I entered the forbidding gates of the Officers Training Academy, Madras (it was Madras then) in the early summer of 1993. Between cracking SSB and joining the academy, I had celebrated with countless calories, both of the solid and liquid variety. I had celebrated with everyone. College mates from St. Stephens, and friends from Hansraj, Ramjas and Hindu. I celebrated with everyone who wanted to celebrate, even if they didn’t have a clue why exactly I was celebrating. The result was a waist of 38 inches, and a bodyweight touching 90 kgs. Well, the army did not remember selecting such a useless lump of lard. So, the instructors at the academy did what they do best. It was a turkey shoot.
And I had a big attitude problem. My father was a very senior government official, and I was from The College. Everyone I had met in life had taken notice of these two things. The Indian Army seemed to me a different kettle of fish. They were not interested in where I had come from. They were focused on where I was going.
I should have seen it coming from a hundred miles, but I did not. It was like walking into a speeding locomotive.
An instructor once had a small conversation with me.
“Does your father respect you?” he asked.
“He loves me but I don’t know about respect, Sir” I responded.
“That’s what you should know. Make him proud”, he said and walked off.
From early morning till late in the night, the Directing Staff at OTA had just one single agenda. And they drove that agenda ruthlessly. Drill, physical fitness, weapons training, tactics, military history, military law; it just went on and on. No respite. No mercy.
Lutyens Delhi does not prepare you for a life of blood and sweat. After a week I started to crack. I desperately wanted to quit. I would walk in a daze, my movements uncoordinated. After the first BPET (5 km full battle load run), I wanted to curl up in a corner and die. I had failed. I failed my first Drill Square Test (DST), and with it any chances of a weekend pass to the city. I failed my PT test. In a nutshell, I had failed every test that OTA had devised.
Three of my platoon mates decided to do something about it. Amardeep Singh Bali, Anand Prakash Sinha and Ajeet Chauhan decided that either we would all swim together or sink together. They were physically fit and mentally robust. While academy is hell for everyone, these three were doing well and passing all tests. They need not have stepped forward to help me. And in OTA where you don’t have the time to remember your own name, these three took it upon themselves to make sure I remembered mine.
In the first four months, they must have carried my pack and my weapon countless times. There were two occasions when the entire platoon was in deep trouble because I messed up. Without exception, each one of them stepped up to help. No one complained. For those of you who do not know, Indian Army training is designed to break you. And then make you. The process of becoming an officer is extremely painful. They change you and they change your thinking. After 6 months you sound like someone else.
Bali, from Jammu, never backed down and took on storms with a smile. Sinha, from Bihar, always cheerful irrespective of the pain being inflicted, and Chauhan (Chow) from Delhi, who made everything seem so effortless that you suspected that he had found a short cut, only to realize that the truth was that he was really tough.
Bali and Sinha are serving Colonels in the Indian Army and posted in Delhi. Chauhan left the army after the Kargil war and now lives in Jakarta. These three helped me with many things, but if I had to choose one I would say, they restored my self-belief. OTA breaks you, if only because of the sheer relentless pace of training. My buddies did not let me break.
I finished my first term with excellent ratings in BPET and Physical Training. I passed the DST, and soon all four of us could be found on weekends at Sagar at Guindy, gorging on butter chicken and then running off to drink beer.
At the end of the first term I weighed 58 kgs and my waist size was 27 inches.
See attached pic…Bali to my left and Sinha on the right.
There are soldiers outside of uniform, too. Sonali Singh and Ankit Sharma are two such soldiers. And they are soldiers to the bone.
It was the first half of July 2016 when I wrote “Open Letter to Burhan Wani”. I wrote it because I could not hold back my anger any longer. Here was a terrorist who was being lionized by the people and the media. The soldier in me felt hurt and humiliated.
48 hours after I posted it on my FB page, I got a message from Sonali introducing herself to me. In a nutshell, she told me that my article was going viral and creating a firestorm. And that this information war needed a different kind of soldier; not one wielding an AK47, but a mouse.
Sonali is an army brat and we had spoken years earlier. And true to her lineage, she took charge immediately. Ankit came aboard soon after. Truth be told, Ankit and I are in awe of Sonali. Her typical WhatsApp message goes something like this “MGA, I need the Balochistan article to go live by 1300 hrs tomorrow”. Who speaks like this outside of the army? Sonali, we had instructors like you in the academy.
Sonali has put me across to people, online news magazines and the entire world of social media.
Ankit is the IT whiz kid. He lives inside the Internet. He takes care of the technical aspects. I don’t even understand half of what he speaks, but I call it “the nerd language”. Here is a typical Ankit Sharma phone call, “Hi Sir, server &*%# tagged you %$#@ hackers @#&% fake Pakistan IDs *&#$ troll &%#@. Got it?”
“No Ankit, I have no clue what you just said”, I respond.
“That’s okay, Sir. Chill. I will take care of it”. Call disconnected. Ankit goes back inside the Internet.
Thank you, Sonali and Ankit. Without you, I would be totally lost. You have done so much. And we have never met.
Three absolute strangers meet over the net, never face to face, and decide that the Indian Army’s story needs telling. The soldier’s voice needs to be heard.
And thats how it all started.
Major Gaurav Arya (Veteran)