When I was studying BBA, many of my classmates were fauji brats. But I never really tried to make friends with them or anything.
So consequently, I’d never imagined that I would go to the NDA Ball. In fact, despite having lived in Pune all my life, I didn’t even know the NDA even existed! 😂
It was the year 2018. I had just written my third-year BBA exams. My vacay was going pretty good but things were set to get hotter.
One day, my classmate from college, Geet – who is an Army brat herself – asked me if I would be interested in going to the NDA Ball. She was going and she could get me a partner. “Bahot maza aayega!” she assured me. I’m a person who’s up for almost anything and I’d always liked the military due to some family members in active service. I was in!
48 hours to go for the event: I’m still unsure whether I’ll be able to go after all. Unlike concerts and such events, entry to the Ball is strictly by invite. It’s not like, Ticket khareed liya, ab chalo. A 6th-termer cadet who’s life’s happiness has been screwed but could do with a small self-esteem boost (read: girl on his arm), has to give you an entry pass like the one below.
As NDA cadets are allowed to go out of campus freely only on Sundays during their 3-year course, it’s understandable that their wooing skills aren’t any good. Result: going Stag (solo) and stuffing down all the pakodas and soft drinks down their throat. But it’s fine, given that it’s a rare privilege in NDA to feed lip-smacking food to the cadets without first making them sweat for it. Because as the saying goes, ‘The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war‘!
My to-be partner and I decided to meet at a mall in Deccan as that would be the nearest meeting point for a person starting from Khadakwasla. It was an exceptionally hot day and I reached the place, after alighting from a bus and asking a dozen passersby for the location.
After 30 minutes: I get a call from Mr Ball Partner. I’m becoming happy at the prospect of meeting a military guy, only to be regretfully informed that he’s sorry, his liberty suddenly got cancelled, he won’t be able to make it.
If you were to see me at that moment, you would notice fumes out coming from my ears and my wrist twisted like a gnarled tree root, as expected of a shuddh civilian who just got horribly ditched. The poor guy later called me again and, with a desire to make amends, agreed to meet at SGS Mall near Pune Railway Station.
There, a day after, he awkwardly gave me his Ball Pass. He was practically bald and was wearing a skyblue shirt, a red tie with the NDA insignia all over it, black trousers and black shoes. Having trained at a Sainik School and never having interacted with girls, Mr Ball Partner slowly opened up about his personal life and campus life at the National Defence Academy.
On the D-Day: A group of four girls, including me, met at SGS Mall, where we checked ourselves out in the ladies’ room mirror and dabbed some makeup on to our faces. Then, we booked an Ola cab and were soon heading towards NDA.
To be on the safe side, we had started out so early that we were the first group of Ball partners, after seeing whom, the lady officials resigned themselves to an evening that would be spent checking vanity kits and backpacks. After they had reassured themselves that our cosmetics weren’t actually explosives in disguise, we were allowed to board a bus.
But little did I realise that it was only the end of the beginning. We sat inside for almost an hour, the hot winds of May roasting us and turning our skin red. Finally, we were taken to an area called ‘Swimming Pool No. 2’, where we were supposed to change and dress up for the evening.
The courtyard was enclosed with coloured cloth, lest any cadet or male officer catch a glimpse of the ladies and lose all sense of self. Now, the girls started taking their own sweet time to look stunning for their testosterone-charged men, who hadn’t laid eyes on a young woman in a loong time and did not care for makeup anyway.
To a senior officer’s wife yelling out, “The programme will start anytime now. Goddamn hurry up, this is the bloody Indian Army!”, we walked out, our heads in a whirl, to find a swarm of backslapping cadets waiting for us. Much as they found it thrilling, it was truly an embarrassing moment for us, girls. As we racked our brains thinking, ‘Is he the one?’ ‘Or did that one meet me?’, thankfully, our partners who had taken the effort to memorise our faces, walked up to us themselves. Mr Ball Partner, gently taking my hand, led me to the lawns. The NDA Ball had begun!
A lady emcee was saying, “And now I call upon the Commandant to get the ball rolling….” Now look, I’m not so dumb but the Commandant did not roll any ball down the ramp, after all. (If you want a glimpse of the seniors dancing, scroll down. I’ve embedded a video and refuse to take up screen space describing it.) We, the young couples, started dancing with light, small steps at first but later went all out to vigorously jump around on the stage to the DJ playing lively Bhangra beats.
But more than the couples, the show-stealers were the full-of-josh cadets who were Stags. They usurped the stage, determined to dance away all the anger they felt for their training officers and the pity they felt for themselves for not bringing along a partner. It was their first and last chance to be a rebel.
Then, my girl friends and I sat at a round table, chatted, laughed, criticised and gorged on pakodas and momos brought from the food stalls by our partners acting as waiters-in-waiting.
Of course, some lady Ball partners could not care less. Their eyes were on the Ultimate Prize (a bike each for both partners) that would be awarded to the couple declared Mr and Miss NDA.
I’m not aware of the way the shortlisted couples got selected but anyway, there they were, on stage. Now, everybody awaited the Q&A round as if it were KBC and the emcee were Amitabh Bachchan. The only difference – there were no options and no lifeline.
The emcee drawled out questions like: “What would you do if your spouse was a non vegetarian and you were not?”, “What qualities of NDA cadets would you like in your boyfriend?” (May the cadet whose partner wasn’t his girlfriend R.I.P.), and “What will you do next if you’re awarded the NDA crown?” Nobody asked me, not even Mr Ball Partner, but I answered the questions to myself anyway.
I haven’t toured the NDA campus, nevertheless, I can confidently say that every cadet, officer, Ball partner, and parent’s favourite spot in NDA is the Mess. (When I die, I don’t want to go to heaven. God, please allow me to go to the NDA Mess instead?)
The food was ready to be served but there was nobody to serve it to the pitiably hungry people that we were. A rude reminder that we were at the National Defence Academy, not a wedding party.
When I carried my half-full plate back to the dining table, I realised that the kitchen staff had spent so much time arranging the cutlery so neatly that they were probably tired to serve. There was a gap between two small plates to either side of the mat that perfectly accommodated the bigger one we carried. Did the staff use a scale and compass that they could bring so much precision into their work? One will never know.
I struggled. I struggled to ‘eat like the faujis‘ who are excellent at wielding not only their guns but also their spoons and forks. For dessert, we were ‘served’ Tipsy Pudding. I assumed beer had been used in its preparation but was disappointed to find my senses sober as f***.
Time to say ta-ta: After dinner, Mr Ball Partner said he would give me a ‘Guided Tour of the Mess’, by which he meant showing me the military memorablia kept on display before seeing me out.
It was midnight and dark all around. We trudged back to Pool No. 2, changed into the outfit we had worn from home, signed on a list that had our names and walked to where four buses had been parked. With sleep and fatigue getting the better of us, we were supposed to board the ‘right’ bus that was to drive past the locality nearest to our homes.
The girls got onto their respective buses and dozed off. At Kondhwa Gate (one of the entry points of the Academy), however, all the buses were ordered to stop and the ladies commanded to walk to a nearby building and produce their Ball Passes. Apparently, one lady partner was still hiding somewhere on campus, desperate to be with her guy. The authorities were as perplexed as we were to realise that a cadet had somehow brought in two lady partners.
After 30 minutes, we could all go back to our buses and start our journey towards our beds at home. At 2.30 a.m., I was dropped off at Yerawada, the point closest to Vishrantwadi where I live and let live. Obviously, there was not a single vehicle on the roads. Ola and Uber did not care two hoots for me, either. After what seemed like an eternity, an auto came along. I said, “Bhaiyya, name your fare, just take me home safely, for God’s sake!!”