So often we decide about the needs of people we try to help. We presume and take for granted their requirements. Sometimes we could be greatly off the mark. “Status quo” illustrates this aspect of our lives.
“Status quo” is a short story (a 3-minute read) based on one such real life experience during the Covid pandemic. It has been-shortlisted among 700 others (out of nearly 4,80,000 entries) for a Creative Writing Competition organised by ‘Blooming Kalakar’. The story is now available for reading, comments and rating.
Strange things happen when an Indian family visits an observatory atop a mountain in the Canadian Rockies. A meeting with a raven and its interpretation by a member of the First Nations (a native Canadian) leads to great anxiety. A weird encounter follows, and leaves the author with a nightmare for life.
The Sand Timer is a short story (a 15-minute read) shortlisted among 700 others (out of nearly 4,80,000 entries) for a Creative Writing Competition organised by ‘Blooming Kalakar’.
The story is now available for reading; following is the link:
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.
The Transit Camp at Guwahati was a heavily guarded fortress in the insurgency prone east. I had arrived there from Tezpur a day in advance to board the early morning Sampark Kranti Express to New Delhi. Thanks to the mosquitoes, I hadn’t slept a wink through the night. Besides, my mind was 3000 miles away in NOIDA where Mudit and Chhaya were awaiting me––it had been six long months since we’d been together. Annual leave was a precious commodity for those serving in the exotic east.
I arrived at the station a half hour before the departure time and headed for the train parked on Platform Number 1. My reservation was confirmed in the AC First Class compartment. A faded reservation chart was pasted clumsily at the entrance of the bogie. I strained my eyes to read through and locate my name in the list printed on recycled paper using a dot-matrix printer. There was no rush, and as it appeared, I was the only passenger in ‘C’ Coupe. Quite a few berths in the other coupes were vacant too.
Once inside the coupe, my hands developed their own grey cells––they got down to arranging the bags under the berth and spreading the sheet and the blanket. Once settled, I pulled out from my bag, the crumpled draft of an article: Warfighting Sans Bloodshed. I had been working on it for the past three months. My duties as the Senior Logistics Officer at Air Force Station, Tezpur had kept me sufficiently busy to devote time to that article. With none to talk to in the coupe, I was determined to edit and complete it before reaching Delhi. My thoughts ran errands in many directions as I continued to settle down. In doing so, I lost track of time. It was therefore natural that I did not hear the guard blow the whistle; I did not notice the diesel engine sound its horn either. Like me, my senses too had been furloughed.
I suddenly became conscious when the wheels rolled with a jerk and a tall man stumbled into the coupe. He lost balance, fell and lay spreadeagle on the floor. I was taken aback.
“Easy!” I said instinctively and helped the man lift himself to the seat in front. He was elderly and frail; in his early eighties, I guessed. And he might not have weighed a gram in excess of fifty kilos, even with the clothes on. He was a skeleton, almost. The cap of a Sheafer fountain pen peeping out of his oversized coat pocket suggested that he was possibly engaged in some kind of scholarly pursuit.
“Uh! Thank you… I am jaast een time,” he collected himself and forced a smile on his pale face. If at all, the effort deepened the furrows in his wrinkled cheeks. He adjusted his thick-rimmed glasses with cylindrical lenses to focus his gaze on something beneath my berth. He was reading my name printed on my duffel bag.
“So, you are Squadron Leedor… Indiaan Air Force?” I wasn’t much impressed by what he showed off as his discovery because that was my rank two years ago; I had earned a promotion in the intervening period.
Inadvertently though, he had pricked me with that one-word question. “Why do people take everyone who dons blue, to be a pilot?”
“Not really,” I said aloud without making an attempt to hide my punctured ego. “I am a skydiver… the next best thing to being an eagle in the big blue sky.”
The tone, more than the content of my reply, must have amused him, for he chuckled wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, that led to a bout of uncontrollable cough. I patted his back and gave him water to drink. That gave him instant relief.
“Dhonyobaad!” He was grateful for a cup of tea I poured for him from my flask.
He had barely regained his breath when his phone rang. He riffled through his coat pocket to find his phone. He squinted his eyes to read the text on the five-inch screen of his iPhone but couldn’t. Nonetheless, he accepted the call. There was a distinct dash of indifference in the way he responded. It was either an unknown caller, or someone he didn’t wish to speak to. His face turned red as he listened to the individual at the other end. He cupped his mouth as if to prevent being heard, but it seemed he was provoked by the caller to scream into the instrument: “I am not Bheector Bhon (I am not Victor One),” his lips quivered. His large nostrils grew larger, and his unusually long nasal hair flowed out of the cavities like little grey fumes, “Aar, aami Majeek Dadu noi (And, I am not Magic Dadu)! Stop calling me from deepharent nombers (Stop calling me from different numbers).” He disconnected angrily and mumbled a barely-audible sorry when our eyes met.
I gestured an it’s-alright.
He wiped the beads of sweat that had appeared on his forehead. Then there was prolonged silence except for his deep breathing and the rhythmic rumbling of the wagon’s cast iron wheels.
He was professor-like; seemed perpetually lost. He rummaged his pockets for his ticket when the conductor arrived. And, when he did present one, it was an invalid ticket––it was for the Rajdhani Express of the previous day. Without ado, he paid a hefty fine and bought a valid ticket. “I am bheecoming phorgetfool (I am becoming forgetful),” he announced to nobody in particular.
He started a monologue on Warfighting Sans Bloodshed when his eyes fell on the sheaf of papers kept by my side. He amazed me by the depth of his knowledge on the subject.
“Heard about HAARP?” He asked me and, without waiting for an answer, repeated the abbreviation, one letter at a time and expanded it too. “H-A-A-R-P… High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program.”
“It was a secret American Project, a weapon system way ahead of its times. I know a little about it. But I understand that it had turned out to be unwieldy, unviable and a drain on the US Defence Budget. They had decided to scrap it and hand over the site to a university… (I paused groping for the name) … I think, … it was the University of Alaska. I am not too sure of the present status of the Project.” I was unsure and shrugged my shoulders humbly accepting my lack of knowledge.
“You are quite right. It was a rare bheapons programme bheech, if accomplished, bhould habe given the Americans aaneemaghinable pabher to dhominate tha whorld (It was a rare weapons programme which, if accomplished would have given the Americans unimaginable power to dominate the world). Like deesrupting human mentaal processes, jhamming communications, impacting bhethor anywhere in tha whorld,… and maaach more (Like disrupting human mental processes, jamming communications, impacting weather anywhere in the world… and much more). Now Chinese…,” he paused abruptly, looked around and left it at that.
The following hour was spent in what I call polite-meaningless-conversation. My half-hearted effort to know who he was, got stymied each time by his arguments on a variety of subjects: Hypoxia… Foreign Policy… Unmanned aircraft… Electric cars… China… Biological Warfare. There was a core of weirdness in the way he hesitated talking on those last two topics. All through our conversation, his probing eyes scanned our coupe and a part of the adjoining corridor.
Something was troubling him.
At Katihar Junction, I stretched my legs and arms and prepared to fetch hot tea from a tea-stall on the Platform. “Would you like to come along for a cup of tea,” I made an offer.
“Sorry, I habe jhoint pain (I have joint pain). I bhud like to seet hear (I would like to sit here). Bhy don’t you get aa cop phor mee too (Why don’t you get a cup for me too),” An artificial smile bared the gaps in his yellow teeth yet again.
I didn’t mind doing that small favour and walked away with the flask in my hand. I was oblivious of an intriguing request that would follow sooner than later.
The door of the coupe appeared closed when I returned. My repeated gentle knocks and ‘Hello Sir’ through the slits in the small side window were responded by silence. The door, which was not bolted from inside, slid ajar when I tugged it.
The man sat motionless in the corner. He was holding his Sheafer and writing something on his scribble pad. The pen slipped from his fingers as I walked in. He did not pick up it up. I thought he had dozed off. The pad too slipped and fell. I couldn’t help read the short note as I picked it up and placed it on his berth.
Written in laboured cursive handwriting was an incomplete and unsigned note which read: “Dear Squadron Leader, I don’t have much time. I have recorded a voice-memo on my mobile phone. Please share it with Victor One. He…”
The man was dead.
Gears shifted and cogwheels began rotating faster in my cranium––eagerness to reach Delhi and be with the family; this dead stranger in my coupe; the voice memo and, above all… the identity of Victor One. Who on earth was this Victor One? My mind felt cluttered.
First things first. I secured the man’s scribble pad, and pocketed his phone before seeking assistance of the Station Master and the cops. They found nothing on person of that lonesome man, or in his baggage, that could reveal his identity. The body was taken away for post mortem and I was made to sign a declaration.
“Sir, we’ll call you as a witness, only if it is really necessary.” The Head Constable saluted and assured me, before letting me board the train again which had been delayed by fifteen minutes.
Next morning, the headline in The Times of India read: “Dr Shantanu Bhattacharya Dies in Sampark Kranti.” A two-decade old photograph on the front page had striking similarity with the passenger I had met on the train the previous day. The subheading read: “Dr Bhattacharya (83) was convalescing in Baruah Sanatorium in Shillong after undergoing psychiatric treatment at AIIMS, New Delhi.” A boxed item aroused my interest: “On condition of anonymity, a close associate said that lately, Dr Bhattacharya, a less known Microbiologist, had been hallucinating about the quantum jump in Beijing’s Biological Warfare capabilities and that he had been claiming that he had found a counter to some of the Dragon’s bio-weaponry. He even feared abduction by the Chinese; was paranoid. The Scientist had gone missing from his Sanatorium late last Friday. His disappearance was kept under wraps as the intelligence agencies were trying to rule out foreign hand.”
I re-read the news item which said: “Codenamed Victor One, Dr Bhatta was popular among his colleagues as MagicDadu.”
“If the man I met in the train was Dr Bhattacharya, and if Dr Bhattacharya was codenamed Victor One, who do I handover the recorded message on the phone, and the scribble pad to?” I was utterly confused.
My curiosity led me to explore Dr Bhatta’s phone. It wasn’t locked but the sim was missing. Knowing that his end was near, he had erased all the data on his phone except a voice memo. I couldn’t make much sense of the garbled message: “Dear Bheector Bhon, I trast you only. (Dear Victor One, I trust you only) Nobhody ailse (Nobody else)… the Chinese are training a maasquito aarhmy (the Chinese are training a mosquito army)… they habe laarnt tha technique from tha Nazis (they have learnt the technique from the Nazis)… (unintelligible sounds). I habe deeskhovered I have discovered…. They bheel abhduct mee and keel me (They will abduct me and kill me)… Uh! Obhar hown peepal habe bheetrayed me (Our own people have betrayed me)… uh… uh… (long pause) uh…(stuttering)… (silence).”
“Why would Dr Bhattacharya record and send a message to himself?” I was even more puzzled.
My confusion climbed another notch when a newspaper cutting fell from Dr Bhatta’s scribble pad as I flipped its pages to see if it contained anything worthwhile. It read: “Nazis planned malaria-carrying mosquito army.” My train of thoughts was interrupted by Chhaya, my wife, who had laid the table for lunch, “We’ll have to clean up the utensils and dishes for the next few days. Guddi will not be coming to work; she is running high fever. In fact, almost her entire chawl of about 300 dwellers is down with some strange symptoms… I don’t know what’s happening…,” She sighed. “Mrs Manchandani was saying that it is a new breed of malarial parasite, much deadlier, spreading like an epidemic.”
Sino-Indian border talks have been roiling like a long-brewing ginger-tulsi kadha––becoming bitterer in taste with each passing moment. If only the potion seethes well, might India and China accrue long-term health benefits from it. The outcome of the sixth round of talks doesn’t indicate that; it is another case of the same old wine being served in a new bottle––still focussing on defusing tensions.
Talks, and more talks, are in the offing––uncertainty and unease on the border have been prolonged. Divining the prospect of peace by reading tea leaves might not be possible since, mutually piqued, Modi and Xi are less likely to meet over a cup of tea in the near future. Yet I have been overzealous about the future.
Would the Queen––whose representative caused this Sino-India border problem by using some bad broad nibs to draw the region’s map––help foresee the fate of the subcontinent? Out of curiosity I tossed a Victorian era silver coin hoping to get some answers––war or peace; withdrawal or long drawn standoff….? When judgement becomes difficult, I have started believing in the predictions guided by a coin with the British monarchy on its face for they (the Brits) are at the root of most of the world’s problems of today. And lo and behold, the coin I tossed, bounced off the road, missed a drain narrowly and ended up through a perforated concrete lid into a bottomless well meant for rainwater harvesting. Now sealed some fifty feet below the earth’s surface, is (the much sought knowledge of) the future of this great country.
Rankled, I had almost decided to take a break from this Sino-India affair for a while when I saw Champagne––the wretched stray I introduced to my worthy readers in an earlier post titled, “China’s Champagne Moment.” Those familiar with that dog’s demeanour will recall that, like China he had been claiming territory that was not rightfully his until one day, when other dogs got together and taught him a lesson. Through Champagne I had projected Beijing’s doom.
My forecast has not come true yet; it has not been proved entirely false either. Several countries, with the US in the forefront, have been striving to settle their scores with China. The anti-China sentiment is simmering with greater intensity now than ever before. And ever since I wrote that piece, Champagne has been behaving even more like China. Rather than fighting with the dogs in the neighbourhood, he has been trying to travel far and wide and woo the dogs he sees sitting on any kind of resources. The other day I saw him wooing a black dog at a construction site. It felt as if China were wooing Africa.
Then two strikingly strange and unusual things happened.
One, Lisa, another dog appeared on the scene. She became popular with all the dogs in the area. They aligned with her as much because of her friendly demeanour as for the reason that they wanted someone to stand for them against the aggressiveness of Champagne.
Two, around the time the last round of Sino-Indian border talks concluded, Champagne was seen practicing ‘kowtowing‘… yes, K-O-W-T-O-W-I-N-G.”
Reverting to China. Behind the façade, Beijing is succumbing to the pressures created by several countries going against it and this is evident in its slowly eroding belligerence. In the last few days, since the standoff at Pangong Tso, China has not reacted with use of force, instead it has spent time at the negotiating table with India. This doesn’t go with China’s past stance and responses to such issues. Reasons for its restraint are better known to Beijing; others can only hazard a guess.
Meanwhile, Indian leadership has not been resting on its oars. It is trying to find the best way to the dragon’s heart out of the so many routes available. One is direct––from Delhi to Beijing. The other is from Delhi to Beijing via one or more of––Washington, Ottawa, Paris, Berlin, Tehran, Tel Aviv, Canberra, Tokyo, Manila, the sea in the South of China (some people erroneously call it South China Sea), Malacca, Strait, Hong Kong, Taipei, Lhasa, Xinjiang, et al. Needless to say, in the present circumstances, Xi Jinping will be pleased to meet Modi’s emissary travelling direct from Delhi to Beijing rather than following a circuitous route.
In the present situation, either China has nothing to say (less likely), or it doesn’t have the words to say, what it wants to say. Therein lie the reasons for no tangible progress in the talks and no further escalation in hostilities. Therein also lies the reason why Xi Jinping, like Champagne, might as well go indoors and refresh his Kowtowing skill––one doesn’t know when he’d need to fall back on the benefits of the ancient Chinese practice.
India would do well to prepare the ESCAPE HATCH for the dragon’s graceful exit.
Four days from now, September the 26th will mark the 37th anniversary of an event that, beyond a sliver of doubt, averted a nuclear war. On that day in 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov of the Soviet Air Defence Forces was the duty officer at Serpukhov-15, the secret command centre outside Moscow monitoring its early-warning satellites over the United States when alarms went off––computers warned that five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base.
Colonel Petrov was a very important link in the decision-making chain. His superiors reported to the general staff, who would consult the Soviet leader, Mr Yuri V Andropov on launching a retaliatory attack. Since there was no rule about how long the observers were allowed to think before they reported a strike, Petrov took his sweet time absorbing the deluge of incoming information and ‘felt’ that the launch reports were ‘probably’ a false alarm. He, therefore, reported ‘a system malfunction’. “I had a funny feeling in my gut,” he told a newspaper later. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”
Every second of delay on that day took away valuable time that the Soviet military and political leadership would have needed to absorb the inputs and react. Petrov told an interviewer, “… I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan.” It was at best a 50-50 guess, based on his distrust of the early-warning system and the relative paucity of missiles that were launched. He could afford the luxury of sleeping mulling over the inputs because 25 long minutes would elapse between launch and detonation. Petrov attributed his judgment to his training and his intuition. He had been told that a nuclear first strike by the Americans would come in the form of an overwhelming onslaught.
Training and Intuition… where does India stand?
A typical military exercise––conducted at many of the military training institutes/ colleges/ establishments––has a Blue Force (India) and a Red Force (the adversary––Pakistan or China, implied or explicit). The exercises are realistic with full freedom to the participating officers––with 3 to 30 years of commissioned service; sometimes, including bureaucrats, diplomats and scientists––to let go of their imagination to plan and execute military operations until… someone in the Red Force threatens to use the nukes.
The exercise is paused and the director of the exercise (or the umpire) steps in and enlightens the attendees. Put in different words and with varying intensity, depending on the personality of the guru, the gist of what is repeatedly sermonised and hammered into the craniums of the participants is: “Like India, China has a No-First-Use (NFU) policy––therefore, use of a nuclear weapon by China against India is not a likely proposition. As regards Pakistan, although their leadership talks and acts insanely, they are not mad. Nuclear sabre rattling by Pakistan is, but a hollow threat. Pakistan cannot dare to strike India with a nuclear-tipped missile because even with a ‘second strike’ option, India has the capability to turn the whole of Pakistan into rubble…. We can cause unacceptable damageto any adversary if we are struck with nukes….”
The punch line delivered (invariably) with theatrical emphasis and the air of a political leader seeking to hold a moral high ground at a peace conference at the UN General Assembly reads somewhat:
“Nuclear weapons are not meant for fighting; they are there (only) for deterrence.”
This has now been going on for decades since the legendary Mr K Subrahmanyam drew up the draft of India’s Nuclear Doctrine, which communicated, along with India’s NFU status, the spirit that:
“Nuclear weapons are the weapons of last resort; they’ll be used only in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere.”
As can be seen, there is a subtle difference between what the genius, Mr Subrahmanyam enunciated and what the later gurus interpreted, communicated and taught to the lesser mortals––the military personnel and the scientists––people who would be expected to ‘handle’ the nukes when ordained by the political leadership. Over the years, the people, who would some day play Colonel Petrov in India’s case; have been getting inoculated with a different vaccine than should have been ideally prescribed.
An ambiguity at a crucial moment––nuclear weapons being weapons of last resort or being meant only for deterrence––borne out of years of training, can cost India dear because it would take just about five to ten minutes from a launch (in Pakistan or China) to detonation (in India). In a situation like Petrov’s, Indians would not afford the luxury of time. It is therefore, imperative that people who would some day be in the decision making chain and those who would be executing a political big decision (particularly the men in uniform and the scientists) be educated and trained to act decisively without dithering like Colonel Petrov.
The need to unlearn and relearn the nuances of the Indian Nuclear Doctrine is also mandated by the recent behaviour of our neighbours. Let’s look at it this way. Pakistan knows that its nuclear sabre rattling does not perturb India, for India has called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff twice recently––one, by carrying out surgical strikes across the border after Uri terror attack; and two, by executing airstrikes against terror camps at Balakot in response to the Pulwama Terror Attack. In both those cases, Imran Khan first blabbered about the heightening tensions and the possibility of ‘inadvertent’ use of nukes, then ate a humble pie.
Humiliated at home and abroad on those counts, and coupled with a messed up economy and a battered national prestige (because of Pakistan’s terror links), the Khan is vulnerable to arm-twisting by three agencies––Pakistan Military; Pakistan-based terror outfits; and a Shylock-like China, whose debt makes Pakistan cringe. China is capable of using several levers to instigate its stooge, Pakistan to surprise India. Considering these mounting pressures, the cricketer turned puppet of a politician, might be forced to reconsider and carry out his nuclear bluff. The probability, although infinitely low, is not equal to zero. Therefore, it would be prudent on India’s part to cater for a ‘mistaken’ use of a nuke by Imran’s Pakistan.
To sum up, security, and nuclear security in particular, is a dynamic concept; its doctrines and understanding of the same by every link in the chain needs periodic review and refreshing. Exercising realistically with the nuclear option will convey a stronger ‘resolve’ to the adversaries and work as a more meaningful deterrence without changing anything on the ground.
8:00 am. Sunday, December the 7th, 1941. Pearl Harbour happened––a surprise military strike by the Japanese devastated the US naval base in the Pacific. Major US losses included: four battleships sunk and another four damaged and three each cruisers and destroyers damaged. Worse was the destruction of 188 aircraft. Even greater setback was the loss of 2336 men (killed) and 1,143 wounded.
Although the US avenged Pearl Harbour by nuke bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima, it left indelible scars on the American psyche.
After the end of WW II, the Americans turned almost the whole of Pearl Harbour into a War Museum. The USS Arizona Memorial with the list of the dead warriors; the tattered Stars and Stripes and copies of the next day’s newspapers and much more––keep jolting Americans. “Never again,” is the message writ large upon everything American in Hawaii.
On my first visit to Hawaii, Brigadier General Meryll drew my attention to bullet marks on the wall of a building of the Headquarters of the US Pacific Air Forces. “We’ve deliberately not repaired those craters left by the Japanese bombers––they remind us that we were caught napping once. Pearl Harbour will never repeat,” he said.
A solemn resolve.
Time erodes memories. America was caught napping again––9/11 happened. The US pounded Afghanistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. Those follow-up actions certainly did not avenge or offset the 3,000 innocent American lives lost in the ghastly attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.
As if that was not enough, America lowered its guard yet again. Covid-19 pandemic is no less than another Pearl Harbour––close to 1,97,000 innocent American lives lost, and still counting. America blames this one on China. Yet, simmering internal strife and the forthcoming Presidential election has blunted weakened Uncle Sam’s ability resolve to punish its perpetrator.
Countries have their Pearl Harbour moments––October 1962 was India’s, when China attacked and occupied Indian territory by surprise. In the nearly six decades gone by, China has occasionally reminded India of that one time when India had dozed off. Galwan Valley incident was a rude reminder of the dragon’s sliminess. In fact, it was a jolt that let India learn its lesson hard, and fast. The result was evident in the swiftness with which Indian Army grabbed tactical advantage in the Pangong Tso Area. PLA will now use every arrow in its quiver to neutralise the Indian advantage. In all probability, the present lull is a prelude to yet another adventure by the dragon.
For whatever reasons, in 1962, India did not employ its combat air power against the Chinese. Likewise, during Kargil, restriction was imposed on the Indian Air Force on crossing the LAC. In both those cases, India paid an avoidable cost for not exploiting the full potential of its combat air power.
In the present situation, when the Indian Army is sitting pretty on heights overlooking the Chinese positions, it would be advisable to give the Air Force a free hand to plan and execute its operations in support of the Indian Army.
The supreme sacrifice made by the Indian Jawans in Galwan Valley is too recent an occurrence to be forgotten; it is never to be forgotten. 1962, India’s Pearl Harbour, is too unpleasant to be allowed to repeat.