to interact with him. A Recce cum Costing Board was convened by Naval Headquarters in 1979. Captain Vijay Prasada was the President and I the Secretary; the then Officer in charge Naval Academy, and reps from E-in-C’s Branch, CE South Zone et al as members. Both Captain Prasada and I had immediately before visited the NDA Khadakvasla and the AFA Dundigal and got many ideas.

The board proceedings actually became a thick project report and burning the midnight oil was written in long hand by yours truly with Captain Prasada sharing thoughts. Many facilities were recommended unheard of in the Navy (including horse riding!) and its original budget of 6 crores jumped to 26. So naturally there was a furore all round, but I recall with nostalgia, Awati sir complimenting our efforts wrote on the file among others something to this effect.

“We should be Mughal in grandeur and the main administrative block should be built using the black Mahabalipuram stone.” However, due to a political crossfire between the states of Kerala which cried hoarse that the Naval Academy should not be shifted out of Kerala and Tamil Nadu which offered all the land, and the Centre; the original decision of Madras was reversed. A fresh board was appointed with then Rear Admiral KK Nayyar as the President and many other senior naval luminaries to examine sites offered by the Kerala government and yours truly was again the Secretary.

We traveled all over Kerala by road, from South to the North, and saw all the sites and Ezhimala was considered the best. The rest as they say is history, with the Academy being inaugurated by the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2009 – completed at an astronomical cost compared to its original humble budgetary origins.

Vice Admiral  Manohar Prahlad Awati died in his native village Vinchurni in Satara district Maharashtra on 04 Nov 2018. He was 91. Admiral Awati was known as the father of Indian Navy’s circumnavigation adventures.Cdr Arun Bhattacharya shared this article of Adm Awati with us. He can be reached at Email: babanamkevalam@rocketmail.com