The Naked Apes and the General Salute

 Desmond Morris wrote about body language and how to interpret its non-verbal communication in his excellent book “Manwatching”. Later he wrote “The Naked Ape” which explained that human beings were only hairless deviants of the great apes. He must have had the Indian Air Force (IAF) in mind.

When we joined the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) as cadets in 1948, almost the first assault we were subjected to was to have most of the hair on our heads removed. Looking at some of my course mates, this was quite necessary. Many of them had locks they really fancied, though not quite like David Beckham or his ilk. Many cadets had hair imitating the styles of well known heroes of our films, not that in the RIAF they were ever going to get a chance of chasing nubile girls running around trees. We soon discovered that it was mandatory to have a hair cut once a week, or else. The “or else” followed a simple body language signal of being gestured to fall out of the morning parade and be prepared for a really gruelling punishment.

The usual punishment was the infamous pack-parade. The victim, still aspiring to become a pilot, had to report for the pack-parade in full military uniform, including a filled backpack, water canteen and rifle. The uniform made this task even more of a hardship than imagined. We wore half pants, woollen stockings and boots designed for route marches. For pack-parade the guilty cadet had to crawl on his elbows and knees, both bare, on the hot bitumen strips of the parade ground. The body got a fair battering and no verbal language was involved. We soon learned to follow rules and tried not to get caught with hair longer than about half on inch or so.

Getting a haircut in time was not easy. With nearly eighty of us needing trims each week, usually on Saturdays, catching the eye of the barber was a difficult job. I found a simple solution to get my haircuts. One Anglo-Indian course mate volunteered to cut my hair for free as long as I did not mind how I looked at the end of the operation. In fact he was better than the barber, much more gentle and not in a hurry to get the job done. Surprisingly, no one in authority was the slightest bit interested in our looks, good or bad, as long as the hair on the head was short enough. The problem then came up with the bristles on the chin and the upper lip.

We had to shave every day – never mind that we had hardly anything to shave off. I soon developed an allergy to razor blades, literally.

I reported to the Medical Inspection Room and showed my lacerated face and the accompanying rash to the Medical Officer. He agreed with me that I had a problem but he had no solution to it. He flatly refused to give me a certificate to grow a beard on medical grounds. He said that to grow facial hair was human (usually for males) but to allow beards was not Air Force policy, except for the Sikhs. Not even Muslims were permitted to sport any hair on their chins. No wonder, out of envy some of my colleagues referred to the Sikhs as belonging to the Royal Indian Hair Force. The only suggestion made by the Doc (not to be confused with an MS Word document) was for me to switch to electric shavers after I got commissioned. I followed his advice and bought one of these gadgets with my first pay. I have not used a razor since then.

Moustaches were the only facial hair permitted, and even encouraged, usually by admiring glances. My own upper lip has always been covered ever since a barely visible fuzz appeared on it about sixty years ago. The thought of it ever being naked, like the emperor's clothes, horrifies me. In the RIAF a moustache was almost mandatory if you wanted to look like a daredevil fighter pilot. The bigger it was the better pilot you were. Some of the Brits in the Royal Air Force (RAF) had the most enviable moustaches.

Even though we dropped the Royal from the title of our service on 26th January 1950, the tradition to sport impressive moustaches was kept alive by some stalwarts. The first one I met was Dickey the Flight Commander of the Battleaxes who also led IAF’s first formation aerobatic team of which I was a member. He was really good at flying. There was truth after all in the view that to fly well you had to grow a good moustache. Some others like Balwant and Dilip also did very well thanks perhaps to the display on their upper lips. George with a good enough moustache became Inspector General of IAF. But one of the champions was Granny. He had a really good moustache and soon became a test pilot.

My favourite comedian on BBC in the '50s was Jimmy Edwards in "Take it from here". He had the most famous moustache in England. Naturally, he had grown it when he was in the RAF. A standard joke in his radio programme was that when he visited his local, he could enter it only sideways. He had to make sure that his moustache did not get him stuck in the doorway. Inspired with this larger than life example, I decided to grow mine into a respectable bush. I had still a long way to get there when I had to go to England for some training.

In England my moustache was impressive enough to result in occasional oblique glances. At a party, a girl I had just been introduced to commented on it. She said that it had an obvious advantage. I could always tell what last night's coffee tasted like. I immediately offered that she could taste it for herself. She declined the invitation. So did the rest of the girls around.

Some decades ago, most English women had a partiality for the moustache. A Rudyard Kipling female character commented that kissing a man without a moustache was like eating boiled eggs without salt. From what you can see in our towns and villages especially in Rajasthan and the South, most men are unlikely to face any such problem. I hereby also declare that though I am now a senior citizen, I have no shortage of salt for anyone wanting it.

Getting back to nakedness of the human apes, the reason why most of the fur was discarded has just been discovered by scientists. It seems that the main motivation was to get rid of lice, fleas and other pests which tended to make fur their permanent residence. Once humans discovered alternate coverings, fur was no longer required as a protection against the elements, except in essential areas. Just as well, because flying a jet aircraft like the Vampire at low level in the summer in Punjab was a torture even with no fur. During an operational exercise, we had measured the temperature in our tent which was the aircrew rest room. It was measured several times with different thermometers since we did not believe the first reading of 52°C. But later readings tended to go even higher. Naturally the aircrew hardly got any rest in it. I got myself weighed before and after a low level sortie at three in the afternoon. The Doc was horrified to see that I had lost 12 pounds when before flight I was only 112 pounds anyway.

If humans still had fur around them, I doubt if we would have ever flown at low level in the tropical summers. Moustaches are quite another matter.


TRADITIONS in the Air Force go back a long way. Not perhaps as far as the Indian Army or the Navy, but they have a history of their own. From the Brits we learnt to wish the time of the day. It feels funny on a soggy or very hot day to be wishing your superior 'Good morning'. I mean, can't we see it isn't? Perhaps the wish is only for the superior himself. And, his morning can become good if he can put some underlings on the mat and overcome any inferiority complex of his poor performance the night before. Sometimes you just say 'Morning', Afternoon', or 'Evening' as the case may be. The rest is taken for granted.

We were also taught to give our surnames on answering the phone. You had to identify yourself at once and not waste the caller's time. A hello' could bring an immediate reproof if the caller was a superior officer. Use of Indian greetings to wish him was strictly taboo. You could be accused of linguistic or provincial chauvinism.

As cadets joining the Air Force, we studied Service Customs. These were mandatory reading to make us not only officers but also gentlemen. Somehow they did not always succeed. We were told that it was customary for any officer entering an office to salute. This was supposed to be irrespective of who was senior. The explanation was that you were saluting the office and not the officer in the chair who could well be very junior to you. In my 28 years with the Air Force, I never saw an officer salute if he was even slightly senior to the occupant of the office.

Some other peculiar customs also exist. Normally you were expected to get up and greet a senior officer coming into your office, and of course offer him your own chair. Surprisingly, at the dining table you were not to get up but only wish him the prevailing time of the day. Many senior officers took this to be uppity behaviour of a junior. The result was invariably unpleasant.

Young officers have their own way of getting back. They practice the RYBS manoeuvre. This says that you should raise your bottom slightly, just enough to indicate that you really meant to get up, but the superior was too fast in sitting down for you to complete the full procedure.

In a restroom (Americanese for toilet) of the Pentagon, a General once told a young officer that he was convinced that the restroom was the only place in the whole building complex where everyone knew exactly what he was doing.

This is not always so in our Air Force messes. While a young officer was at it, an Air Marshal came in to relieve himself. He was seriously offended that the junior chap did not wish him the time of the day. His rank, name and number were noted down for not recognising the entry of a superior -- in this case, a very senior officer. He soon received a letter of displeasure for not showing due respect to an Air Marshal.

Presumably today's young officers have learnt a lesson. Their best greeting would be "Good weeing, Sir".