It is unwise to read a sequel of something you loved when you were young. It might be written in the same vein, but it never feels the same, the old characters might come back, but you can’t recognise them. All of it is familiar, but somehow different. Quite simply, it just isn’t the same anymore.
Boots, Belts and Berets, published in 2008, charted the journey of a group of young boys as they went through their course at the National Defence Academy in the 1970s. Their exploits and camaraderie in the unique setting made a significant impression on my adolescent senses. With the high expectations imposed by my beer goggles, I went through On the Double in a single session.
On the Double picks up as they continue their military training at the Indian Military Academy, leaving the Western Ghats and Khadakwasla for Dehradun. Written in the first person, the story is narrated by Pessi, though at times Pessi seems to be immanent as well as omniscient, being present everywhere and knowing what all the other characters think.
The book reintroduces each of the main characters, members of Pessi’s gang in the academy. These are Maach, Porky, Zora and Sandy. The nicknames which they acquired at NDA are used to refer to them throughout this book. This isn’t unique, as everyone in On the Double’s universe has a nickname, and is exclusively referred to by that.
The story is full of interesting nuggets about the Indian Military Academy, and the lives of Gentlemen Cadets. The routine at the academy is well documented, the traditions are recorded and the reader can get a sense of what being at the academy feels like. The naming traditions of the academy come to the fore when one character after failing a semester is given the title of Brigadier.
The academic work required of the cadets is supplemented by numerous physical and practical training exercises. One compelling passage shows the cadets solving an SME problem, which requires a tactical solution with the help of the previous course’s solutions to the problem.
The efforts of the trainees to indulge in normal activities that young people do, by working around the strict restrictions imposed upon them, form the basis of most of the anecdotes contained in the book. This has the protagonists scaling walls to go into town, smuggling alcohol to make beer golgappas and finding means to talk to girls.
The wealth of such tidbits creates an immersive atmosphere for the reader, and the characters and settings are well fleshed out. The ’70s setting is reaffirmed when one cadet tries to go to Mumbai in order to find a role in a movie alongside Zeenat Aman. The uniqueness of the academy is shown through a virulent ustaad who orders rounds of the drill grounds for failing to pay attention in class.
Despite the inviting atmosphere and the multitude of interesting trivia about military life, it is difficult to always enjoy reading On the Double. At times the halting prose mars the overall experience. There are too many occasions when the characters’ traits are described. Maach is often met with a paragraph exposing his mischievousness and tendency to cause trouble, Porky is repeatedly described as being thick and slow.
Certain incidents in the story seem to be too similar to those related in the last book, such as a cadet leaving for Mumbai to be a part of the film business, and certain others, seem a bit hackneyed, as does the bit on a cadet being honey-trapped by terrorists.
These blemishes keep On the Double from being a truly memorable read, but it has quite a lot to offer to those who have interest in military life. Especially those who want to get a feel of what the Indian Military Academy is like, would greatly enjoy reading the novel.