Inside the sylvan, manicured naval campus of INS Venduruthy on Willingdon Island, Kochi, stands the cradle of one of the most elite cadres of Indian Navy — the Diving School. If you are driving past the school, you may find harried trainees in blue undersuits doubling around the area with a pair of rubber fins tucked under their arms, hanging from the pull-up bars, climbing ropes in the gallows, and sweating buckets. Pause and you will notice the physical and mental rigour of their training; it is not for the weak-hearted. They emerge out of the course as apex underwater predators with exceptional stamina; trained to live and fight in a medium terribly hostile to man.
In the summer of ’92, as a young sub-lieutenant, I developed a ‘deep’ fascination for the diving course. My physical fitness was a blessing from childhood and peaked around that time. I had run a few cross-countries, a marathon or two, with the odd podium finish, crunched knuckles on Goa’s hot tarmac, even managed to swim laps without drowning. From this modest perch, I extrapolated that joining the diving cadre was perhaps a ‘no-brainer’ (no pun intended).
There was a small problem though. The diving school, nay the entire diving community, seemed to be dominated by Jats and ‘northerners’ who spoke a dialect that escaped me completely. Even a couple of South Indian ‘Tam Brahm‘ divers I came across spoke like they had received a booster dose of some Haryanvi vaccine. I was a non-resident Kerala infidel whose suffix ‘Kumar’ was often mistaken for someone from Bihar or Haryana. Few coursemates even called me “Mallu jat“, but i think that was a stretch. In reality, I was a Bambaiyya (Mumbaikar) who had never crossed north of the Sahyadris. My mind was made-up, body was willing, but my tongue was still rolling good old pazham pori (a plantain fruit preparation from Kerala).
Back to 1992. The high gates of Venduruthy naval base hides well the gruelling routine of Diving School. The 9-month course turns boys into men. The day starts early for aspiring frogmen. They report to the school at 6:45 AM on tea and biscuits, top-up their sets, prepare the boats, then go on a ‘warm-up’ run of about 5-6 kms (10-12 kms ‘outer circuit’ on Fridays). After a ‘cool down’ routine mostly comprising bone-crushing PT (physical training), they head for Venduruthy Bridge, only to use it as a diving board. One by one, the trainees jump into the racy Thevara river about 15 feet below (still feels like 15 metres to me).
Now, the Thevara can pose a challenge even to warships manoeuvring in the narrow channel, with tidal stream in excess of 1-2 knots. The ‘Diving School Hard’ about a mile from the Venduruthy bridge, looks deceptively near (if you are driving by). The sight of trainee divers jumping off the bridge, surfacing in a burst of white froth, then swimming elegantly on their backs to the boat pool, hides the cruel reality of tidal currents, water hyacinths, jellyfish stings, bilge and untreated discharge from the ships in harbour. From the shore, all you will see are men in blues, sneakers tied around their waist, back-floating calmly downriver, their flippers breaking water like small propellers. I think that dreaded jump from Thevara bridge was one of the reasons I opted for flying. Later I realised that was the easy part.
“Mind it, you’ll go for a high jump” was a threat oft issued by seniors in the navy. However, the “high jump” in Diving School is just the start — a warm-up of sorts — for what lies beneath. After you pull into the diving school ‘hard’ with your masterful strokes, you head for the dreaded ‘mud walk’. If the instructor is in a good mood, you may get to eat the parantha-subji you packed from the mess.
Imagine wading through waist-deep mud and sludge that feels like quicksand mixed with rapid-setting concrete after having run kilometers, completed star jumps and knuckle push-ups, jumped off a bridge, swum a mile, lugged heavy equipment around, only to end up in a swamp. Your tenacity and lung capacity will be tested; so will your resolve. The stony-faced dive instructors don’t care two hoots for your “ooh, ahh, ouch“, neither do they judge by first impressions. It’s shape up or ship out, day after day.
Just across the messy mud walk arena lies the Venduruthy parade ground and a tempting escape into the arms of many other naval schools. You can’t be blamed for hallucinating at this point if you see the the Pole Star of surface navy — the Navigation & Direction School (ND School) — extend a warm embrace; or if you felt like ‘School for Naval Airmen’ (SFNA) was your spiritual calling.
So it came to pass that young Kaypius with a modest scorecard of running and swimming enrolled for ‘screening’ — an entrance test of sorts to the hallowed portals of diving school. It helped that we were attached to the Diving School for Sub Lt’s courses then. I got a ringside view of where my passion and profession (or so it seemed then) may intersect. A running joke those days was that diving school exams were “objective-type” and contained ‘tough’ ‘scientific’ fill-in-the-blanks such as ‘The BASCCA — a diving set’. Guess what the correct answer ‘is’, eh?!😜
Though their question papers used to be peppered with some hilarious ‘Jat‘ typos, this anecdote was later busted as a figment of some wicked Tharoorian fantasy. It is no laughing matter. The diving course is highly technical and experiential in nature. Besides, there is no separate course for officers. You sweat and toil with your sailor buddies. The word ‘Clearance’ in CD actually stands for the ability to clear mines (floating / underwater explosives) in a hostile naval environment. You cannot become a clearance diver by reading books; just as you cannot become a test pilot by googling; or turn astronaut through online courses.
In the event, I went through the ‘screening’ process. At 23, I wanted to be seen as a trendsetter. But there were choices to be made. Aviation beckoned, though at that time I had little idea that Air Force Academy and some of the instructors there could make mud walk in Thevara look like snorkelling off Havelock Island. It also didn’t help that the general image of divers in the navy then was one of ‘brawn’ than ‘brain’. My heart still ached for blending the twain together in the crucible of diving school. I started to train with a small cabal committed to becoming CDO; running around the naval base, then devouring raw desi eggs and ‘Sharjah shake‘ outside the rear gate of Venduruthy; eyes earnestly set on the ‘MARCO’ (Marine Commando) course — home to the most elite from diving cadre then.
The Naval Officers’ Mess of Southern Naval Command (SNC), Kochi, occupies a vantage from where a naval officer can examine the reality of his choices. The lawns of SNC Officers’ Mess overlook Thevara river and the mind-numbing routine of diving school while Islanders, Dorniers and Chetaks soar idyllically above you. After an ‘educated rock’ discussion with a coursemate (later an ND School graduate), we walked towards the water. The tidal stream was strong; carrying with it much flotsam and bilge left behind by the naval ships and yard craft from jetties upstream. Aspiring frogmen must have been winding up their mud walk to return to the diving tower for their final exercise before lunch.
My colleague told me sagaciously: “KPS, think from your mind, not heart. Running so many miles day after bloody day, crunching knuckles, jumping off bridges, sucking on compressed air and mixture, living in an alien medium, suffering bends and cramps, etc — this is all fine and dandy for now. But do you really see yourself enjoying this 10-15 years from now? The navy is all about ships and sailing, not this. You even run the risk of getting written-off if you become a diver. Is this really what you want to do?”
He was dead serious. I was doing pretty well by all accounts and had many options open. Mud walking suddenly seemed like a daft choice.
In the event, I developed cold feet, opted for aviation and turned X(P) instead of X(CD). My unfulfilled desire to explore, inquire and push boundaries, found expression through another route — the experimental flight test course.
If there is anything I have learnt all these years, it’s this — always follow your heart. There is no script you are obliged to follow. Write your own script, live your own life. Follow your passion and don’t let anyone douse the fire in your belly. Serendipitous, but few years after graduating as a test pilot, I discovered that one of my sterling Directing Staff (DS) in staff college (DSSC) was a MARCO with US Navy SEALS endorsement. Brain and brawn can co-exist. No particular branch or cadre holds the keys to intellectual discourse.
As I look around three decades later, I find much clanism and less charisma. We find it convenient to bracket everyone based on their specialisation without giving much credence to their individual persona. “Oh, he’s a gunner, what else to expect?”, “Oh, he’s an armoured guy — flamboyant but loath to admit he needs help”; Oh, he’s a fighter jock, can’t think beyond his cockpit”, and so on. We love putting everyone in ‘branch-arm-cadre’ baskets even as we extol jointmanship — just because that’s the ‘thing’ these days!
Every profession has its ‘high jumps’, ‘hell week’ and mud walks. Why not begin by inquiring into what you would rather do. Listen, but don’t succumb, to career counsellors or naysayers. Take a deep dive into your own personality; often, it is opaque to us. I was most delighted to learn from one of my colleagues that these days it is not odd to find a ‘gold torchie’, PGM* or SoH** opting for the clearance diving course. May their tribe grow and prosper, god and personnel branch willing! (*PGM = President’s Gold Medal; **SoH = Sword of Honour).
So you wanna be a navy diver? Pin up on your billboard what the plaque in Diving School says:
“Pull yourself, by yourself. You are your greatest friend; you are your greatest enemy.”
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. All photos in the story credits Indian Navy’s Diving School.