Tarmak007 -- A bold blog on Indian defence: Manu Awati - Young Man & The Sea

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Manu Awati - Young Man & The Sea

Pic: Padmaja Parulkar
By Commodore Srikant B Kesnur
Manohar Prahlad Awati is a legend in the Indian Navy and, arguably, across the entire military fraternity. A retired Vice Admiral who hung his uniform in 1983, he continues to be an awe-inspiring figure and a sterling example 34 years later. Today, 07 Sep 2017, as he celebrates his 90th birthday, is a welcome occasion to raise a toast to one of the icons of our times.
It is easy to understand why he makes an immediate impression. Over six feet tall and well built, he is the epitome of good looks. His snow-white beard and bushy eyebrows, erect carriage and dapper dressing, booming voice and twinkling eyes add to the flamboyance quotient. Add to this, he is a wonderful raconteur with an incredible memory and ability to remember incidents long past in vivid detail. You are often intimidated in his presence but guaranteed never to get bored.
A Google search will give all the details of an illustrious career. Joining Navy in 1945, early training in Britian, a specialist in Communication, commands of many ships including Tir, Betwa, Kamorta and Mysore. He was also at various times head of the Signal School Kochi, an instructor at DSSC Wellington and Commandant of National Defence Academy, Pune.
A war hero, he was awarded the Vir Chakra for command of Kamorta and P 31 (sqn cdr 31 Patrol Vessel Squadron) in 1971 war. In fact, he was, along with VAdm Krishnan and Capt Swaraj Prakash (CO Vikrant), among the small Naval Contingent in Dacca that accepted the surrender of Pakistan armed forces. (The .38 Webley pistol he got in surrender from a Pak Navy officer finds a proud place in the NDA museum). A couple of years down the line he was entrusted with the Command of Mysore, after that ship had witnessed an unfortunate mutiny, to restore normalcy and morale. Sure enough, he did it.
He commanded the Western Fleet in the late seventies and was the last Fleet Cdr to fly his flag on the erstwhile INS Delhi, thus underlining his own umbilical connection with that ship where he had served earlier as her Signals and Communications Officer ( SCO) and the time-space continuum in the Navy. He went to Delhi to serve as the Chief of Personnel in the 3-star rank before returning to Mumbai to head the Western Naval Command in Mar 1981 as the Flag Officer Commanding in Chief ( FOCinC). He retired in Mar 1983, as a 55 year old, when Mrs Gandhi (possibly somewhat unexpectedly) chose VAdm Stan Dawson, the FOC-in-C South to succeed Ronnie Pereira as the Navy Chief. He declined an offer to head the Garden Reach Ship Building in Kolkota preferring to let his other pursuits gain traction.
All this though is a matter of detail that will perhaps fit into the CV of some other Admirals too. Manu Awati's life is worth reading about because of the many offbeat things he would do or the impression he would make by his sheer presence. There are several stories and anecdotes in this regard. Take the tale of his commuting to work every day in a horse driven carriage ( loaned from Rashtrapati Bhavan) when he was the Chief Of Personnel in Delhi. The clackety-clack of the carriage and a handsome navy officer in white uniform atop it attracted a lot of attention thereby annoying the Prime Minister Mrs G who told Ronnie to ask Manu to desist. When I asked Manu Sir why, he tongue in cheek replied: "Maybe she did not want attention to go to anybody else." Or take the story of his striding down the streets of Basra on a white steed in full riding gear when on an overseas deployment as Fleet Commander West. VAdm Bangara who related this anecdote talks of how the local populace thought he was royalty descended into town. Or the story of how he landed in the middle of the football field in a helicopter when he was the Chief Guest even as the organisers were waiting for him at the entrance to the stadium. Or his flying his flag on a blue ensign ship. He was simultaneously a traditional-minded Admiral (it is said he never missed a single colours ceremony on the Flag Ship when he was Fleet Cdr) and at the same time hugely unconventional and bold.
It is this same combination of qualities along with amazing energy he took with him to pursue other passions when he retired. While most other military men decide to fade away and tend to their rose gardens, Awati's second innings has been, arguably, even more, luminous than his first one. He has a wide range of interests - maritime history and awareness, ecology and nature conservation, adventure and open ocean sailing, social work and writing, and he has been able to give his 200 per cent to each of these.
Take maritime history for instance. In 1978 after reading a news item in the Times if India bemoaning India's lack of Maritime Awareness he, as the Fleet Cdr, marched into the CinCs office demanding approval and funding to set up the Maritime History Society ( MHS). VAdm Rusi Ghandhy laughed, sanctioned a royal sum of Rs 1000/- but predicted that MHS will not last for more than a year. Today, 40 years old, the MHS has brought out hundreds of scholarly articles, several books, conducted talks and seminars, and done a humongous amount to spread maritime awareness. Much of this owes to Awati's vision, personal goading and constant involvement in MHS and maritime education. Not just that. Along with his friend the eminent academic late Shri Arunachalam, he travelled all over the Indian coast researching on timber built Indian ships. And he has himself written and spoken copiously on maritime history in various forums. Fittingly, he has conferred the lifetime achievement award of the society last year.
Or take his love for nature and ecology. The Admiral has an encyclopedic knowledge of birds, animals and trees. But that's not all. Long ago, when he was Comdt NDA, the Tanzanian Defence Minister ( or was it the President) offered him a job as the Ranger/Conservator of the world-famous Serengeti game reserve and the Ngorongoro forests. He had to refuse that offer, but he has done a great deal otherwise. He is the author of three books on nature and wildlife, Homo Sapiens and Panthera Leo, The Vanishing Indian Tiger and Nature Clubs of India. A friend of the late and great Salim Ali, Manu Awati has also been associated with WWF India if I remember right. And the BNHS. He has also been the head of the Ecological Society of India.
His contributions to Ocean sailing will remain the jewel in the crown of a many-splendoured career. An innate love for the sea and adventure made him think of sailing and yachting as natural modes of expression of a naturally maritime country. He sowed the seed of ocean sailing long ago and the magnificent achievements of Dilip Donde (the first Indian to solo circumnavigate the world), Abhilash Tomy (the first Indian and Asian to solo circumnavigate the world non- stop), Ratnakar Dandekar (the Goa-based builder of these sturdy vessels) spring from the foundation laid by Manu Sir and the hard work he did grooming, facilitating and championing their cause. It is no wonder that these people worship Manu Awati as indeed do the six young women who are set to sail round the world in the next 2 or 3 days on Tarini. Even from his hospital bed last month when he underwent stenting, he had only their trip in mind and if my information is right, he is setting out tomorrow to Goa to meet them and wish them bon voyage. He has himself sailed often and but for his surgery was planning to sail from Goa to Mumbai at the ripe age of 90.
Apart from all this he has been a national level polo player, frequent contributor to innumerable journals and books, the Chairman of the Organising Committee for yachting at the 1982 Asian games in Delhi, recipient of numerous civilian and military awards, Vice President of Blitz publications, Chairman of Tolani shipping, and hold your breath.... model for Digjam suitings. He is also famous as the young officer who received the Colour on behalf of the Navy from the President of India Babu Rajendra Prasad. Further, after retirement, he settled down in Paltan, near Satara, converting a back of beyond place into a small buzzing zone of biodiversity with trees, small dam and an old world style bungalow. Needless to say, he also does a huge amount of social work.
My wife and I have had the personal good fortune of friendship and guidance from this great man and wonderful human being. 'Call me Manu', he would say softly once or twice. I told him I could never bring myself to say that except when I wrote about him. The fact that a man older than my father extends to us the generosity of his warmth was good enough for us.
We first met in NDA, in 1994, when I was Div offr and Mess Secy and he had come as a guest. His sharp memory recollected that he had commented (fortunately kindly) on an article written by me two years before. That started our association. My special memories about him are three different incidents that illustrate different aspects of his persona. The first one happened 20 years ago when he was addressing a gathering on the helo deck of a ship in Mumbai. Several dignitaries before him, much younger than him, used the mike to speak. When his turn came, he disdainfully moved the mikes away and in his loud baritone asked if people could hear him at the back. That small gesture said a lot about his flamboyant personality and communication skills. The second happened ten years ago in Seychelles when I was the Defence Attache there. I was at the Commonwealth wargraves cemetery and came across a rather scrawny and somewhat pathetic looking old man who looked like he was in the salvation army. But there was some dignity to him and speaking to him i realised he was among the few locals who had fought in the World War 2. On learning that I was in the Indian Navy he got all excited and said " 30 years ago there were some ships and one Admiral from your navy. Tall and flowing beard. Oh what a character. He looked like God". He was referring to Manu Awati's visit as Fleet Cdr in 1977 or 78. The point that Manu could be a brand ambassador for our Navy three decades later illustrates his charisma. And the last incident happened few days ago. I had happened to courier some medicines for Mrs Awati from Mumbai. He not only wrote an email of profuse thanks but the moment we met in Mumbai (when he was hospitalized) he insisted in paying me back the Rs 58/- expenditure incurred, not letting either himself or me be at peace till the money was accepted. That illustrates his humility and correctness with which he leads his life.
Now listen to the strangest paradoxes in his life. First, his love for sea and yearning for it is despite the fact that he was thoroughly seasick. This is something akin to a person having mountain sickness always coming back to climb more mountains. Second, despite his vast knowledge and erudition and scholarship, he has been denied doctorates and fellowships because he is only a matriculate. He joined Dufferin right after that and continues to have no degree against his name. He is not considered literate enough but is a scholar and seeker in the true sense of the word.
To borrow a quote that Shakespeare said of Cleopatra, one can say of Manu that "Age does not wither nor custom stale his infinite variety." Today, at 90, Manohar Prahlad Awati is either India's oldest young man or youngest old man. The secret of his good health is that he still sleeps at 8 pm, gets up at 4 am, exercises, eats in moderation and above all remains actively engaged in many things. To use his phrase "he has many irons in the fire and they all tend to heat up at the same time".
More than anything else Awati is a true renaissance man. Like Tagore in politics, Satyajit Ray in cinema, Raja Ramanna in Science, Manu Awati's eclectic range of passions and pursuits mark him as a truly remarkable man of our times. India is lucky to have someone like him and the Indian Navy proud of this national treasure. The young man and his love for sea is indeed stuff of legend. They don't make people like him anymore.
Happy Birthday, Sir. May you go onto score a century!

(The above piece is the tribute by the writer to VAdm Manu Awati, last year, on his 90th birthday. This was before the successful Navika Sagar Parikrama - another one of his pioneering initiatives and another feather in his cap. The piece is reproduced with permission from Indian Navy.)

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