Street lights shone on the well paved roads with red and white bricks laid alternately on the sides. Even the numerous trees blowing in the wind had been planted in neat columns, and plain white buildings were uniformly placed in neat rows. It was a massive area but they couldn’t see very far because the horizon had blended into the dark night, and a quietness hung in the air.
‘God, I’ve never seen such a neat place.’
The girl turned to her companion walking beside her. Both were wheeling suitcases. The OTI van had dropped them both at the towering gates of the Officers Training Academy, Chennai, and they had been instructed to report to F block. It was only three in the morning and a starry sky hovered above.
“I never knew something like this existed in Chennai. You only have to step out of the gates to be back in the crowded streets, dust and dirt of the city.” The girl spoke knowingly, clearly a localite. “Passing the exams was hard enough, and I nearly failed the physical assessment. But here we are, to be grueled for another ten months of training.”
‘My dad’s in the army so I’ve been hearing training horror stories for the past five weeks now comma’ replied the girl beside her, her necklace glittering in the light.
The other raised her eyebrows, ‘That chain around your neck, are you a (you’re delete) Christian?’
The girl held out the silver chain with a tiny holy cross hanging on it.
‘Not exactly. Syrian Christian, I’m here from Pune. Angela.’
The other understood her foreign name and nodded. ‘I’m Angili.’
The two stared at each other for a moment and then started laughing. ‘Nice name,’ Angela smiled. ‘I bet they’ll confuse us on the register.’
‘I doubt they’ll care about our names with all the training we have to do.’ Angili shrugged. ‘You’ve already made your sacrifice.’
She eyed Angela’s cropped curly hair, she had a lighter tone than most South Indians.
‘And you’ve kept yours. No matter, we’ll be sure to lose more weight this year than hair comma’ said Angela and her new friend chuckled.
The building was here, a large three story painted white with a black OTI sign fixed on it, letters embossed in gold. They dragged their cases up the steps and reached the first floor full stop (, delete) Angela was barely able to keep awake. The train journey had been tiring.
Upstairs, both girls looked around in surprise. People were stepping out from their quarters and rushing to and fro around the floor, some carrying towels and soaps, others toothbrushes and hairbrushes, all streaming into the main bathroom around the corner.
‘What’s this?’ Angela blurted aloud. ‘It’s only 3:30, it can’t be time yet.’
‘I assure you cadet, it certainly is the time comma’ an authoritative female voice echoed from behind.
Both girls spun around and a bunch of others halted to watch the scene. A short stout lady in white shirt and black pants, inevitably a senior instructor, stared at them menacingly. She had short straight hair and her tone was cocoa semi-colon (, delete) beady black eyes bore into the two of them.
Angili had frozen still beside her, so Angela spoke out. ‘Mam, both of us are new cadets and we just arrived. I can-‘ The instructor cut her off.
‘New?’ she bellowed, her eyes flashing. ‘All new cadets have already arrived. What are you doing here ten days late?’
Despite the person shivering beside her, Angela calmly replied comma (. delete) ‘Our exams results came late and therefore we were delayed, mam. I was just informed the day before and I took the first train here.’
She didn’t know whether the same was true for Angili but she nevertheless kept a straight face.
‘Right, late results,’ the instructor paced irritably. ‘Not my problem. You will receive no introduction, try to keep up with the other girls today. You won’t be permitted to rest now as all cadets have to clear the washrooms by 4:30, so you’d better get started.’ Angela opened her mouth, incredulous. ‘Also, take that wristwatch off.’
This time Angela did start speaking indignantly.
‘But mam, the watch is necessary to get to classes on time. We’re already not allowed any electronic devices during training; I need it.’
Other girls watched in silent horror as Angela went on, the entire room had stopped now to watch the scene. The instructor was quiet as all eyes bore on her, and her lips quivered. She stared at Angela for a few moments and then turned away, walking downstairs.
Just as she got out of earshot, noise broke out through the floor as girls gathered around Angela.
‘She’s going to skin you! How could you say that?’ someone was saying.
‘Watch out new girl, that was Instructor Patel. She’s the hardest one on the block.’
‘No one’s ever countered an instructor before,’ another said admiringly. ‘But she’s going to take revenge mind you.’
More girls gathered as inquisitive latecomers were struggling to know the news. ‘What happened? What happened?’
Angela fought her way through the crowd and followed Angili who had managed to wheel both their cases and went in a room, shutting the door behind the confused crowd.
‘This is my room.’ Angili looked up and down. It was a 10 by 10 foot room with a wooden chair and table, small closet and a single bed by the side.It was the mirror image of most other quarters.
‘Your room’s just around the corner but as it’s four already, we better get moving comma,’ she said, bundling up her towel while Angela opened her case.
Before they stepped out of the door, Angili stopped her. ‘I know what you did wasn’t wrong Angela,’ she said sincerely. ‘But just in case, I think you better leave your wristwatch here.’
No one gathered around her in the washroom now, though many girls were giving her side glances. It was a huge area; dozens of showers were lined side by side with barriers in between of course, though rumor had it there weren’t any in men’s training.
Another row of washrooms lay on the other end while six mirrors were fixed on the main pillar of the huge washroom, sinks wet with water pouring over, gleaming in the bright light as tube lights blazed down from the ceilings. Angela patiently waited her turn behind the mirror and pulled out her eyeliner from her pocket.
Another girl sneered beside her. ‘Gosh, new girl, you don’t know any of the rules, do you? Do you see anyone else putting makeup over here? No? So-‘ She plucked the small brown pencil from Angela’s fingers and tossed it in the bin.
‘I just saved your life.’
Already beset with the instructor’s promise for revenge, Angela for once chose to keep her mouth shut.
The sun was bearing down on the wide field but not a sound broke the silence which had settled heavily. Suddenly a loud command resounded and the whole contingent on the tracks turned straight, gazing up and ahead. Sweat was pouring down into her eyes but Angela didn’t dare wipe it off.
After an hour long P.T. exercise, the perpirating cadets were granted fifteen minutes to change to their formal khaki uniform and run back to the tracks. The whole process carried on for another half hour semi-colon (, delete) a slight movement by one of the girls and the entire contingent was set on their knees, doing front rolls and back rolls.
The next hour was devoted to showering and afterwards eating breakfast at the mess, though Angela utilized most of that time sleeping in a discreet corner. She would regret it when the pangs of hunger would commence later on, but lunch was another five hours away.
They were dispatched to classrooms, proper school classrooms with wooden desks and chairs, even a blackboard was fixed front. Back in school when she’d had to study so hard to leave it in the first place, Angela thought.
They studied about the army, how it was segregated into portions and divisions, its history maps of the country were pasted on the walls, certain army areas marked on the paper.
Again she found it hard to concentrate, even in the study hour which happened later after lunch. It wasn’t that she was stupid, Angela was already doing all she could to keep her eyes open.
Between her weariness, she noticed small things here and there. The thunderous call which announced new classes and intervals, the clean corridors and similar uniforms of them all. By the time the clock ticked 4:30, most of them were called out for extra training. Just a week into OTI, nearly everyone needed coaching except a few chosen ones. Afterwards, a games period took place. Darkness slowly crept over the sunset as the moon spread its shimmering garment around the sky.
For the fifth time of the day, the officers in training changed into their formal dinner attire. It was a collared white shirt and black trousers with leather shoes and a red tie, hair had to be put up as usual, though those with cropped hair were saved of the trouble with hairpins.
Angela had a faint idea what would happen to the person whose dress was un-ironed and shoes dusty. It was not pleasant.
This time she did eat and took three servings, though shoveling food was forbidden. Dinner etiquette demanded the silver cutlery to be crossed over each other on the porcelain plates when food was unfinished and the spoon and fork kept straight when it was done.
However a ‘finished’ plate required the officers to do everything except lick the dish clean. Any food left uneaten wouldn’t be tolerated.
It was half past nine by the time they were dispatched back to their quarters. Angela trudged up the steps and entered her room. There was a throng outside as girls filtered into their separate quarters, and a tired buzz reverberated in the air.
Suddenly, a loud voice cut through the air. ‘Attention! All cadets are to report to Instructor Patel immediately.’ The speaker repeated the announcement once or twice and then stopped, probably rushing to report to Instructor Patel’s quarters herself. Angela warily stepped out and joined the crowd already retreating downstairs.
A line had formed in the courtyard downstairs outside Patel’s door. Angela stood in the second row and waited. All lights were on to keep the building illuminated, and silence fell as the door creaked open. Instructor Patel stepped out, her eyes narrowed.
‘You,’ she boomed, thrusting a finger in Angela’s direction. ‘Step out.’
She did, feeling the weight of numerous eyes on her.
‘As most of you witnessed this morning,’ Patel spat, ‘this cadet had shown ill behavior. On account of your course mate’s conduct,’ her voice lowered slightly comma
‘You all must do the a drill of fifty back and front rolls followed by your standard drill. Then a set of a hundred sit-ups.’ A groan escaped from the lines.
‘Without breaks and now.’
Angela stood dumbfounded but quickly jumped back in line as people behind her moved to make space, and begin.
The air was sticky and their white shirts were soaked in sweat as they bent forward and back, sometimes squatting, sometimes pushing, but never uttering a word. Then the instructor lectured them on ethics for what felt like another two hours and when she finally retreated and the door closed behind her, they all relaxed and began to move upstairs.
Angela braced herself but to her amazement, nothing happened. No snide comments or dirty looks, in fact she had quite expected to be beaten up after this. But they simply went back up tiredly, ignoring her as if she was just another course mate. For some reason, this made Angela feel worse.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ someone said behind her as she spun around.
It was the same girl who’d thrown her eyeliner in the bin that morning. ‘This kind of thing happens every day, though today was a bit harsh I’ll agree.’
‘You really irked her. But it doesn’t matter.’ She put her arm around Angela. ‘Today it was you, tomorrow it could be me. Anyone of us.’
By the time Angela reached her quarters, it felt like the end of a week. She switched on the fan and collapsed on the bed. Hardly it seemed like a few minutes had passed when a shout rang through the floor.
‘All cadets are to clear the washrooms by 4:30….’
This story stands out in my mind because of the experiences of my own father (Col ML Sharma) as a junior officer, some exasperation and fun.
Though this is one of my slightly amateurish works, I hope you liked this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Do show some love and share this if it reminds you of memories.
I’d love to hear from you!.