My earliest memory of meeting Sanjeev Dutta was at the Guard Room of Naval Academy, Goa when we reported for boot camp in 1987. He was not one to be missed, bold and boisterous with a penchant for trouble. In a batch of high achievers, Dutta added the sparkle and humour with his gully wisdom and witty one-liners. By the time we finished first term, Academy abounded with Dutta tales. Every DTO (Duty Training Officer) on duty in the cadets’ block had one ear trained out for Dutta’s antics.
Most of us in our teens hated the Academy regimen and routine. Having been relegated from exalted high school life to being the ‘lowest form of marine life’ we struggled to cope with military discipline within the high walls of academy. But not Dutta, who once spectacularly blew the whole block’s fuse by trying to cook instant noodles with a naked heating element during regulation study period. He then proceeded to defend his case to his fuming dormitory mates by saying “Cmon guys, I was only trying to make a light snack!” While our study drawers were stuffed with books, Cadet Dutta’s were stuffed with ready-to-eat sachets and raw desi eggs for ‘extra nutrition’. “What to do man? hunger pangs.” he would mumble between mouthfuls. He was probably the first cadet to be caught – and charged for ‘chickleting’ on the parade ground; the Parade GI simply at a loss to categorize the offense of ‘chewing gum on parade’ under any of the Academy rules!
The restricted water routine of academy did not impress Dutta. He had little patience for the weak trickle that flowed from academy taps in the name of water. Neither could he ever make it in time for ‘bathing stations’ when the rush of sweaty, grimy cadets hit the showers, or ‘heads,’ as they are known in the navy, with their bath and laundry. He would stroll in after rush hour, climb the bathroom roof and empty pails of water from the overhead tank on himself with gay abandon while other cadets were seated at their desks for study period. One night, one of our crafty coursemates beamed his study lamp through the window to expose our bathing beauty! Dutta unflinchingly splashed a bucket of water through the offending cadet’s window, washing away his books, study lamp and everything else. Dutta’s trademark ‘micro mini hand towels’ stretched around a burgeoning midriff invited friendly jibes from his dorm mates before posters of Bollywood and Hollywood stars made their way to our barrack walls.
The amorous Academy cat once delivered a litter in Cadet Dutta’s locker, seemingly attracted by the warmth and disorder of his pad. His innocent report to the Duty Training Officer at the barrack door who came inquiring the suspicious activity reported from Cadet Dutta’s barrack was an original.
“Sirrrrr, there’s a pussy in my locker!” Dutta gushed.
“Whose pussy?!” The DTO thundered unimpressed.
“How do I know Sir??!!” Dutta replied in plain naiveté, while the whole barrack erupted in peals of laughter, DTO included.
He had a jovial side that everyone knew. His fighting spirit was experienced only by a few who were pitted against him in the annual novices boxing championship. He lasted six rounds against a worthy opponent when the best among us ‘novices’ could barely last three. When challenged, Dutta could muster amazing inner resources.
We were fortunate to extend our association beyond Naval Academy and completed flying training together. We had some great times learning to fly at the Air Force Academy. Through the worst of days, that mischievous smile never left Dutta’s lips. On one of our weekend getaways from the arduous routine of the Air Force Academy, Dutta decided he was not having enough fun and told a streetside paan (a betel leaf preparation) vendor to whip up his best. The paanwallah from up north readily took up the challenge, cautioning two young naval officers of the potency of a mean banaarsi paan. On the ride back, Dutta wisely handed over the bike’s controls to his colleague…Who had consumed a more sober variant of the fired up leaves! A very wobbly ride followed.
Dutta completed flying training in his characteristic style, bringing many a smile to our usually grim instructors’ faces.
Dutta went on to fly the big planes of the Navy, joining the maritime patrol squadron, also known as Winged Stallions. He married, ‘settled down’ and we went our separate ways for a while. That’s when I heard news about the tragic midair collision of two large aircraft during a flypast commemorating the Silver Jubilee of the Stallions. Dutta went down in a blazing shower of flames and metal with many of his trusted mates and unsuspecting victims on ground. It was a grisly end to celebration of years of accident free flying.
It’s been over a decade since Dutta left on his last journey. As our course celebrates 25 years of being together next May (What the? Another Reunion??), unforgettable Dutta will be sorely missed.