By Laeeq Futehally

Ramdas: Life in Baker Squadron

Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas

Jack Gibson’s contribution as Principal of the Joint Services Wing (JSW) from 1949-50 was seminal. Jack was on loan to us from the Doon School and, with his past Naval background, was ideally cut out for the role of Principal. As head of the academic staff, Mr. Gibson’s main concern was to ensure that the cadets attained the educational standards needed to cope with future service requirements. Jack taught English and Geography but he made sure he visited most other classrooms to see for himself how things were going.

He also devised an ingenious weekly assessment system. Every instructor assessed the cadets for their weekly performance in their respective subjects under three headings: “A” for Application, “K” for Knowledge and “E for Efficiency on a five point scale. This way the progress or otherwise of the cadets was monitored regularly. Cadets were grouped into various classes depending on their existing academic capabilities which were assessed at the time we arrived by simple tests. This system enabled the staff to concentrate on those cadets who needed special help or greater attention.’

The life and the routine in the JSW was a little more high pressure than at any of the regular public schools. The day started bright and early with "Hands Call" or "Reveille" at 5.30 am and we were on the move almost continuously till "pipe down" or "lights out" at 10 pm. We did have about 30 minutes for breakfast and about the same time for lunch. Squeezed into this busy day would be Physical Training (P.T.), Drill, about eight periods of class room instruction, and, of course, games, clubs and hobbies, and lastly, private study. On some days there would be Equitation and on others, Field Craft and weapon training.

The total of two years that we spent at the JSW was made up of four terms. Each term had a mid-term break. Many outward bound schemes were available for cadets to choose from during these breaks. It was Jack who was a great organizer of these programmes; indeed, he was perhaps the pioneer of introducing outward-bound schemes in the armed forces. Basic mountaineering, trekking, rafting, map-reading and navigation, cross-country running, you name it, every single outdoor activity had Jack’s imprint on it. Not to mention his interest in fencing, boxing, or dramatics. From Shakespeare to Tagore, Jack was equally comfortable. He took a lot of personal interest in all these activities and insisted that all cadets take part in at least two such pursuits.

One event that was unscheduled but most welcome was a trek-cum-cross-country-run to Mussoorie in February 1949 to greet the snow. At very short notice all of us were told to get into our FSMO (Field Service Marching Order) which meant haversacks, water bottles, and rifles. Off we went to Mussoorie, climbing up the hill from Rajpura. On arrival at the top we met our colleagues from the Military Wing (the erstwhile IMA) who had also marched up to Mussoorie for the first snows. A lot of snow warfare was conducted between and within the Military Wing and the JSW. Quite prominent in all this was an Englishman with a pipe sticking out of his twisted mouth. That was Jack Gibson outdoors in full cry!

It all ended with a sumptuous meal on top of the hill at the end of which we were told that it would be a competitive run back to Clement Town. The squadron to have all its cadets back first would be the winner. It was a long run—about 8 miles—which seemed even longer in our FSMO kits with water bottles banging away at our sides and rifles heavy on our shoulders. I am happy to recall that Baker Squadron, to which I belonged, was declared the winner.

Such events were a novel way to baptize young cadets! They helped to foster an "esprit de corps" among us even as they encouraged a healthy spirit of competition and achievement. By forcing us to the limits of physical and mental endurance they prepared us well for our chosen careers. Jack Gibson believed that an officer must be not only academically proficient but also capable of facing dangers, even if that entailed exposing oneself to physical harm. Perhaps in part due to his naval background, Jack was one of the few civilian instructors who easily understood this requirement. It goes without saying that he was quite a hit with the service officers on the staff of the JSW and perhaps even the envy of a few!

I was lucky to be a member of a rafting expedition from Nahan to Haradwar that Jack led. Unlike modern rubberized rafts with small paddles, ours was a beautiful 60-foot long raft comprising of over 120 solid logs between 15 to 20 feet in length that were lashed together. We came down the river Ganges from Nathan to Haradwar in what I can only describe as an other-worldly experience, one filled with excitement and fearsome thrills. Snaking its way over the rapids in a sinusoidal wave, from forward to aft, the traditional raft was steered by a steering oar at the after end. The sheer speed and the unpredictable contortions of the raft would at times send shivers down our spines. One really needed good sea legs to avoid falling down. We were quite worried at times, fearing that the raft would disintegrate under those tremendous speeds when it glided over huge boulders at the rapids. Occasionally, the odd log would break off and drift apart but, aside from that, we didn’t really face any serious danger although we flirted with it all the way! At the time, however, it seemed as if we could be victims of some kind of disaster at any moment. Looking back, I think that we were rather foolish because many of us did not know how to swim—I, for one. The reason for this was that the JSW did not commission its swimming pool until late 1950, the year of our passing-out, and only those who had had the benefit of swimming earlier were able to use that pool. Some of us, like me, had to learn how to swim in Cochin before we went to the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth in U.K. During this expedition, Jack kept us all entertained and in good cheer throughout with his many anecdotes. Blessed with a good sense of humour, he managed to be at once amusing and understanding, strict yet humane.

Jack’s contribution, therefore, was not merely in the academic field: he was singularly responsible for inspiring young men and molding them to become leaders of tomorrow. In that context, it would be of interest to mention that three of us from the First Course, that is, General Sunith Francis Rodrigues, Air Chief Marshal Nirmal Chander Suri, and I, all had the good fortune to head our respective services. What’s more, we served together as members of the Chiefs of Staff Committee from 1990 to 1993.

During our concurrent tenures as service chiefs, the three of us, accompanied by our wives, took the opportunity to visit Jack Gibson at Ajmer where he lived after retiring. It was wonderful to see the old man: just as he was visibly moved by our presence, so were we somewhat choked emotionally. It was altogether a wonderful few hours that we spent with him. He promised to visit us in Delhi but, sadly, his failing health and advancing age prevented him from doing so until, of course, the end arrived.

Remembering Jack Gibson, I would say that here was a man who, though born an Englishman, was an Indian at heart. Not that Jack could not have gone back to ‘Ye Old England’ but he opted to live out his life in India. He gave every bit of himself and his skills to the molding and shaping of leaders of modern India. His presence in the formative years of the JSW and his contribution towards establishing its fine traditions will long be remembered. Those of us who had the privilege of being with him and knowing him personally will always miss him.

Hari: Skinny Dipping

Arun Hari
The Doon School

In the early fifties Jack took us on a mid-term to Shivpuri, then a quiet little sandy spot on the river Ganges.  Tents were our night cover and jungly murgas and peacocks came right beside us at dawn.  And an occasional leopard could be spotted glaring from the hill slopes if we were lucky.

One early morning rule of Gibby was a bath in the Ganges.  The water was cold.  And we got in and out of the river as fast as we could.  This quick momentary dip wasn’t enough as Gibby said we were not cleaning our private parts.

A second dip in our swimming costumes pulled out from the front to allow a handful of water to trickle in.  But this too was not quite right and when we repeated it the next morning, Jack knew it won’t do. 

In no time flat Jack took off his clothes and went to the river stark naked where he rubbed and scrubbed and soaped himself.  Shy young lads as we were, we were made to follow suit and have a proper bath.

While returning to the tents to change into our shorts, we heard choked guffaws of feminine laughter from the hills in front of us.  A group of village ladies were shyly watching the scene and laughting and enjoying what they saw.

Loud and clear came Jack’s voice:  "Haven’t these women ever seen an Englishman’s pink ass before?" as he too walked into the tent to put on his shorts.

Rajadhyaksha: Two Intrepid White Hunters

Vasant Rajadhyaksha
The Doon School, Batch of 1939

The English house masters, John Martyn, Thomas, Jack Gibson, Clough, Holdsworth, with Arthur Foot as the Head, set a tone which has stayed.  Here is a typical story, one of the many which are repeated and enjoyed when Old Boys foregather. 

Jack was hosting a black tie formal dinner with his fellow house master John Martyn and some friends.  News reached him at about 10 p.m. that a civet cat was sitting on the roof.  The civet cat today is an endangered species but was quite a serious menace to poultry in the mid-thirties.  So Jack immediately got his gun out and made John get his.  The two immaculately clad and well lit men then started a hunt for the cat which apparently had been seen taking refuse in a 150 foot long covered drain, the two ends of which opened into an open nullah.

The two intrepid white hunters hit on a masterly plan.  Jack said "John, joy keep watch at one end of the drain while I frighten the cat from the other by firing the gun.  As it runs away from my end you shoot it as it comes out at yours."

The execution of this strategy required both house masters to lie down flat on the ground so that they could get their guns into play.  Jack shouted "Ready John," and fired into his side of the drain.  Nothing happened.  No luck, yelled John, "now let me try and you shoot it."  John, however, neglected to fire into the side and fired along the line of trench.  There was a howl of agony from Jack who got his face peppered with small shot.

By this time half the school were watching this fascinating spectacle.  "John, you stupid fool," yelled Jack, "you are supposed to shoot the bloody cat, not me."  "Sorry Jack," shouted John "but I did not get hurt when you fired."  "That’s because I fired into the side," Jack shouted back.  "Let me show you what happens when I fire down the line.  May be this time we’ll get the blighter."  So he immediately fired his second barrel and an equally agonised yelp came from John who didn’t have the presence of kind to get out of the way.  "Bloody hell," yelled John, "you’ve shot my head off."

By this time the boys were rolling on the ground unable to contain their laughter and kept egging them on" your turn Mr. Gibson, sock him" and so on.  Fortunately both by now, the not so immaculate gentlemen and the cat were saved by the fact that the trench was slightly curved, so before the shots reached the other end, they had ricocheted a few times and they got away with some superficial cuts.

At this point, despite the encouragement from the boys from their House, both Masters decided to call it a day (or night) and retire for the evening.  Early next morning the civet cat was seen to slink out of the drain after a peaceful night in the trench.  Both Houses were told to forget they saw anything!

Bhide: Mistaken Identity

Maj. Gen. V. V. Bhide
The Doon School

A good fifteen years after I had left school and had been in the Army for many years, a report appeared in the newspapers saying that an officer by name Bhide had been arrested on a charge of rape and/or embezzlement. Jack read this and immediately connecting me with the name jumped into his car and drove to Delhi and into the Army Headquarters loudly demanding why they had had the idiocy to pin such a charge on me! It took some time for the officers there to placate him enough to make him understand that this was quite a different Bhide from the one he had in mind.

Sathe: Day One

The Late Ramchandra D. Sathe
The Doon School, Batch of 1940

Kashmir House came into existence with the arrival of Jack Gibson in April, 1937, and I, along with my friend V. V. Bhide, were transferred from Hyderabad House to become the Head Prefect of Kashmir House.  I was almost 15 years old, in the SC class and had been the captain of the school cricket team since the inception of the school.  I was also in the school hockey, football, tennis and boxing teams.  I had also participated in the school athletics team.  I was a star performer in apparatus work and had been the senior leader in P.T. As a result I was generally walking on cloud 9, and to be suddenly elevated to Head Prefect of a House meant that I could really lock down my nose on those who became members of the newly established Kashmir House including Jack Gibson.  I was proven entity and Jack had still to establish himself.

This was the background to my first contact with Jack.  He, of course, had come with the formidable reputation of having been a candidate for the British Olympic Fencing Team, a keen skier and mountaineer and a general outdoors man.  He enjoyed playing hockey, football and cricket, but had little talent for these games.  I was one up.  He played a decent game of tennis and ten quoits and we were evenly matched.  He, however, hated being beaten at these two games by me and not above using rude but friendly language when he lost.  Within a short time we had taken measure of each other and I soon found Jack to be the equal of Arthur Foot and John Martyn who till then had been the outstanding teachers at the Doon School and whom we all respected very highly and of whom we stood in great awe.  However, it was easy for me to establish an excellent relationship with Jack partly because we shared a number of similar interests and the age gap between us was narrowed because of Jack’s friendly and unassuming ways.  His meticulous attention to details, his unflagging energy and his capacity for transmitting his energy were truly remarkable.  Another of his traits was his extraordinary kindness to all those with whom he came into contact which included not only the ten year olds who joined school but the uppity 15 year olds, their difficult parents, the fellow teachers, the administrative staff and above all the menial staff who took care of the numerous chores which made life so comfortable for us at the school.  Jack also understood what it meant to delegate authority and responsibility.  He not only permitted, but gave me and my fellow house prefects much freedom in enforcing discipline and in the organization of various activities.

Indeed he looked upon this as the essence of our education in regard to the art of leadership.  If any of us prefects had committed some blunder we were not upbraided in front of the juniors but we got what we deserved in the privacy of his study.

My last year in school was spent in preparing for the competitive examination for the entrance to the Indian Military Academy.  Since I was the only candidate from the school it was left to me to arrange my time-table in regard to my studies.  One of the subjects I was expected to learn was Geography.  And Jack was, of course, my tutor.  He insisted that if I were to learn geography then the best way would be for me to teach geography.  So, I had to take a few classes in geography under his watchful eye.  This way he made sure that I had learned my subject properly.

My last three years in school were my real formative years and looking back on my life I consider myself to have been extraordinarily lucky to have had in this period a friend and a mentor in the person of Jack.  Of course Jack and I got along extremely well and I recall spending many hours with him in his house or garden listening to music, learning the proper etiquette at the dining table or the bridge table, the fine points of photography (at which he was very good), planning outings for weekends and school vacations.  In the winter holiday of 1937, he took me and half a dozen other boys to Gulmarg to be introduced to skiing.  As there was very little snow that year on the Gulmarg slopes, the trip turned out to be a flop except that as a result of the trip I was left with a yen to see more of the mountains of Kashmir - a desire which was fulfilled as a result of my journey back from Kashgar in Sinkiang, to Leh in Ladakh, in the autumn of 1950.  I doubt if I would have undertaken that trip in the face of much opposition from various sources, but for the seed of adventure and love of mountains and the outdoor implanted in me by Jack Gibson.  There were many other aspects of my personality which took shape during this important stage of my life and which Jack helped to mold.

Jack’s contribution to the school has been commented upon by many of the old boys.  Of this group I appear to be the only one who joined school in its very first term.  Thus all those who have written about Jack are younger than me and the age gap between them and Jack was much greater than the age gap between me and Jack.  It would therefore not be unnatural if this age gap were to cause a certain degree of hero-worship to creep in.  Indeed as I write this, I begin to wonder whether it was possible that a man like Jack Gibson could have actually lived.  Oh, yes!  He did, and I confess that only one other person has had as much influence on my life as Jack did. I cherish my memories of Jack and I can never forget the extraordinarily warm and cordial welcome that he extended to me and my wife when he invited us soon after our marriage, to come and spend a couple of days with him in Chand Bagh. For our return journey to Delhi he personally packed a hamper of food and included in the hamper two silver napkin rings as a wedding present.  We still have those napkin rings.  They remind me of an obdurate but a kind man; a strict disciplinarian but full of understanding; loyal to Britain and her culture but capable of understanding and appreciating India; dedicated to his work but without pretension; of noble mind but full of humility; and weather beaten and tough as a nail but with the graces of a 17th century cavalier.


Mrs_futehally My son Murad Futehally was a student at Mayo College from 1960-1965 and my brother Aamir Ali attended Doon School during 1938-1939  Jack Gibson had a profound influence on both of them.  I am in the process of writing Jack Gibson’s biography and will share on this blog some of the memories his students have of him.