The Air Raid on Government House, Dacca (Indo-Pak War 1971) triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the historical surrender of a 93,000 strong Pakistan Army on December 16, 1971.
Many events led to the historic surrender of a 93,000 strong Pakistan Army on December 16, 1971; some stand out. One of them is the bombing of the Government House in Dacca which, according to many historians, was the proverbial last straw which broke the camel’s back. It is interesting how it came about.
In about a week since its breakout on December 3, the Indo-Pak War in the eastern sector had reached a turning point. The Indian Air Force was in command of the skies and was striking Pakistani military targets with impunity. The Indian Navy had achieved a blockade in the Bay of Bengal so that no assistance could reach the battered and bruised Pakistani forces from the sea. The biggest and the most successful paradrop since the Second World War (Tangail, December 11, 1971) had shattered the morale of the Pakistani forces. The Indian Paratroopers who had landed at Tangail had linked up with the troops from the north and had closed in on Dacca. Dacca with 26,400 Pakistani troops was surrounded by 3,000 Indian troops. The numerical asymmetry favoured Pakistan. Hereafter, it would be a bloody street fight between desperate Pakistani troops fighting for survival and the Indian troops and the cadres of Mukti Bahini flushing them out in an effort to wrest control of the city.
The rudderless and helpless Pakistani leadership holed up in Dacca knew that a fortified Dacca would be costly and time-consuming for the Indian troops to capture; holding on to it would give them the possible time needed to clamour for international support, and maybe, get it. Several ceasefire resolutions had already been tabled in the UN. The US, siding with Pakistan had tried to pressurise India in to a ceasefire by moving its aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and other warships into the Bay of Bengal. The Soviet Union had vetoed all the resolutions that did not link a ceasefire with the recognition of the will of the people of East Pakistan. But under diplomatic compulsions, Moscow had conveyed to Delhi that there would be no more vetoes. Under those circumstances, any prolonging of the War would be detrimental to the interest of the freedom fighters seeking independence from Pakistan and for the Indian armed forces who had brought the War so close to a favourable conclusion. Victory and the achievement of the goal was so close, yet so far. Something had to be done before a third party could intervene and ‘thrust’ a ceasefire.
To work out a concrete plan to delay the fall of Dacca until international support could be mustered, Governor Dr AM Malik had called a very high-level meeting in the Government House around mid-day on December 14. The who’s who of the administrative machinery, the military leadership, a few foreign diplomats, the representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN representative, John Kelly would be present. The main aim was to find a way to bring about a face-saving ceasefire rather than a shameful surrender by the Pakistani Army.
There were several transmissions by the Pakistanis on the radio air waves sharing the details of the meeting called by the Governor. It is a matter of chance that those communications were picked up by a vigilant Wireless Experimental Unit of the Indian Air Force. A flight lieutenant officiating as the Commanding Officer, heard and re-heard those messages because they indicated a congregation of the top Pakistani leadership at a place at a given time. He wasted no time in bringing it to the notice of his ‘higher ups.’
Thereafter things happened really fast. The Signal Intelligence Directorate, Army Command and the Eastern Air Command shared the leak with Delhi. Those in Delhi, realised the strategic importance of the leaked message. To thwart the Pakistani design to manoeuvre a ceasefire or to tether the Indian troops on the periphery of Dacca until ‘help’ arrived, it was imperative to somehow prevent decision making by the Governor. It was of strategic importance to disrupt that planned meeting. The stymieing of the meeting would also send the administration and defence of Dacca into total disarray. With the time of the meeting fast approaching, the window of opportunity to throw a spanner in the works was rather small.
Acting fast, Air Headquarters ordered the Eastern Air Command in the morning of December 14, to strike the Circuit House where the meeting was to take place. The First Supersonics, the MiG-21 fighters of 28 Squadron, Air Force based at Guwahati, were tasked with the responsibility. Wing Commander BK Bishnoi, the Commanding Officer, who had just returned from a close-support mission from Mainamati Cantonment in the morning received the instructions through Group Captain MSD Wollen (Station Commander, Air Force Station, Guwahati).
The time was 10:55 am when Bishnoi was directed to strike the Circuit House in Dacca at 11:20 am. It was a tall order in as much as, the flying time from Guwahati to Dacca was 21 minutes. And, to add to the woes of the pilots, none in the Squadron knew where in Dacca was the Circuit House located. The building was not clearly indicated in the quarter-inch and the one-inch maps available in the Squadron. Under those circumstances, striking the target without causing collateral damage would be difficult.
To help out Bishnoi with the location of the intended target, Wollen produced a tourist map which gave the location of the Circuit House. Even on that map of the city of Dacca, pinpointing a particular crossing and the Circuit House on that crossing in a crowded locality was difficult. How to strike the target in that crammed locality and yet avoid harming the civilian population in the vicinity, must have been uppermost in the mind of a conscientious Bishnoi when he took the tourist map from Wollen and accepted the daunting task. Since time was running out, he decided to fly over Dacca with the tourist map and look for the Circuit House. He could afford that luxury because there was practically no resistance from the Pakistani Air Force.
Four MiG-21 aircraft loaded with 32 High Explosive Rockets each were readied for the mission. It was when Bishnoi was strapping up in the cockpit that one of his officers came running to him and gave him a slip of paper which said that the target was Government House and not Circuit House. A major faux pas was averted.
Once the formation was airborne and was on its way to execute the mission, Bishnoi scanned the tourist map and identified the Government House on it. The other three members of the strike team––Flight Lieutenants Vinod Bhatia, Raghavachari and Malhi––were still oblivious of the last-minute change of the target from Circuit House to Government House. Bishnoi had not announced the change on the R/T, to maintain secrecy to the extent possible.
Barely a minute before the formation was over Dacca, Bishnoi shared the ‘revised’ target information with his team. He described it for them and gave them the approximate location and asked them to look out for it. Bhatia who spotted the Government House first, identified it as a magnificent old styled palatial building with a high dome, in the middle of a lush green compound, eleven o’clock to them, about 500 yards away. A few vehicles were parked on its premises.
Bishnoi orbited once to confirm the identity of the target and then ordered the attack, himself taking the building from the wider side. He aimed at the room below the dome. The others targeted other parts of the building. In two passes, the team fired 128 rockets at the Government House. Two MiG aircraft of No. 5 Squadron Air Force followed Bishnoi’s formation. They made four passes each, firing rockets at their target. The IAF aircraft remained unscathed by the half-hearted firing by the Pakistani anti-aircraft guns
Smoke and dust rose from the seat of Pakistani power in East Pakistan.
Like Wing Commander Bishnoi, Wing Commander SK Kaul, the Commanding Officer of 37 Squadron, Air Force located at Hashimara, too didn’t get much time to prepare. At about 10:30 am on the same day he also received instructions to target the Government House in Dacca. When he raised questions about the location of the building, a young officer of his Squadron came up with a Burmah Shell tourist map of the city of Dacca. It amazed the Commanding Officer to no end. But, according to Kaul, the map was more detailed than the quarter-inch and the one-inch maps used by the pilots. At least, it served the intended purpose at that crucial moment.
Before, the Governor and the people in the Government House could absorb the shock of the rocket attack by the MiG fighters, they were attacked by two Hunter aircraft flown by Wing Commander SK Kaul and Flying Officer Harish Masand, respectively. They made several passes over the target and emptied their guns. On their way back they saw the spectator gallery that was on the rooftop of the Dacca Intercontinental Hotel. Standing atop the hotel building, the foreigners and the media-persons were watching the spectacle at the Government House.
Those in the Government House didn’t have a respite; they didn’t have time to raise their heads. The raid by the duo of Kaul and Masand was followed by a raid by Squadron Leader Bose and Flight Lieutenant Menon. Again, there was a feeble response from the Air Defence elements on the ground. The Indian MiG and Hunter formations had inflicted severe damage on the seat of power in East Pakistan; the air attacks had shattered the pride and morale of the leadership.
Down below, the massive roof of the main hall of the Government House was ripped. There was pandemonium in the building as people ran for cover. The Governor rushed to the air-raid shelter. Between the raids, he quickly scribbled his resignation to General Yahya Khan, the President of Pakistan. He was seen taking off his shoes, washing his hands and feet and kneeling down for prayers in an air raid shelter. Allah alone could save him and the Pakistanis from the wrath of the Indian Armed Forces.
After tendering his resignation, Dr Malik, his Cabinet and the West Pakistani Civil Servants based in the city, made a beeline to the Dacca Intercontinental Hotel, which had been converted into a Neutral Zone by the International Red Cross. As per diplomatic norms Serving Pakistani officials couldn’t have taken refuge in the Hotel. So, the top brass dissociated themselves in writing from the Government of Pakistan to become eligible to get admission in the Neutral Zone.
The same evening, in a desperate bid, Lieutenant General Niazi rushed to Mr Herbert Daniel Spivack, the US Consul-General in Dacca with a request to negotiate a ceasefire with India on Pakistan’s behalf. The American diplomat declined the request outright, instead he offered to ‘send a message’. The air attacks on the Government House in Dacca broke the back of Pakistani command and control in the eastern sector. In the following two days, it took a little more of arm-twisting of Lieutenant General AAK Niazi by Lieutenant General JFR Jacob to make him agree to an unconditional surrender by the Pakistani Army.
An audacious Flight Lieutenant hangs below a vintage C-119 Fairchild Packet aircraft in-flight to rectify a snag in the nose-wheel; prevents a major air crash and saves the lives of a crew of seven IAF air warriors.
Late that November evening in 1982, the Air Officer Commanding (AOC), Air Force Station Kheria (Agra) was the most concerned commander of the Indian Air Force. A ‘May Day‘ call from a C-119 Fairchild Packet aircraft of No 12 Squadron, Air Force, on a routine training flight had sent Air Commodore KK Badhwar rushing to the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower. “There’s an emergency… Packet aircraft… problem with the nose landing gear… orbiting overhead… will approach for landing in about an hour,” he had been informed briefly by the air traffic controller on duty who was in a great hurry to drop the line––his attention, and all his energies were focussed elsewhere.
The ATC tower was abuzz; preparing to deal with the worst––the crash crew had been alerted; the crash tenders and the ambulances were ready, awaiting further orders. The routine take-off and landing of aircraft had been stopped altogether; all other aircraft had been advised to clear the airspace and the runway; everyone concerned, had been notified. Once in the control tower, the AOC conversed with Squadron Leader CK Jolly, the Captain of the aircraft, and gauged the gravity of the situation.
Minutes ago, when this Packet aircraft, call sign IK-461, was approaching Agra airfield for its sixth landing, the Captain had observed that on lowering the landing gear, the nose landing gear warning light had remained red. Steps to lower the nose wheel as per the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) had been in vain––either the warning light indication in the cockpit was faulty, or the landing gear was actually malfunctioning. In the latter case, it was a serious emergency; the nosewheel landing gear could collapse on touchdown leading to a difficult-to-manage crisis situation. A few more checks confirmed the worst fears––it was a positive warning; the nose landing gear was actually dysfunctional.
C-119 Fairchild Packet was one-of-its-kind flying machine, if it could be called one. In appearance, it was quite un-aircraft-like; people marvelled at its ability to mock the laws of gravity and the Principles of Flight. Its designers called it a Flying Boxcar; others, less kind in their treatment of the aircraft, awarded it the epithet: ‘Flying Coffin’. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration if one were to declare that this aircraft of the Korean War vintage, of the early 1950s, used to get airborne and stay afloat more because of the willpower of the magnificent men who flew it––and those who enabled its flight; the technicians––than because of its powerful engines and large wingspan. Having served the USAF, and then the IAF, so very well for long years, the ageing machine demanded superior care and maintenance to remain airworthy. The memory of a crash on the take-off run, although not due to a technical snag, wherein a contingent of 42 paratroopers, five Parachute Jump Instructors and the aircrew had perished in a fireball, in the not-too-distant past, must have weighed heavily on the mind of the AOC as he listened to the conversation between the Controller and the Captain. Yet in that extremely charged atmosphere, he was quiet, composed and un-interfering. Air Commodore Badhwar, a decorated Canberra Bomber pilot and a hero of the 1971 Indo-Pak War (a Vir Chakra awardee), knew the air warriors under his command well. They were dutiful conscientious men who didn’t need hand-holding or nudging. Leadership!
Up there, in the aircraft…
There was practically no choice. The Captain had consulted the other crew members and the professionals who had gathered in the ATC tower, and had taken an informed decision to land. That decision would mean––a very high probability of the nose landing gear piercing through the aircraft structure on making contact with the runway surface; its propellers hitting the concrete; the engines and the airframe suffering damage and causing a major fire. The possibility of the aircraft cartwheeling due to one of the wings hitting the ground and ending up in a mangled mass of metal couldn’t be ruled out either. Threat to the lives of the seven air warriors onboard, was a given. Without speaking a word, the crash crew rehearsed in their minds, the crash drill––the very idea of pulling men out of the burning wreckage of an aircraft was nerve-wracking. The only thing the pilots could do was to land with nearly empty fuel tanks to minimise the ferocity of the blaze. Decision to land anyway, had been taken. And, it was a unanimous decision… almost.
Mind it! A-L-M-O-S-T!
Among the crew was a young Flight Engineer whose mind was flying out of the Boxcar (pun intended). Flight Lieutenant Sumer Chand Gaur, “SC” to his friends, was an engineer instructor on type; knew the aircraft systems like the backside of his hand. He thought differently and was somehow unconvinced about the decision to land the aircraft in that condition. He didn’t accept what others saw as a fait accompli.
Flight Lieutenant Gaur reasoned with the Captain that the nose undercarriage was not lowering and locking due to an internal obstruction. He opined that it was possible, in-flight, to remove the jack from its attachments in the nose undercarriage bay and let the landing gear free to come down fully. A Qualified Flying Instructor himself, Squadron Leader Jolly understood the technicality very well, but wavered on the decision to attempt rectification. The solution was fraught with great risk and as a Captain, he was just not ready to expose his Flight Engineer to that danger.
A healthy debate ensued even as time, and fuel––the most precious commodities in that crisis––kept running out. Any one attempting to rectify the snag could accidentally fall off the aircraft to instant death. The Captain’s dilemma was: whether he should put Gaur’s life to risk in the hope that all seven lives might be saved or, not allow Gaur to attempt rectification and endanger all seven lives on touchdown.
The Captain remained caught up between the devil and the deep sea for a short while but then, gave in to the enthusiasm of his Flight Engineer. He allowed him to discuss the plan with the experts sitting in the ATC tower and to get another opinion. The AOC and the others listened attentively to Gaur on the radio set and grasped the technical viability of the solution suggested by him. But most of them thought he was volunteering for an extremely audacious action––almost impossible to execute––to solve the problem. It entailed hanging outside (below) the flying aircraft and working on the landing gear. Barnstorming!? A mistake while attempting it could send him hurtling 5,000 feet down, to mother earth.
All eyes were on the AOC.
Air Commodore Badhwar knew Flight Lieutenant Gaur as an energetic and enthusiastic young officer; a thoroughbred professional and a go-getter in that. He took little time to decide and was unflinching when he gave a nod to his gutsy plan of action. That indeed marked the beginning of a forty-seven-minute ordeal which, to those involved in it, would appear to be an eternity.
Moments into the exercise, the protagonists realised that the problem was far more complex than they had visualised. To begin with, the gap created by removing the panels from the floor of the aircraft was too small for a well-built Gaur to pass through. Also, the poorly lit space in the wheel bay was very crammed; there was hardly any elbow room. It was a struggle for him to squeeze into the rathole. Non-availability of proper tools on board made things more difficult––Jugaad turned out to be the watch word. Without wasting any time, Gaur got down to execute the Mission Impossible. One of his trainee Flight Engineers held his feet as he got himself lowered, head first, into the nosewheel bay.
November in Agra is rather cold. Incidentally, it was November the 25th––a day after SC’s 36th birthday. A ruthless December was less than a week away. At 7:45 pm, outside the aircraft it was dark and freezing.
In the wheel bay…
Cold air, at a hundred miles per hour, pierced SC’s face; and numbed his nose and cheeks. Within seconds, his eyes and nose started watering. With both his hands occupied––one, in tethering him to a strong point and the other, to hold the tools he was working with––there was no way to grip the heavy two-cell Geep torch. He held it firmly in his mouth to point the light where he wanted. That made his jaw ache, and breathing, difficult. Six to eight minutes was a very long time to work in that air blast. So, Gaur surveyed the landing gear and quickly withdrew into the cargo compartment for a breather. He had to thaw his frozen nose and clean his face which was, thanks to the wind chill, smeared with fresh saliva and mucous.
The very best in people comes to the fore when they are in life and death situations. It is as true about the grit and resilience of men in distress, as about their sense of humour. At a time when, they were unsure of seeing another sunrise, Squadron Leader Narwal, the Navigator did not miss any opportunity to crack jokes to lighten the mood even as Flight Lieutenant Gaur prepared to enter the nose wheel bay a second time. He stood precariously in the nose-wheel bay working on the landing gear. The blast of cold air was relentless in its effort to dislodge the young engineer. His fingers frozen again, SC resurfaced into the cargo compartment––only to regain his breath, warm and revive his fingers and wipe his face. The process repeated––in about forty minutes, Gaur had been into the nosewheel bay five times. All this while the cockpit crew, and the AOC in the ATC tower listened, with bated breath, to the running commentary that was being broadcast by the Flight Signaller, Junior Warrant Officer Subbu who was keenly observing and relaying every piece of action.
With great effort, Gaur was able to unlock the nut holding the landing gear actuator––the bolt however, remained stuck. It was imperative to dislodge it to set the landing gear free. His attempts to remove it were fruitless. He needed a hammer to complete the task. Meanwhile, breathing was becoming a strain; he felt exhausted. One of the crew brought a cylinder of breathing oxygen with a mask to comfort him. Rejuvenated by a tonic of jokes and several lungfuls of oxygen, he got down to pushing the bolt out of its casing. For want of a hammer, he struggled with a large spanner.
Viva! At last, the adamant bolt slipped out. Then, without wasting another second, Gaur removed the actuator freeing the landing gear to move into fully down position. There was instant jubilation in the cockpit––the nosewheel undercarriage warning light had turned ‘Green.’ In the last action, SC inserted the Ground Lock Pin into the undercarriage to prevent its accidental retraction; he tied it with a lashing chain and jack to make it absolutely safe.
Although smiling, gutsy Gaur was numb and utterly sapped when he emerged from the nosewheel bay for the sixth, and the last, time. Down below, in the control tower, there was a feeble sense of celebration. Eeriness had pervaded the air. People had their fingers crossed as they waited for the aircraft to land. Cautiously, Squadron Leader Jolly made a perfect landing and switched off the engine power instantly. With minimum use of brakes, he carefully brought the aircraft to a halt at the end of the long runway.
The AOC arrived instantly at the head of a convoy of vehicles––crash tenders, fire tenders, ambulances and cranes. With arms wide open and a smile that conveyed everything, he welcomed the crew. After a warm hug, he offered his overcoat to SC who was still shivering. He learnt about the incident from Gaur and Jolly, as he drove them to the Flight Commander’s Office where cups of much sought hot coffee awaited them. After completing the documentation, the crew of IK-461, headed to the Squadron Commander’s residence to celebrate a happy end to their ordeal. The celebration continued into the wee hours of the morning.
For a display of professionalism of the highest order and selfless devotion to duty under extremely perilous circumstances, Flight Lieutenant Sumer Chand Gaur was awarded the coveted Shaurya Chakra (exceptional peacetime gallantry) by Giani Zail Singh, the then President of India. Still later, in recognition of his distinguished services, he was awarded the Vishishth Seva Medal.
Now a veteran, Group Captain SC Gaur SC, VSM, resides in Ghaziabad. When the ever-so youthful and daring officer is not playing golf, he spends time motivating youth. The legacy must live; the baton must be passed on.
Can anything stop an anguished war veteran compelled by circumstances from consigning his gallantry medal and his military insignia to the Yamuna River, and dumping his glorious past?
“Dad, do you know that once Muhammad Ali, the American boxing legend was denied service in a restaurant because of the colour of his skin? Not just that… he was abused and racist slurs were flung at that sporting sensation… on that man who had won an Olympic Gold Medal for his country. He had felt so demeaned by that incident, that he cast his Gold Medal into the Ohio River. What a shame!”
Colonel Anirudh Sharma sensed a dash of rage in his teenage son’s emotions as Dhruv shared his discovery with him. Discussing news and related facts was a favourite pastime of the father and son duo. This one was triggered by the news of the unfortunate death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis cops and the ensuing demonstrations by the Black Lives Matter Movement. Dhruv’s curiosity to know more about racism had led him to read the autobiography of the boxer.
“Do you think Ali’s action of consigning the coveted medal to the riverbed was justified?” Dhruv sought his dad’s opinion but wouldn’t allow him to speak. “Forget Muhammad Ali… what do you think about our own sportspersons, social activists and veterans, who congregate at Jantar Mantar at the drop of a hat, and show eagerness to return their awards and medals?” The boy took in a lungful of air and carried on, “I feel, Ali acted on impulse, and in isolation; our people do it in groups; with forethought and elaborate planning. Unlike Ali, many people who do so, appear to do it more for optics than for a genuine cause.”
Anirudh wasn’t sure of how to respond, because he thought there weren’t straight answers to Dhruv’s questions. It wasn’t a case of black or white; there were the grey areas. In any case, he wasn’t inclined to club the armed forces with the social activists. For him, the armed forces were a different breed. Period. “Son, um uhm…,” he cleared his throat to buy time to organise a few thoughts before presenting them.
The Colonel himself was a decorated officer in that he was a KirtiChakra awardee. The peace time gallantry award was conferred on him in recognition of his selfless service under perilous circumstances. As a company commander, he had led a raid on a terrorist camp on the mountain slopes in Poonch District. In daring close-quarters-combat he had killed three infiltrators and captured two others. His left eye was damaged by a shrapnel when a grenade exploded by his side. It left him with a partial loss of vision. He also broke his femur as he fought the terrorists. The surgeon’s effort to fully restore his leg was in vain. As a result, although he could stand erect, there was difficulty in walking and running. He had developed a perceptible limp. That notwithstanding, he felt fighting fit and could do everything which a Shape One officer could do. But the medical authorities opined otherwise; they declared him fit only for desk jobs. On promotion to the rank of a full colonel, he sought premature retirement from the Indian Army. He was averse to the idea of performing staff duties in low medical category.
An impatient and enraged Dhruv kept shooting arrows, the last one of which pierced deep and caused Anirudh anguish. “Dad, you never seem to take a stand. Okay! Tell me, what would you do in a similar situation?”
The father took a minute too long to muster words to express his yet-to-be-organised thoughts.
“Dhruv! Papa! Where are you both? Enough of your meaningless dialogue. Please stop it now. Will you? I am ready with sweet corn soup, pasta and garlic bread. Dhruv, please come and help me lay the table for dinner.” That was Sushma calling from the kitchen. Her intervention naturally relegated the discourse to a position of lesser importance. It got pushed further back––to another day in the future––when after dinner, the father and son got engrossed in watching the telecast of the highlights of the second day’s play of the first cricket test match between India and England. That notwithstanding, Dhruv’s parting shot had flagged off a train of thoughts in Anirudh’s mind. Little did he know that he would recall this conversation with the youngster with a sense of déjà vu the very next morning.
The day started rather early for the veteran. He had been invited as one of the guests of honour at a function organised by the Delhi Chapter of Social Cause Group at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) as a part of a series of events to felicitate war veterans. He left home early with enough cushion time to cater for the usual traffic snarls on the way and, equally importantly, to find a vacant parking slot at the IHC, which again was a time-consuming activity on certain days. It turned out to be one of those good days; the traffic density on the elevated Barapullah Road was low. It was an unusually hassle-free drive. He reached the IHC comfortably––fifteen minutes ahead of his planned arrival.
He parked his car opposite the gate behind the IHC Complex and was organising his thoughts for the felicitation function when an ivory white Range Rover screeched to a halt inches away from him. Nonplussed, he looked up to find a tattered Tricolour clinging on to a corroded brass flag staff attached to the side of the vehicle. Three men in crisp white khadi kurta and pyjamas stepped out and walked up to him. They were giants with shaven heads, each stood about six feet above the ground and must have weighed in excess of 90 kilos. Maybe, a hundred. Their biceps were struggling to get out of their rolled-up sleeves. Their looks could have easily won them roles in any Ramlila––of course, on Ravan’s side. The man who appeared to be the leader, donned a thick gold chain half hidden in the folds of the meaty dark skin of his neck. Without introduction and with faked politeness he asked Anirudh to remove his car to create space for their SUV.
Anirudh narrowed his eyes and contorted his brow to show doubt. Meanwhile, the driver who had until then been sitting at the wheel and honking, stepped out of the monster SUV. The limp Tricolour fluttered once as he banged the door and began walking towards his colleagues. The pot-bellied driver with a greatly displaced centre of gravity seemed to have inveigled his 48-inch girth into a pair of 42-inch Levi’s jeans. The hulk took small, measured steps like a pregnant duck to join up with his cronies.
On reaching the spot, he tried to reason out and convince Anirudh to concede what he called their request. He must have done a masters, if not a doctorate, in the art of wrapping a threat in polite gentlemanly language. Anirudh was immune to intimidation of any kind. Let alone acceding to their request, he displayed utter indifference––an act which did not go well with those men. One of them, who was chewing paan, pointed at the big white letters: A-R-M-Y, displayed prominently on Anirudh’s windscreen and said, “Aap faujiyon ko to janata ke pratinidhiyon ka samman karna chahiye.” (At least, you men in military uniform must respect the representatives of the people). That turned out to be a vain attempt at taming the unbending officer and extracting obeisance from him.
The nerves at Anirudh’s temples began twitching when the four blocked his path. Tempers flared further when an uncompliant Anirudh adjusted his red regimental tie and said, “Please make way, I am in a hurry.” Then, in a flash, he recalled and revised his Krav Maga lessons. His instinct told him; he might need his unarmed-combat skills in the very next instant. He felt confident of taking on the four goons together, physically. In his calculation, the crooked schnooks he was dealing with were far less agile and far less harmful than the armed terrorists he had despatched to hell in the Poonch encounter. The only thing playing on Anirudh’s mind in that instant was the possibility of his lounge suit getting sullied; since a scuffle seemed imminent. He did not want to appear dishevelled in the Auditorium where he was going to be honoured publicly.
Divine intervention prevented a nasty situation from getting nastier. A car parked next to Anirudh’s moved out leaving a slot vacant. Grudgingly, the people’s representatives drove their monster into it. Of the four men, the one chewing paan seemed most rankled by the peaceful outcome of the tussle for those few square feet of no-man’s-land. He stared at Anirudh as if to commit the officer’s face to his memory to settle the score later.
If looks could kill, Anirudh would have been a dead man.
Stein Auditorium was filled to capacity. People were awaiting Shri Shatrujit Sahay, the honourable Minister of State for Defence; popular patriotic Hindi song tunes were playing in the background. Colonel Anirudh Sharma was welcomed by one of the organisers and led to his seat in the front row by a young usher draped in shining white silk saree with Tricolour borders. Incense sticks burning in the four corners filled the hall with the aroma of sandalwood and added to the solemnness of the occasion. The Minister arrived on time and the proceedings commenced, and moved on with clockwork precision.
Shri Sahay had served in the Territorial Army and was a veteran paratrooper. When he did speak, words flowed from his heart. The Honourable Minister showered lavish praise on the Armed Forces in general, and the three officers, in particular. “We acknowledge with gratitude your acts of sacrifice and devotion to duty… your love for the country….” His diction was perfect; he also recited poetic verses written by Shri Ramdhari Singh ‘Dinkar’. Three war veterans were felicitated in a well-coordinated ceremony; Colonel Anirudh Sharma was one of them.
Despite the minister’s stirring speech, Colonel Anirudh’s mind slunk off to the parking lot, revisiting the unsavoury incident of a half hour ago.
Hardly had he uttered that expletive under his breath, when an announcement drew his attention, “We now welcome Colonel Anirudh Sharma, Kirti Chakra, to the podium to say a few words.”
A man in clean white khadi kurta and pyjama came and stood smiling by Anirudh’s side to escort him to the podium. Anirudh recognised the man. He was one of the goons who’d argued with him in the parking area. Paan juice was still oozing out of the corners of his mouth.
Anirudh gave him a blank look when their eyes met. Through the rest of the programme, he saw the men in khadi floating around the VIP. One of them handed over a silver salver to the Minister to be presented to Anirudh.
“Janata ke pratinidhi (representatives of the people)… how can the followers be so different from their leader,” Anirudh looked at the Minister and his men, and wondered. For a split second, a sad smirk appeared on his lips and vanished.
Time flew. Soon everyone stood up to recite the National Anthem and it was all over.
Back in the parking area, Anirudh was enraged to see the shining brass Army crest fitted on his car’s bumper, smeared with dirt. A fuse blew in his head when a closer inspection revealed that it was a familiar dirty red colour. He looked around to inflict appropriate punishment on the likely culprit. The tsunami in his head subsided instantly because he found that the 4-Wheel Drive monster with the tattered tricolour had departed.
“A people’s representative will continue to stand on his own two feet and serve the people,” Anirudh regretted as he wiped clean the brass insignia and drove out.
Muhammed Ali, racist slurs, Olympic Gold Medal, Ohio River… the men in white khadi, Shri Shatrujit Sahay’s speech, the smeared Army crest… the questions posed by Dhruv––Anirudh’s mind kept perambulating those thoughts as he drove home slowly. The behaviour of the men in khadi dominated all other thoughts. “Does India deserve the Army it has? Like Ali, should I consign my insignia to the Yamuna-bed and be done with my past?” Unpleasantness stewed in Anirudh’s head as his car entered the Barapullah Road.
His chain of thoughts snapped when he was hailed to a stop by a lady standing by a parked car with flashing hazard lights. She looked hassled.
“Sir, my car has flamed out. I need to get a can of petrol from the nearest petrol pump. Can you please help me reach there?” She said in one breath when Anirudh rolled down his window.
She was in her mid-thirties. As she settled in the seat and belted up, she said something, which dowsed the fire raging in the veteran’s head and reset his thought process. “Sir, I have been calling my friends for assistance for almost an hour. Even though they were not in a position to reach me soon enough, I couldn’t dare seek help from any passing vehicle.” She continued, “You know, it is so difficult to trust strangers after the Nirbhaya case…. I felt so relieved when I saw ‘A-R-M-Y’ on your windscreen and the shining brass crest on the bumper of your car.”
Strange happenings await an Indian family on a holiday in the Canadian Rockies.
Dozens of times in the last seven years I have woken up in a pool of sweat. I owe that miserable state of my being to the repeated recall, in my dreams, of some incidents that took place during my maiden visit to Canada. A family excursion in Alberta in the Summer of 2014, which was expected to be fun and adventure, had turned out to be anything but. One can pop pills to take care of disturbed sleep or the occasional loss of it, but there is no remedy for people relating your behaviour to the lunar cycle and the oceanic tides.
The ordeal began soon after our touchdown in Calgary. We had joined our son, Mudit who was then working with Jacobs. We, meaning: Chhaya, my wife; Renu, her sister and her husband, Squadron Leader Devendra Goyal; another sister, Seema and her chirpy daughter, Shivani and, of course, I––the six of us. As was the plan, Mudit was driving us through the exotic countryside. We had traversed more than a thousand and five hundred miles of the wilderness––driven across Jasper and Waterton National Parks savouring some of the most awesome landscapes on the earth. The beautiful Waterton Lakes almost waylaid us into putting aside our itinerary and camping for longer than we had planned. It had been a fun packed tour until we entered the Banff National Park, and things took a gentle turn in a different direction without anyone realising.
A cable car ride had landed us at the Sulphur Mountain Observatory. The view from the gondola was awesome––the Bow River meandering by the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course was picturesque and a treat not only to the eyes but to this golfer’s soul as well. Far in the north, the Ghost River Wilderness dominated the landscape. It was scenic, albeit with a dash of unattributable eeriness.
The Observatory––a room merely ten feet square––was perched atop Sanson Peak. Its walls made of stones of irregular shapes and sizes seemed incapable of withstanding a gust, let alone a mild tremor. Cold mountain breeze caressing the walls made shrill whistling sounds of varying pitch as it encountered gaps in the structure. There were large glass windows for tourists to get a good look at things on display.
Inside, on a water-stained wooden floor, was a crudely assembled cot. A casually popped pillow on a ruffled blanket and crumpled linen, gave the impression that someone had been sleeping in the bed until a few minutes ago. An unvarnished wooden table and a cane chair were the other items of furniture vying for the crammed space. An old newspaper dated September 10, 1926; a roll of measuring tape; a kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling; a bucketful of charcoal; an empty pail; a pair of worn-out ankle boots without laces; a large axe and some gardening implements and tools; casually hung garments, and a slouch hat and a lantern pegged on wooden pillars––everything in the cabin, and the manner in which they were laid out, bore a stamp of frugality and rusticity. There was a characteristic musty smell quite similar to the type one experiences in the masonic lodges and museums. Shivani was quick to name it: “Sanson Odour.”
Separated by a few miles from the nearest human habitation, that dwelling with its odds and sods was clearly a century behind the present times. It could well have been the location for the shooting of a Rudyard Kipling film; just waiting for, “Camera!” and “Action!”
Until we had gotten a glimpse of the objects inside the room, I was invested in the idea of seeing the usual paraphernalia that one finds in any observatory––barometer, maximum-minimum thermometer, weather cock, plotting charts, pencils, erasers, pens, inkpots, rulers and the like. What we saw was a tad less expected. Besides, the dated objects, and items of clothing and furniture, the Observatory had an engaging history which we were to discover next.
“Hello, I am William Sanson. You can call me Bill.” A bespectacled man in his mid-seventies introduced himself as the caretaker of the Observatory. His appearance and demeanour suggested that he had followed a toilsome routine in life. His enthusiasm contrasted his wrinkled face and his tired eyes peering from behind thick cylindrical lenses held in place by a broken frame balanced on his bony nose.
“This Observatory is dedicated to Norman Bethune Sanson.” Bill announced with verve. “Sanson was the curator of the Banff Park Museum from 1896 to 1932. During his tenure, he travelled extensively through the several National Parks in this area collecting specimens for the museum. His love for animals made him take additional charge of the Banff Zoo. The weather station on the peak was erected at his behest and later, in 1948, named in his honour. He made more than a thousand trips to the peak in his capacity as the park meteorologist until 1945, when he was 84 years old.”
“Are you related to Norman Sanson?” Mudit asked Bill when he paused for a breather.
“Oh yeah! I am his grandson. I was nine when I first climbed this peak with him.” Bill’s chest swelled and his voice brimmed with pride. “Like him, I too have served the Queen’s Own Rifles, and ever since I retired, I’ve been looking after this place.”
Bill spoke with great reverence for his grandfather. He almost sang, “Norman Sanson was fully devoted to this Observatory. His work, and the flora and fauna of this area, meant a world to him. Everything here, living and inanimate, reciprocates his love to this day. And, lemme tell you, some of them animals and birds still call on my grandpa and spend time with him.” There was a core of weirdness in the way he referred to Norman Sanson as if he were still alive.
“In the twilight years of his life, Sanson went visiting people he cared for, and presenting them his cherished belongings as souvenirs.” Bill pulled out a gold chain from the pocket of his waistcoat. “This was his parting gift to me.” At the other end of the chain was a gold watch. Engraved on the cover, in cursive was the name: “Norman B Sanson.” It was a covetable antique.
“Working alone all the time, didn’t he get bored? No telephone, no radio, no television––how did he spend the parts of his days when he was not recording any observations?” Shivani was curious.
“Sanson had a lot of other things to do. He used to read technical journals, and write reports and articles for a local newspaper. Besides, he did take occasional breaks from his work. One of his favourite pastimes was to run down the slope to a location called Point Bravo. He used to boast of completing a round trip to Point Bravo in exactly 87 seconds. It is interesting how he timed those shuttles … oops (there was an interruption). …just watch out!” A squirrel appeared from nowhere and distracted Bill. It started frolicking on the window sill.
“Lisa! You are up to your tricks again!” Bill admonished the squirrel as a father would, an errant child. The little thing was unmindful of Bill’s scolding; and, as if to tease him, she stood on its hind legs and began dancing.
We clapped for Lisa, for providing us unadulterated entertainment. Left with little choice, Bill condoned her behaviour with mock annoyance. She came running when Chhaya waved a bread crumb at her. We were enjoying her antics when she suddenly leapt and cowered into a crevice to evade a large bird that had swooped down to prey on her.
“David! Stop it! Will you!” yelled Bill. It sounded like a military word of command. Then he snapped his fingers and twisted his tongue and twittered in an unusual way. His utterance can at best be reproduced on paper as: “Tschulk! Tschulk! Tschulk!” And, lo and behold, the bird glided down and landed on his outstretched arm. It was massive with scary eyes that glistened in the sun.
“He’s David, the raven. He’s a big bully, keeps scaring Lisa and plays pranks on people. He lives here; guards the Observatory and gives company to my grandpa. He even does errands for him.” Bill introduced the raven to us as though he were a member of the Sanson family and turned his head to address him, “Come on baby, now stop being naughty. Last week when you did something funny, you lost a talon and broke your neck, almost.” With great care, Bill inspected David’s bandaged foot. He brought his mouth closer to the bird’s head and pretended to speak in his ear, “Now, say hello to our Indian friends. If you are well behaved, they might show you the Great Indian Rope Trick.” He winked at us and tittered, baring the gaps in his decaying teeth.
“Caw! Caw! Caw!” David obeyed and nodded several times. He seemed to be trying to get acquainted with each one of us, individually. It was fun. We thanked Bill and prepared to leave. I continued to engage him with questions while we waited for the cable-car. I stopped only when Mudit drew my attention and said in our mutually understood sign language, “Hey Bro, how about sparing poor Bill. He has other guests to attend to.”
Our next halt was at the Bear Mountain Motel where we had planned to spend the night. It was going to be a long three-hour drive to the Motel. When the wheels rolled, Squadron Leader Goyal recalled the visit to the Sanson Peak, “What a man! Sanson performed his duties with utter disregard to his personal comfort. I am mighty impressed. We hardly come across such dedicated people now a days. The Observatory had Sanson’s aura; I could almost feel his presence inside it.”
“It used to take several hours to cover the treacherous trek; and he used to make it to the top two to three times a week. Hats off to him,” added Seema.
“It must have been so difficult during the winter season with snow all around,” wondered Renu.
“Lisa amused me… she was so cute,” came in Chhaya. “Poor thing had to run away…. And that crow… hey Bhagwan (Oh my God), it scared me too; his eyes were as big as golf balls.”
“Mom, it was a raven… same family as a crow, but much bigger,” Mudit corrected Chhaya.
“Masaji (uncle), as always, you were in your element. With the interest you displayed, I thought you were working on a scholarly paper on the Observatory,” Shivani nudged me naughtily.
Chhaya poured hot coffee for all of us when Mudit pulled up by the roadside to take a break. Shivani found time to copy Bill’s bird call: “Tschlack, Tchhuluck.” Instinctively rest of us followed suit. It spread like a contagion with everyone trying to reproduce the sound. Although hardly anyone succeeded, we had fun taking turns.
What happened next was not something very unusual. A raven landed on the bonnet of our Volkswagen. We were half amused and half amazed because David was still on our minds.
“Oh my God! Oh my God! It’s David! Look there! A talon is missing on his left foot, and… and there’s the bandage too” Shivani shrieked.
It indeed, was him. It was David! Now, this was extremely unusual and intriguing––how and why would David fly a hundred odd miles behind us? Flabbergasted and not knowing what to do, we tried wooing David with our versions of Tschulk. Some of us even raised our arms for him to come and sit on, but our collective efforts did not impress the raven. He appeared rather, rankled. Then, with clear disdain for our overtures, he walked a few steps on the bonnet and, very lazily spread his large wings, which must have measured close to five feet from tip to tip, and beat the air with them. Despite his massive body, he took to the air effortlessly. Through the sun-roof, we saw him orbiting overhead for some time before he was gone.
David remained the subject of our discussion until we reached the Bear Mountain Motel.
Once there, at the Motel, everyone rushed to their suites to freshen up. I stayed back in the lobby to complete the arrival formalities. A few tourists were waiting for their turns at the reception, so I picked up an information brochure with a road map of Alberta from a kiosk to put my time to good use. I had barely opened the glossy pamphlet when I saw someone walking towards me. He was a mountain of a man, reminded me of Richard Kiel, who has played Jaws in many a Bond film. His face was partly covered by the visor of his baseball cap. His eyes were masked by large sunglasses. Salt and pepper stubble covering the rest of his face and the speed at which he was closing in on me, eliminated the remote possibility of recalling a past acquaintance or encounter with him. I thought, in fact I was almost certain, I didn’t know the man from Adam. He stopped inches from me. I could smell butter chicken in his breath.
“Jai Hind Sir-jeee!” He stood erect and saluted. “What a pleasant surprise seeing you here in Kneda (Canada),” he beamed. “Sergeant Dhillon… Logistics Squadron, Jalahalli, Sir. Do you Rumember (remember) me?” With the answer beautifully embedded in the question, he saved me the trouble of sifting my memory to place him.
“Of course, I remember you, Dhillon,” I spoke a half truth and held his extended hand and shook it. His appearance had changed so much since we were together in Jalahalli a dozen years ago that there was no way I could have recognised him. The warm hug that followed was long enough for me to travel back in time and return with some vivid memories.
“I am delighted to see you, Dhillon! We are visiting our son in Calgary. Just been to the Sulphur Mountain Observatory. And, what are you doing here? Visiting your brother?”
“Sir, after hanging my uniform, I moved to Edmonton with my family when my brother-in-law found me a job as a manager at a gas station. With the blessing of Vahe Guru and your good wishes, now I own two gas stations and have stakes in a couple of motels in Alberta. I am here with Flies with Falcon.” Dhillon introduced me to his business partner who belonged to the first nations community. His forefathers had lived in Canada for centuries before the Europeans arrived. Flies with Falcon, Falcon for short, had a good build; his body was oozing out of his tight-fitting tee. He wore a Buddha-like smile and appeared to have attained Nirvana.
“How has been your trip, Sir? You must be enjoying the long drive?”
“Of course, of course! Being on the road with Mudit has been a dream come true. We have been stopping off and on, savouring the landscape and clicking pictures––it is awesome countryside. The drive from the Sulphur Mountain Observatory to this place was particularly interesting––a raven that we had come across at the Observatory followed us, and re-joined us, when we took a break en route.”
“A raven followed you? Is it? Sir, do you know, such animal behaviour portends something?” Dhillon was at his mischievous best, “It could be auspicious or ominous.” He failed to hide his impish smile.
“Puttar, are you trying to scare me?” I joined Dhillon as he burst out laughing.
“You know Sir, I don’t believe in such things,” Dhillon took a step back. Then he tried to involve Falcon who was sitting quietly, “But Falcon’s grandfather reads animal behaviour and foretells events. Maybe Falcon too can analyse this raven’s actions.”
I knew Dhillon was joking but Falcon’s countenance changed. His smile vanished and he went into some deep thought. Before he could say something, Dhillon hailed a waiter he seemed to know personally, “John!”
John greeted us with a smile, “Hello Mr. Dhillon and Mr. Falcon! Long time! I see, you have an Indian friend today.” Then looking at me, he said, “Welcome Sir! What can I get you?”
Dhillon ordered coffee for the three of us, and before John left, introduced him to me, “Sir, John is the oldest staff on the rolls of this Motel. He serves people heartily, and he knows this place like the back of his hand.” Dhillon continued after John was gone, “This guy is in his late seventies, and like most men his age, a bit talkative. He is notorious for hallucinating. And, he claims that he is visited occasionally by his dead wife and some other people.”
It was the same old Sergeant Dhillon I had known back in the Air Force––working like a horse, but not missing an opportunity to tell tales and to gossip.
“Raven… yes, yes raven! So, Falcon, why don’t you tell us something interesting about this raven’s behaviour?” Dhillon returned to where he had left.
Falcon began without a preface, “As Dhillon has told you, it is true that this type of interaction with a raven portends a meeting. It is a meeting with an absolute stranger. It’ll leave a lasting impression on you. Stay calm if, and when, it happens.” He saw the puzzled look on my face and allayed my anxiety, “But, don’t you worry, I don’t see no harm coming your way.”
Hardly a word was spoken over coffee. Dhillon and Falcon left me with a cluttered mind.
I remained quiet at the dinner table. I didn’t feel like talking to my people about Dhillon and Falcon. I didn’t want them, the ladies in particular, to have a sleepless night in anticipation of a possibly ominous meeting with a stranger.
“Masaji is so quiet. He’s missing Bill, David and Lisa,” Shivani noticed the change in my behaviour in the span of an hour. I responded with a feeble smile.
After dinner, we congregated in Mudit’s suite to spend some time together before retiring for the day. The idea was to talk about the day gone by, and discuss the itinerary of the following day. We were enjoying Italian Fish, a card game introduced by Mudit. That’s when I excused myself for a routine after-dinner walk, “I’ll be gone for about a half hour. Would anyone like to join me?”
Just as I had intuited, none accepted my offer. Shivani came up with a counter, “Come on Masaji, it has been long since you hung your uniform. Why don’t you take life easy now? Just chill! You are on a holiday. You can resume your military routine when you are back in Delhi. Isn’t spending quality time with the family more important than sticking to mundane routine?”
“No rain, no hail, nothing can stop him from following his routine, and that’s what keeps him going,” Chhaya came to my rescue. Then, addressing me, she said, “Shona, we are all tired and want to crash now. Please return soon.”
“Bro, did you realise, lately the SUV has been pulling to the left? Have you checked the air pressure in the tyres? And what time do we plan to leave tomorrow?” I asked Mudit as I prepared to leave.
“Aye Captain! I have got the tyres charged and have cleaned the SUV. We plan to leave by eight if Shivani is up by then,” Mudit took the opportunity to pull Shivani’s leg. “All okay, Dad. Don’t worry, enjoy your walk.”
I stepped out of the suite, not knowing that adherence to my routine that evening was going to buy me anxiety of a lifetime.
The Bear Mountain Motel is a classic 1960’s style motel. The wood and masonry architecture and drive-up parking is a favourite with the travellers. The drive-way is lined with street lights which stand ten feet tall. They are there mostly for decoration; they also provide a little illumination.
I had taken barely a dozen paces into the walkway when Bill, David, Dhillon and Falcon forced a re-entry into my cranium. My mind strayed in an altogether new direction. And, if that was not enough, I saw John, the waiter, returning from room service with a tray balanced on his gloved palm.
“So, John, what’s up?” I said when he drew near. It was meant to be a polite stand-alone question. I had no intention to go further than that.
“Yep! Doin fine! Thanks Sir,” he replied. but didn’t stop at that. “Going out for a stroll at this late hour?” He continued softly but with falling inflection which made me think that his question was loaded with more meaning than conveyed by the words he had spoken. And sure enough, he cleared my doubt, “Beware Sir, we are close to the Bear Mountain. It’s home to the grizzly bears. Occasionally an inquisitive cub strays this side, followed by caring papa and mama bears. Normally they don’t do no harm, but they scare the living daylights out of people. And, sometimes…(pause).” John remembered something and stopped in his track. “Sorry Sir, I left the oven on in the kitchen. I can smell over-baked bread. I must rush before it burns.” He pirouetted, the tray still balanced precariously on his palm, and sauntered towards the cookhouse. I could hear the clinking of cutlery in his deep pockets until he turned the corner at the end of the building.
John wanted to say something more before he ran back to the kitchen. Perhaps he wanted to say something more about the wildlife. Or, did he have something else to share? Or, was Dhillon’s opinion of John, about his habit of hallucinating, playing on my mind? Did this guy want to tell me about his dead wife? I wasn’t sure.
It was a creepy feeling. I continued walking regardless.
Two days to the full moon, the moon was shining brightly. Constellations of stars were moving innocently on their assigned paths and yet, were contributing to the coffers of the godmen all over the world. I had not seen so many stars in the Delhi sky in the twenty-five years since I dropped anchor in India’s capital city. The LED screen near the gate flickered; it indicated, “40º F.” There had been a drop of about four degrees since I had stepped out. I could feel the cold air touch the inside of my lungs. A thin layer of mist had started forming and it hung lazily a few feet above the head. I pulled the collar of my leather jacket and adjusted my balaclava to mitigate the chill that I was experiencing. My hands dug deeper in the pockets of my grey flannels, seeking warmth in their cosy corners.
With the fall in temperature, the layer of mist thickened and obscured the moon and the stars. The sky was now the colour of wet aluminium. There was no indication where the moon was. And although it was still quite bright, the shadows had disappeared. Street lights too, appeared dimmed.
Mind, as is its wont, began revisiting the day’s events. In the process, it awakened the child in me. I couldn’t resist, and blurted out fairly loudly, “Schulk.” It was an inadvertent utterance. I looked around shyly and then made an attempt, a deliberate one this time, to improve upon my previous performance, “Tskuck! Tschulk! Tschulk!”
I thought, I had got it correct and was celebrating the little success with ecstasy when rustling of leaves in a nearby tree drew my attention. It was not just any bird; it was a raven gliding towards me. I froze when it landed a few feet from me and, even in that poor light, I could see its bandaged left foot.
It was David yet again!
He released something that he was holding in his claws. It made a soft metallic sound as it hit the concrete surface. I stepped back and started observing his next move. He nudged and rolled the metallic thing towards me. Not knowing his intentions, I took another step back. At this, he nudged the thing towards me several times more; and with greater force each time. When it was very close to me, he hopped back some distance, and cawed softly. Out of sheer curiosity, I picked up the object. It was kind of an hourglass, much smaller, though. Delicate glass bubbles filled with sand were encapsuled in a slim brass cylinder with a window. More appropriately, it was a Sand Timer rather than an Hourglass.
Mystified and unsure, I put back the thing on the road and rolled it towards David who, very promptly, nudged it back towards me. I saw him nodding his head when I picked it up again; his eyes glowed in the ambient light. I was uneasy holding the Sand Timer. I took a deep breath to get a sense of control over my body and mind. I thought it would be the end of the matter.
I couldn’t have been more off the mark on that count.
In the deep breath that I had just taken, I got the whiff of a very familiar odour––it was the masonic-lodge-and-museum kind of smell. “Sanson Odour!” Shivani’s words reverberated menacingly in my head. I realised, that the palm of my hand holding the Sand Timer was wet. I consigned the little thing to my pocket and removed my glasses that had become foggy due the sweat that had evaporated from around my eyes.
I was rummaging my pockets to find a tissue to clean my glasses when the eeriness and the uneasy calm of the night was broken by approaching footsteps. My glasses still in my hand, I could only see the silhouette of a man in the distance. The decibel of his patter rose as he neared me. One hand in pocket; he didn’t move the other as he walked; his feet hardly left the ground as he kept closing in. Having cleaned the glasses, I could see more clearly. He was tall; must have been a few inches over six feet. He wore a slouch hat and a military kind of tunic with brass buttons and patch pockets with flaps and a broad leather belt; his trousers were tucked into his long boots. He toted a natural leather bag slung across his shoulder. In that sorry state of mind, I forced myself to believe that he was a Motel guard on the beat. That thought gave me a false sense of relief which didn’t last long.
I said, “Hello,” and found myself groping for words to continue.
“Hello, how’s been your trip to Canada going?” That question from that stranger didn’t surprise me because, I guess that-I-was-a-foreign-tourist–in-Canada was writ large upon my face.
“It has been going great; we have been to the Sulphur Mountain Observatory this morning. It was a memorable experience.”
“I go there often. In fact, I was there this afternoon too. I reached there after you had left. Bill told me that some very inquisitive Indians had been to the Observatory. He was floored by your keenness. Are you from the forces?” He spoke in a low toneless voice as he sat down on the culvert by the side of the gate.
“Yes, I’m an Indian Air force Veteran. Now I write for a living.” I said proudly. “Do you also have a military background?” I enquired.
“Yeah, kinda quasi-military. I retired long ago. And, I too used to write. They know me as Seer Altitudinuos.” He spoke slowly and was unintelligible in parts.
He fumbled in his tote bag and dug out a crumpled packet of cigarettes. He tapped it so that a filter-less cigarette popped out. He offered it to me.
“Thanks, I don’t smoke.” I declined politely.
“Hope you don’t mind if I do,” he said and started looking for a light in his bag.
I was momentarily blinded when he struck the match to light the cigarette held in one corner of his mouth, Gregory Peck style. Then, in the illumination caused by the match held in his cupped hand, I got a glimpse of his face for the first time. In the darkness surrounding it, his bearded face looked like a dangling Guy Fawkes mask. And, in it there was an uncanny resemblance to a face I had seen in many pictures through the day.
He looked exactly like Norman Bethune Sanson and that resemblance stunned me into disbelief which lasted a coupla seconds.
Was I hallucinating?
Not knowing how to proceed, I became quiet. I could feel beads of sweat appear on my forehead. Inside my balaclava, my scalp felt wet. Then on, each minute became something heavy and tangible trying to push the one before it. The man’s eyes, and those of David, glimmered every time he took a drag on his cigarette. Both looked sinister. In between, he took a deep swig from his hip flask and swirled it in his mouth. In that foggy night, the only thing that could be heard was his laboured breathing and my heart thumping against my rib-cage, struggling to break free.
It may have been five minutes or, maybe fifteen; I don’t know how long. I had lost the sense of time. I guess, the man was able to divine my thoughts, because he did make a conscious effort to involve me in conversation. But my mind was elsewhere and my entire body felt deprived of sensation.
Just then, I heard a soft “Tschulk” and at the same time saw David trot and take a small flight to perch on the man’s shoulder. I stood like a statue watching everything. I felt hypnotised.
A gentle tap on my shoulder jolted me out of my trance.
It was Mudit, and by his side was Shivani. “Dad, are you alright? We’ve been watching you sitting alone, quiet and motionless, on this culvert for the last ten minutes. You came out for a half-hour walk but you’ve already been here for more than an hour.”
“I’m fine. I was just enjoying the quietude of this place,” I lied as I wiped my forehead with my sleeve. I found that everything around had been swallowed by the fog. There was no trace of the man, or of the raven with the bandaged leg.
I collected myself as the three of us walked back to our suites. The Sand Timer felt heavy in my pocket. I secured it in my shaving pouch before slipping into the bed by a blissfully sleeping Chhaya.
For obvious reasons, I have a very poor recollection of the rest of our trip.
On the first opportunity thereafter, I googled for Seer Altitudinuos, and discovered that that was Sanson’s pen name. My curiosity led me to take a closer look at the Sand Timer. Inscribed on it, in neat cursive, was the name “Norman B Sanson.” My surprise knew no bounds when I timed it with the stopwatch of my iPhone, and discovered that it clocked exactly 87 seconds––the time Norman Bethune Sanson used to take to make a round trip to Point Bravo.
We could be greatly off the mark when we take for granted the ‘needs’ of those who we try to alleviate out of their misery.
He was engrossed in tightening the bolt on the wheel-hub of a bicycle kept upside down. I had to go very close to him to draw his attention. He jerked his spanner a last time and spun the wheel to test if it had been fitted properly. His oil-smeared hand held and felt the rotating tyre, even as he lifted his head and looked at me through the spokes of the wheel. His eyes did the talking, “Yes, what can I do for you.”
“This bike has not been in use for two years; now, it feels heavy, and is very noisy. I want you to oil it and grease it; and adjust its chain, reset its gears and align its wheels. The brake shoes have become brittle, might need a change. And… just see if anything else is required. I want it to run smoothly.”
He tilted my MTB on its side stand so that the rear wheel was airborne. Mechanically, he pushed down the pedal, spun the wheel and checked the brakes and the gears. He also felt the sag in the chain. His inspection was complete when he lifted the ultra-light bike a few inches and dropped it, and let it bounce a few times on its tyres. “There’s practically nothing wrong with your bike. It just needs servicing. There may be a need to change some ball bearings.”
“How much time will you take?” I asked him. On my to-do-list was the purchase of a few items of grocery and some knick-knacks from Gupta General Store across the road in Indra Market. I was in no great hurry, yet I looked at the screen of my mobile phone and pretended to be short of time.
That apparently illiterate cycle mechanic sitting in Noida’s D-Block Market, must have held a Master’s Degree in Customer Psychology. Effortlessly, he demolished the non-existent urgency of my need, “Sir, I have a puncture to repair and some odd jobs on these two cycles. Your cycle is third in the queue. Servicing alone will take an hour. If, while at it, I discover some minor faults, rectification of the same may add to the time. He looked at the cracked screen of a vintage model of his Nokia phone and said, “Sir, it is ten now. Even if I leave all other work and take up your cycle on priority, it’ll be about 11:15 by the time I am done with it.”
“Please make sure you complete everything by 11:15. I have some commitment at 11:30,” I laid false emphasis.
The urgency part didn’t seem to bother him, “Sir, do you want me to use Chinese ball bearings. They’re cheap, but there is no guarantee whether they’d last even a month. The Indian ones are a bit costly but last at least three years of regular use. Also, do you want me to paint the tyres with this tyre paint? Not only does it make the tyres look as good as new, but it also softens the rubber and adds years to the life of the tyres.
“Use the Indian ball bearings and paint the tyres. How much will be the total cost?”
He made some silent calculations; his lips moved without uttering a word. Then he came out with the result of his calculations, “Sir, servicing costs rupees two hundred and thirty. The cost of the paint and the ball bearings would be about thirty to fifty rupees. All included, it’ll cost you less than three hundred rupees. Your cycle will fly.”
“Okay. Go ahead. I’m off to Indra Market. Do a good job and finish it in time.”
“Sir, this Chinese Covid has made life really very difficult. It is worse than being from hand to mouth. Could you kindly pay me a hundred rupees in advance to enable me to buy some tyre paint and ball bearings?”
I hesitated but, unmindful of my reluctance, he presented his open palm. Years of hard work had rendered his skin rough. It had developed deep cracks. The cracks and lines on his palm were filled with oil, grease and mud. It would have been impossible for the best of the palmists to discern which were the fate lines and which were the cracks.
When I paid him a hundred rupees, he requested me to save his mobile number, and call him and confirm readiness of the cycle before returning to him. His name was Ramkumar.
Just when I turned to leave, he hailed his little daughter who was teaching her sibling Hindi alphabet from a tattered book. She must have been barely nine years of age and her little brother, five.
“Laxmi, my child, come here! Let Munna read alone for some time. You sit here in my place. Don’t let any customer go away. I’ll be right back.”
My phone rang when I had bought my stuff and was about to leave Gupta General Store after settling the bill. It was Chhaya. “Shona, are you still in Indra Market. Please check with that embroidery wallah, if he has completed my work. The receipt number is L-7348 dated June, 27, 2021.”
“Gool, please wait a moment. Let me note down, else I’ll forget it.”
I borrowed a ball pen from Guptaji sitting across the billing counter and prepared to note down. Rather than asking for a piece of paper to jot down the number, I found it easier to fish out an economy pack of Dettol soaps, which I had just bought, and find some white space on it to note the receipt number.
“Okay Gool, go ahead. I am noting… L- 7-3-4-8… please repeat the date… okay, it is 27th June. I have noted the receipt number; will check at the embroidery shop. Anything else? Okay, then… love you… bye!”
Timing was perfect. It was 11:00 by the time I was through with my to-do list. On positive confirmation from Ramkumar, I walked towards his open-air shop. On reaching there, I took a test ride and found that the work had been done to my entire satisfaction. “How much do I pay you, Ramkumar?”
“Sir, two hundred and seventy-five rupees. Please ride it for a few days and let me know if you want me to adjust anything––the chain, the gears or the brakes.”
It was when I had paid Ramkumar and was about to leave that I saw his kids again; this time on, from close quarters. I realised that, Ramkumar and the kids were oblivious of the Covid Protocol, their clothes, hands and faces were dirty. They weren’t wearing masks and looked wretched. Swept by a gentle ripple of pity, I gave Ramkumar a fifty-rupee note to buy face masks for the three of them. Then, I called the kids and gave the economy pack of Dettol soaps to the girl. “Laxmi, you must wash your hands with soap and teach your little brother to do the same.” I thought that was the least I could do for them.
Two days later, I was back in Indra Market to pick up Chhaya’s embroidery work. Since I was there, I walked into Gupta General Store to buy some more soaps. It was a matter of chance that while Guptaji was preparing the cash memo, I looked at the pack of Dettol soaps I had picked up from the shelf. My surprise knew no bounds when I saw, scribbled on the pack, in my handwriting was the number “L-7348” and the date, “June, 27.” Guptaji was candid when I questioned him about the pack bearing the number scribbled by me. “Sir, Ramkumar, the cycle mechanic who sits across the road in D-Block Market, brought it to me the other day and begged me to exchange it for a kilogram and a half of broken rice.”
A self respecting dog who prides in himself and his name, chalks out a plan to punish the person who rechristens him and takes away his identity.
Whoever said, “What’s in a name…,” was absolutely clueless about the psychology, and the art and science of naming. I bet there’s everything in a name. Everything! Else, why would Indians perform elaborate religious rituals while giving names to their new-borns. Ask me! And, I’ll tell you what’s in a name; none knows it better than I do.
In some weird state of mind, Mahabir Prasad Shukl, a Final-Year Mass Com student from Darbhanga, called me, “Sampain.” Mind you, he is very particular about not writing an ‘a’ at the end of his family name, Shukl. He explains, “It is to ensure that my name is pronounced properly. Exactly as it is written and read in Hindi.” Now, just watch––one so particular about his own name wouldn’t care a fig about mine. His colleagues, including his girlfriend Partibha, who knew that communication was the handicap of this Mass Com student, understood that when he said Sampain, he actually meant: “Champagne.”
So, that name, Champagne has stuck with me. Actually, this guy must have been high on the cheapest of the cheap country liquors, else what similarity did that Gen-Nexter find in me, an unkempt street dog and that bubbly French wine of the same name. Ever since he gave me that oh-so-European name, people have been expecting a much sophisticated behaviour of me.
Earlier the students used to call me Jhumru, a name given by a Management (General) under-grad of Jhumritillaiya domicile. Back then, with a name that brimmed with affection, they cared for me. They tossed leftover rotis, puris, halwa, eggs, biscuits, and what have you, towards me without expecting anything in return. Some students who were governed by their hearts bought food specially for me. Oh my, it was such carefree existence; I cherished that life. Trust me, it was the envy of every dog in the area, as also of some freshers on the University Campus. Now, in my avatar as Champagne, they expect me to behave and perform acts like that guy who lives on the farmhouse yonder, and who travels in shining cars sitting in the lap of a glamorous girl who comes to the campus, more to show off her parents’ stinking richness, than to study. Not that I can’t do what he does, but I am averse to bartering my freedom for bread crumbs. It is certainly not a case of sour grapes. Just that I have some self-respect and I live for it. Period.
Agreed, I am a dog, and I lead a dog’s life. But then, that’s my destiny. And, if I may say, “That’s my choice, too.” Let’s be very clear. None has the right to mess with my name, and my life. That guy who re-christened me, actually ruined both.
The more I have thought about this name business, and the treatment meted out to me because of it, the more miserable I have felt. So, one day, after much deliberation, I took a big decision. I even consulted Laila and Shera, the other guys who share the territory with me, and they too thought, enough was enough, I needed to pay back this Shukl guy.
What best can a dog do to punish a guy? Bite!
So, I was determined to take my revenge upon Shukl. A near perfect plan was afoot. I had chosen a date, a time, a place and the manner in which I was going to dig my sharp canines through his Levis Jeans into his right calf. It was going to be a day before the Convocation, in the evening, in the sports ground where he would be taking a walk with Partibha. I had heard him tell his beloved that that’s when they would plan their party to celebrate their degrees. Laila and Shera would help me corner him.
That dude, he thought he was too hip; he’d remember my bite for life.
On the D-Day, everything had worked as per plan and with clockwork precision. A cheerful Shukl with a smiling Partibha stepped out of the Radhakrishnan Hall exactly at 5:00 pm. He had a document folder in one hand; the other hand rested on Partibha’s shoulder as if she were his property. She was looking into his eyes coyly. Or, maybe she was pretending to be coy. There’s a basis for that doubt; I had seen her behave even more coyly in the presence of three other guys (of course, with one at a time). That doesn’t really matter; now she was with him. She had a bottle of Fanta in her right hand. From the moisture collected on its outer surface I could make out that it was chilled. In the other hand she was carrying a box of Dominos Pizza. Under normal circumstances, a piece of it would be thrown at me once they are through with their snacking. They walked lazily towards the sports ground; to its farthest corner, to their favourite bench from where they’d have a good view of the ground.
Laila and Shera had taken positions and had nodded readiness.
“Hum soch raha hoon ki, kal party me tumko propose kar doonga (I think, I’ll propose to you tomorrow in the party),” suggested Shukl, with a big smile.
Partibha became even more coy, nodded, “Theek hai, Ham Anita, Nusrat, Neena aur Gopal ko party mein inbhite kiye hain. Cake bhi arder kar diye hain. Saath mein samosa le ayenge (Okay, I have invited Anita, Nusrat, Neena and Gopal for the party. I have ordered a cake too. In addition I’ll get samosas.”
Listening to Partibha, I started wavering. “Should I harm this guy just a day before he plans to propose to his sweetheart?” I asked myself. But then my dog-sense told me that Shukl deserved the punishment I had decided to inflict on him. I pushed those thoughts out of my mind, nodded at my colleagues, and moved closer to the two love birds.
I went over my plan again. It was time. I could hear the gears change, and the cogs move in my head. I had bared my teeth and was about to strike when Shukl said something which made me give up my plan for good, and change my opinion about the guy. “Hum Sunil, Arjun, Arif aur Akriti ko bulaye hain. Thode aur snacks le ayenge. Aur soch rahe the ki Sampain ke bina party adhoora rahega. So saath mein Sampain bhi le ayenge (I have called Sunil, Arjun, Arif and Akriti. I’ll get some more snacks. And, I was thinking that the party would be incomplete without Champagne. So I’ll get Champagne along.”
Creative Writing Course with the British Council is the best thing that has happened to me since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, it is one of the most satisfying courses of instructions I have ever attended.
I have been writing for some time––I have published a book and have been posting articles and short stories on my blog, Road Much Travelled (www.akchordia.com) for nearly two years. This course was an eye-opener; I realised how little I knew about writing. It was indeed, a humbling experience. Having done the course, I feel much powerful. Now, I have the tools to pursue my passion with much greater satisfaction. The joy of writing will be different, hereafter.
The curriculum had been structured keeping our needs in mind. And, in the time available, it was covered exceedingly well. The method of instructions was exceptional––Ms Ananya Banerjee devoted time and attention to each participant. She had answers to all our questions, and as a teacher, she was always extremely encouraging and inspiring. The exercises and assignments kept the interest alive all through. She took pains to check and give detailed and valuable suggestions to improve our writing skills.
Thanks to Ms Banerjee’s guidance, the ‘improved’ version of my short story assignment was liked by a film maker––may soon be a short film. I guess I have already begun reaping the benefits of investing time in this course.
There is, but one regret––if only I had undergone this Course some years ago, I would have had the pleasure of writing for a longer period in life. Better late than never! At sixty, I still have some time to go.
Thank you, Ms Banerjee! Thank you, British Council!
Sometimes, children are cranky; they cry. At times, they do so for justifiable reasons, on other occasions, there’s no apparent reason for their behaviour. Parents feel obligated to do anything to calm them. They have their own ways of dealing with situations. Succumbing to difficult demands or paying ransom each time is not a good way of dealing with them. Here are three tried, tested and proven ways of handling situations, particularly when there is no just cause for wailing. Needless to say, these approaches must be tried as a last resort; only after one has tried to pinpoint and resolve a genuine problem, if any.
The Kush Approach
This approach entails skilful use of the mobile phone camera to zap an unsuspecting kid. It works with an assured one hundred per cent rate of success when used for the first time. With innovativeness parents can re-use the technique multiple times until the child gets to know the trick.
As a first step, a cranky child is apprised of a serious side effect of crying. He is told that crying ‘without a valid reason’ deforms the face. While the child tries to get the import of what is being said, pictures of some animals––say, an ape, a dog, a cat, a donkey or a cow etc––are downloaded on a mobile phone. This downloading of pictures can be done much in advance. Then, using the same mobile phone, a close-up photograph of the crying child is clicked. He is told that he looks like an ape (or a dog etc.) when he cries. He is urged to stop crying because, the parent could say: “I do not want you to turn into an animal. I’ll be very sad if you turn into an ape and… and what will your cousins, friends and teachers say? Oh my God, … please stop crying.”
Then, with theatrics, he is shown the downloaded picture of an animal. Seeing himself turned into an ape or a dog etc, stuns a child into disbelief.
Named after my grandnephew, Kush, I discovered this approach when one day, during a family get together, he caused a pandemonium for bizarre reasons.
This is another very effective way of dealing with a child crying for no apparent reason. It has an assured success rate of close to a hundred per cent in the first instance. Its effectiveness erodes considerably with every use.
This technique involves crying and wailing much louder than the child. When a parent, or better still, someone known to the child, cries more loudly than the child, the child invariably pauses in wonderment. That pause is often sufficient to break his chain of thought and to stop his wailing. Children who stop crying under such a spell, normally do not resume crying again.
Named after my jeweller friend Puneet Bagga, I discovered this approach when I saw him calming a child in his showroom.
The Kartik Approach
This technique involves approving a child’s reason for crying, taking him into confidence and then suggesting the idea of postponing his crying to a later point in time.
As a first step the parent agrees with the child that his reason for crying is justified. The child appreciates someone empathising with him. Then he is given a suggestion that he could as well indulge in an activity which he likes e.g., playing carrom, eating an apple or drinking milk chocolate (these are not the activities he is wailing for) and could rather postpone his crying to a later point in time. In this exercise, first, the child gets a bit confused and then, in most cases agrees to pursue an activity deferring his crying to an opportune moment later, which never comes.
This technique works on the elementary principle of: “Deferred agony is lost agony!” The success rate could be as high as 80% depending on the oratory skills of the parent.
Named after my grandnephew, Kartik, I discovered this approach when one day, I saw his father Ravi, using this technique effortlessly to calm him down.