Unforgettable Ronnie Pereira An outstanding leader, he was the Navy’s most loved Chief By Captain B.R. Sen, as told to Ashok MahadevanI looked aghast at my boss. “Youcan’t do this,” I said. “You’ll be late foryour appointment with the PrimeMinister.” Admiral Ronald Lynsdale Pereira,PVSM, AVSM*, chief of the naval staff,shrugged. Pereira, accompanied by me, his ﬂaglieutenant (an admiral’s ADC), hadbeen on his way to a meeting withIndira Gandhi when he spotted ayouth staggering along the pavement,an elderly man on his back. Ordering his driver to stop, Pereiragot out and asked what the matter was.The youngster explained that he wascarrying his sick father to the All IndiaInstitute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS),New Delhi’s premier government hos- * Param Vishisht Seva Medal and Ati VishishtSeva Medal. Given by the Government of India fordistinguished service. 183
Unforgettable Ronnie Pereirapital, because he couldn’t afford a taxi. he promptly admitted it. Once, when lookout for a ﬂag lieutenant. A “ﬂags” bling in the ofﬁcers mess. But every- Pereira turned to me. “We’ll take his naval assistant Captain K. K. Kohli is little more than an admiral’s gloriﬁed one started wearing helmets.them,” he said. When I kept protesting, was trying to dissuade him from doing dogsbody, and although with threehe told me to shut up and helped the something that would have unneces- years’ service in the Navy I wanted Ironically for a man who wastwo men into his car. sarily upset the Defence Ministry, the something more challenging, my CO described as “one of the most charis- Courage and Compassion. AIIMS argument grew so hot that Kohli for- insisted I try out. So around 8:30 one matic chiefs ever.” Pereira planned todoctors looked dazed as the lean, six- got himself and banged his ﬁst on the evening—the admiral often worked be either a doctor like his father, or afoot-two, ramrod-straight admiral, his admiral’s table. Immediately contrite, late—I entered Pereira’s enormous of- dentist. But World War II changed alluniform ablaze with medal ribbons, Kohli was about to apologize, when ﬁce in Mumbai for an interview. that and Ronnie decided to join theswept in and announced that the el- Pereira checked him. “You’re right, “Do you drink?” he asked me. Navy. Commissioned on May 25,derly man was his relative. Saying, “I’ll you bastard,” the CNS hissed. “Yessir.” 1943—his 20th birth-be back; make sure he’s better,” the ad- “We’ll Get Along.” No wonder “Smoke?” day—he commandedmiral left, and we reached Mrs Gandhi’s Ronnie Pereira’s ability to get the ut- “Yessir.” Pereira had a small craft during theresidence about 15 minutes late. most from his subordinates was “What brand?” profound res- war and in 1947 was se- I didn’t dare ask the ad- legendary. During the 1967 ﬂeet row- “Four Square, sir.” lected for gunnery miral if the Prime Minister ing regatta, INS Delhi’s senior sailors’ The admiral pect for all training in the UK. was annoyed with him, team won a strenuous race only to be grinned. “My brand Pereira certainly fit but even today, nearly told that they had to row again in 15 too,” he said. “We’ll get faiths and any the conventional image two decades later, the minutes because, by mistake, they’d along.” religious of gunnery officers as memory of Pereira’s been entered in the wrong event. Get- Within a week I was spit-and-polish, parade- behaviour that after- ting the exhausted crew to race again on his staff watching unorthodoxy ground types. Indeed, noon never fails to move seemed impossible, but Pereira, then him run the Navy’s sparked off his with his great height, me. Everyone in Delhi, no Delhi’s commanding officer (CO), most powerful opera- immaculate dress—he matter how senior, was pet- gathered them around him. “I know tional command. He quick temper. had a special weaknessriﬁed of Mrs Gandhi. To risk her wrath I’m asking for a lot,” he said quietly, was a perfectionist, to- for shoes—and boom-for the sake of a poor, sick stranger! It “but the honour of Delhi is in your tally focused on everything he did. ing voice, he cut quite a ﬁgure. Evenwas an unforgettable lesson in courage hands.” To everyone’s amazement, the And he never hesitated to take un- more memorable was his amazingand compassion. But it was typical Ron- men rowed like demons, and when popular measures. laugh. Recalls Vice Admiral Viviannie Pereira. He always did what he felt they won, Pereira had tears in his eyes. Consider how he enforced the Barboza: “It exploded around you liketo be right—and to hell with the con- Delhi, naturally, was cock of the re- rarely observed safety regulation re- a thousand stars.”sequences. During his three years as gatta that year and the then chief, quiring all naval personnel riding But beneath the ﬂamboyance waschief of the naval staff (CNS), he re- Admiral A.K. Chatterji, hailed its CO motorbikes and scooters to wear hel- a practical, hands-on professional.peatedly clashed with powerful as a “born leader.” An entire genera- mets. He waited in his car at key spots When Commander Leo Lunel wentpoliticians and bureaucrats when they tion of naval men felt likewise. In a in Mumbai’s Navy Nagar and when- on board INS Kuthar soon after Pereirawanted to do anything that, in his opin- 1989 poll of ofﬁcers, 80 percent named ever an unhelmeted rider roared past, had taken command, Lunel found theion, threatened his beloved Navy. He Pereira as their ideal, even though he’d he gave chase, forced the offender to new CO in the sailors’ bathroom,generally had his way—but only be- retired more than seven years earlier. stop and impounded his vehicle. teaching the men the right way tocause everyone knew that he’d rather No one was spared, not even the clean paintbrushes.resign than go against his conscience. I ﬁrst met the admiral in 1976. He was son-in-law of one of his closest friends. Best Ship-Handler. Although a Not that the admiral was a cock- then ﬂag ofﬁcer commanding-in-chief, As two-wheelers piled up with the good gunner, Pereira was not thesure know-it-all. If he made a ballsup, western naval command, and on the naval police, there was a lot of grum- brightest ofﬁcer in the Navy nor its best184 185
ship-handler. That only made him work given up, but Ronnie sailored alongharder. After Barboza succeeded bravely and, to his surprise, steadilyPereira as CO of Delhi, he found a note- moved up.book ﬁlled with Pereira’s comments on No matter how high he rose, though,his own ship-handling. “What struck Pereira never lost the common touch.me,” Barboza recalls, “was that he was Once, when he was due on board INSruthlessly critical of his own actions. Pondicherry early in the morning, itsWhat’s more, he did not keep this captain arranged for tea to be servedrecord secret. Every time he recorded in ﬁne china. But the admiral said hesomething, it was circulated among his preferred a sailor’s mug and happilyofﬁcers.” drank from a chipped enamel con- Pereira kept learning, especially tainer.from his mistakes. Once, because of Pereira married in 1952 and perhapsthe strong tide, he had trouble secur- because he and his wife, Phyllis, hading Delhi in Cochin harbour. Seeing no children the Navy became their fam-his difficulty, S.M. Nanda, the fleet ily. They addressed all young ofﬁcers,commander, came on board and deftly sailors and their wives as “son” or “mymoored the ship. girl.” In fact, when, on meeting Mrs Ronnie barely slept that night. First Pereira for the ﬁrst time, I addressedthing in the morning, he took Delhi her as “Ma’am,” the admiral snapped:out of the harbour. Then he turned “Call her Ma.” As flag lieutenant inthe cruiser around and secured her Mumbai I lunched with the Pereirasjust as Nanda had. every Tuesday, and not once did Ma However, Pereira was less success- forget to ask me in advance what Iful at overcoming his other wanted to eat.shortcomings. He never managed to Ronnie’s rapport with the youngsubdue his explosive temper. Nor made him the ideal choice when hecould he stop himself from impulsively was appointed deputy commandanthanding out money to anyone with a of the National Defence Academyhard-luck story, often imaginary. (NDA) in 1971. He ran the place like one of his ships, seemingly every- n the 1950s and ’60s, Ronnie was where, exhorting the cadets to playI dogged by accidents and ill- health. Once, after he opened an Oerlikon gun too soon after ithad misﬁred, the shell burst, fractur-ing his left arm so badly that it seemed fiercely, study hard, march smartly. Nothing escaped his attention—it was- n’t unusual for bleary-eyed cadets to stumble into the tea-room at dawn to see their deputy commandanthe’d be permanently crippled. Luckily, tasting the stuff. So hard-driving wasthe surgeons did a great job. Later, he, weary cadets joked, that if heRonnie developed TB and lost a small barked “Tez chal” to the Asoka pillarpart of a lung. A lesser man might have on campus, it would start marching.186
Unforgettable Ronnie Pereira Although being at the NDA meant “I learnt so much from him,” recalls career,” he wrote, “but it will be a great tute for Defence Studies and Analy-that Pereira, to his great disappoint- Colonel S.P.S. “Mike” Bhalla, who’d honour for me.” How could I refuse? ses: “By laying the foundation for thement, had to sit out the 1971 war, his been an NDA cadet during Pereira’s As soon as he took over, Pereira Navy acquiring the British Sea Har-tenure there is still remembered by tenure and who was very close to the made it clear that, unlike many ser- rier planes and the German HDWmany of his cadets, now senior serv- admiral. “He advised me on all kinds vice chiefs, he wasn’t interested in a submarines, Pereira charted the rightice ofﬁcers. “He had a very clear vision of things, from the importance of treat- plum government job once his term course.”of what an officer should be,” says ing my wife as an equal partner to the was up. This, he felt, would help check The admiral’s foresight extendedColonel Gursimran Singh Malhi, a need to accept personal responsibil- him from any temptation to cave in to to more mundane matters too. Thecadet during Pereira’s NDA years. ity.” And when Bhalla wrote about improper pressure. defence services had“Above all, he wanted us to be morally what a good golfer he’d become, the The wisdom of the Thanks to been lobbying hard forupright like himself.” admiral—a keen golfer himself— CNS’s decision was a ration allowance but Pereira’s integrity was rooted in his replied dryly: “Please remember that clearly shown in the case Pereira, free Pereira argued that itdevout Roman Catholicism. When on your handicap does not ﬁgure in your of the officer who, not rations were made more sense to gettour with him, one of my ﬁrst jobs was conﬁdential report.” making it to rear the rations in kind.to locate the nearest church. He never Believing that, as vice chief, he’d admiral, turned to his sanctioned and Many officers felt thismissed a Sunday Mass. reached the limit of his career, Pereira political connections for The admiral had a profound respect started building a house near Banga- help. After Pereira ig- officers today was demeaning. “It’s a question of status,” onefor all faiths and any religious un- lore to live after retirement. To help nored numerous hints agree that i’ told the chief. “As prices tsorthodoxy sparked off his quick ﬁnance the construction, he sold his from the defence min- rise,” Pereira replied,temper. Woe betide a Sikh if Pereira well-maintained Fiat. istry to elevate the man, made them “you won’t be able to eatcould tell from the shape of his turban Being without a car can be a great one of the Prime Minis- better off. your status.” Thanks tothat he’d cut his hair. Commander A.J.B. handicap in New Delhi’s social whirl, ter’s key aides sent the Pereira, free rationsSingh recalls Pereira stopping in front but the admiral used his naval vehi- CNS a letter claiming that Indira were sanctioned and officers todayof a young Sikh naval aviator on pa- cle only on ofﬁcial duty. Vice Admiral Gandhi herself had ordered the pro- agree that it’s made them better off.rade and letting him have it. “Don’t K.K. Nayyar recalls Pereira arriving motion. Undeterred, Pereira wroteyou have any pride in your faith?” on his scooter for a party at the Ger- directly to the PM, explaining why he Pereira’s three-year tenure as CNSPereira cried. “How can you insult your man ambassador’s residence. When couldn’t, in all conscience, oblige. “The ended on February 28, 1982. The ad-great tradition?” The ofﬁcer was ob- asked why, Pereira pointed out that it bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s miral decided to go to Bangalore byviously upset, but like innumerable was a private affair. Very few senior office were amazed at the admiral’s train, and the crowd to see him off atothers who’d been roasted by Pereira, officers, Nayyar admits, would have effrontery,” recalls Vice Admiral K.K. New Delhi railway station was so enor-took it without demur because of his been that scrupulous. Kohli. “But the matter was shelved.” mous that you could barely breathe.respect for the man. The entire Navy rejoiced when the In the decade before Pereira be- The Pereiras settled down in their government announced that Pereira came chief, the USSR became the new home “At Last,” and, unable to af- arly in 1977, Pereira was was to be chief of the naval staff from principal source for the Navy’s ships ford a car, the admiral cheerfully droveE posted to New Delhi as vice chief of the naval staff. Since the vice chief is not entitledto a ﬂag lieutenant, I left the admiral’sstaff. But Pereira regularly wrote to March 1, 1979. The admiral, though, was taken totally by surprise. He broke the news to his wife saying, “We have of- ﬁcial accommodation for a little longer.” I was in Cochin when I got a letter and equipment. Convinced that this around on a scooter. But it was a made us too dependent on the Rus- dreadful strain. In April 1983, he sians, Pereira had begun pushing hard blacked out in the blistering heat and for Western armaments ever since he ran into a kerb. Providentially, it hap- was vice chief. “This showed great pened just outside the Air Forceme as he did to a number of other ju- from the CNS asking me if I’d become prescience,” says Commodore C. Uday command hospital and Pereira wasnior ofﬁcers. his ﬂags again “It won’t be good for your Bhaskar, deputy director of the Insti- quickly taken inside. Surgeons oper-188 189
ated on him and the gravely injured his funeral service, there were nu-admiral pulled through. merous ordinary sailors who’d come Soon after, the Pereiras decided to to say farewell to an officer they’dmove to Coonoor. But it took them a loved like no other. As the admiral’slong time to ﬁnd a buyer for “At Last” body was being laid to rest, I recalledbecause, characteristically, the admi- the way he often summed up theral insisted on being paid the full price essence of leadership: “Love your men,by cheque. but don’t spoil them. Kick them if you must. Above all, make them proud ofPereira had always been a heavy themselves, their uniform and you.”smoker and in December 1991, lung Aye, Aye, Sir.cancer was diagnosed. When I heardthe news, I took leave and went to see Twenty-two years after Ronniehim at INHS Asvini, the naval hospi- Pereira left the Navy, he remains itstal in Mumbai. An elderly Sikh was model of the ofﬁcer and the gentleman.waiting outside the admiral’s room, Says Admiral Arun Prakash, thedeterred by a “Do Not Disturb” sign. current CNS: “In a world of slipping I took the man in with me. He ethical standards, where our youngturned out to be a long-retired sailor people desperately seek role models,who’d served under Pereira on INS Ronnie P. has stood out as an iconicDelhi. Offering the admiral a bottle, ﬁgure of impeccable integrity for threethe grizzled veteran said, “Sir, this used generations of Indian naval officers.to be your favourite pickle. I’ve brought While we quaked in the knowledge thatit all the way from Punjab for you.” any hint of wrongdoing would invokeThe two men embraced, both in tears. the admiral’s messianic wrath, the kindness and compassion that heRonnie pereira passed away on Octo- and Phyllis Pereira so often showedber 14, 1993. Apart from the admirals, earned them the Navy’s lasting lovegenerals and air marshals crowding and admiration.” B Ploughing On A villager on his ﬁrst trip to the city was waiting at a bus stop one morning. After some hesitation he asked a woman, “Which bus should I take for Mahim?” “Bus No 177,” the woman replied and caught the next bus. The same evening, the woman found the villager still waiting at the same bus stop. “Didn’t you get the bus to Mahim?” she exclaimed. “Not yet,” he said wearily. “So far 168 buses have come and gone—eight more remain before mine arrives.” —c.p. murgudkar190
A particular slide catching your eye?
Clipping is a handy way to collect important slides you want to go back to later.