A warship, or a naval establishment for that matter, encompasses a space of great activity – administrative, operational, technical, social and the routine. Humour too comes along in small doses to relieve the drudgery of the daily routine: as a welcome respite to some, as an unintended insult to others. The episodes being narrated here are based on an actual real time environment, though the possibility of a few of the punch lines being the product of a fertile imagination should not be ruled out entirely. The primary objective of the article, and others to follow (hopefully) is merely to revel in the lighter side of life. No offence is meant and any taken by anyone is regretted in advance, being purely incidental, as the stock phrase goes.
Cadets of our time may fondly recall that for the first week or two of our sojourn at the Pakistan Naval Academy, all we ever wore was what passed off as a PT Kit, featuring white shorts that were required to be precisely 2 inches above the knee. Just when we were beginning to wonder whether we had joined some sort of a sporting encampment, standard issue uniforms began trickling in, in kilos; the weight only mattered, the size obviously didn’t. The only uniform the Divisional Officer as well as the Divisional Cadet Captain were particular about was the ceremonial No 1. A mid-termer cadet was hence invariably detailed to ensure we got our trial runs right. While I was trying out mine, he looked at me obliquely and asked brusquely, “Is it okay?” “The tunic’s all right” I said demurely, “but the trouser’s a bit loose around the armpits.” I spent the better part of the next hour doubling around the parade ground, while muttering sotto voce “Stupid seniors. No sense of humour”.
The arrival of the French Naval Ship Jeanne D’Arc at Karachi in early 1972 was a pretty exciting event for us cadets of the Pakistan Naval Academy at least: it gave us our first whiff of the high life promised to us through newspaper ads which had enticed most of us to join the Navy in the first place. The primary reason why we cadets were invited to all the social events associated with the ship’s visit was because the ship was hosting a large contingent of French naval cadets on board. Heady by far to me than the grand reception by the French Consulate was my chance encounter with the C-in-C of the Pakistan Navy. The C-in-C was kind and gracious, a truly inspirational personality who had taken over the reins of the Navy soon after the 1971 debacle and taken up the challenge to restore it’s morale to the pre-war level. The Admiral introduced me to his two companions, both senior-ranking officers of the Navy. “It’s a great honour, sir”, I gushed deferentially, “to be in the company of three real Admirals”. “As a matter of fact, young man” the C-in-C corrected me, “I’m a Vice now”.
While borne on board PNS BABUR as a midshipman, it was discomforting for me to note that the most frequent of calls piped on the ship’s broadcast was for a certain gentleman topass by the name of Pervez Masih to proceed to wherever he was needed. All such announcements were invariably met with chuckles and sly comments from those around me. Had the said gentleman held a slightly higher stature in life, I had the feeling that he would probably have been designated an Ambassador-at-large within the royal precincts of the stately ship. It so happened one fine fateful day that I was on the bridge when a call for the same gentleman to rush to the bridge was broadcast. In a bid to preempt the smiles and stifle the chuckles, I said mock-seriously, “Don’t they know I’m already here?” The First Lieutenant, who was within earshot and was not exactly known to be even remotely partial to humour in uniform, commented sardonically, “The call wasn’t for you; you are not that important.” “That, sir”, I responded, stretching to my full six feet minus, “remains to be decided”. The First Lieutenant surprisingly let this pass. Me and my inflated ego, I reflected to myself later, after all, what conceivable chance did I stand against a roving healer.
The ship was not exactly renowned at the time for its sharp shooting skills. On one occasion though, when the shots fired from it’s 5.25” main armament spectacularly straddled the towed target, I sidled up to the Gunnery Officer to congratulate him. “Good shooting, sir,” I said, “I think you broke the target”. “I hope to God I didn’t,” he replied acidly,” or they’ll make me pay for it through my bloody nose.”
Being the flagship of FOFPAK (as the Fleet Commander was then known) as well as a training platform, the BABUR of that time was an exciting place to be in. For a midshipman on board, there were both pluses and minuses. The plus point was the comradeship that developed in the gunroom, owing to the presence of so many under-training officers on board, with each being on the receiving side of the concept of collective punishment. The minus point was that a midshipman to many was just cannon fodder and was so low down the hierarchical order that he considered himself lucky if he found standing room on the bridge (during evolutions like entering/leaving harbour in particular). It is said that FOFPAK once expressed interest in a cup of tea; the order kept getting passed down by word of mouth till it literally reached the lowest rung of the hierarchical ladder, where the Bridge Messenger was comfortably poised, right beside the Admiral’s pantry. How the cup of tea managed to make it’s way to FOFPAK had to be seen to be imagined.
During the ship’s cruise to the Gulf, the ship was even more jam-packed than usual. A table tennis tournament was organized in the gunroom to relieve the monotony of the passage. During the preliminary rounds, which were witnessed by FOFPAK also, I was matched with a member of the Fleet Staff. My victory celebration was short-lived, as FOFPAKs casual remark on the encounter took the wind out of my sails: “I hope he knows who he has beaten”.
As part of their learning curve, midshipmen on board BABUR were required to regularly undertake various types of watches at sea, which included those in the Engine Room and the Boiler Room. The plus point in these latter watches was that the seasickness factor was exceedingly low owing to the relative stability so low down in the ship. The heat and the noise graph though shot up to epic proportions. During one such watch in the Engine Room, the Ship’s Senior Engineer, who also appeared to be on watch, beckoned me to come closer. “I’ll make you an offer,” he said, his face inscrutable as ever. “If you tell me a good joke and I laugh, I’ll relieve you from the watch an hour earlier. But if you don’t make me laugh, you would spend the rest of the watch in the hottest place in the Engine Room. I hope you know where it is.” I nodded. I narrated the one about the leaning Tower of Pisa saying to Big Ben: “If you have the time, I have the inclination” as a warm-up and then proceeded to narrate what I thought was a really good Reader’s Digest style joke. “I didn’t even smile”, he said. So off I went to the cosy corner. After some time, I worked up the courage to approach him again to say, “Sir, I have a really good one for you this time” and proceeded to narrate the following joke:
Beti (Baap se): Abbaji, Atta Khatam ho gaya hai.
Baap (Beti se): To beti, paratha bana lo!
“At least I smiled”, he said. And ‘thereby hangs a tale’: the long and short of how I got an half hour respite from an Engine Room watch.
Amongst these drab surroundings,
The SEO sips hot brew;
He may not enjoy his watch
But he sure has a job to do.
Note: This was published in the January 2012 issue of the ‘Navy News’.