Author: Group Captain Ashok K Chordia (Re-attired)
Author - “Operation Cactus: Anatomy of one of India’s Most Daring Military Operations”
“OPERATION CACTUS: ONE OF INDIA’S MOST DARING MILITARY OPERATIONS”
Episode Consultant: "Operation Cactus" a Discovery Channel Documentary
Short Story & Film Script Writer: Short Film "The Shoeshine Boy" won Best Story and Best Actor Awards at the KIIFFA-2. "Victor One," being screened at Indian Film Festival of Ireland (IFFI-13)
Can the outcome of a recent study on a type of bacteria in the saliva of a person with suicidal ideation help prevent suicides?
A study at the University of Florida has found that the bacteria in the saliva of college students who reported recent suicidal tendencies differed significantly from those found in the saliva of students who had not experienced recent suicidal ideation. Such students showed lower levels of Alloprevotella rava, a bacteria associated with positive brain health, in their samples. For the purpose of the study, recent suicidal ideation was considered as thoughts of suicide arising within the two weeks before the saliva sample was taken. The study was undertaken controlling the other known factors like diet and sleep etc which affect mental health. It was found that students with recent suicidal thoughts had higher levels of bacteria associated with periodontal disease and other inflammatory health conditions rather than of Alloprevotella rava. The study analysed saliva samples collected from nearly 500 undergraduate students. Those who reported recent suicidal ideation were referred to on-campus mental health services. In India too, a large number of youth commit suicide; study suggests that two lakh students died by suicide since 1995. In 2021 alone, 13,000 students took their lives.
It is a known fact that mental health is a serious issue on college campuses. A 2020 study by the US based Centre for Disease Control (CDC) found that up to a quarter of people between ages 18 to 24 had seriously thought about suicide within the previous month. The story is not much different in other parts of the world, including India. Although, various treatments and lifestyle changes help, there is a need to explore how some microbiomes affect mental health and could be harnessed to improve it. While at it, at is extremely important to ascertain whether the lower levels of the said bacteria result in suicidal tendencies or the lower levels are the result of suicidal ideation.
In future, a close observation of these bacteria might help predict tendencies and might lead to pro- or prebiotic treatments for those at risk.
As the scientists go ahead with their research, there’s an urgent need to widen the scope of this study to include people from other walks of life. The first category of professionals that comes to mind is the armed forces personnel. An article published in the New York Times in June 2012 included startling figures on spike in suicides among the active-duty US military personnel. As per Pentagon, the suicide rate (in 2012), eclipsed the number of troops dying in battle and on pace to set a record annual high since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade earlier. The suicide rate was nearly one per day in 2012. The sharp increase in suicides led Pentagon to establish a Defence Suicide Prevention Office. The commanders were reminded that those seeking counselling should not be stigmatised. Defence Secretary, Leon E Panetta emphasised that suicide prevention was a leadership responsibility. But veterans’ groups felt that the Pentagon had not done enough to moderate the tremendous stress under which combat troops were living, including coping with multiple deployments. Suicides among active-duty military personnel were “the tip of the iceberg.” A survey conducted among the 1,60,000 members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Group found that 37 percent knew someone who had committed suicide.
It is a similar story in case of the Indian Armed Forces. In a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha, in March 2021, the then Minister of State for Defence, Mr Shripad Naik had said that the Indian Armed Forces (Army, Air Force and Navy) had lost 787 personnel to suicides in the preceding seven years. In quite a few cases, the mentally stressed students and military personnel have gone on a shooting spree, killing innocent people, before committing suicide. The ever rising numbers of suicides point at the need to do more qualitatively to mitigate nay eliminate the circumstances nudging men to take that drastic step. Mechanical stress management efforts do not suffice. A study like the one conducted at the University of Florida with a wider scope (to look into the high rate of suicides in the Armed Forces) will go a long way in addressing the issue.
In June 2022, Delhiites narrowly escaped something deadlier than the Covid pandemic! The danger still lurks…
Not too long ago, in June 2022, a lady was hit on the head by a bottle in an uncultured club in South Delhi. She had to be treated in a hospital. Apparently, an FIR was also lodged but was withdrawn later. A show-cause notice was served to the owner of the bar cum café for running well past the permissible time. This was followed by suspension, and subsequent cancellation, of the licence.
How procedurally methodical!
The court took a serious view of the case and dismissed the plea of the owner to reopen the facility, but then, hoped that the police commissioner would take a sympathetic view since the last two years had been catastrophic on account of Covid-19. The restaurant and service industry in particular, had been severely hit by the pandemic. The court added sympathetically that the restaurant had been providing employment to a number of people since 2017.
How socially conscious and considerate too!
The club did reopen after it was established that ‘nobody hit the lady.’ Some recalled the film No-One-Killed-Jessica-Lal with a sense of déjà vu. Now, all that has little to do with what happened behind the closed doors of the club before it was so conscientiously reopened in the public interest.
Unbeknown to the outside world, a meeting took place behind the sealed ‘bar and café’ doors. Numbering more than a hundred, the members of the group occupied every nook and corner of the premises. And, although all of them, without any exception were slurring (“Zzzuzzu-ing,” to be more accurate), they definitely were not suffering from speech sound disorder. They weren’t drunk either. They were very much in their senses and knew their agenda well.
The oldest and most revered member of the group began, “My friendzz,… Aedez, Anophelez, Culex,… before we prozeed, I want to requezt you to ztand in zilence, wherever you are, for two minutez, to mourn the untimely death of 47 of our brethren.” The gathered members stood motionless––one could hear only the zzzuzzuing caused by their breathing. Tears rolled and the cheeks of some of the members, mostly female, glistened in the intermittent glow of the blue and red LED light emanating from the RO water filter installed behind the bar counter of that dark and gloomy complex.
After two minutes, which lasted barely ten seconds, the revered member continued, “They died young… in fact, if you azk me, they didn’t die… (emphasis) they were killed… yez, ladiez and gentlemen… they were K-I-L-L-E-D…. And we will avenge their deathz,” he paused and looked around for attention as the zzzuizzing rose in decibel. “They were trampled to death when they lay unconsciouz on the floor of thiz very bar. Our expertz have dizcovered that… I’m zad to zay… they were inebriated. They were intoxicated becauze they had conzumed the blood of the drunken lot in thiz bar. Their blood had unuzually high levelz of alcohol.”
“Death to Delhiitezz!!” one member sitting on the shade of a fancy light expressed his rage.
Another one, perched precariously on the brim of a wine glass screamed, “Aedez! Anophelez! Culex… mozquitoez of the world, unite… zzz.” Shivering with anger, he lost balance and slipped and fell into the empty glass and hurt his head.
“Ladiez and gentlemen, maintain zilenze! Zloganeering will take uz nowhere. Let the revered leader zpeak,” a volunteer who looked like a muscular bouncer gestured to the crowd to settle down. “And… ladiez and gentlemen, let me make it clear… we are not mozquitoez… we are M-O-Z-Q-U-I-T-E-E-R-Z… and let’z behave like MOZQUITEERZ,” he stressed before letting the revered member resume.
The response of the audience was exactly as the revered member had expected it to be. He proceeded with his melodrama with a heightened sense of satisfaction, “Thankz to the new excize rulez in zome Ztatez… more and more people are now dying of drunken driving, brawlz in the barz and road rage… there is no account of zpike in the deathz due to increazed domeztic violenze. Thoze rizing numberz, my muzquiteer friendz are alarming. Our worry iz that in due courze of time, thoze numberz will exzeed the numberz dying because of Covid, malaria, filaria and chikungunya… we’ll loze the leftover trazez of rezpect.” The voice of the revered member crackled with grief. “It is a viziouz zircle,” he became philosophical, “Free electrizity, free water, free buz-ride… haz left the aam aadmi with enough money to zpend on himzelf. A mazzive cut in liquor prizez haz brought it within the eazy reach of everyone. Of courze, it iz a beautiful trend… fatherz, motherz, zonz, daughterz,… familiez and friendz drinking together from the zame bottle of cheaply and readily available Glenlivett and zpeaking in just learnt farratedaar Englizh… I don’t mind those people blowing up the government largezze… but my conzern is the long term ill effectz it’ll have on our young mozquiteerz, and our breedz.”
There was silence in the bar; even the zzzuzzuing had stopped. Faced with existential crisis, the mosquitoes had gone into introspection.
Sound of footsteps and human voices broke the chain of their thoughts. Concern and fear writ large on their faces, their heads turned towards the bar door. With bated breaths they heard the keys clink and the door knob rotate. “Thank God, they have finally accepted our plea. Victor, I have organised a Hawan at nine tomorrow. Please get the bar cleaned and sanitised before sunrise tomorrow. And… oops… these mosquitoes! Spray some odourless repellent,” said the bar owner as he killed a mosquito who had mistakenly landed on his chubby cheek. Then, there was commotion. The last thing heard as the mosquitoes ran for cover was the voice of their revered leader: “Dizperze! Dizperze! Each one to himzelf…. We’ll meet again zoon… until then take care of yourzelf and avoid conzuming the blood of drunken Delhiitez. Don’t worry, there haz been a brawl in another bar… more will follow… we’ll have a wide choize of venuez to get together… the addrezz of our next meet will be communicated to you. Remember we have to avenge the killingz of our fellow mozquiteerz. Zai Zind!”
Every 17 seconds, an American is diagnosed with diabetes. ~ The American Journal of Managed Care, 2018
Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) health condition that affects how one’s body turns food into energy. Most of the food one eats is broken down into sugar and released into one’s bloodstream. Pancreas release hormones which, in turn control blood sugar levels. Maintaining proper blood sugar levels is crucial to the functioning of key organs including the brain, liver, and kidneys. With diabetes, the body either doesn’t make enough insulin or cannot use it as well as it should. For treatment of diabetes, among others, insulin therapy is a commonly recommended line of treatment, which is fairly expensive.
Last Thursday (July the 7th, 2022) Governor Gavin Newsom announced a 100 million USD funding for manufacture of low-cost insulin to make the diabetes treatment more affordable in California. According to Newsom (on Twitter): “Nothing epitomises market failures more than the cost of insulin.”
In the US, insulin costs nearly 100 $ per unit. Diabetic Americans spend anywhere from USD 300 to 500 per month for this life-saving drug. Nearly, 80 percent of the Americans needing the drug incur credit card debt to pay for the costly drug. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 37.3 million people in America have diabetes. California has a particularly high rate of new diabetes cases—mainly affecting minorities, the elderly, males and low-income individuals, according to the governor’s office. The Californian programme allocates $50 million for the development of cheaper insulin products and $50 million for an in-state insulin manufacturing facility to improve the supply chain of the drug.
Californians will have to wait for some time before inexpensive insulin is readily available.
In India, the story is a bit different.
In quite a few cases, diabetes gets detected only at a late stage. More than the difficulty of access to testing facilities, it is the problem of attitude. Not many people take diabetes really seriously––before detection, or after the tests confirm it.
In India, the story is quite different for another reason––a home remedy is readily available.
On this count, I speak only for myself. In February this year, I underwent angioplasty. The tests I took at that time indicated, among other things, marginally higher level of sugar in my blood. Those tests demolished my high opinion about myself. I always thought that active people like me (a cross country runner, a Parachute Jump Instructor, …) with reasonably good dietary habits can’t possibly have these ailments reserved, in my perception, for a different category of people.
My brother advised me to consume a teaspoonful of a mixture containing in equal proportion by weight, powders of seven Indian plant products––leaves/ fruits/ seeds [Amla (Phyllanthus Emblica); DanaMethi (Trigonells Foenumgraeceum); JamunGuthli (Eugenia Jambolana); Belpatra (Aegle Marmelos); NeemPatra (Azadirachira Indica); Gudmar (Gymnema Sulvestre) and Karela (Momoradica Chrantia)]. He was diabetic and was able to reduce his dependence on insulin (to a near zero level) similarly.
I followed his advice and took a dose every morning (empty stomach) with water. It was bitter as bitter can be, and was difficult to swallow in powder form, but I went through the torture which lasted less than half a minute every morning. And, lo and behold, in a span of less than three months my HbA1c level dropped from 6.1 to 5.8. The feeling of thirst and the need to pass urine (twice) every night also ceased.
A well-placed acquaintance who also suffered from diabetes, couldn’t consume the bitter powder. She got tablets made of the mixture. Innovative! At this point, rather than appending a disclaimer, I would urge someone who understands medicine and has the resources, to undertake a dispassionate control experiment, to ascertain the usefulness of the mixture in curing diabetes.
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.
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.”