A Virat experience

In both a good and a very bad week for the Indian Navy, I cannot help but recall my own night out on a ship as a defence correspondent for a wire service in Bombay.

I had always wanted to sail in a submarine but at at the time that was a strict no-no for anybody but the sailors and officers assigned to that particular vessel. I did get to sail on the INS Virat, though. and I recall that particular adventure was not without its hurdles.

The navy officials were utterly shocked to be faced with having to host a woman aboard their ship. It was the time of a naval review by the Prime Minister and then PM Narasimha Rao was to arrive three days later in the middle of the Arabian Sea to check out India’s naval fleet in all its glory.

My chief reporter assigned me to the job but he soon had defence ministry officials breathing down his neck for that. They hotfooted it to our office and tried to bully him into withdrawing me from the assignment But my then bureau chief was a feminist of sorts and he would not budge. “Either take her aboard or no one at all,” he insisted.

“You want to be the only one not covering the PM review?” asked the Defence PRO.

“I will be asked questions. But then I will make very public the reasons why we were left out,’’ he replied.  ”In a country which has given the world its first woman prime minister, do you dare to say that any woman reporter is unequal to a man on the job?’’

Now that was what clinched the argument for us. The INS Virat had hosted only one woman ever before – Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi, when she spent a night on the ship, was then just the wife of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and created no upsets in protocol.

My simple assignment, though, had become a big deal as messages flew back and forth between naval headquarters in New Delhi and their western command HQ to clear my night out on the ship. Ultimately, I was told, it was the then Admiral who cleared my assignment on the condition that he would have no objections if the Captain of the ship was willing to guarantee my security in an all-male baston.

The only way the Captain could have done that is by giving up his cabin to me – which is what he did with the warning that I must be up and out at the crack of dawn because the cabin would be used by the then Defence Minister (Sharad Pawar) in the morning who would arrive a few hours before the Prime Minsiter, expected at noon. The Captain chivalrously spent the night on the deck with the sailors but I was on that deck even before the bugle was sounded for the reveille the next morning, keeping my promise to make as little difference to the ship’s schedule as possible.

That was one of my most memorable assignments , apart from a similar review many years later for the Hindustan Times when the Indian Navy organised a world-wide fleet review in the Arabian Seas and I sailed on a ship viewing all kinds of vessels from all navies across the world. However, that was a day assignment not requiring a sleep-in on a ship and caused no trouble to the naval authorities because by that time there were many other women defence correspondents on the beat and they could guarantee our safety in numbers.

I once almost drowned in a swimming pool as a child and was always afraid of the sea before I spend the night on INS Virat and I have the Indian Navy to thank for getting me over that fear – there is nothing quite like the sting of salt in your face and the blue-green waters beneath you in endless miles of sea with not a speck of land visible from anywhere at all.

After the Virat adventure, I tried hard to persuade naval authorities to let me in on a submarine but India was then in the nascent stages of fitting out its submarines and, in any case. The generosity of the navy did not extend to that particular risk beneath the waters. I always wondered how it might feel to be in a submarine and see only fish swim past you but I also have a fear of closed spaces and thought my claustrophobia would not be able to take the confinement.

My heart now goes out to all the sailors and officers who died in the submarine fire early this week. I still remember the courtesies that some of their colleagues offered to me when a woman on their ship was yet a novelty. I was never more cossetted, cared for or fussed about in my life, never before had people standing attention when I walked into a particular area where they were gathered. This is the only peace time naval disaster that I can think of and both the navy and the nation hwve indeed suffered irreparable loss. We will take a long time to recover. But for the families of the sailors in the disaster, nothing can ever make good the loss of their near and dear ones.

May their souls rest in peace.

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