Guts, Grit and Glory | Last Man Standing

The story of a brave-heart officer, Captain M.N. Mulla MVC, who chose death over dishonour

Maj. Gen. R.S. Mehta (retd)Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)

When we’ve raced the seagulls, run submerged across the Bay/ Let us pause awhile and ponder, in the light of days gone by/ With their strange old ships and weapons, what our Fathers did, and why/ Then if still we dare to argue that we’re just as good as they / We can seek the God of Battles on our knees, and humbly pray/ That the work we leave behind us, when our earthly race is run/ May be half as well completed as our Fathers work was done

Paraphrased from Ronald Hopwood’s ‘Our Fathers’


Playwright George Bernard Shaw does his reputation damage when he disparages the act of Captain Edward Smith going down with the Titanic in April 1912 on her maiden Southampton-New York run. ‘So did the cat’ he wrote dismissively. Military men and women needn’t take umbrage because they serve for something beyond comprehension of cynical if brilliant people when they choose to die for duty, honour and dignity; they do so because they sign an unlimited liability contract on joining that places their lives at the nation’s disposal without seeking a return.

This is what brave-heart Capt. Mahendra Nath Mulla MVC (posthumous) lived and died for on the night of 9 December 1971, as remembered by his brave wife Sudha and his two daughters, of whom Ameeta Mulla Wattal’s proud recall is on record. He wilfully chose never to forsake his men; leave them behind when a torpedo fired from the Daphne-class Pakistani submarine PNS Hangor struck his ship, INS Khukri, sliding it to its final resting place off the Kathiawar coast. Mulla is remembered calmly smoking his last cigarette after handing over his own life-jacket to a sailor who survived even as his Captain with 18 officers and 176 men went down. Mulla was the ship; going down with it.

Author Hugh Lawrie remarks that ‘When the ship goes down, the waves very quickly roll over the top and attention shifts elsewhere… It’s just the natural order of things in TV — in life.’ His words hurt because they’re universally true. To forget heroism is nevertheless an obnoxious practice we can ignore by recalling ace heroism in the hope that a few will feel inspired enough to pass on the conviction that dying for the idea of India is a noble way of doing one’s duty; thereby reinforcing our timeless ethic of Naam, Namak, Nishan first enunciated on the killing battlefields of Kurukshetra.

Elder daughter Ameeta Mulla Wattal in a 2010 recall of that dark night as a 14-year-old remembers that the sister’s innocence was shredded that fateful night when some naval officers came calling with grim tidings of loss; a loss that their mother had intuitively sensed at dinner that night. In a way, her father had said au revoir to his daughters on December 2, telling them that their best action should never be categorised as a sacrifice; that maintaining family honour was sacrosanct.

That ominous December 9 night, when he had a grim choice to make, his wife and daughters knew he’d make only one… that of not forsaking his men; leaving them behind. He chose death over dishonour and set a precedent for the silent service. In his heroic death, Captain Mulla brought honour to the navy and to India, so wrote his daughter and she said it right. His sacrifice needs no further validation. It is, hereafter, worth recalling the life of the iconic hero whose bonding with his men is the stuff of naval legend; the irrefutable proof lying on the sea bed 40 nautical miles off Diu Head.

Tall, dark and handsome in a classic mould, Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla was born on 15 May 1926 in Gorakhpur in a respected Kashmiri family hailing from Kulam/ Sonamarg with several generations of noted lawyers on its roster. Fond of jidd-o-jehad (repartee/ banter) and with remarkable felicity in Urdu, Mahendra was a much-sought-after defence counsel in his early years in uniform after he, against convention, joined the navy in May 1948. He is remembered for his droll, dry humour and ace professionalism.

Sudha Mulla, his gracious, soft spoken, beautiful, fiercely proud wife recalled years ago (she is no more) that he was a loved and respected Captain at work and a devoted if strict father at home. Fair and ethical, he lived his role-model Vivekananda’s ‘follow-your-conscience’ dictum. She recalled their many happy moments in 16 years of marriage, the foremost being his UK tenure as naval adviser at the Indian High Commission, London and his strong family orientation; his love for poetry.

Among the last batch of Royal Navy trained officers especially as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) expert, he served in top-notch ship and staff assignments before commanding the destroyer, INS Rana. The frigate INS Khukri was his second command effective February 1971. When war broke out, he was tasked to lead 14 frigate squadron comprising ASW frigates Khukri, Kirpan and Kuthar. His mission: hunting-killing Pakistani submarines off Diu Head.

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