AN EXTRA BATSMAN
By Commodore G Prakash, NM, Retired
AN EXTRA BATSMAN
By Commodore G Prakash, NM, Retired
My eyes lit up as I spotted him. Even my step developed a spring.
He was one of those seniors one was proud to call an Admiral. Many never qualified for that. Even the sight of him was uplifting.
He sat alone at a table for four at the edge of the grassy area next to the cemented walk way by the sea. His was the table closest to the water. From his seat he could watch little waves as they gently collapsed on to the vast outcrop of dark rock around Colaba Point.
Though it was only early evening and the sun promised to be around for another half hour, he was already dressed for formal dining. Full sleeved shirt, cuff links and all. He appeared to be waiting for no one except the waiter who would fetch him his first drink. Probably the first drink for anyone that evening at the United Services Club. He was setting himself up for a long day by the sea.
I cheerfully wished him a good evening as I passed him at hardly five metres. But he didn’t react. In fact he didn’t even see me. His eyes appeared to be focused on the far horizon, shutting out the steady stream of people who passed by him on their evening seaside walk.
I wasn’t disappointed. He was entitled to his solitude.
We had got acquainted ten years before that. He, a Commodore and I, a Lieutenant Commander. We both were at the same Command Headquarters. He, a top functionary and I, probably the junior most. Headquarters rarely have junior Officers and the juniors who end up there most often feel like kindergarten students among post graduates.
Tall and majestic in uniform, he walked the narrow, tile roofed corridors of power at the Headquarters, exuding competence. He had no airs. His subordinates loved to be in his presence. They would want to work ever harder for this genuine leader.
He was not the usual Senior Officer. He was considerate and approachable. Departments, branches and ranks didn’t matter to him. He engaged all. Anyone could walk into his office and present a problem. A cup of tea and a couple of solutions were assured.
As a leader, he had one of the best tools that effective leaders can do with. Stories. A vast treasure trove of stories. Not just stories. He had a wonderful way to recount them and a great sense of timing too. While accompanying the big boss on a trip to a large Naval unit that lay far away from habitation, he reminisced about his days as a young Lieutenant at that Base. I was sitting next to him on a light green painted bench in a rickety Indian Air Force AN 32 aircraft, whose noise made it impossible to hear even one’s own thoughts.
Leaning into my ear, he told me how he, a pioneer at the Base we were headed for, while out on a late evening jog was once forced by sudden rain to take refuge in a cement pillbox meant for the sentry at the main gate. In the dark, he sensed another being in the pillbox. Assuming it to be the sentry, he chided him for not wishing him. Lack of any response made him angry. As his eyes slowly began to see in the darkness, he discovered that he had chided a big black bear. As he fled for his life, he promised to himself that he will evaluate situations better before reacting to them. The tall Senior Officer was suddenly a normal human being for me. Goodness gracious, he was once a Lieutenant! Can you believe it? And he was brash too! Oh wait! So was I. A Lieutenant and brash too. A strange confidence tinged with the colours of hope suddenly lit up my path ahead.
More tales flowed. It seems his height and stately demeanour had once brought him trouble. He recounted how these attributes, which humans tend to look up to, and grudge in others, could turn out to be millstones around the neck. Once on a trip to Europe from India on an Israeli Airline, Israeli Commandos stormed in and accosted him as the aircraft made a stop at Tel Aviv. He was soon taken out of the plane with the kind of ‘softness’ characteristic of fierce Commandos. The Israeli airline crew, trained to spot potential enemies, had mistaken him for some Arab adversary whom he resembled and had alerted people on ground. As he recounted how it took several hours of serious high level intervention from New Delhi to start receiving friendly treatment and ultimately freedom, I was suddenly glad about my unimpressive height and unmistakable Malayali appearance.
As months went by, I realised why he had told me stories on that trip. I was still new to the Headquarters and hence guarded in my interaction with Senior Officers. He had sensed it. It was important to make every member of the team comfortable with the other members of the team. The ease with which I functioned on that trip was the fruit of his efforts.
He was different in other ways too. Every walk of life has its own set of main stream and ancillary streams. Life is perceived to be a bit easier for the main stream and they are perceived to get a major share of the privileges too. But these are only perceptions. There are also milestone qualifications and appointments associated with every stream. Unfortunately, everyone isn’t lucky to get all these. This manifests most starkly in the Armed Forces. A sort of ‘I was here, so I am entitled to get there next’ kind of a delusion. But things don’t often turn out that way. People assume their future based on their present. But later, as the present becomes the past in the future, many assumptions of the past fail. What got one some place today, need not get one some other place tomorrow.
He was from the main stream. But he didn’t have several important career qualifications and some ‘illustrious’ appointments. But that didn’t come in his way. He went on to climb in rank and occupy chairs the conventional world didn’t find logical. He bucked many trends. Someone somewhere was acknowledging true merit. It was a beacon of hope for many. Something that reinforces faith in the ‘system’.
I knew why he was there by the sea that evening. He had missed a chance to have a much deserved third star added to his shoulder. And that, despite having even done a job that the Navy had once highlighted to a court, as a prerequisite for a third star.
There was nothing that I could do. No. May be there was something I could do.
I rushed back home and showered. Dressed in formals, I headed for the club.
Joining him was easy. He was glad to have company. Those who crave company often signal a quest for loneliness. It is for genuine well wishers to see through the charade. If nothing else, it is good to remember, that only friends can share silence.
We made small talk easily. Soon, brightened by my first drink and fortified by my second, I popped the tough question.
How do you feel sir?
How do I feel what?
Er, you know it sir, I mean, about your promotion.
He looked at me benignly. An ever blooming smile made his naturally pleasant face as radiant as the full moon that lit up the night. Then he spoke. It was an ace that I could keep, the way Kenny Rogers said it, in The Gambler.
You see GP, when Sourav Ganguly forms his eleven, he doesn’t take eleven batsmen. He also needs bowlers, fielders, a wicket keeper. He needs people who can throw from far, people who can catch well, people who can sprint, people who can dive. He even needs people who can argue, advice, and may be even suggest a crooked idea or even cheat a bit. All this, for winning the game. That is what matters.
He paused for breath. Then he picked up his drink, and before taking a sip, with exquisite poise he said, ‘when the Chief picked his team, may be I was an extra batsman’.
For me, he grew a few more feet tall that night.