By: Commodore Srikant Kesnur
Today, 06 May, at sunset, Indian Naval Ship Ranjit will be decommissioned (retired from service) and, as they say in our parlance, the naval ensign will be hauled down forever. Many officers and sailors who served on her have assembled in Vizag to bid adieu; many more who served on her but could not be there due to one constraint or other will be shedding a silent tear, at the gentle passing of a warship that has served the Indian Navy for almost 36 years, since her commissioning in 1983.
It is to be expected that warships will engender a fierce sense of loyalty and belongingness among those who served on her. For navymen in the seagoing branches, much of our formative years are spent on ships – consequently, a lot of our memories are tied up with our times on board. But it is also because we regard ships as living, breathing creatures and not inanimate objects.
They carry vibes that stay in our subconscious. Recently, while bidding farewell to few coursemates who are retiring from service, it was noteworthy how their most important memories of the navy were of their times on board ships, even though many had left their seafaring careers far behind and not set foot on ships for years.
It is, thus, natural for us to have an affinity for the ships we have served on or had the privilege of commanding. That besides, some ships occupy one’s mindscape even though we may not have been on them.
Perhaps, it is the memories of having been berthed together or having some friends there or simply having heard more stories about that ship. It is possible that ships with greater character (and greater number of characters) and greater number of stories and incidents, often linger in one’s memory more. Ranjit was such a ship for me. Obviously, this would be specific to an individual, context, and situation and hence differ from one person to another.
I never served on board Ranjit; I don’t think I ever sailed on her any time. And yet there is a montage of memories associated with that ship. I cannot claim an insider’s perspective, many having been privileged to serve there will have much more to tell on that score.
Hopefully, we can expect a bumper harvest of stories and anecdotes about her, in the decommissioning brochure. Thus, mine remains more of an outsider’s recollection, an assortment of memories at different times and on different occasions.
Any such reminiscing will have to first acknowledge the fact that the SNFs or Kashin class as they were called, were/are, arguably, the best looking ships in our Navy.
Their hull form elicited admiring gasps, their distinctive silhouette was a macho man dream come true. They bristled with menace, prowling the seas and it was natural for anyone on the five R class to feel cocky about serving on them. It is, therefore, not surprising that this Russian design has been the inspiration for our own sleek indigenous ships, Delhi class onwards.
Second, these ships have displayed remarkable longevity. A recent news item showed a Kashin class, more than 40 years old, still in commission, in the Russian Navy. Ranjit served for 36 years, her elder siblings Rajput and Rana are still active and doing wonderful work.
Considering a normal ship’s life span of 30 years and the numerous problems that obtain in warm waters of the Indian Ocean with regard to maintenance, the R class have shown great resilience indeed.
My SNF time was just about a year from Jul 87 to July 88, on the newly commissioned and latest one at that time – INS Ranvir – to earn my watchkeeping ticket. (I wrote about my Ranvir memories in a Quarterdeck article couple of years ago). My earliest Ranjit memories are also of that time.
The two ships were often berthed together or nearby. In those days, Ranjit commanded by Capt OP (called Omi by many) Bansal and with Cdr Dayanand Prabhu as XO, seemed one of the most swinging ships around. (The late) Omi Bansal (retired as VAdm and FOCinC East) came across as a jazz guy and Prabhu while being strict and, somewhat, rule-bound had a heart of gold.
Mind you, appearances, impressions, and memories can be deceptive and therefore differ from one person to another, but to us on Ranvir in those days, under a strict regimen on board our own ship, Ranjit seemed a great wardroom.
It had by far the best food among all the SNFs, the officers seemed more easygoing, the dress regulations more relaxed and beer flowed on make and mend days and Sundays. Often, we would escape meeting our coursemates on Ranjit – C Suresh (Bond) and Deepak Adhar (Dax) for a drink, hoping they would ask us to stay back for the meal (a young Lt Atul Kumar, now Cmde and PDPS, was Mess Secretary I think).
Looking back, in retrospect, the Spartan atmosphere of Ranvir was perhaps just what we needed to earn our spurs, it was necessary to prepare us for the challenges ahead of us. I would not exchange that experience for anything. But a single striper is not known to look beyond his next meal or watch; to us, therefore, Ranjit was that little dive alongside where we could chill for a while before returning to our imposing and intimidating den.
A few months later, Capt PJ Jacob (Jakes), took over as our Commanding Officer. Some of the crew had changed and we had become more comfortable on our ship. Jakes (later VAdm and VCNS) was nearly the senior most CO and Omi Bansal the junior most, yet the two had an excellent rapport and were great friends.
The latter would often drop in for lunch with Jakes – many of them were extended sessions. As the Staff Officer to Jakes, it was my job to keep the Captain’s fridge stocked with some chocolates – both of them indulged in this temptation with gusto. It was also my job to gently remind Jakes of other jobs waiting or signatures pending – so I would often instruct the steward to serve black coffee even when it was not asked for.
But it was good to see the warm vibes and witty exchanges between them, both exuded a sense of nonchalance and casual elegance seeming to affirm their complete faith in their officers and crew and trusting them to run the ship. It was a good lesson for junior officers.
The next memory of Ranjit is of our specialist times in the early and mid-nineties. While there are some snippets about exercises with her at sea (there were moments when she landed up in the wrong place (station) at wrong time leading to much mirth and merriment) the one that stands out, for some reason, is her affiliation with the Punjab Regiment.
If my memory serves me right, this happened sometime in Nov 97, a few days before our own ship INS Delhi was commissioned. Maybe it was because we had a few ex Ranjit guys on board or maybe it was because we were preparing for our own big day and were exchanging notes on ‘event management’, that function stands out in memory. I was not there, too small a fry to be invited.
However, as a history buff, I was thrilled that Ranjit was affiliated to the Punjab Regiment. Not only is it one of the oldest and most distinguished Army regiments it also has a unique motto ‘Sthal Wa Jal’ (by land and sea) and its regimental insignia has a ‘naval galley’ in recognition of its services in overseas campaigns of British India. A part of me wished that our own ship Delhi be affiliated with the Punjab regiment (because of the distinguished lineage of the old INS Delhi) but that was still far away.
I mentioned this to our EXO, the late, Cdr SS Jamwal (later RAdm) and he sort of laughed it off saying “First prepare for commissioning and think of these fancy things later”. (In due course, Delhi got affiliated to another distinguished regiment the Rajputana Rifles). Capt (later Cmde) Rajiv Dhamdhere was in command of Ranjit at that time, subsequently, he became the commissioning CO of the INS Mysore, the sister ship of Delhi.
Many years later, I think 2010, I suddenly received an email from my dear friend and course mate Capt (now Cmde) NAJ Joseph. It was a message of gratitude on being chosen to command INS Ranjit. Many sniggered, some bitched that ‘he is behaving as though he has been chosen to command the Aircraft Carrier’, but this was typical of Joe or Nazi as we call him.
A true son of the soil, grateful for what life has given him, Joe was also like the ship he commanded – austere, pugnacious, hardworking and ready to take on any challenge. I was in Nairobi then and have no first-hand knowledge but from all accounts, Joe ran a taut and happy ship. He sailed a great deal, had lots of ‘action’ and was hugely respected for his knowledge of the Kashins. I suspect one of the reasons he felt privileged was because he too had great respect for late VAdm OP Bansal, who had been his boss in another job.
Cut now to Jul 2013, when I landed in Vizag and assumed command of INS Jalashwa. I was the Seniormost CO and often the Flag Captain/SOPA. All COs had a happy equation among them and the sunrise Fleet was fairly close-knit. Ranjit was an active part of the Fleet, fully operational and sailing in most exercise programmes. Capt (now Cmde) MP Anil Kumar was the CO and I enjoyed his deadpan sense of humor and wry way of saying things. Being friends before (or so I assume) we were able to get onto resonance frequency right away and enjoyed our exercises at sea and the events in harbor.
Both of us being long C, we renewed the practice of making naughty signals, to one another, when Jalashwa and Ranjit were together, which was often. The less bawdy amongst them were reproduced in the Signal School journal ‘Callsign’ last year. It is a tradition that is, alas, finding lesser traction as our communication gets more hi-tech with every passing year. MP would good-naturedly crib when Jalashwa often beat Ranjit in sports fixtures, arguing that it was a fixed match. But that did not stop him from generously placing his larder and bar at my disposal when we got together for some highfalutin discussions.
While I was still on Jalashwa, MP handed over command of Ranjit to Capt (later Cmde) MVS Negi. MVS was a good friend, my student at NWC, my neighbor in our building and, better still, Sujata (his wife) and Paddy (my better half) were very good pals. He was also the second seniormost Captain, so the SOPA baton remained among us. This was a really good time for Ranjit. She continued to sail and do well and we often met at sea apart from participating in events together in the harbor.
A few months later, in Feb 2015, Ranjit won the cock in the Fleet regatta showing the excellent morale of her men. If I recollect right, a couple of months later, she also won the best ship (or the best-spirited ship) of the fleet during the Fleet Awards Evening (FLING). For a 30 plus years ship, it was a fantastic performance. And that year at the FLING we had a dance troupe from the Punjab regiment which put in some electrifying performances.
And so it is that Ranjit leaves behind many memories for me – an outsider. I am sure many who did not serve on her would also have some such memories, courtesy their friends or seniors or other interlocutors. And those who served on her would indeed have so much to reminisce and muse and clink glasses. Wishing the old lady a grand farewell and hoping that in good Indian tradition, a new avatar takes her place soon. *Until then, so long. Jeet Jeet Ranjit.