As teachers go, he was unusual. A short, bulky Khalsa with the customary bushy beard, with eyebrows to match, Naib Risaldar Gulzar Singh was my D&M (Driving and Maintenance) instructor when I joined the Regiment back in 1990. He was universally known as Nanda Sahib, although that wasn’t his actual name. Apparently when he had joined the regiment, Gulzari Lal Nanda was the caretaker Prime Minister. With their unique brand of humour and logic, his seniors in the Khalsa squadron had christened Gulzar Singh as ‘Nanda’ because of their similar sounding first name. Much later, when he was promoted to a JCO, the ‘Sahib’ was automatically added to the alias. This I learnt much later, and went through the first few years in the Regiment believing that was his actual name.
Back then, fresh out of the academy and with more stars in my eyes than on my shoulders, my status was no better than one of the young recruits. Although I was an officer, duly commissioned by the President and gazetted by the Government of India, in the eyes of the regiment I was more of a liability than an asset. In order to transform from a red ink entry into a blue ink one, I had to first learn all about the internal and external workings of our equipment – Tank T-55 105mm (Upgunned). The formal training I would receive six months later when I attended the Young Officers’ course at Ahmadnagar. But meanwhile there was the pre-course – a preparatory cadre conducted in the unit garages.
Instructors were a scarce resource, so I was clubbed with an ongoing cadre for new recruits. Classes were conducted on the three main aspects of the tankmanship – Gunnery, Radio and Driving & Maintenance. Nanda Sahib was our instructor for the last. He had his own brand of teaching, which, though unorthodox. was very effective in not only conveying what he wanted to, but also making the lesson stick in our minds.
For instance, I can never ever forget the functioning of a ‘one way valve’ thanks to Nanda Sahib. He was taking a class on ‘Fording’. This is an exercise that tanks undertake to cross shallow, fordable bodies of water with a little bit of preparation. For this, a ‘one way’ or ‘butterfly’ valve is fitted on the exhaust outlet of the tank. This is a spring loaded valve, which prevents water from entering the exhaust manifold of the engine. The strength of the springs is so calibrated that the pressure of the smoke coming out from the exhaust opens it, thus allowing the smoke to escape. But otherwise it remains tightly shut, thus preventing ingress of water.
Nanda Sahib explained this with a diagram, and then took us on the tank to demonstrate. He got us to fix the butterfly valve on the tank, and started the engine to demonstrate how the flap of the valve opened every time he pressed the accelerator to increase the flow of smoke. But there was this one recruit who just couldn’t fathom how, if the smoke was able to get out, the water didn’t get in. When all the scientific principles at his disposal failed, Nanda resorted to his rustic logic, which went as follows.
(Those of you who can, imagine the following conversation in ‘theth’ Punjabi. For those not fortunate enough to know that language, the translation will convey the sense though I’m afraid it won’t do complete justice to the tone and tenor.)
Recruit : But Sahib, I still don’t understand. How can it be that the smoke comes out but the water doesn’t go in?
Nanda : Do you have a pond in your village?
Recruit : Yes.
Nanda : Do you bathe in it?
Recruit : Yes.
Nanda : Have you ever farted while bathing in the pond?
Recruit : (sheepishly) Yes.
Nanda : Did the water go in?
The recruit had this sudden look of enlightenment on his face.
As for me, I learnt a little more than Medium Fording and functioning of one way valve. That, of course, I will never forget. But what I also learnt is that a good instructor is one who is capable of getting the point across in a manner the student understands it. So what if its not part of the lesson plan.