Banwarilal was his name––a man my age (nearing 60) but who appeared to be years older. He seemed to have seen 75 summers. He was a gardener and had undergone accelerated aging working in the lush lawns of Lutyens’ Delhi. Squatting on his haunches and working long hours in the sun, had given him a permanent stoop and a dark tan.

We met first when I saw him trudging on the roadside, a walking stick in hand, and had offered him a lift in my car. He was taken aback. He sat on the edge of the seat for that’s how poor people are supposed to sit in the presence of the well-to-do. At least, that’s how Bollywood depicts them. Overwhelmed and full of gratitude in his eyes, he sat quietly looking at the road ahead and occasionally stealing a glance at me.

Baba, kaise ho?” I tried to make him feel easy.

“ I am fine, Sir.”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Delhi Sir. I work in a government nursery.”

A polite meaningless conversation ensued. When I dropped him a kilometre further, he showered blessings as expected.

I saw him again the next day and pulled up by the roadside. He got into the car with a smile. It being the second time, his demeanour was devoid of apprehension. We resumed our conversation. He was immune to governments and governance. His life revolved around his small family––a son, a daughter-in-law and some grandchildren.

It became a routine––the business of me offering him a lift. It was two to three times a week. It continued for over two months. With time he opened up and became talkative. He even offered to take care of my lawn. Then there was a long break. I started car-pooling to the office. As a result our timings did not match any longer.

I forgot Banwarilal.

Until another warm day over three months later…

I returned early and found him again. I stopped the car for him to get in. He wasn’t his chirpy self.

“All’s well Banwarilal?” I asked.

“Not really, Sir. I have not got my pay for three months. There has been some hold-up in the computerised system of payment since de-monetisation drive began.”

“Life must be awfully difficult…” I sympathised.

“Our reserves have touched rock-bottom; life has indeed become very difficult…” he went on. It was a monologue and I was a mute listener. Here was a man tortured by fate. He was silently suffering––not begging for a job or largesse.

A thought engulfed me: “Is there anything I can do for him?”

My chain of thoughts was disrupted when he asked me to stop.

As he opened the door to get out, I asked him if I could give him some money to overcome the crisis in his life.

To be honest, it was a half-hearted offer borne out of my feeling of helplessness to do something to mitigate Banwarilal’s misery. There were two diametrically opposite reasons for my hesitation. One: I was sceptical that Banwarilal might accept the offer and demand a huge amount of money that I would not like to dish out. On my part, I had decided to give him Rs 3000/- an amount that I had just received as remuneration for writing an article for the Defence and diplomacy Journal. Two: Banwarilal might get offended or feel demeaned.

Banwarilal declined the offer. He said that conditions were bad but not so bad so as to seek largesse. It was still possible for his family to stay afloat. I made a counter offer: “If you are determined not to take money, consider it to be a loan and return it to me whenever you are comfortable.

Banwarilal smiled again. With a broader grin this time, he said, “Sir, I am touched by your gesture. But I really do not need money; all I need is your prayers so that there is an end to my misery.

Being rich, poor or well-to-do is but a figment of imagination.

On Doodhoo and Bickies

Learning a language to express oneself, English language in particular, is an important first step in our lives in India. Parents do everything possible so that their little ones learn to speak soon. Really soon. It is an obsession––a natural response to the need to master a skill that would enable smooth sail later in life.

As young parents, Chhaya and I observed others teaching their little ones to speak. They would use words that did not exist in dictionaries. For example: doodhoo for doodh (Hindi for milk); ta-ta for hot; kitchtchy for a kiss and bicky for biscuit… the list is long. No sooner did children learn those invented words it was time to start unlearning them and learn the right words to convey the same thoughts. Parents would say, “Sunny, it is not doodhoo, it is doodh; not bicky but biscuit etc.

Toddlers would go through a cycle of learning words; unlearning them and then, learning the appropriate words. Both kids and the parents paid a cost in terms of time and effort involved in the little ones being able to communicate meaningfully.

In our son, Mudit’s case we leapfrogged this step of teaching/ learning by making a deliberate effort to use the right word in the first instance. Thus Mudit picked up fairly decent diction right in the beginning.

Building vocabulary was a parallel process. We helped Mudit learn new words. On his part, he made use of his limited vocabulary to his best advantage. Once when he wanted a hammer and did not know the word for it, he said. “Papa, please give me a nail-pusher.” I was reminded of a 1970 Dustin Hoffman starrer, Little Big Man in which one of the characters says: “I have pain between my ears,” to convey that he had a headache.

Years later, when I was doing a certificate course in French language, our professor posed a question that had a binary answer in a “yes” or a “no”. I do not remember the exact question but it was like: “Are you an Indian?”. The student, who stood up to answer, gave a nod. It was just a nod, a universally accepted expression for “Y-E-S.” On his response, which looked comical the class burst out laughing because everyone expected him to say (in French): “Yes Sir, I am an Indian.” When the laughter died down, on a serious note our professor said that the purpose of learning a language is to be able to convey ideas and to get a feedback or a confirmation or an answer. A nod was as good as an answer formed with half a dozen words. “Do not lose sight of the aim of learning anything,” he said.

As a child Mudit, also learnt that a picture was worth a thousand words. Once we left him home playing with a friend. On our return we found the front door of the house closed and latched. Stuck in the door-handle was a rather longish message that read: “Papa, Vaibhav and I are in Vaibhav’s house…” It was enough need-to-know information for me at that moment. Therefore, I would not have read the complete message, which read further, “Please meet us before you open the door…. There is a snake in the house.” What drew my attention to the rest of the message was the drawing of a snake made prominently in the lower half of the note. Thanks to Mudit’s warning (drawing), the snake was removed and the house was secured. None was harmed.

Fast-forward a dozen years and more. It is a treat seeing Vilasini, our grandniece––based in Geneva with a Tamil-speaking father and a Hindi-speaking mother––effortlessly switching between Hindi, English, Tamil and French. And Kartik, our grandnephew (in the tutelage of his grandmother and parents), conversing in intelligible Hindi/ English and reciting Shlokas in Sanskrit.

In a fast shrinking world, ability to convey ideas will be power of sorts.

Sweet home is the university where education on effective communication begins.

I Love my India

Patriotism in our country follows a sine curve. Almost. Come Republic Day, come Independence Day, The tricolour surfaces and flutters atop everything moving and non-moving. It can be seen atop buildings and on cars and motorbikes. Forget the debate on the use of flags made of synthetic material, the sales peak around this time. Patriotism also dominates the theme of the songs played on blaring speakers in every street. Television channels vie to screen films with themes patriotic. Film producers, some more patriotic than the others, time the release of their multi-starrers to coincide with the big day.

My childhood memory of those celebrations is simple yet vivid. We kids always remembered the day more for a half day at school without school bags, and the distribution of sweets. The unfurling of the flag, chanting of national anthem, Vande Mataram and some patriotic songs did instil some good feelings, which we could hardly define. But for sure, we used to talk about Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad,… all the year round––not just twice a year.

That was a half century ago.

Blog I Love My India Flag Fluttering IMG_3425The other day I spent some time with my grand-nephew Lakshya, an intelligent youngster. I was driving him around when we passed a large tricolour atop a sixty odd feet flagpole. I looked at it with reverence and asked Lakshaya, “What thoughts come to your mind when you see our national flag?”

He gave me a blank look and said, “Nothing, really.”

“Doesn’t it remind you of our national heroes? Doesn’t it fill you with love for the country?” I tried nudging him into answering with a stereotype that I had in mind.

But his answer left me speechless. “Nanaji,” he said, “I have so much homework to do. I am left with little time to think about all these issues.”As we drove along, we came across a giant hoarding of Mahatma Gandhi. I dared not ask him who he was. I feared he might say, “Ben Kingsley.”

 To be concluded some day…

Calming a Crying Kid – II (Kartik)

It is always fun discussing parenting with Ravi, my nephew and Swati, his wife. They come up with innovative ways of addressing issues concerning Kartik, their son, my grandnephew.

The last time we met, I asked Ravi whether Kartik, otherwise a very well behaved toddler ever causes ruckus. And how do they calm him. Ravi said that Kartik doesn’t normally cry. He cries when he has a genuine reason to do so. Say, when he hurts himself. But then, he becomes quiet soon enough, on his own.

Ravi added, when Kartik cries because of a genuine problem, they try to pinpoint the problem and resolve it. On very rare occasions, Kartik cries purely to draw attention. He even says: “See Papa, I am crying.

Ravi says that they have discovered a way to deal with those situations; and it works.

In rarest of the rare cases when Kartik cries for no apparent reason, Ravi initiates the following conversation:

“Kartik, let’s play carom, now. Or, shall I read the story of the tortoise and the rabbit, now?” Or, would you like to drink a glass of milk, n-o-w?… … You can resume your crying later.”

Note: playing carom, being read a story, drinking milk,… are some of Kartik’s favourite pastimes.

Says Ravi, “Most often Kartik chooses to indulge in an activity of his choice and postpones his crying for an opportune moment later, which never returns.”

Agony deferred is agony lost!

Calming a Crying Kid – I (Kush)

It was another of our family reunions. My parents, my siblings, our children, and their children––four generations of us were rejoicing under one roof when the agonising cries of a child put a pause to the celebration.

Kush, one of my grandnephews (about two years and a half) was crying; a more appropriate word would be: “Wailing.” We felt he was hurt and ran to his aid. Rachna, the child’s mother took charge; I joined her in her effort to calm down the little one. He wasn’t hurt. No physical harm had come to him. He was sitting rather coolly in a chair, wailing occasionally at will. Interesting conversation ensued between the mother and the child.

“Beta! What happened? Why are you crying?”

“Because Dhruv (another of my grandnephews) didn’t play with me yesterday.”

“But he is playing with you now. Why don’t you play?”

“Because he said that he would not play with me next Sunday.”

“He won’t play with you because he is leaving for Ujjain next weekend.”

“But why did he tease me in the school, two days ago?”

The Q & A session between the two seemed endless. Kush filled the time between each question and the following answer with a wail, each of which sounded louder, more orchestrated and more dramatic than the earlier one. The problem was that there was no problem. Was Kush seeking more attention than he was getting in the crowd?

I gave the issue a quick thought.

Rachna had been blessed with a second child, a son. At home, the infant was gnawing at her time and attention, which was once entirely Kush’s. It was natural for little Kush to feel neglected at home. Then, in the family gathering, there was none to spend much time with him. It was attention that Kush was seeking. I shared my thoughts with Rachna and advised her to make a conscious effort to spend quality time with him every day. That was a long-term solution; an immediate remedy was still eluding us.

We were struggling to find a way out to quieten him when I stumbled upon an idea that worked. I urged Kush to stop crying instantly because unabated wailing was having adverse effect on his body; his features were getting convoluted. I told him, “One starts looking like a dog when one cries for long without a proper cause.” And, before his little mind could get the import of what I said, I clicked a photo on my iPhone. Then, picked the picture of a stray dog from my photo library and showed it to him.

Lo and behold! Kush became silent. The amazement in his eyes defied description.


Epilogue: In due course Kush caught on the joke. A year later, when we met again, he made a funny face and asked me to click another picture. “How will the dog appear in the pic, if I make a face like this,” he asked with an impish smile.

A Garud Legacy

The unusually heavy rainfall in the southern Indian state of Kerala has led to the worst floods in a century. Almost all the river dams within the state were opened to let go of the excess water. More than 300 people have died and over 7 lakh people have been rendered homeless and are living in camps managed by the Indian Navy and a large number of charity organisations including the Gurdwaras.

Armed forces, the National Disaster Response Force, the Indian Railways and scores of other organisations have been toiling round the clock to provide succour to a people in distress. The helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) have been dropping food packets for marooned people. They have been evacuating people to safe locations.

The print and electronic media, the social media included, are replete with news in pictures and videos on the mayhem caused by the floods. They also talk of the yeomen service being provided by all the agencies involved––uniformed men rescuing people in boats; helicopters dropping food supplies….

One such picture (and the video circulated by the India Today Group) that has caught my eye is that of Wing Commander Prashanth, a Garud of the IAF. He is seen rescuing a child in a daring winching operation by an IAF helicopter. “Well done Prashanth! Well done Garuds! The country is proud of you. Keep up the spirit! Keep up the good work!”

Garud child rescue prashanth Kerala

I see that picture and the video with a sense of déjà vu. In fact, that picture, and the video, have sent me on an errand a dozen years back in time.

Around 2005, Garud (IAF’s Special Force) was still in its infancy and I was the Commandant/ Chief Instructor for a brief period. The Garud Regimental Training Centre (GRTC) had just relocated from Air Force Station, Hindan to our new (permanent) location at Chandinagar, an abandoned airbase in the middle of nowhere. New infrastructure––classrooms, firing range, training apparatuses, messes and dormitories––was coming up. The existing facilities were in a dilapidated state.

We had to make do with the available resources till conditions improved.

Although it sounded oxymoronic, I had ordered Shramdaan (voluntary service) to clean up the thick undergrowth that had come up due to years of neglect. The entire station was at work through the afternoon. Men were scything the grass, lifting stones and clearing the paths. After about an hour of hard work in the sun, one of my officers spotted a dry well without a boundary wall. It was fairly deep, maybe 40 to 50 feet. Despite the broad daylight it was difficult to see the bottom.

It was imperative that we secured the well to avoid an accident. As we began piling stones and logs of wood to form a temporary barricade, a Garud trainee observed some movement at the bottom of the well––it was a dog that had fallen in and was showing signs of life.

Using nylon ropes meant for slithering, we lowered a basket containing bread and milk for the wretched animal to eat. Scared and hurt (due to the fall), the pariah dog declined the offerings. Left to itself, the fellow would die, so I suggested that we hauled him out. It meant that one of us would have to go down on a rope to the bottom of the well and physically bail him out.

There was an air of apprehension: One, the dog might bite its rescuer. Two, there could be insects and/ or snakes. And three, there could be lack of breathing air and, worse still, there could be a poisonous gas.

“Sir, after all it’s a dog,” someone murmured. “We can let him be there.”

I did not want an opportunity to test our skills and abilities to be baulked by doubts. “It is a dog today; it’ll be a human being tomorrow.” I stressed that it was a rare opportunity to rehearse a possibility. There was a need to rescue the poor animal. The questions and the doubts dissolved in the ensuing discussion.

In my assessment, there was no risk at all if one took the necessary precautions but I didn’t want to employ a reluctant messiah for the task. Besides, it was an opportunity to set an example. So without ado, using a nylon rope and an improvised harness, I got myself lowered into the well. Not fear, but an eerie sensation gripped the crowd as I proceeded. Once at the bottom, I grabbed and held the dog in a tight embrace and howled orders to pull me out. In less than two minutes, the dog was rescued. That incident marked a modest beginning.

The Garuds today are carrying forward the legacy.

Airlift During Natural Disasters: How Can More Lives be Saved?

Blame them on depletion of Ozone layer, global warming or some such phenomena––natural disasters have begun visiting us with the regularity of equinoxes and the solstices. The ongoing floods in India are an example of the fury unleashed by nature.

The armed forces in general––the Air Force in particular––are pressed into action to provide succour by airlifting men and material and evacuating the stranded population. The number of sorties flown despite inclement weather within the limited resources and the tonnage provide for impressive statistics. Selflessly rising to the occasion each time, the men in uniform save thousands of lives.

Thousands still die.

The question is: Ceteris paribus, can more lives be saved? Going by the Uttarakhand  experience (July 2013), the unequivocal answer would be, “YES.”

Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi, Issue Brief No. 19/ 2013 dated July 11, 2013 titled, “AIRLIFT DURING DISASTERS: THE UTTARAKHAND EXPERIENCE –– Can we Save More Lives?” explains, “How?


Kids, Cricket and Carrots

Clan Chordia had gotten together in our Bhopal home. As always, fun and frolic ensued. Being together was always an occasion to celebrate. We, the brothers––three of whom were young grandparents––reminisced about our childhood. Having met after a long time, the children exchanged notes as we waited for the table to be laid for lunch.

Oblivious of what the grandparents, parents and uncles were occupied with; Aashi and Dhruv were playing cricket in the little corridor between the dining area and the entrance. My mind governed by my years in military uniform did not approve of their playing inside the house. There had to be some decorum.

I held back the impulse to exercise my authority to stop them. Instead, I tried to feel the pulse before deciding a course of action.

“Hello kids! Playing cricket!?” I broached the subject half-heartedly.

Dhruv: “Yes Dada, why don’t you join us; we need a fielder?”

Me: “But you should be playing cricket on the playground; not here in the house.”

Aashi: “Temperatures are soaring outside. We have been permitted to play indoors. We are playing defensively and carefully so that we do not damage things around.”

Me: “OK, so you are trying to get into the league of Tendulkar, Sehwag, Dhoni, ….” I changed the tone of my conversation. It was their home and their actions bore the formal seal of approval of their parents.

Aashi stumped me by his reply: “Dada, I don’t want to emulate any of those legends. I want to be a successful cricketer and be known for my own style.” I envied him for his clarity of thought. I didn’t have it when I was his age. Chhaya, my wife vouches I still don’t have it. Disregardful of my poor skills with the bat and the ball, I joined in. After all, at 56, I was nearly ten times their age and thought I could match them in performance. They thought otherwise.

Constricted space mandated slow under-arm bowling. Those little champions who had mastered indoor cricket started hitting my slow straight balls all over until I discovered that spinning the ball while bowling under-arm was easy, and effective too. I exploited the possibility and bowled both “OUT!” several times in quick succession. They were awestruck; couldn’t fathom a reason for the steep fall in their performance with the bat.

Then, it just happened…

I asked them, “Do you eat carrots and green vegetables?”

“No, we don’t like them,” they were spontaneous.

“Oh! I guess that’s why your eyes are weak; you are unable to spot the ball in time. Also, since you don’t eat vegetables, you don’t get the necessary vitamins and minerals. I am not surprised your reactions are rather slow and you are getting beaten repeatedly.” It was an off the cuff statement with no intention whatsoever to sermonise the kids.

I carried on pulverising their pride in their batting prowess. Aashi continued to get bowled while Dhruv took a break. He went missing for a while––a long while, indeed. Next, I heard Ruby, his mother, chastising him, “ What are you doing with the knife? You’ll hurt yourself. I’ll do that for you.”

OMG! Dhruv was trying to clean up and cut a carrot to eat. He sought immediate improvement in his eyesight and reflexes. Both Dhruv and Aashi returned to bat after eating some carrots. This time on, I was under obligation to demonstrate the benefits of eating carrot and green leafy vegetables to the two grandchildren. I did not spin the ball anymore. With improved sight and reflexes, Aashi and Dhruv regained form. Rather they displayed superior performance.

While Aashi and Dhruv, realised the importance of healthy eating, I carried a different lesson:

“There are times when the fear of notional loss from not doing a thing far exceeds the joy of apparent gains accrued from doing it. This vulnerability is exploitable.”