The War Beneath
Copyright© 2014 Krystal 3C Studio
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Cover design: Krystal 3C Studio
Editor: Vemuganti Deekshith
This is presented as a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Dedicated to all the soldiers guarding Indian borders and coastal areas.
Dedicated to my mom.
“You will readily understand my mental condition as I stand on the threshold of what the man-in-the-street would call a promising career. There is much to be said favor of such a service. It solves once for all what is paramount problem for each of us — the problem of bread and butter. One has not to go face life with risk or uncertainty as to success or failure. But for a man of my temperament who has been feeding on ideas which might be called eccentric—the line of least resistance is not the best to follow. Life loses half its interest if there is no struggle — if there are no risks to be taken. The uncertainties of life are not appalling to one who has not, at heart, worldly ambitions. Moreover, it is not possible to serve one's country in the best and fullest manner if one is chained to the Civil Service. In short, national and spiritual aspirations are not compatible with obedience to Civil Service Examinations.”
- 22 SEPTEMBER - 1920, SUBHASH CHANDRA BOSE
Praise for- Blue Fish
“Such a great book. Well written, thrilling, touching and more. This book makes me proud to be an Indian and grateful for the service of our warriors.” –Kamala Deepa (Journalist)
“You feel like you are fighting along the men of Blue Fish in this wonderfully written book about the war in the Bay of Bengal.” –Shivam Rao (Architect)
“One of the few books I’ve read that when finished, I’m left speechless.” –Kirthi Reddy (Fashion Designer)
“Very good book. Gives a great insight into what the forgotten war was really like. A must read that lays bare the problems faced by the serving officers.” –Captain Venkatesh (Ex Army Officer)
“Absolutely amazing story of courage and heroism! This book makes you appreciate men in service. Great story, great detail, what a war.” –Harika Apporva (IT Consultant)CHAPTERS
THE BURNING SHIP
THE FOUR OF US
LOST IN OBLIVION
I SEE HER
THE PROMISETHE VERGE
Millions of innocent people are being killed and raped in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) by the military forces of West Pakistan (now Pakistan).
Eventually, the government of India steps in to protect the tormented Indians living in East Pakistan by sending military troops and rescue forces.
This irks the Pakistani government and they issue a press statement claiming that the Indian government is unnecessarily intruding in their political situation, and threaten to attack India if they do not pull back their rescue forces from East Pakistan.
However, the Prime Minister of India dismisses Pakistan’s statement, and makes a retaliatory statement supporting all the Indians living in East Pakistan irrespective of circumstances.THE LETTER
2011, May 28th, RAICHUR, INDIA
I am dead. If I were alive, I’d turn 70 in four days. They placed my body in my courtyard, and in a few minutes I will be reduced to ashes, and soon immersed in the Ganges.
Having been a school teacher all these years in this rural village, it presented me a way to live a false life, concealing my true identity from others. The rain beats down on my corpse, while my grieving students – students I taught until my dying day - watch. I think about everything that took place 40 years ago. I wonder how India and her children would’ve reacted if our ‘heroic act’ had ever seen the light of day. The act I actively participated in as the Executive Officer of the Indian Naval Service Arjun Rathode.
My life would have been on a different plane had I not taken the oath, 40 years ago. I wouldn't have been in this isolated village in the disguise of a teacher. I wouldn't have had to wait 40 painfully anticipatory years not posting the letter which belonged to somebody else. Maybe I was the only one to look forward to his own death, only to be able to fulfill a nobler task.
But today as I lie here dead, the letter will find its way to its real destination. Many questions will be answered, and new questions will arise. My granddaughter will fulfill my last wish, the wish which has haunted me all these years
My granddaughter Anju is 28 years old, and recently married a nice man called Ayush. I think about this, while I watch Anju hold the letter between her fingers, standing at her door, waiting for Ayush. She hands over the letter to him upon his approach and that takes him by a surprise.
“What is it Anju?”
“This is grandfather's last wish, post this letter today itself.”
“Last wish! What is this?”
Anju doesn’t know what the letter contains, or even its intended recipient. All she knows is the address it is to be sent to.
Anju moves closer to Ayush.
“I don't know,” she said.
“Do you want to read it?”
“No, just post this.”
My soul follows Ayush, and the letter in his hand, to the post office. I can’t help but recollect the timeline of events that have let to this very moment. It was written almost 40 years ago by a Chief Engineering Officer of the Indian Naval Service, Prathap, right before death cradled him in his unforgiving arms.
The letter which had been in my trunk for 40 years finally feels a gust of air. Ayush sits on his cycle, and travels over the muddy road, crosses the bridge and makes his way towards Raichur’s post office.
I feel relieved as the letter reaches the post box. Ayush drops the letter in through the slit, which marks the beginning of its journey. It bears an untold secret, the story of an unsung hero which deserved to see the light of day.OPERATION SEA-SIGHT
1971, NOVEMBER 17th, 0100 hours, VISHAKAPATNAM, NAVY HEAD QUARTERS
The situation across the border had been volatile for a few days now. War was just around the corner. I had a feeling that a confidential meeting like this was bound to take place.
The Commanding Officer Sharma, and the Administrative Officer Nath were concentrating on the Indian map. Six people in the hall including the Admiral, and the Rear Admiral were listening as one of the instructor briefed them about the plan. I was the youngest officer in the room.
“500 kilometres away from Vishakhapatnam port; here at 1200east, securing 1200 kilometres down till 300south is our agenda,” the instructor briefed.
A briefing of this kind was not uncommon for anyone in the Navy, but what followed was a matter of concern.
Gesturing with his cane, the instructor said, ‘There’s a possibility that the reports we have are a hoax, but we are not one for taking chances. The enemy could’ve started from Karachi towards the Arabian Sea yesterday. Our patrols in the area are on high alert.”
“What are my orders?” spoke up Commanding Officer Sharma.
The Admiral replied, “You need to secure our eastern coastal area, the Bay of Bengal.”
Pointing the area out on the map, he concluded, “Your operation is passive. You have to report any enemy activity ranging from East 860to 950and North 190to 200.”
“Considering how chaotic the situation is currently with the bifurcation of Pakistan, our coastal line is in grave danger. We must be on alert for any kind of assault,” said the Admiral.
"Sir, why is this operation passive? If the enemy is planning to attack us, why can’t we retaliate? Why can't this operation be active?" asked Sharma.
"We need to follow the orders," shot back the Admiral.
For a moment, the atmosphere of the room was charged with tension. I wanted to take Sharma’s side, as I felt he had perfectly valid points. Why couldn’t we go on the offensive?
“We are there only to monitor the enemy’s movements, not to take charge of the situation, Sharma. Further plans will be devised as per the enemy’s moves,” explained the Rear Admiral. “Unless the word comes straight from the Prime Minister, we aren’t supposed to make a move. We are to abide by this at any cost,” the Admiral declared.
Sharma looked curiously at the Admiral, and questioned, “What should I do when we are in crisis mode?”
“Administrative Officer Kamal will look into it. He will be with you.”
Even if it was the first time that Sharma and Kamal were meeting each other, it was obvious to the rest of us that there were going to be issues between them. Time did not prove us wrong. Their enmity marked a huge secret in the history of the Indian Navy. They were fundamentally opposite, but both swallowed their differences enough for the Navy’s best interests.
I firmly believe that things would have taken a different route if either of them had not been involved. The operation was termed ‘Sea-Sight’. This was the rare operation with 30 odd crew involved, with none of them knowing the details. It was kept a secret, and the crew were told that this was merely a training session meant to last 18 days.A VOYAGE
Underwater, in the Bay of Bengal, an Indian INS Karanj 'S21' - a Kalvari class, diesel-electric submarine slowly moves forwards at 6 knots speed. Her two propellers rotate slowly.
I was in the second compartment of 'S21', with the Sonar Operator Ramana – a young man, wearing a sonar headset, and carefully listening to the sounds echoed that indicated our presence at different frequencies. Ramana was the eye of the submarine 'S21'. Once we were underwater, there was no way that we could see anything beyond our vessel. We had to depend on sonar waves, quite like bats, emitting sounds at a high frequency, and then marking out the path based on the echoes.
I stood behind him, studying the log sheet and wave chart generated over the past few hours.
“Has anything been identified?” I asked.
Ramana was under a tremendous amount of pressure, as he was well aware that any negligence in his duty would result in catastrophe. Instead of adding on to his stress, I walked out and made my way to Commanding Officer Sharma’s cabin. I knocked, and entered his room.
He was engrossed in a book. As I sat down, I caught a glimpse of the cover. He was reading the autobiography of Subhash Chandra Bose.
“Bose’s autobiography, Sir?”
“Have you read it?”
“You should. Youth like you should be inspired by him.”
I knew Sharma was far from an advocate of non-violent practices when it came to any threat to the nation. He was not one to sit silently when provoked. He firmly believed in the concept of an eye for an eye.
Sharma flipped over a few pages, and read to me. “Give me blood, and I will give you freedom.” He looked at me, his eyes piercing into me. “I believe Bose should’ve been honoured with the title of ‘Father of the Nation.”
Sharma’s admiration of Bose took me by surprise.
“Why, Sir? He was the cause of hundreds of deaths in the name of our freedom struggle, all of whom went in vain.”
Sharma posited, “If he hadn’t fought for independence, we would have still been under the British reign. Arjun, one individual may die for an idea, but that idea, after his death, incarnates in thousand lives. That is how evolution sees itself seeping through generations as the ideas are bequeathed to the next.”
“Is war the solution?”
“No real change in history has ever been achieved by discussions.”
“Sir, this is beyond my understanding. I feel it would be prudent to leave decisions like these up to the bureaucrats. Besides, if I’m not mistaken, Bose was the one to honour Gandhi with the title of ‘Father of the Nation,” I concluded.
The argument would have probably continued, but it was cut short by a knock on the door and in walked a man with tea. The silence in the compartment was as heavy as the tension.
“Are you married?” asked Sharma.
I was not expecting this question from Sharma.
I hesitated, and shook my head no.
Meanwhile, turbulent ocean currents set the boat rattling. The 30 odd crew members who were sleeping in the seventh and the last compartment slid off their berths, much to their and the rest of the crew’s enjoyment.
I remember one such day when the crew were having fun with each other. Ramana, the Sonar Operator, had told me about that day.
That day, one of the crew, Surya was tying a thread from one end to another end of the compartment.
“What are you doing, Surya?” Ramana had inquired.
“This thread will indicate how much pressure is applied on us as we go deeper,” Surya replied.
“How deep are we now?”
“Not much, should be a quarter of a kilometer from the surface.”
“What could possibly be outside?”
“Water,” came the sarcastic answer from Vardhan.
The crew giggled. Ramana was taken aback, but didn’t retort.
The alarm rang in the seventh compartment interrupting them. It was a call for the crew to report to their positions for duty.
“They don't even let us sleep,” complained Vardhan.
“If sleep was what you wanted, why did you come here?” Ramana shot back vengefully.
“Sleeping inside an ocean is an extraordinary feeling. Everybody sleeps on land. Here it is different.”
“Tell the same thing to Commanding Officer Sharma.”
“Do you think I'm scared of anybody? I’m not even scared of my father.”
Surya immediately looked behind Vardhan and said, “Aye Sir.”
Vardhan suspected tomfoolery, and didn’t turn around.
The other officers stood up to join Surya, and Vardhan instantly turned around nervously and said “Taking positions, Sir”, just to find nobody around.
“Looks like somebody’s wet their pants,” laughed Ramana.
“Getting wet underwater is another new experience, right?” Surya teased.
I remember perfectly that this was the only time during the entire operation that the crew could have some lighthearted fun. Some things are meant to happen only once.
Every day was like an unfailing repetition of the previous day for the crew. They never refrained from their duties, neither did Mr. Sharma hold back from inspecting the crew. Two days went by without a glitch. Being young and enthusiastic, everyone had their minds set on proving their worth. They weren’t fussed about proper food and being comfortable on board. The food in storage, of course, gradually deteriorated from fresh to stale, but the crew made their pace with it.
There was a doctor on board to attend to the crew lest any of them were injured. One day, as I was passing his room, I saw one of the crew inside with a cut finger.
“Everything alright, Doctor?
“Should be fine, Officer. It’s just a minor cut on the hand. He was working despite of it. I’m just fixing the wound up,” replied the Doctor.
“No problem at all, Sir. I’ll be alright,” reassured the injured crew member.
Another day passed.
We received a radio message from the head office. It was delivered using Morse Code. Jayraj, the Radio Operator, decoded the received signal, wrote it on a strip of paper and handed it to me. This was the first message we received since our mission began. I took the message to Sharma’s cabin.
The four officers in the control room were staring at the letter, wondering about its contents. Any news it bore affected all our lives.
Kamal followed me to Sharma’s cabin.
We entered, and I handed Sharma the letter.
“Radio message received, Sir. We have orders to open the third envelope.”
Sharma took the letter, read it, stepped aside, and unlocked the small locker. There were several envelopes in it. The head office maps out all possible plans of action beforehand, and places them in the locker. Sharma took the third envelope out.
“What is it?” Kamal asked.
Sharma handed Kamal the envelope.
Sharma frowned for a second, and then rushed out of his cabin, and made his way to the Sonar Operator.
“Are you sure there have been no suspicious movements around?” asked Sharma.
“Positive, Sir. No suspicious movements noted,” replied Ramana.
It was glaringly obvious that Sharma was unhappy with the orders given. He went to the navigational cabin, inside the control room, where all the maps and charts were stored.
Picking up a pencil, he drew a lines on the map, connected them, and marked their intersection. Navigational Officer Mann Vijay Singh noted the latitude and longitude of the intersection. We were all waiting to receive orders from our Commanding Officer.
“Our orders are to go to this location at 850East and 190North,” said Sharma furiously.
“That will take five hours,” replied Mann Vijay Singh.
“Arjun, get ‘S21’ here, at full speed. Continue the same depth,” came Sharma’s orders.
The crew in the control room reacted quickly.
“Set her speed full ahead, Port 10,” I ordered.
The Steering Operator confirmed my orders, and pulled the level. This marked our first move ahead in the whole operation. I had the feeling that there was a lot more to follow.
Underwater, ‘S21’ recorded a drastic change in movement and speed. The propellers’ speed increased.
2 days later
I have always been uninterested in forming strong human connections, the cause of which was me growing up an orphan. It’s funny how often we encounter our destiny on the road we take to avoid it. Every man’s destiny has been set in ink, despite our strongest efforts to derail it. Is it part of one’s destiny to wage a war against it?
I’d fallen for a woman with whom I could envision the rest of my life. But as cruel fate would have had it, she was soon transported to the world of no return. A truck ran over her. I don’t blame the gods of destiny or fate. I try not to remember her, but she haunts my dreams every night, never revealing her face. She runs from me even in my fantasies, but I have never given up trying to track her down.
My sleep that night in ‘S21’ was no different. I pined to see her face, but she was too far away. It was like I was seeing her from the end of a rainbow. The closer I got to her, the more I ached. Then, there was a strong gust of wind which blew me further away from her. I woke up devastated. I rubbed my hands over my face, and walked out of my cabin, and made my way to the Sonar Operator to distract myself from this painfully recurrent dream.
Ramana was steeped in concentration, fine tuning the echoes. He looked up as I entered.
“Sir, there’s an emergency!”
”What is it?”
Sharma ran out of his cabin. The density of the echoes proliferated drastically.
“Sinking ship on the surface.”
“Take her up to periscope depth,” Sharma ordered.
“Aye Sir, taking her up to periscope depth. All stations stand by,” I confirmed.
I walked into the third compartment, to see that everyone was visibly tense.
“Periscope depth,” I ordered the Depth Controller.
He quickly turned the wheels, and we escalated in the water.
Sharma waited to rise up to periscope depth, while the other officers and crew held on. We could all feel the sudden change in atmospheric pressure.
The Depth Controller soon confirmed that we’d reached periscope depth.
Sharma went to the periscope, pulled out the sides and lifted it up. As he looked through it, an expression of fury covered his face.
The crew stood by, anxious.
Kamal walked up, took the periscope from Sharma and looked through it at the alleged burning ship.
“Kamal, look! One of our cargo ships destroyed by the enemy!” exclaimed Sharma.
Kamal held on to the periscope, still observing the ship.
“How are you so positive it was the enemy’s doing?” he finally asked.
Sharma was visibly angered at Kamal’s question.
“Arjun, dive. 200 metres,” ordered Sharma.
“Yes, sir. 200 metres. Preparing to dive,” I confirmed as the crew rushed to take their positions.
“All stations stand by. Prepare to dive,” I announced.
We dove underwater, as the debris of the burning ship started falling all around us.
Sharma made his way into his cabin.
I entered behind him, to find Kamal already there. I sensed the situation was serious, and that an altercation might be on the cards. I locked the door behind me before taking my seat.
Sharma asked, “Kamal, what do you think our plan should be?”
“Getting our job done should be the plan.”
“You already know. Why must you ask?”
“Kamal, the plan was devised in a comfortable room hundreds of kilometers away without knowing the exact situation here.”
“The exact situation? What’s your plan, Sharma?”
“We shouldn’t turn our backs to what has happened, Kamal. We cannot keep following documented orders.”
“Then what do you want?”
“If we follow what’s given to us, we only go back to base despite sighting the enemy ship. We report it, leaving them safe, knowing fully well that there’s a threat. We will be attacked, and the government will just sit discussing what should be done, and retaliate after eons. My point is quite simple – if we see them, we attack.”
It was evident that Sharma wanted to go on the offensive.
“We are on a passive mission, Sir, and going on an active mode would risk everyone’s lives,” I said, quite concerned.
“Arjun, I have no fear of dying, as should no one else on board. We should be willing to risk our lives for our nation, if need be.”
“I cannot agree with you, Sharma. If something has been planned, then it would only be after lots of discussion and analysis. It would be the best way out. If we still do encounter the enemy, we would track their path and send the data across. Our crew is too inexperienced to fight,” Kamal tried to play the voice of reason.
Sharma visibly outraged, spat at us. “You both might be content being silent spectators, but I am not!”
“Let's be clear about this. This war is not between India and West Pakistan nor East Pakistan. This fight is between East Pakistan i.e. Bangladesh and West Pakistan. You are not bound to do something beyond your jurisdiction.”
“Don't tell me my duties.”
“I am not!”
“Kamal! It would be plain stupidity on our part to spot our enemy, and let them roam around. This decision will be regretted later.”
“Sharma, I abide by my duties. The crew is not prepared to fulfill your personal agenda. They have not been trained for battle.”
“Kamal, you tell me, do you think our enemy will let us slip away unharmed? If we let them go, all that will do is further reinstate their belief that the Indian Navy aren’t brave enough. They will go home victorious and smug. This will invite more attacks. Is this what you want?”
“You are so desperate to attack. You have made up your mind, but let me tell you, you won’t have my support on this.”
“What do you want to do now, Kamal? We are wasting time while our enemy are advancing steadily towards us. Turning back now is just plain cowardice. What’s stopping you? Fear?”
“Fear? You do realize you will have to face the court for disobeying their orders, and following your twisted judgment.”
“There is no better time to set an example. We need to show that India will prove her mettle if provoked.”
“Sharma, you are making all of us go against the Head Office. I won't support this. Don't expect any recognition for this reckless behaviour.”
Sharma whacked the already-worn out table, and stormed out of his cabin.
“Arjun, he is bound to do something terrible. We should stop him before it's too late!”
I was personally on Sharma’s side, but it didn’t take long to realize that that meant absolutely nothing. I was nevertheless full of adrenaline because I felt a battle was about to break.
The following day, I was standing near the hatch of the first compartment, also known as the Torpedo Compartment. This is where we launched the torpedoes from. Each torpedo was 18 feet long, and there were six torpedoes lying in two columns, one atop another. The compartment was 30 feet long, and 10 feet wide. There was hardly any room for the crew to move around. During times of war, torpedoes were either launched from this compartment or the seventh which held four more torpedoes.
As I was inspecting this place, I felt someone behind me. I turned around to find Sharma, inspecting the torpedoes.
Sharma asked, “Are they ready?”
“They will be, given orders.”
“Prepare for the drill, Arjun.”
Sharma left. I realized he was about to go ahead with whatever plan he had. But, I was unsure about how Kamal would react to it, and what that would mean for the rest of the crew.
I entered the Control Room, and picked up the intercom. “This is a drill. I repeat, this is a drill.”
The lights turned red. The resting crew members quickly took their positions.
Kamal was standing next to me. We looked at Sharma, expecting further orders.
“Conduct emergency dive, down 200,” he declared.
I was stunned. His orders were hazardous for the boat.
“Do as I say. Let Kamal see that we are indeed prepared for battle.”
“Yes, Sir. Emergency dive – go down 200,” I announced into the intercom.
The Steering Operator quickly pushed the lever downwards. ‘S21’ felt like a derailed arrow shot into nothingness. We tried to hold on to things around us for support. It was very difficult for us to move.
The objects on the table slid down, and we scrambled to keep them from falling.
One of the officers hit his forehead against a vault as he tried to take a step forward. An acceleration of this level was the first for many of us. We were unsure about the precautionary measures we should take. All we knew is that we were going deep underwater.
"Depth 130 meters...140 meters," informed the Diving Officer.
Even though the crew was struggling to stand up without support, Sharma looked determined. I was trying to read his mind. I was hoping he would stop the ongoing depth.
"Depth 160 meters..."
"Continue the dive," Sharma said, staring at Kamal.
"Depth 170 meters."
Sharma spoke into the intercom. “Fear is our worst enemy. We should kill it, before it kills us.”
“Sharma, you can't risk everyone’s lives. Stop the dive!” Kamal shouted.
“My crew is ready for anything.”
Upon hearing this, the crew grew suspicious about the intentions of the drill, which Sharma seemed bent on continuing.
“Arjun, prepare to launch torpedoes. Target distance 300 meters. Speed 6 knots," came Sharma’s orders.
I picked up the intercom. “Compartment seven. Men get ready. Program torpedo in tube 1 with distance 300 meters, speed 6 knots.”
In the seventh compartment, two torpedo loaders, Taan Singh, and Ranjit rushed towards the tubes. They began to input the mentioned torpedo launch details.
Sharma was waiting for the confirmation from the seventh compartment. He was resolved to evaluate the strength of his crew, while his crew was busy evaluating his mind.
“Torpedo programmed in Tube 1, Sir,” came the information from Taan Singh.
“All stations stand by,” ordered Sharma.
“Depth 200 metres!” came the warning from the Depth Controller.
Standing at the torpedo launching unit in the third Compartment, Sharma put his finger on the launching button.
“Kamal, do you still think that our crew is not capable to launch an attack?” Sharma inquired, and smirked. “Level 'S21', end of the drill.”
Sharma began to walk away. I knew Kamal wasn’t going to let Sharma get away with this. I watched him step to the torpedo launching unit, just as the Diving Officer was about to level the ship.
“Continue the drill,” announced Kamal, and it was Sharma who stopped in his tracks to see Kamal looking determined.
The Diving Officer stopped from pulling the lever. Sharma’s face was steeped in anger.
“Arjun, continue the drill,” ordered Kamal. “War would never be this simple.”
The crew was perplexed. They had no idea if this was a drill, or a deal that would take their lives just to determine who the alpha male was.
“Continue the depth,” I confirmed.
“Depth 200 metres, Sir,” said the Diving Officer.
“Dive 300 metres,” retorted Kamal.
“Water leak in the auxiliary pipe of the seventh compartment,” said Kamal.
I picked up the intercom. “This is a drill. Water leak in the seventh compartment’s auxiliary pipe. Fix it.”
Sharma smirked at Kamal, looking very self-assured.
“Depth 210 metres…depth 220 metres…”
There was absolute silence in the control room.
The crew in the seventh compartment were trying to fix the auxiliary pipe.
“Depth 240 metres, Sir. We are near the danger mark.”
“Continue to 300 metres.”
“This is unnecessary,” shouted Sharma. “We are jeopardizing lives here.”
“Exactly what I’ve been trying to convince you!” exclaimed Kamal.
The drill continued.
“Depth 260 metres.”
The crew held on tightly as the pressure surmounted to excruciating levels.
“Depth 280 metres.”
There were deafeningly loud noises from the boat, which visibly frightened the crew.
“300 metres, Sir..”
The pressure acting inside the boat was so enormous that the glasses on the metres were starting to develop cracks. The crew watched the thread tied in the seventh compartment bending to an inverted hyperbolic shape.
Soon, water started leaking into the boat.
Sharma stepped in. “Level her.”
Kamal spoke up into the intercom. “This is your Administrative Officer. The drill is not over. Compartment seven, program a torpedo into Tube 2, distance 100 metres, speed 8 knots.”
In the seventh compartment, Taan Singh and Ranjit quickly set the program into the tubes.
Kamal took out the cap from torpedo launching button, and put his finger on the button, looking at Sharma pointedly.
“Re-Program torpedo to distance 150 meters, speed 10 knots, in 10 seconds." Kamal suddenly changed orders. “All stations stand by.”
The crew quickly reacted to his orders, while I kept my eye on the timer.
Taan Singh struggled to reprogram the torpedo.
Sharma was visibly upset.
"Fire in compartment 4," Kamal said.
”Clear off the fire in the fourth compartment. This is a drill,” I said through the intercom. “10 seconds up Sir.”
“Turn off the lights. Create an electric failure.”
The Engineering Officer Prathap turned the lights off, automatically switching on the emergency lights. The three crewmembers in the fourth compartment pulled the fire extinguisher out with great difficulty, this being their first time, clearly illustrating their inexperience with emergencies.
“Torpedoes task failed. Clear programming,” said Kamal.
Taking his hand off the torpedo launching button, Kamal proceeded towards Sharma.
“The crew is clearly not ready for war. Drill over, negative results. Level her,” said Kamal.
“Bring her to depth 150 metres,” concluded Sharma.
Sharma and Kamal stared each other down. I understood that Sharma had been mercilessly humiliated by Kamal, but he had no other way of getting him to realize that his offensive tactics were wrong.
Sharma made his way back to his cabin.
I was looking at the doctor treating the injured crew in the second compartment. He placed his patients on the dining table and was applying the medicines. It was uncommon for us to have medical issues in a submarine, which is why we didn’t have proper medical quarters. The doctor used the dining table as his surgery bed.
Despite the fortune of getting away with minor injuries in the spite of the drill, it really made me question a lot. I was wondering if our crew was war-ready.
Radio Operator Jayraj came to me interrupting my train of thought, and said in a plain tone "We were told that this is part of a training program. Where did this war seep in from?"
“What if a war really does break out?” Vardhan questioned.
“It will be another experience for you underwater,” Ramana said.
The crew started laughing again. This is what makes war an anomaly. Death is always around the corner, while everyone involved try to live life to the maximum every spare second.
“Will the both of you stop fooling around?” snapped the Doctor. “This is not the time to laugh; war will happen, even if we are not prepared for it.”
A strange silence curbed the mockery at hand.
Another day passed by.THE BATTLE
DECEMBER 03rd, 0030 hours
Sharma entered the navigational room. He looked a bit amiss, so I walked up to him and asked if everything was alright. His silence was the answer. The silence indicated his disappointment with me because I diligently obeyed Mr. Kamal’s orders during the drill the previous day.
Mann Vijay Singh was marking certain points on the map. Sharma, Mann Vijay Singh and I were the only people there.
“These could be the possible enemy positions. And we already passed these locations,” Mann Vijay affirmed.
“How sure can you be about its specific location now?” Sharma inquired.
“Zero Sir. We need to check at these points till the sonar operator clears them. The enemy will require at least 4 days of time to get through all the marked locations.”
Sharma looking at a point on the map asked “How fast can we reach that point?”
“Three hours from now, Sir.”
Sharma checked with sonar operator Ramana if he recorded any suspicious activity on the radar in the recent past.
“Did you find any suspicious echoes?”
“Why hasn’t this data been reported?”
“Sir, they are hills nearby.”
“Hills? Did you check with navigational officer?”
“How certain were you?”
Ramana didn't respond.
“Sir, I was not sure about it.”
“What do you mean not sure? You didn't know what it could be? How did you even get this post?”
I stepped in to pacify Sharma, and to save Ramana from embarrassment. Officer Kamal joined me on my way to the sonar room.
“This is what we have.” Sharma handed over the log sheet to Kamal.
I looked at Ramana to see him terrified; his legs were trembling in fear. I took the log sheet from Kamal and handed it to him.
“You will learn. Report everything back to me. Don't be silent. Now take your position,” I said.
My recurrent intrusions in the matters at hand seemingly annoyed Sharma to the extent that he would take his anger out on me. But being an officer, he somehow got a hold of himself and stomped back into his cabin, with me following. I closed the door behind me when Mr. Sharma said “We cannot take chances like this.”
“I understand Sir, but there was no point in shouting at him,” I said.
“What if we were attacked?”
Kamal entered and said, "You see Sharma, the phrase ‘what if’ opens many too many possible avenues. But the truth is we are not at war, and neither is our enemy. As Arjun rightly pointed out, shouting at that boy in sonar room out there couldn’t have served any purpose."
“Don't tell me the purpose. This is sheer negligence on his part and he deserves to be prosecuted for this."
“It’s funny that you went up to an extent of addressing ‘prosecution’ for that error. To err is human, Mr. Sharma. However, as the Chief Commanding Officer, it is at your free will to hire or fire somebody on board. But prosecuting him only shows to the rest that you are taking this beyond your professional pursuit,” Kamal posited.
Right then, the Engineering Officer Prathap entered in saying "Sir, we have received a radio message from Headquarters." He handed over a slip to Kamal.
“Open envelope seven,” Kamal read out.
Sharma took the seventh envelope out of his locker.
I looked up at Kamal, who looked like he might have an idea what the envelope contained.
“Mission cancelled, return to base," Sharma read out in despair ”How is this possible? We still have not finish the operation."
My intuition told me this was Kamal’s plan all along.
Sharma reread the message a few times.
He picked up the intercom, connected to the radio operator "When did you get this message, Jayraj?"
"10 minutes ago Sir."
"When did the head office send this?"
"Sometime yesterday Sir."
"Be precise Jayraj."
He looked through the log "Yesterday 18:00 hours IST Sir."
"Did you send any message?"
"What was the message sent?"
"I made him send the damaged reports," Kamal interrupted the exchange.
"You caused that damage Mr. Kamal," Sharma said.
"Yes I am aware of that and that is why I have sent the report."
"You should have checked with me before sending it; I am the god damn Commanding officer of 'S21'." With the silence that followed, his undeniable authority on the boat floated in the air.
"Sharma, you are the Commanding officer but I can take decisions that are politically appropriate."
I realized that somebody should step in and stop the altercation that was about to burst. Even the doctor was about to step forward to stop them. Suddenly Ramana reported an emergency situation.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Enemy submarine detected Sir," Ramana replied.
This was the moment Sharma was waiting for. However, we had official orders to go back to the base. Sharma didn't get excited to hear about the presence of the enemy submarine.
"Okay Kamal, you want to be politically correct. You do not want to get into war. This is what your intention is. We can now confirm that the enemy is present in our waters. Mission accomplished, so we now return to base and be politically correct," Sharma sneered.
We were all waiting for further orders from Sharma.
"Arjun, turn 'S21' around back to base," Sharma ordered.
I was about to take up the order but suddenly, Ramana raised the alarm "Sir, Torpedoes in the water. One enemy torpedo is in the water." Nobody expected this to come. We all looked back towards Kamal and then to Sharma for further actions.
"Stop all engines. Dive 100 meters," Sharma gave the order without a second thought.
Steering Operator shifted two levers that controlled & brought the engines to 'Stop' state and shouted, "All engines stopped Sir."
"Making a dive 100 meters Sir," Diving officer turned the vaults with full speed.
The torpedo was quickly approaching us.
"Torpedo distance 130 meters Sir. Approaching 100 meters Sir," Ramana whispered anxiously.
We were all tense.
"Torpedo 80 meters Sir."
'S21' was not going forward as all the engines were turned off. It was just sinking down into the ocean bed.
"Torpedo 40 meters Sir... 30 meters Sir"
We looked at each other like we would never again see each other. A couple of crew members were even chanting hymns in desperation.
The torpedo just passed on top of us, the sound of which was haunting.
"Sir, it passed by and is off the range from 'S21'," Ramana said.
For a movement we all felt relieved that we were all safe. But, still the enemy was around us. Sharma looked at me. We all wanted to fight but the final call had to come from Kamal. There was a sense of rage in all of us. We all looked up at Kamal. He was feeling uncomfortable and a bit worried. I could read his mind, there were two things going in his mind - to attack or to go back to base.
"Go for it," Kamal said.
That didn’t come as a surprise to us. We knew all along that he would have stepped up.
Sharma felt Kamal’s support for the first time, as he rushed towards the intercom to pass further orders.
"This is your Commanding Officer speaking. We are at war. I repeat we are at war. We could face our enemy now or we could go back. I have taken the decision to fight. I know we have the courage in us. We will destroy the enemy, and secure our waters. We do not have orders, and for this we might be stripped of our ranks and posts. Our purpose is to serve our country, if we make it back to the base in one piece. we may not be recognized as naval officers for not following Head Quarter's orders. You can be part of it or you may withdraw your service and just be part of this 'S21' as a spectator. I am following my heart and I will be responsible for everything. West Pakistan has attacked us. No sacrifice should be too much for us. Let us write a new chapter in the history of Indian Navy. This is not a drill, there are no second chances."
Sharma looked at us as he waited for the response from other compartments.
"Compartment one, we are with you Sir," came the first response.
"Compartment four, men are ready.”
"Compartment five and six, we will fight till our last breath."
"Compartment seven, ready Sir, You order us."
Sharma’s eyes gleamed with pride.
"We will die fighting Sir, but let's not show our backs to enemy," I said.
"Sir, I think the enemy has spotted us, they are coming closer to us," said Ramana.
The crew in the third compartment took their positions. We all were dead focused on our job.
"Complete silence. Make port 100," Sharma said.
The echo sound amplified gradually as Ramana listened through his headset. It indicated that the enemy submarine was inching closer to us.
"Prepare to program torpedoes," Sharma ordered Taan Singh through the intercom.
"Any contact, Ramana?" Sharma said.
"Sir, enemy at distance 150 meters, straight ahead."
"Taan Singh, program torpedo to 150 meters and speed 6 knots," Sharma said.
We had a clear shot to hit the enemy. It was an achievable attack in our minds. But we didn’t realize that the torpedo programming unit had been damaged during the earlier drill. It was only now after Taan Singh tried to program the torpedo, we realized that the programming unit was malfunctioning.
Sharma ordered Taan Singh to go to the first compartment and prepare to launch torpedoes from there.
Meanwhile, the Sonar Operator Ramana kept concentrating on every movement of the enemy submarine.
"Sir, they are 250 meters away, with speed 16 knots," Ramana said.
"Make depth 200 meters," Sharma said.
We were under major trouble as the torpedoes in the seventh compartment were dysfunctional and now we had to depend only on the first compartment torpedoes.
We had to plan our strategy carefully now; in the navigational room - Sharma drew a plan on paper by drawing the positions that we should be in, so that we could easily attack the enemy.
"Sir, Two enemy torpedoes in water," Ramana said.
As we all came out of the navigational room, Taan Singh approached us.
"Taan Singh, Do not fail me. You are the front end warriors. Everything depends on you and make your country proud," Sharma said.
"Full Speed ahead. Dive 50 meters," Sharma said.
The diving officer and steering operator quickly changed the gears.
"Enemy torpedoes 150 meters Sir, closing now 100 meters Sir," Ramana said.
"We need to make 'S21' turn full 180 degrees," I said.
We were all anxious and were eagerly waiting for 'S21' to make a complete turn so that the torpedoes in the first compartment line up with the enemy submarine.
"Enemy torpedoes 30 Meters... 20 Meters..." Ramana said.
The enemy torpedoes again just passed by from the side of 'S21', with huge sounds.
"They missed us Sir," Ramana said.
"How far is the enemy now?" Sharma asked.
"400 meters, Depth 110 meters Sir."
Sharma went to the intercom and asked if the torpedoes were ready in the tube.
None of the torpedoes were placed in the tubes; Taan Singh tried to load one by one. 3 more crew members from the third compartment rushed towards the first compartment to help in loading torpedoes.
"Two more enemy torpedoes in water fired Sir," Ramana said.
It was exasperating for us, as the enemy was attacking us continuously and we were still trying to fix the torpedoes.
I rushed into the first compartment and helped them to lift the torpedoes and load them into the tubes.
"Torpedoes loaded Sir," I said.
"Prepare to program it," Sharma said.
"Enemy 200 meters away Sir, in range," Ramana said anxiously.
"Program torpedo distance 200 meters with speed 8 knots," Sharma muttered through intercom.
Taan Singh quickly set up. Ramana reaffirmed the target to be in range; Sharma made his way to the torpedo launching unit and pressed the button.
Our first torpedo was fired. This was like a first aggressive move on a chess board by a relatively defensive player. I felt a surge of pride within me.
"200 meters for impact... Enemy torpedo 150 meters," Ramana said.
"Load another torpedo," Sharma whispered into the intercom.
Prathap, Taan Singh and I along with 2 more crew members in the first compartment were quickly setting up the other torpedoes into their respective tubes.