To Do or Dye

A young girl in her 20s offered me her seat in Bengaluru’s Namma Metro this morning, just as i was imagining doing calisthenics from the overhead handrails. With this, life has come a full circle and a blog post is in order.

The author while training as a cadet in Naval Academy, 1989 (Kaypius pic)

You see, I was always ‘behind my years’ — if such an expression be allowed — as opposed to being ahead of my years. Thanks to my bachha (childlike) looks, I managed to survive the crushing rush on Mumbai’s local trains, riding on the footboard of the ladies compartment till a sharp TTE caught my mischief. Of short stature, fair complexion (neither my choice nor a recommendation) & pink lips, my youthfulness extended a trifle beyond youth. So much so that when I applied to the National Defence Academy (NDA) in 1985, a well-meaning but ill-informed family friend suggested I pursue an alternate vocation since they only enrol “non-vegetarian 6-footer Pathans” — a complete antithesis of my humble origins and parentage.

As luck would have it, I managed to sneak under the human engineering radar of 12 SSB Bangalore and Institute of Aerospace Medicine to eventually land up in the Naval Academy at Goa.

My deficiency in inches & vocabulary was covered by other coursemates from down South who were built like bisons – with a Hindi vocabulary to match. One of them was set up for instant ragda when he went looking for ‘favda’ with the first letter replaced, while another — a Carl Lewis incarnate — celebrated his first term break as an “azad kauwa“. Thanks to these oddballs, my small wiry frame and bambayya Hindi survived the Shashi Tharoors and Gulzars of our course.

Big bullies picking on pint size in Naval Academy (Kaypius pic)

During one of the term breaks, I visited my best buddy – long tall Sujoy Ganguly, aka Gangu at his dad’s fauji accommodation in Dhanraj Mahal, Colaba. Gangu, a fauji brat ‘machhi‘ from Bengal, was a six-footer with impeccable English & a heart of gold (like most Bengalis). After a glass of beer with Papa Ganguly, beta Ganguly took me out for a ride down Marine Drive on his dad’s LML Vespa scooter. Without asking if I had ever received any training or LMV licence, Gangu graciously handed the keys to puny KPS after the first bend while he took to the pillion in an instructional role.

I  wish I could tell you it was a happy ending like ‘When Harry Met Sally”. Unfortunately, I ran a red light and ‘Pandu met Gangu’ at the next block. We were flagged down by a Bombay Police traffic constable chewing tambaku (tobacco) with a challan in hand. He sized me up (which wasn’t much anyway) while Gangu negotiated a “settlement”. We were let off with a stern warning addressed in Marathi to ‘big boy’ Gangu: “Aaz mi zawoon detoye. Pun lahan mulgyana vahan nahi dyayche“. (I am sparing you this time. But don’t give vehicles to kids). We were coursemates, but apparently Gangu was mature enough to drive while i was lahan mulga.

It was a coming of age thing for me, but didn’t burnish my appearance anyway.

“Lahan Mulga” KPS with big boy Sujoy Ganguly in later years

Academy was a breeze since my small frame could handle the rough & tumble well. Climbing the rope, vaulting the horse, L-shaping on the wall-bar and handsprings — all came naturally to me. But the childlike looks always ensured our DivOs (Divisional Officers, one of whom is CNS today) never took me seriously. Neither could I grow a beard and moustache — the USP of every malayali — to improve my appearance & be taken for real. Contrast this with a Hulk Hogan coursemate (a Sikh cadet) who was so “chikna” (smooth-skinned, in Academy lexicon) that a DivO once asked if his was a beard or a fungal infection. So net-net, I really had no reason to complain.

Eventually, when allowed as per Navy Regulations, i sported a beard and improved my rankings in “face value”. I got through the Air Force Academy, earned my wings, and broke up with my first love (another malayali, but the break-up was not about facial hair). Air Force was gracious enough to let me compromise the integrity of the oxygen mask with my beard, but raised eyebrows over a reported underage love affair in the cadets’ block. That storm passed without much damage.

Glory days in Air Force Academy, 1993-94.

That remark from the Bombay Police traffic constable came back to haunt me when a coursemate’s father remarked jokingly at his son’s wedding how the navy trusted their expensive aeroplanes in the hands of a “cheriya kutty” (“little boy” in Malayalam) like me. I decided right then that I needed to get into the marriage market if I had to be taken seriously.

Bare-chested KP wore a mundu at his Guruvayur wedding where my 36-24-36 figure & jet black hair was reportedly the cynosure of young coursemates’ wives’ eyes. I think in the early years of our marriage, even Madhuri suspected that I had fudged my date of birth. She succeeded in due course to put a few creases on my face and the first streaks of silver in my hair. Yet, to her credit, she never encouraged me to use hair colour.

Married to the right figure! (Kaypius pic)

Later, during our annual visits to parents in Kerala, my mom was aghast to see the early signs of grey in an otherwise youthful face. She broke into tears once, lamenting “you are my last born. What is all this grey hair? Please apply dye or henna or something. I cannot bear to see this”.

Promptly, her raja beta sprinted off to the nearest saloon in rural Kerala, against Madhuri’s disapproving looks. “Let me try this. It’s for mom”, I said. She made a face which spoke of impending disaster.

The barber in Parali, Palakkad mixed a potent brew which looked like molten tar to me. He told me everyone from Mammootty to Mohanlal used that dye — a wicked marketing gimmick. Since I didn’t know L’oreal from poriyal, I let him experiment. The result was an instant success with mom, but the vibes from Madhuri were clear as day: “stay away from me till the dye wears off”.

My first brush with the dreaded dye! (Kaypius pic)

My first and only experiment with hair dye lasted a few weeks after which the grey army struck back with full vengeance. I blamed everything from a life spent inside flying helmets to the brackish water of IIM Ahmedabad, while never once challenging the status quo. I was secretly enjoying the “learned and mature” look! By the time I took premature retirement, even hard-dyed seniors who didn’t know KPS would wish me “good morning Sir” while I beamed back wickedly. It was payback time!

The reality of my greying looks dawned on me one evening on Juhu Beach when an elderly doctor stopped to appreciate my plank-type bend stretches, saying “Sir, after seeing you i am convinced that age is really just a number”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I decided not to break his heart by revealing my age.

The crushing blow came on another beach when I intercepted a frisbee thrown by a pretty 20-something in a swimsuit. “Thank you, Uncle”, she said as I handed over the flying object reluctantly. It was time to give a flying kiss to youth and vitality, but damned if i ever touch black paint to my top deck.

As I look back at life, it’s hard to miss the bittersweet irony. Blessed are those who get what they wanted — in time. I always got mine a day late or a decade early. The symphony of appearance and age slowly seems to be finding its balance and harmony. The lahan mulga who ran a red light is flying into the sunset, on the wings of “more salt, less peppa”. And I couldn’t be happier for it. By the grace of God and navy, I am in a profession where salt and pepper is gold.

A profession where ‘salt and pepper’ is gold (Kaypius pic)

As ace solo-circumnavigator Cdr Abhilash Tomy KC, NM replied sagaciously to my lament this morning: “Dye another day”.

Aye aye, Skipper!

“Dye another Day” (screenshot from my Twitter timeline)


©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2024. All rights reserved. I can be reached at or on my Twitter @realkaypius. Feel free to share!


18 thoughts on “To Do or Dye

  1. Age like a sage, one once said. Pay no heed to this cruel graying because what truly matters is the grey matter that’s resident just a few mm under this grey matter

  2. What a funtastic read! Made me recall NAVAC in all its crazy routines. Loved it. Thank you for the nostalgia.

    1. Excellent read sir. ” Dare Devils always Do never Dye” It’s always awesome to read your blog. Took us back in time, all the way to academy days.

  3. The doc on the beach and the frisbee lassie, LAFAO. Let it snow buddy, is all i ll say. I love mine ! And welcome back !!

  4. It’s been privilege to see you from cadet days till date. Those were the days we all cherish. Cheers buddy dye another day is so apt. Bash on

  5. Loved your drive into memory lane. After finishing my long swim (around 4km) I was changing when two elderly Gentlemen started admiring my flat stomach. ‘I envy your perfect body. There is not an ounce of fat’. The other nodded, ‘You are so fit, you must be 72 years’. I was deflated but told them that they have to reduce 12 years to come to the correct age.
    Nice article.

  6. Grey shades can be stereotyped as ageing, but a clean-looking grey is stunning — especially on a youthful face— nice one KPS

  7. Ageing is all about adapting to change amid the uncertainties of life – Hair now, gone tomorrow!
    Greyt read, KP… qwhite a trip down memory lane!

    1. Nice light reading sir! And good pics from your past. Enjoyed and could relate some of experience when you are addressed as Uncle for the first time!

  8. Outstanding KP.

    As for me I still maintain that I have been 25 years young for the last 29 years.


  9. Missed these musings KP. Good to have you back. This ‘uncle’ business needs to be banned, I flinch each time it happens!!

  10. Have admired your blogs right through..the first one being your trip to Garhwal Regimental center @Lansdowne, which was truly awesome..!

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