Cdr KP Sanjeev Kumar (Retd)
“Are you attending the Navy Nite?, my coursemate asked me yesterday.
“What’s that? I only know Navy Ball”, I replied curiously.
“Arey, that only. It’s called Navy Nite now. In fact, for some years now”, my friend offered.
“Oh..ok. So what gives? Isn’t it the same old wine in new bottle?”, I thought aloud.
Recently, Allahabad had turned Prayagraj and Shimla was likely to do a Williamson‘s Turn to Shyamala. Some Yogi promised to turn Hyderabad into Bhagyanagar, presumably having run out of luck (bhagya). Maybe this renaming mania was catching in the Navy, I wondered.
“Yeah, I guess. Navy Queen is also not there”, my friend added.
Now my antenna was up but not catching any signal, like modern mobile telephony.
“Do we get booze and Shakin’ Stevens, or is that out as well?”, I asked, clearly out of touch with modernisms of the Navy.
Every year, the Indian Navy launches a PR blitzkrieg called ‘Navy Week’ to commemorate our audacious attack on Karachi harbour during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Navy Week festivities spanning almost two months draw large civilian crowds into naval precincts and dockyards. Ships are opened to visitors. Blood donation camps and marathon runs are held. Naval Band concerts, awe-inspiring ‘Op Demo’ and solemn ceremonies like ‘Beating Retreat’ regale visitors, motivating fresh blood to ‘join the Navy and see the world’.
The pièce de résistance for officers and families is the ‘Navy Ball’, usually held on the first Saturday after Navy Day (4th Dec). A keenly awaited event, it showcased the silent service’s ‘upper crust’ etiquettes to guests and sister services like no other. Landlines in naval offices and homes would start buzzing weeks before for ‘passes’ to the ball. Bachelor boys and young officers had their best chance to find a foothold in the snooty, social pecking order of Bombay.
On B-day, hordes of civilians in their tuxedos and suits, spouses and girlfriends dressed in their party best, would be jostling outside the venue to spot their naval ‘contacts’. Some would wait to encash on the misfortune of the odd single officer whose promised partner did the Houdini. Beauty often lied into the ears of the pass holder.
Inside the venue, high-octane music, spectacular lighting, fabulous decor and the warm company of ‘officers & gentlemen’ in dress No. 6Bs made for an unparalleled ambience.
Times Have Changed
Those days, all the money in the world couldn’t buy you a Navy Ball entry to IMSC Colaba unless you served, or earned the Navy’s goodwill. The locale set against land’s end of South Mumbai was the exclusive privilege of those in uniform.
It was ‘first serve, then come’. Now ‘first come first serve’ seems to be the norm, with VIP enclosures for ‘senior management of sponsors’. Times have changed.
The Navy Queen Pageant
Navy Queen Pageant (NQP) was the highlight of the ball. Each navy ball, three wonderful ladies would be crowned Navy Queen and runners-up after a rigorous selection that trailed back weeks. Participants were assessed for sterling attributes, including the ability to think on their feet. What started as a platform to acknowledge and celebrate the unsung heroines – the wind beneath our sails – has run its course and now shelved for reasons not hard to guess. Ladies have other avenues to strut their stuff, one officer told me. I put out my best poker face.
At one time, the NQP was a potential launch platform for Miss India pageant and further conquests (read here to know why defence daughters have an edge). Winds of change have slowly pulled the sea chest valve on this one. Some tri-service bases pass off this event under a ‘Purple Queen’ banner, I am told (no, it’s not the LGBT movement, not yet). Now instead of NQP we mostly have choreographed Bollywood masala, comedy shows and, who knows, maybe some Ukrainian belly dancers too (wink wink). We certainly have come of age!
Every Navy ball would witness at least a few hilarious incidents with high recall value. In one instance, the Commander-in-Chief, a three (3)-star admiral, set the ball rolling as is customary announcing “Here, I set the Navy Ball 19xx rolling”. The ball rolled a few metres before it was stopped by the polished toe of a very junior but swashbuckling officer (who perhaps had already downed a few welcome drinks) saying “here I stop the Navy Ball”. A stunned silence followed, broken by sparkling wit of the admiral who restored the party atmosphere with grace. The officer of course did not feel very ‘wonderful tonight’ when Kochi’s iconic rock band from the nineties, 13AD, opened the proceedings with Eric Clapton!
The Navy ball is strictly an ‘officers only’ event. That didn’t stop a sailor from the local naval unit quietly slipping across the security cordon, masquerading as a civilian guest. Goans have a natural affinity for tipple and a flair for dance. The stowaway was noticed by none other than his own EXO (Executive Officer) as he rocked the stage with his deft dance moves. Mambo No. 5 could well have turned into ten days No. 12 (stoppage of leave) but for the large-hearted ‘Number One’ (EXO in navalese) who pardoned his mischief while earmarking him for the forthcoming ship’s anniversary cultural programme as ‘Item No. 5’
Sandra from Bandra
Every Navy ball had its own ‘Sandra from Bandra’ scam. At the receiving end were gullible naval officers like me who never even had a pen-friend, let alone ‘a girl in every port’. Wicked casanovas among us would sell us tall stories of how a bevy of uptown girls were keenly looking for naval partners to shake a leg. That was easy bait in the days before Tinder and FB; after all, who wants to be stag at the best do in town. Nobody told us they were ace dancers we couldn’t match steps with. And boy, they could drink you under the table! The joke was on us, playing ‘Swiggy’ and ‘Uber Eats’ for the gang from Xaviers and Sophias (“can you refresh my drink while I go dance to Black Velvet with my boyfriend? You are such a daaahling!”).
While the John Travoltas and Sly Stallones cavorted with their select partners under the strobe lights, we were left running between bar and coupon counters. Soon we realised the girls were taking a wrecking ball to our slender ‘Pay ToMorrow’ wallets.
And wait, the night isn’t over till the ladies have been safely dropped back home at 4 AM. Remember the officer and gentleman thing? No kaali-peelies at that hour either. The morning-after is best left to your imagination.
With each Navy Ball, we matured a little. Till we were saved by the great Indian institution of ‘arranged marriage’. Now I have a partner for life, I still can’t dance to save my life, and yes, I am still paying the bills. Only Navy Ball has become Navy Nite.
What the Navy lacks in manpower or afterburners, we make up with style and panache. The ball would commence with the live band belting out slow waltz numbers, then slowly move into higher gears with jive and rock n roll, only to arrive eventually where all Indian parties must – Bollywood masala and Punjabi bhangra. Move over Clapton and Bob Marley, we want some local curry.
‘Tunak tunak tun‘ and ‘kardi rab rab‘ soon took over! No, I am not rubbing it in. There’s magic in Indipop and ballads. But Englishmen who invented our naval uniforms never accounted for a special dance move called ‘screwing imaginary light bulbs’.
There were spot prizes to be won at every step, starting from the ‘first couple on dance floor’, to ‘socks with maximum holes’ and ‘who is carrying highest denomination foreign currency on person’ etc. After the King of Good Times and diamantaires NiMo & Choksuey left gaping holes in Indian banks’ balance sheets, I am not sure if the foreign currency spot prize is still a valid call. May be ‘who is carrying the wifey’s Aadhaar?’ would be more keeping with the times. Wait, will a scanned copy on my Google Drive do?
Keep Calm & Beer Chilled!
Navy Ball or Navy Nite, Navy Queen or Purple Queen, nothing changes the fact that the Navy is a fine service all of us are eminently proud of. Our officers and men are heroes and ‘sheroes’ who rise to every occasion. Our ladies are the uncrowned queens of all they survey. A tiara changes nothing.
I am betting this Navy ball, many Rustoms and Cynthias will be dancing to ‘Tere Sang Yaara‘ (sung by Pakistani singer Atif Aslam), which proves that music, like the armed forces, will always remain above religion in India. It is the glue that keeps us together in the face of numerous faultlines.
Being politically correct and wearing various ‘isms’ on the sleeve while ducking real issues that plague us has become a national preoccupation. Let that matter rest with those who are charged to deal with it.
Meanwhile, go get your ‘Navy Nite 2019’ passes before it’s too late! Baad mein mat rona! Happy Navy Day, folks!
This article was earlier published on author’s blog.
–The author is a former navy test pilot and his blogsite is www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org