Breaking the Language Barrier!

Long before Hindi imposition and Agnipath started trending on social media, there was a motley group of cadets who joined Naval Academy under a unique experiment at boosting officer entry to the Indian Navy.

The experiment brought together diverse individuals just out of 10+2 (junior college) from far corners of India. The medium of communication at the services selection boards (SSB) was English. A select few scaled the entry barriers with impeccable convent English while some of us ducked under the radar with jugaad words borrowed from self-help books. This was 1986-87 and the founders of Google were in high school. Thesaurus as a word itself was too heavy for most Indians. Shashi Tharoor was less well-known than Morarji Desai.

So when these pan-India officer trainees walked-in through the gates of Naval Academy atop Verem hill in INS Mandovi, Goa, Hindi & English — two languages one needed to navigate the daily grind — were tested to limits by cadets & their divisional officers alike (one of whom presides over the navy today and delivers pressers in Hindi).

The motley group of cadets from ‘Ocean’s Best’ at Boat Pool, INS Mandovi, 1987. (Kaypius photo)

Close, but not close enough!

Our troubles started within a week of enrolment. A senior cadet ex-mercantile marine with surname ‘Odakkal’ was the Academy Cadet Captain (ACC). Hailing from southern latitudes, Cadet Odakkal spoke impeccable English, with a baritone to match. But some amidst us had grown up on test cricket where a player named Wadekar was more famous (& more friendly on the tongue). Unable to fathom the state boundaries where Wadekar ended & Odakkal began, few of us had to routinely forego our afternoon siesta for addressing “Odakkal” as “Wadekar”. We soon realised the twain don’t mix as easily as Sea Pirate rum and coke.

The Devil wears Favda

Now, navy has a unique tradition of shramdaan (voluntary donation of labour). This again is a word far outside the lexicon of an average southerner. But if it’s in the training program, it must be done. So the academy mustered in Goa’s torrid summer to render shramdaan that most southerners could barely spell, let alone comprehend. The ‘toolkits’ were distributed and areas earmarked for each squadron to clean up.

Cadet Jerry from Chennai, whose Hindi vocabulary comprised less than 2-3 words, couldn’t locate his tool — in this case, a garden spade. He approached coursemate “Chote” from Agra for help in locating what is called “favda” (spade) in many parts of India. Chote sensed an opportunity to do a Phunsukh Wangdoo on unsuspecting Jerry. He suggested Jerry approach another “fucker-type” senior “Birdie” from the hinterlands for locating his tool. “What do i ask him, yaar?”, Jerry worried aloud. “I will explain”, said Chote before wickedly muttering something into Jerry’s ears. Jerry confidently approached Birdie with a request seeking a tool that replaced the ‘F’ in favda with an ‘L’.

Birdie didn’t take kindly to a junior’s request for a penis to undertake shramdaan. To my recall, the result was a resounding slap and a solid dressing down that cleared human anatomy in Jerry’s mind forever.

Our batch of ‘Agniveers’ after five months of training at Naval Academy, Goa. Kaypius photo, taken during Camp Tenderfoot.

Finally, I am a free bird!

In the horrible life of a cadet in first term, how do you describe that moment when you’ve cleared all hurdles, qualified for liberty (shore leave) & DLTGH* is down to single digit? (*DLTGH = days left to go home)

For my coursemate “Kuppy” from Tamil Nadu, Hindi was a foreign language. He faced much trouble in early days, gyrating in all the wrong directions to the GI’s drill commands in chaste Hindi. He, however, picked up a couple of Hindi words through the agnipath of five months. At DLTGH 1, the impending feeling of freedom & liberty found special expression when Kuppy proudly pronounced “aaj mein azad kauwa hoon” (today, I am a free crow). The barrack exploded in laughter loud enough to send all the kauwas of Mandovi on indefinite leave!

Every dog has its day!

Hindi Imposition works both ways. For those naturally gifted with Hindi but entering a milieu where English can be an entry barrier for better avenues, military life can bring you to difficult crossroads, throwing up strange pearls of wisdom. At a particularly sober juncture, one such cadet wanted to say “har kutte ka din aata hai” (every dog has its day). With the earthy wisdom of a cadet from state board curriculum, he ended up mouthing “every day, a dog shall come“. At least a few of us tried to philosophically normalise his expression.

Killer Squadron after a victory on the sports field, 1989. (Kaypius photo)

Act, don’t think!

Our gunnery instructors (GI), though aware of their limitations in English, never hesitated in wielding the language to advantage. Grammar and syntax were often replaced with the sheer power of decibel. A certain cadet was checked for slack movements on parade. His wishy-washy excuse “Sir, i thought….”. was quickly and brutally cut down by the GI who boomed “stop thoughting on the parade ground!!” Software today may produce red lines under “thoughting”, but little did our GIs brimming with 24-carat hardware care then!

Jaam session…eeks!

A honest confession. In 1987, I was no connoisseur of English either. All of 18, coming from a modest school in suburban Bombay that had only recently adopted English as the medium of instruction, i was not used to fancy convent clips. So when ‘Ocean’s Best’ organised an evening of music, dance and ‘snakes’ in the academy, i was given the duty to invite our divisional officer (DO) to the party. Entering the DO’s cabin with a smart salute, I extended him a warm invitation: “Sir, please do come for this evening’s jaam session”. I presumed, rather wishfully, that the evening was more about jaam (wine) than jamming! A friendly thump on the back & 25 bend stretches settled it with the DO, though jaam & jam still mix occasionally.

One of many “Jam sessions” at Navac, 1987-90. (Kaypius photo)

One day in the year of the fox!

Ever heard the rock song “Temple of the King” by 80s band ‘Rainbow’ that starts with “One day in the Year of the Fox”? Well, our Education officer Cdr Ravi who was incharge of the valedictory musical certainly hadn’t. Rockstar cadet Ravi Sivasankar & his band belted out the song in full vigour during rehearsals but Cdr Ravi remained circumspect about its prospects. He from southern India winced at the beginning of each stanza. During the final dress rehearsal, Cdr Ravi suggested that perhaps we needed to edit out the “fucks” part as “it may not go down well with esteemed guests attending the valedictory”!

Ocean’s Best at the end of their Valedictory program, one day in the year of the Fox, Spring of 1990! (Kaypius photo)

Lingerie laal ke haseen sapne

In the steep hierarchy of services, some things are best learnt early. Also, it is perhaps a good idea to check/recheck pronunciations before taking the lectern. Imagine the embarrassment of this Major General who (thought he) was holding a group of army wives’ attention at a party with a riveting narration about his recent tour of France. “Sir, Paris gaye toh shopping toh kiya hoga na?”, the ladies queried jokingly. “Of course”, said the general before waxing on his shopping bag of experiences. The veil dropped when he admitted to buying lin-gay-ree for his better half! He should’ve used his time in the airport’s executive “lounge” to Google this very “eerie” part of ladies’ wardrobe before disrobing his unintended polyglot identity!

Bum-drop silence!

The difference between “bum” in Hindi (meaning bomb) and “bomb” in English can be enough to set a class afire. It happened to us in the hallowed precincts of IIM, Ahmedabad where a classroom discussion was “hijacked” to familiar territory by a brother officer seeking to score his points for ‘class participation’. The senior veteran undergoing the bridge course for retiring officers was on song, recounting an anecdote from his Jaguar squadron days. His story went all “Sir, we prepared the bum, loaded the bum, flew right into the range and dropped the bum…bla bla”, except that they dropped it on the wrong pin! The class had a bum blast of a time listening to the anecdote, of course!

More on language & Hindi imposition soon but that’s all we have time for, folks! You are welcome to call a garden spade a favda, but do look up Au Revoir if you plan to use it in your farewell speech, lest you go down fighting the French in Mainland China!

I look forward to your humorous anecdotes about breaking the language barrier!


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2022. All rights reserved. Views are personal. I can be reached at or on my Twitter @realkaypius. Names have been tweaked to protect identity and promote humour!

4 thoughts on “Breaking the Language Barrier!

  1. Amazing writeup packed with loads of humor.. made my day reading your article that was so refreshing…

  2. Wow sir…. Brings back so many fon memories. We had a tradition in the mid 90s in Mike Squadron at NDA. The first termers would be taken for a long run a few days after settling down by the fourth termers. Halfway through the run, we would take a break at a Viewpoint for introductions. A funny part was that everyone had to say ‘Boiler se भाप nikalta hai’. While the northies could easily say ‘bhaap’, we southies would take our father (baap) out of the boiler

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