These retired Army officers went online to celebrate 50 years of training

For the first time in the history of the Officers Training Academy, Chennai, golden jubilee celebrations that were supposed to run for two days, are curtailed to an online meeting

Updated - September 11, 2020 12:51 pm IST

Published - September 09, 2020 08:55 pm IST

The Zoom call of the ninth batch of OTA

The Zoom call of the ninth batch of OTA

On the periphery of his lawn in his farmhouse on the outskirts of Jalandhar, Colonel NJS Pannu has planted two casuarina trees, in memory of his days at what used to be the Officers Training School (now the Officers Training Academy) in Chennai.

“We used to be taken for on these mock battles, beyond the Adyar River, sometimes walking 20 kilometres, amongst the casuarina groves. We don’t see them in North India,” says the colonel, whose second batch of 1970 celebrated its 50th year of passing out on September 6.

The course, with their families, had planned to meet on September 12 and 13, with people flying in from across India and the world. They were to stay at the OTA and relive their days of the 49 weeks of military training that gentleman cadets (and lady cadets from 1992) are put through.

Unfortunately, all they could manage was a Zoom call, so that 93 Naughty Niners, as they called themselves (they were the ninth batch of the OTA) could ‘meet’ — they were all 10 minutes early, naturally!

While they had a great time reliving all the punishments they got because of anything from a missing button on a uniform to the grey beret that was askew, “It was heartbreaking for most of us, because this is the first time after we passed out that so many of us would have been together, and it’s unlikely that we’ll all meet again altogether,” says Col Pannu, who got the Sword of Honour at his alma mater, for best all-round performance during the course.

The passing out parade

The passing out parade

The preparation for the 2020 meet began two-and-a-half years ago, says Colonel EJJ Isaacs, in Chennai, who in 2012 was appointed as the course coordinator by the OTA alumni association. Lieutenant Colonel KJ Singh in Mohali did a lot of the legwork of getting phone numbers and starting a WhatsApp group. For the first meeting held in September 2018, people came in to Chennai from across the country. Unfortunately, Capt Rao, who attended even the second meeting held in November last year, passed away just a month later.

They were to have released a souvenir, with articles from the retired officers recalling their times at the academy and a presentation of an ISO resin installation about 9.5 feetX35 feet, called The Making of an Officer, a series of 15 figures depicting the transformation of a greenhorn into an officer. There was to be a wreath laying ceremony at the Temple of Remembrance, a monument with an honour roll to those from OTA who have died in the service of the nation. The batch itself has had 23 gallantry awards.

As part of the Zoom call on Sunday, Col Isaacs made a presentation of how the academy now looked. “No one could believe how much it has changed, and how green it is now. The cadets barracks and mess, and the library are far better than what we had. There’s even a road up P Hill (they joke it was short for Punishment Hill, though the hill is a spur off Parangi Malai — St Thomas Mount). We had to run up and roll down,” he says, laughing, adding that someone remembered how they were given cycles but joked about how they hardly ever rode them — they were mostly carried around over the head as a punishment.

Training at the OTA

Training at the OTA

During the call, people remembered movies in the Safire multiplex with three cinema halls, lunches at Buhari’s and Swapna, the latter a draw for those from up North, who missed chhola-bhatura . While the then cadets grappled with the tough training that included tests of physical endurance and mental toughness, many struggled with summer-time temperatures and the humidity of Chennai, while those from the city tackled Hindi, a language they were introduced to at the academy.

What they missed experiencing was the view of the academy from the top of P Hill, the stay planned in the barracks for two nights reliving the days when discipline was drilled into them, lunches and dinners at the cadet’s mess, a walk around the parade ground that now has tarmac but which used to have only red soil.

“Mostly we missed the camaraderie, an extended period of trying to recall the glorious days, not just in OTA, but also in the services,” says Major General Panicker, the senior-most in the course, who remembers picking up cycle polo at the academy and later starting it in places he was posted, wherever possible.

He now runs the General’s SSB Academy in Thiruvananthapuram that trains people between 20 and 27 (the ages between which people can enrol) for the five-day tests, developing their personality and developing their leadership capacity.

The White House that once served as the headquarters

The White House that once served as the headquarters

The OTA now trains about an average of 200 gentlemen and 30 lady cadets in every course, to enter the Indian Army for a period of 14 years (10 with an extension of 4). It is set on a campus of 650 acres, with 10 new buildings and 16 dating to pre-Independence days (some close to 100 years old).

“The fighting arms (armoured corps, artillery, infantry) are still the most popular (among the gentleman cadets). What’s different about today’s cadets is that they often come with more exposure, some having worked in the corporate world,” says Brigadier K Sampath, secretary of the alumni association. What is not is the spirit they come with.

He says the trend of organising silver and golden jubilee celebrations for batches is relatively new: “It started in 2013, when OTA itself celebrated 50 years.”

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