The Story of PNS Hangor
By Mian Zahir Shah
PN Book Club, Islamabad
Many Pakistanis are aware that a submarine of the Pakistan Navy was instrumental in torpedoing and destroying a major Indian frigate — the INS Khukri — during the war of 1971. But for those who want a true sense and flavour of the depth and complexity of the matter, The Story of PNS Hangor — Mian Zahir Shah’s literary endeavour regarding the history of this issue — makes for superb reading.
The author is Dartmouth-trained, a rear admiral and an experienced old submariner himself, so his book is loaded with technical terms. However, the technicalities are worth slogging through, since only then can one get an accurate idea not only of the wartime encounter itself, but also of the history of this remarkable submarine.
The word ‘Hangor’ is Bengali for ‘shark’, and the journey of this lethal beast’s chasing of Indian blood in the water begins when Pakistan acquired this French-manufactured Daphne-class submarine, which replaced older vessels such as the famous Ghazi.
The Hangor had superior sonar capabilities to the submarines that preceded it, but I would also like to make note of the point — of which even the Pakistan Navy might be unaware — as to who Daphne mythologically was. She was the swift-footed daughter of a river god and, on being pursued by the powerful Greek god Apollo, chose to metamorphose into a tree rather than be raped by a deity.
Luck sided with Daphne and, indeed, luck and fate sided with the Pakistani submarine. In his recollections of the intense maritime encounter with the Khukri, Vice Admiral Ahmad Tasnim, the hero of the Hangor saga, makes special mention of the fact that the first torpedo fired was directed towards the Indian frigate with textbook precision, yet it did nowhere close to the damage that the second torpedo did — this, in spite of the fact that the second one was fired in complicated and less than ideal conditions.
Author Shah leaves no stone unturned in getting personal accounts from all key members of the encounter who are still alive; the complete list of names of these worthy gentlemen is dutifully provided towards the end of the book.
Like all good naval personnel, Tasnim ran a tight ship, and Shah comments extensively on the sailors’ ability to handle crises calmly, regardless of whether an appendectomy needed to be performed on board, malfunctioning air conditioning needed to be fixed, or necessary paperwork was temporarily misplaced.
But the adventures of the Hangor firmly underscore that, no matter how prepared and precise the naval armed forces might be about organisation, ultimately things rarely happen the way that one expects them to.
What often makes all the difference between mere competence and victory is luck, the ability to adapt to the unpredictable and the equally important ability to use one’s instinct to perceive the depth and truth of a matter. One major example of Shah’s own ability to do this — in writing, if not actual warfare — was when he questioned Hangor’s sonar operator, Petty Officer Mohammad Miskeen, about whether he had heard depth charges (anti-submarine warfare weapons) during the encounter.
There were so many differing accounts of this that Shah went all the way to specifically clarify this point by visiting Miskeen at Hasanabdal, where Miskeen now lives in retirement. In spite of the fact that he possesses one super-sensitive ear — although he is almost deaf in the other one — and is referred to as the “Golden Ear” of the submarine, Miskeen asserted that he had heard no depth charges!
This type of research and technical prowess is what sets this book apart from other more fantastical and glamorised accounts of naval life, both Pakistani and otherwise. I was enormously impressed to note that Shah had taken pains to also present the Indian version of events, featuring the Khukri’s leader, Captain Mahendra Nath Mulla, among others, by giving accounts of the other side of the story in italics.
Although the crew of the sister frigate INS Kirpan were incensed by the destruction of the Khukri at Pakistan’s hands, they chose not to reclaim the few survivors of the attack personally — a controversial decision because, although it kept them safe, it further compromised their compatriots. Ultimately, the few Indian survivors who had managed to escape the dramatic sinking of the Khukri were saved by life rafts. In this matter, the Indian navy can be considered far smarter than the legendary Titanic that ran short of providing this necessary resource, thereby compounding its own tragedy.
Ships and submarines have always attracted huge audiences when it comes to the media and it is no coincidence that the film Titanic is the biggest box office hit of all time. But the story of the Hangor reminded me of a far more interesting naval film than either this, or The Hunt for Red October, or Crimson Tide. I am thinking specifically of the remarkable K-19: The Widowmaker, a film about a Russian submarine whose crew heroically averted a naval nuclear disaster.
Unlike many politically correct media endeavours today, this film contains virtually no female actors whatsoever, because gritting, uncompromising naval life is — and always has been — intensely and unapologetically male. Laughingly, Shah notes early in his text that the wives of naval officers rarely understand the masculine seaman esprit de corps.
But every naval serviceman, from the lowest to the highest, does understand this and appreciates it fanatically well. An excellent example of this was when Chief Ordnance Artificer Abdul Aziz and Tasnim rolled up their sleeves at one juncture and got certain valves of the Hangor to work. At that point, delineating the Hangor’s history in general and Tasnim’s relationship with it in particular, the text underscores that rank and hierarchy was set aside — both men were just fundamentally workers/ sailors who were applying themselves to ensuring the safety of their submarine.
Indeed, that was what was most psychologically remarkable about Tasnim and his worthy crew. They were wartime sailors first and foremost, and never forgot it. Perhaps this ability was what lay at the heart of their jaw-dropping success and their inspired teamwork that helped put genuine fear into the hearts of one of our most formidable geopolitical enemies.
As the Khukri sank, Mulla urged his men to escape: “Jao, jao!” [Go, go!] he yelled desperately and the sound of his anguished voice resounds through Shah’s writing with as much authenticity as the author’s painstaking description of stealthy, measured underwater travel and the incomparable importance of sonars when it comes to maritime life. Captain Mulla was one of the 194 Indian crew members that went down with the Khukri.
Let me end now on two charming notes. I was delighted by the moving and/ or amusing illustrations and pictures with which the book is peppered — all of which can be credited to Shah himself. His drawing of the Rann of Kutch’s resemblance to an elephant is especially memorable, not simply because of its accuracy, but also its ostensible cuteness.
But more than that, I was in awe at how this remarkable shark of a submarine made its way, with great fanfare and well-deserved respect, to Karachi’s notable Maritime Museum. After all its engines, interiors, bunks and “miles and miles of pipes and cables” were removed and carefully labelled to ensure accurate reassembly, the hull was cut into three pieces. The sections were then transported via a circuitous route to the Museum, where the beast was put back together.
Credit also goes to the redoubtable Captain Ahmed Zaheer for bringing both this point and this wonderful book to my attention.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasise that if anyone wants proof of the brilliance of our naval forces, all they need to do is visit the now-retired Hangor. They are guaranteed not to regret it. In other words, Mian Zahir Shah’s salute to this superior sea shark should be emulated by the rest of us.
The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 13th, 2022
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