Between the ages of 17 and 20, I was a cadet with the National Cadet Corps in India and in 1992, I had the opportunity to be part of the Tamilnadu contingent that took part in the Republic Day camp in Delhi. The entire contingent of about a hundred cadets boarded the train from Madras on New Year’s Day 1992 and arrive 36 hours hours in the Arctic conditions of Delhi (it certainly felt like it coming as we did from tropical south). Like most others in our group, I had never been that far north in the country and we had been fed stories of how fantastic Delhi was. How wide the roads and how majestic our capital. I tried to reconcile the barren emptiness of Garrison Parade ground that confronted me with the exalted vision I had built of the city in my head. To be fair, the grounds where we were to be stationed for the rest of the month were well out of the city bounds, but I didn’t know that then.
As a contingent we were pitted against others from different regions of the country and took part in various competitions including cross-country running, parade, guard of honour and cultural events. Our living quarters were also judged for their cleanliness and the sharpness of our bed folds (no, really).
Our barracks were basic and barely insulated. We each had a thin metal cot and standard issue sheets and blankets. We had a greatcoat to wear over our uniforms and a duffel bag for our belongings. We were expected to spend our day rehearsing for parade and tending to our barracks and keeping them ready for inspection by the judges. The lady officers who accompanied our contingent insisted that we spend part of the freezing nights tidying and smoothening the muddy area outside the barracks. One memorable evening, I threw a strop and was threatened with disciplinary action and being reported to my college back home when I returned. I couldn’t care less and frankly, my sleep and warmth mattered more.
I also distinctly remember the pungent odour of mustard oil with which they cooked the food that was served in the canteen. Also, some girls in my contingent used to rub it in the soles of their feet to keep themselves warm. The appalling state of the toilets which we had to share with the contingent from Karnataka is something I’d never forget. And we were expected to wash ourselves with buckets of ice cold water. Little wonder we all came home reeking.
Attending the Republic Day Camp was also the first time I questioned my belief that if I worked hard at something, the results were bound to come. I was repeatedly overlooked when they picked a national squad to march down the Rajpath (or King’s way) on Republic Day saluting the President of India. I had overcome ligament tears and injuries, been chased by dogs and perverts and trained relentlessly in trying to be selected for the Republic Day camp. And yet, I saw those that were prettier and lighter-skinned chosen over me. Perhaps those were the criteria. Perhaps I was a sour loser. Perhaps, I wasn’t good enough in swinging my arms and marching to a beat. It left me feeling bitter and halfway though the camp, I lost my enthusiasm.
So much so, I barely paid attention to the selection process for the forthcoming exchange programme with Canada. I breezed through the selection process and by the time I came in front of the Director General of NCC for the final interview, I had decided to speak my mind. I told him how disappointed I was with the whole experience. And how he as head of the organisation had a lot to answer for. I was roundly chided by my friends later for throwing away an opportunity.
And yet, the following month I had a letter from the DG’s office congratulating me on my selection to represent India in Canada in an exchange programme that summer. But that’s another story in itself.
I cannot believe that it has been almost 25 years since that experience. Barring a couple, I don’t know where any of my fellow Tamilnadu contingent cadets are today. But I am pretty sure, come 26th of January, they will be thinking of that frozen month we spent as young people in Delhi. And will be telling themselves that it was indeed a special time in our lives.