As the bodies of the crew of the INS Sindhurakshak are being recovered from its mangled innards, it is a good time to wonder what life must have been like aboard a kilo-class submarine like INS Sindhurakshak. I have never been aboard a submarine but I am told by Vice Admiral K N Sushil who retired last year that if you are claustrophobic, it is not the life for you. American submarines are more comfortable probably because most of them are larger and Americans pay more attention to making life easier inside such war machines. Inside German submarines, it is possible to walk straight through the doors. Inside Russian ones, like the one that went down in Mumbai along with 18 crew members, you have to crouch as you walk through the curved hatches. It is a metallic rabbit warren down inside such a submarine. The battery pit, the heart of the vessel, responsible for propulsion and power supply, where we were initially told the explosion occurred, is the most cramped area. It can only be accessed by lying flat on a trolley-like platform which moves like a monorail suspended from the roofing above the battery system inches from your nose. No elbow room there, where it gets quite hot.
Not as hot as the engine room where if the submarine comes up to charge the batteries, the temperature is between 42 and 46 degrees Celsius, and so noisy you will go deaf. Water is in short supply. You will be able to take a bath only once in about four days. In those four days, you don’t get to change your clothes. Everybody wears the same regulation issue vest and shorts, both almost khaki with only your name and your blood group written on it. No rank. The clothes are disposable. Once you have your bath, you wear the next set. Where toilets are concerned, it is each man to himself: each and everyone has to clean the water closets, captain downwards. Inside the toilet of a kilo-class submarine, it is crouching room only. I am told that when the submarines initially came, every book which the Russians supplied us was marked ‘Secret’. Including the book that told submariners how the WC worked. When you are in the WC, you stared at a lot of valves. If you pushed the wrong valve, everything came back at you, everything.
Till recently Russian-origin subs allowed only for ‘hot bunking’. It means there were bunks only for two-thirds of the crew to sleep while one-third kept watch, typically three watches—red, white and blue—lasting four hours each. The captain has a room, like a first class compartment in a train. He has the luxury of a washbasin—he can brush his teeth before he meets his crew. The submarine that sank typically carried a crew of between 52-57 men, men who spend long claustrophobic hours underwater breathing stale air, the only luxury being carrom or ludo or chess or watching DVD movies. Everybody ate the same food. No fried food, no chappatis even, unless the submarine was ‘snorting’ which means coming up for a battery charge. Nowadays it is a little better, I am told: you can carry books on board. Only you won’t have time to read. No smoking except in the engine room. No alcohol anywhere. I am told you can only volunteer for such a life.