The preparatory camps were grueling. Felt like prisoners under leash. Hours of non-stop training under the hot sun. RJ was in the Air Wing. With uniforms, beret and shiny black shoes, we moved about like robots tuned to precision at the command of our commander. The part of the skin under the beret and sleeve was in stark contrast to the black colour (sun-tanned or rather sun-burnt) that made up the rest of the exposed areas.
Our barracks were most often School or College Campuses, where classrooms were converted into bedrooms (sans the bed – just sleeping bags!) during vacation time. Wake-up time: 5.00 am. Bed time: 10 pm officially (when lights were switched off), but 12 midnight unofficially. The girls had to wear their hair in the figure of 8 (plaited in two and crisscrossed to form the figure of 8 with a net and many pins to hold it). Thankfully RJ had short hair, cut shorter for the crew-cut look, which meant - less time spent on dressing up.
People from different backgrounds, some didn’t know a thing about hygiene and left the WC unclean after use. The early birds got cleaner loos, which got progressively worse through the day! Sometimes these WCs itself seemed a luxury, coz we had to use trenches (pits dug out, and covered on 4 sides with rexin). The queues for taking a shower were usually long, that some conveniently skipped it, the others took showers en masse, but RJ went first or last to avoid the awkwardness of waiting, skipping or sharing.
The food used to be sticky-yucky upma / kichidi, idly & non-veg sambhar (with worms and what not!), yellow-yellow-dirty-fellow lime rice (even the best of which I hated), rock-like buns (that you could use to chase the dogs guffawing at your plight), rubbery parotta that you could chew-on forever like cud, and such…that RJ preferred to stay hungry most of the time, surviving on bread and jam, biscuits or snacks.
Cherry Blossom or Kiwi black boot polish, a dot of saliva and off we went with brush in hands and a cloth until we could see our mugs on our boots. The Brasso added the sparkle to our brass badges on the beret, belt and shoulder.
For someone who couldn’t stand for 5 minutes without shifting the leg, wriggling the toe, or swooning, RJ made big progress, standing for hours in the scorching hot sun without complaining. Each camp was a challenge. The numbers were dwindling. Only the fittest and the best made it to the final camp.
The cadets (that’s us) were judged on various parameters.
- Minimum height – RJ was 182 cms, the only worry was whether she would fit in with the rest of the not-so-tall contingent.
- Drills – Precision in act (the height in which you raise your leg, the clack of the boot when it hits the ground, the brisk march with just the heels touching the ground unsettling a layer of dust below, the click sound when the palm hits the butt of the rifle, as the parade commander yelled at the top of her voice - Saav-dhaan, Vishh-rram, Bayen mode, Dayine mode, Aage chal, Salaami dega salaami shasth, Baaju shasth….), and coordinated timing (ek-do-theen-ek) for every action
- Being the Parade Commander (PC), Right Marker and Left Marker of the contingent meant straight selection for RD camp. They tried hard to make RJ the PC of the contingent – what with a height, physique and upright posture like hers (ahem!), but in vain. Try as much as they did, one of the superintendents remarked that RJ sounded like she was screaming from 2 kms away and another remarked that RJ needed to get her voice-box tested! So PC was ruled out for RJ :(. Right Marker was reserved for the tallest boy in the contingent and Left Marker for the tallest girl. So Left Marker RJ became, flaunting the red sashay.
- Best Cadet – RJ was one of the Best Cadets chosen and trained for the Best Cadet competition – Written tests (that included GK), Shooting (.22 rifle), Physical tests (drill) etc
- Cultural Competitions – RJ was chosen for National Integration skit (On Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the region we represented) and Western Music
- Fitness – 4 Kms Jogging early in the morning with rifle in one arm; Break for Breakfast; Drill for 2 hours; Break for 10 minutes; Drill until lunch time; Lunch Break; Drill from 4 pm to 6 pm; One hour Break to freshen up and reassemble; Cultural Activities (preparing for competitions) and Best Cadet Training….phew!
Part II coming soon!