Thursday, August 22, 2013


Showers, shaves and sunlight are in short supply, but the thing that bothers submariners the most is lack of space. A boat — a submarine is always called that — is a narrow claustrophobic warren where young men (most of the crew is in their twenties) spend weeks on end, leading extremely structured lives. Danger is a constant companion as the men whose lives are now under arc-light as investigators seek answers to the mysterious blasts aboard INS Sindhurakshak found out.

Both within the navy and in public perception, s submariner doesn't  have the glamour that, say a fighter pilot or commando has. Despite the criticality of submarines to its power projection and operations, the Indian Navy has had only one submariner as its chief ever, Admiral VS Shekhawat. 

Life beneath the surface isn't for the faint-hearted. Just the dimensions of the tube are scary. An average nuclear submarine is about 80 metres long, 9.9 metres wide and about the same in height, not even enough for a sailor to stand straight. 

An officer who has spent several years in a kilo class submarine like the INS Sindhurakshak says once you enter the submarine for a patrol "baths are forbidden". Patrol can stretch up to 45-50 days. "Shaving used to be a no-no," says an old-timer. However, in some of the modern submarines, crew is allowed the luxury of an occasional shave. 

It's  a dozen officers to one bathroom. Fresh water is rationed, and prioritized for cooking and maybe a mug for a person a day. 

Once they enter the submarine, personnel are handed disposable clothes that are chemically treated and replaced every two or three days. Food is very basic — dal, roti or rice and one vegetable. Puris and paranthas are unheard of let alone any fancy dish. 

It is common for sailors to lose their appetite after several days of sailing in a cramped submarine and irritation levels among the personnel generally goes high. "That is one of the key reasons why a doctor is a compulsory for any submarine sailing out," says another officer. 

Like fighter pilots, submariners too get a special allowance. "But that is nothing compared to the hardship that one has to endure," one submariner said. Not that everyone on board loses their funny bone. Veterans joke about sleeping in the "bomb shop", where the missiles and torpedoes are kept. It is the quietest, most spacious room on the boat. "Many of us slept on torpedoes because it was among the coolest places in a sub," one recalled. 

There aren't very many jobs in the world in which once you leave the shores there is almost no contact with near or dear ones. Not even if your father takes ill or the wife runs away. The only sure sign that a submarine out on a war patrol is safe is the regular signals it sends to a designated location, probably the war room at the naval headquarters in New Delhi. 

As the Kargil conflict flared up in 1999, the same INS Sindhurakshak went on a war patrol, spending several hours and possibly days, just five miles from Karachi shoreline. The mission is considered as heroic because of the sheer proximity to danger. 

Deep under the seas is a secret world, where the enemy could be silently following you. For submariners, the death that danced on INS Sindhurakshak early on Wednesday wasn't the way they would have wanted to sign off while on duty.


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