For Banwarilal, Life Goes on Regardless

A lot of water has gone past the bridge since I met Banwarilal last. Today, I met him after more than eight months. I saw him sitting at the place where I used to drop him whenever I happened to give him a lift in the past. I pulled up by his side to say, “Hi!”

“Hello Banwarilal, how are you doing? Tired today? Relaxing here before you resume your walk home?”

“I am doing fine, Sir. Not really tired but barely able to walk,” he said with a diminishing smile.

“What happened?”

“Life has been difficult since we met last. A vehicle ran over my foot, crushing it almost. I was bedridden for several months. In the meanwhile I lost my job. Now, I am working for a contractor––more work, and less pay. Earlier I used to get Rs 9000/-, now it is a mere 7,500/-.”

“I feel sorry for you. I hope your son is doing well enough to take care of the family?”

Banwarilal.jpg“He has also suffered much setback. He can barely support himself and his wife. Our lives are in a mess.” He massaged his foot as he spoke to me. A chill ran down my spine when I saw the scar marks on his foot.

I had no doubt that he had gone through hell.

“Uhmm,” I encouraged him to continue, hoping that it would make him feel lighter.

“Now, I have only one desire––to be able to repay a loan of Rs 40,000/- before I die. If I don’t pay it,” he looked at the sky and continued, “I’ll have to settle the score up there.”

I stood speechless for a period that felt like an eternity. He had refused monetary help last time I had offered him cash. Would he accept it this time on?

I re-mustered my thoughts and offered to give him some money to repay part of his debt. I thought his hardship might have changed his outlook to such unconditional assistance.

Smile returned to his face, “Thank you Sir, for that generous offer, but I don’t want to be in debt of a kind person like you. God willing, I shall be able to settle all my debts before I knock at His door.”

I didn’t want to leave it at that so I continued talking with him for some more time, clicked a picture (something that will inspire me in the times to come). He told me that he takes a break everyday at that spot between 5:00 pm and 5:30 pm before resuming his walk back home.

I bade him goodbye, hoping to meet him again. Soon.

On my agenda now, is to work up an offer that he cannot decline when we meet next. I owe it to him for teaching me some of the good things in life.

 

 

Chivalry in the Times of #MeToo

It was in Kanpur, some time in the early 1990s. Two of my men approached me to preside over and settle their dispute. Warrant Officer Mishra alleged, “Warrant Officer Tiwari (both names changed) is jealous of me because my son has graduated as a commissioned officer of the Indian Air Force.”

“So what?” I wondered.

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “Sir, he says that officers are characterless people. During their mess parties they go around hugging each other’s wives and even dance with them. It offends me because (now) my son is an officer.” Mishra added.

A little scratching of the surface was enough to reveal what was in Tiwari’s mind. Years ago, when Tiwari was a corporal, he used to be deputed to install and operate the PA and the music systems for formal parties in the Officers’ Mess. Because he came from a modest rural background, where women stayed indoors and performed household chores, he found the behaviour of the officers and the ladies inappropriate.

It wasn’t his fault.

It being a stricture against the officer-community, I felt ineligible to preside over the dispute. I brushed aside the case saying, “I expect you warrant officers to be mature. Now, get going and mind your personal businesses.” I felt educating Tiwari at that point in time could be counter-productive. Such an action would not guarantee success in moulding his concretised perception.

All through my service since that day, I have consciously devoted time and effort to educating my men on gender issues.

The #MeToo movement and the issues of gender equality that have inundated the media (social media included) have served as a recall of the Mishra-Tiwari dispute for me. Here is a peep into officer-lady relations in the armed forces.

Chivalry IMG_1695An officer, and a gentleman, stands up to greet a lady on her arrival. He does not address her by her first name unless she approves of it. A gentle hug or a peck on the cheek is purely a personal matter between two individuals. The ladies––young and very young, girls and even children) have a sixth sense. They know when a touch is inappropriate––they can distinguish well between a friendly gesture and a predatory move. This sixth sense is not unique to the ladies in the Armed Forces. That sense is universal. Besides, a lady is not obliged to display uniform level of familiarity with everyone she meets. The officers respect the freedom of the ladies to draw lines selectively for different people depending on their level of comfort.Chivalry 44

Don’t go by the optics. There’s a lot more to how men must carry themselves in the presence of ladies than mere opening the door, leading the way and talking softly in a their presence. Chivalrous is one word that summarises an officer’s behaviour in the presence of a lady. It is not the fear of punishment, which is severe for offences against women but the upbringing in the Armed Forces that spells the difference.

If the prevailing noise and din in the country confuses the youth, perhaps flipping the pages of the Customs and Traditions of the Armed Forces or meeting a gentleman and an officer will help.

The Akbar I Don’t Know

I have hardly known Mr MJ Akbar who is making news for the wrong reasons lately. I spoke to him once on the telephone, in the late nineties. He was with The Asian Age then. I gave him ten on ten for his manners and politeness. Then, for over a dozen and moreMJ Akbar years I have feasted on his articles in the print media––his analysis of the current national and international affairs is remarkable. I find his diction good, better than most others. Then, on two occasions, I have heard him live and found him to be a very eloquent speaker. My cognition has created a certain image of him––that of an intellectual. Period.

I think I still don’t know Mr Akbar. Do I need to know him? Well, I don’t think, I do. But what I am interested in is a discourse, which leads to improvement in the prevailing environment for women in the country in general, and the workplaces, in particular. I owe that approach to many I care for.

Something that started as a ripple a few days ago is metamorphosing into a tsunami of sorts. In its spate it has taken many big names, the likes of Nana Patekar, Alok Nath and of course, Mr MJ Akbar. Trial by the media has begun; verdicts on the basis of loud debates are already being splashed on the walls.

The lifestyles and work ethos of the people who are making the headlines are like closed books of Greek literature to many in the stands. The impression is that people involved, either do not understand the meaning of a clear ‘NO’, or blatantly exploit their power and position. One can only be a spectator until a designated court pronounces a verdict. Not really! Media reports of the last few days raise a valid question: “There is smoke; where is the fire?”

Beyond applause for daring to speak up against the treatment meted out to them in their workplaces these courageous women deserve the support due to them; a cheer less, for those who jumped on the bandwagon as an after thought. At the moment, some of the people who are speaking up appear to have axes to grind. Many others, who can, or must speak, and more importantly, whose voices matter, are silent. Are there skeletons that might tumble out of the cupboards if they broke their silence?

It is time for well-meaning people, people who are in the know of the working in those domains, to speak up. Dante has said, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” That said, there is no reason to speak in favour or against an individual. People can speak on the issue of harassment in workplaces and how it needs to be addressed.

One last thought: Some in the media are using the epithet––Battle of the Sexes––while discussing these issues, which incite passions. Other expressions doing the rounds are picking up cudgels and, in similar context, demolishing the male bastion. People would do well to coin and use terms that bring the people (of the two sexes) to see in the same direction rather than be adversaries working for the same cause. There are enough people on both sides of the imaginary line who think alike. Their solidarity needs to be consolidated for whatever it is worth.

Clinking Goblets, Morsels of Love and Life

Like all who get married, Chhaya and I looked forward to a happy life ever after. Respect for each other, love, care… were fine––they were packaged neatly in the blessings, wishes and advice showered upon us. Discreetly though, some scared us with sacrifices (read compromises) people have to make for marriages to work. And of course, the added responsibilities and the little quarrels so typical to the people who dare tie the knot.

It was a tad scary.

We struck an understanding to understand each other and consign our differences, ifGoblets ever they cropped up, to the nearest waste bin at the first opportunity. We devised a pleasant way of weeding out undesirable moments before they could take roots. On rarest-of-the-rare days when we had higher-than-usual-decibel conversation, we clinked our crystal goblets and flushed down evil thoughts with a sip of fresh water. That ensured a clean slate and no baggage to carry on life’s journey.

Perpetually building on mutual respect, love and care is an even better way to avoid sorry situations. We don’t know how and when it commenced––at every meal together, we started offering the first bite to each other. We have now been doing it for over three decades. The unspoken words: “I love you” are embedded in the gesture.

It happened so gradually that we didn’t realise when the habit of offering the first morsel to each other elbowed away the need of clinking goblets for good.

Question of a Sabbatical

Another page from my dateless Delhi diary…

The date and the year are of less consequence; it was a hot April afternoon. I saw the three of them walking on the footpath in Subroto Park and offered them a lift. They got into the car hesitantly.

“Thank you Sir. I am Ravindra Sharma, he is my brother Navin and he is my son, Ajay (names changed),” one of them broke the ice as they settled in the car.

“I am Group Captain Ashok Chordia,” I introduced myself and asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“We have to board a train from Nizamuddin railway Station. It will be kind of you, if you could leave us at the nearest bust stop on your way,” he urged.

“The Station is on my way. I’ll leave you there.”

“So nice of you, sir.”

Then there was prolonged silence. The three sat quietly, perhaps not knowing what to talk about. I have experienced this type of a mix of reticent and introverted behaviour on the part of simple people in the presence of strangers. In the presence of service officers, the behaviour seems to be more pronounced.

It was going to be a fairly long (15 kms) drive along the Inner Ring Road and was going to take in excess of 30 minutes. Silence with four people sitting in the car would be menacing.

“You don’t seem to belong to Delhi?” I initiated a polite meaningless conversation.

“Sir, we belong to Kota. We were here for a counselling session for Ajay.”

“How was it? What does your son intend doing?”

“Just so. I am disappointed with his board exams result,” said the father with concern.

“What’s the matter?”

Books“Sir, he has scored 94 per cent marks. He just doesn’t read. If he studies properly, he can get more marks. He wants to do engineering. Why don’t you advise him, please?”

My jaw dropped. “Here is a father dissatisfied with his son scoring enviable marks, and he wants me to guide him? What advice do I render a kid who in my assessment is brilliant,” I wondered.

I did not want to disappoint the father so I continued talking. In a while I realised that the boy was very intelligent and could understand concepts rather fast. Therefore he used to take less time as compared to others to complete his assignments. Repetition used to bore him and that’s where his ideas conflicted with his father.

With much thought I came out with a piece of advice to him, “If you read more books of each subject you will have a deeper understanding of the concepts. Solving question papers and numerical problems from different books will give you a strong base. Lastly, if you still have time, devote it to improving your communication skills––an effort that will stand you in good stead, what ever you do later in life.” All three were listening to me intently.

“Sir, I’ll do as you have suggested,” assured Ajay.

“That’s good. You are capable of better performance and must try to exploit your ability to grasp things fast to broaden your knowledge base and communication skills.”

The father was happy with the interaction. At the railway station, I took him aside and advised him to give a freer hand to the boy to manage his studies. I told him that meddling with his approach to academics might be counter-productive.

The chapter was over, I thought.

Not really!

A month later, I received a call from Ravindra, “Sir, you have cast a magic spell on my son. He is a transformed being now. I want to thank you for making a difference.”

“I am happy to hear that. I hope he continues to work that way. Convey my good wishes to him.” We exchanged some niceties before disconnecting.

It was not over yet.

A few months later, I received another call from Ravindra, which put me in a very difficult situation. “Sir, I am in dire need of your advice. Ajay wants to take a sabbatical and prepare for IIT entrance examination. If he doesn’t get through, a year will be wasted. What shall we do?”

In a few seconds which seemed to last an eternity, I gave a thought to Ravindra’s request for advice. I realised that he had called me with great hope. I found it difficult to turn down his request. But then, what advice could I give him?

I collected my thoughts and organised them in the few seconds in which we exchanged less important information. Then I started, “Ravindra, our lifespan is 75 to 80 years if we lead a decent life. One year in a lifespan of 75-80 years is a small fraction; it is insignificant. If you allow, Ajay to have his way, he will put in his heart and soul in the preparation and, in all probability, he’ll get through. It will be great if that happens. If he doesn’t get through, the hard work that he puts in through the year will not go a waste. The knowledge that he will gain, will stand him in good stead in whichever college he joins subsequently. Besides, if he doesn’t make it to the IIT, he will come to know of his limitations. One last thing… if you let him take a sabbatical wholeheartedly and support him in his endeavour, without bothering about the end result, he will love and respect you more than he does now. I feel he deserves your willing support.” Ravindra thanked me profoundly for sharing my thoughts.

For the next few months, I waited eagerly to hear from him. There was silence.

Much later, when I had forgotten everything, Ravindra called me again. It was a courtesy call. “How do you do, Sir!? All’s well here. Ajay is doing very well. He’ll be an engineer soon. He joins me in conveying regards to you for all the valuable advice you gave us.”

“That’s heartening. What about the sabbatical? Did he take it? Did he get through to IIT?” I was curious to know.

“Sir, I gave him a free hand; told him to go ahead and take a sabbatical and prepare for IIT. But then he decided against it. He got admission in a college of his choice and a course of his liking. I’ll keep you posted of his progress.”

Ravindra has been calling me occasionally to share his little joys.

Grandma or Tom Sawyer!?

One of my all time favourite books is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In particular, I remember the part published as a separate story titled Whitewashing the Fence. Briefly, Tom is assigned the job of whitewashing the fence by aunt Polly––something that he does not really like. He starts whitewashing the fence, but ultimately makes the other kids of his neighbourhood do the job for him. He sells the idea that whitewashing is a work of art and not many can do it well. His friends fall for the challenge and come to do it in turns. They even pay him in kind to be able to get a chance at it. He not only gets the job done (he is able to get three coats of whitewash on the fence) by his friends but also makes some gains in the form of the core of an apple, a kite, a dead rat and a string to swing it with, twelve marbles, part of a Jew’s-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through… the list is very long. Says Mark Twain, “If he (Tom Sawyer) hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.”

Mark Twain summarises Tom’s exploitation of the kids thus:

“He (Tom) had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Throwing small challenges, which a kid cannot but accept, is an art. Grandma Rita Jain, a Professor of Botany, seems to have mastered the art well. She has stitched a colourful mat with leftover pieces of cloth that she had. She makes her grandson, Kartik sit on the mat and proposes (that’s her way of challenging the little one), “Kartik, I wonder if you can point at the red squares.”

3aaa0de2-c2b9-436b-ae18-5a72c4d58887Kartik feels victorious when he is able, not only to point, but also count the squares of a particular colour. Sitting in Padmasan, the Lotus Posture on the same mat and performing some other actions form a package deal of challenges, which he enjoys accepting.

One trick cannot keep a kid engaged for long. Kartik seeks variety. The other day, the grandma sat by him and started whipping curds with the traditional Indian whipper (Mathani). It was a stratagem. As the grandma had expected, the little one was attracted to it and wanted to do it all by himself. “Dadiji, I want to do it,” he expressed his desire.

e60e8f23-aed3-4f1d-9828-a4196a484cde“Beta, it is difficult. Do you think you can really do it?” She made the exercise of whipping the curd sound like a highly technical job.

“I’ll do it slowly. I’ll not spill anything. Let me try at least. Please, Dadiji.” Kartik urged.

“Okay! Go ahead! Let me see how well you do it,” the grandma ratcheted up the challenge.

Kartik did it; and did it well. There was nothing great about it. But that little challenge was a step forward in improving eye-hand coordination. The sense of pride that he had at the end of the exercise, gave him confidence for yet another challenge.

In these games that Kartik and the grandma play, both are winners.  

 

 

Straight From a Goof’s Heart: An Eagle on the Seventh Hole

The par four seventh hole of the Air Force Training Command Golf Course was a difficult one. Let alone a par, getting a bogie on that hole was a herculean effort. But in those days––I am talking about 2004 when owing to family commitments, I was leading the life of a forced bachelor––I had all the time in the world and I used to play regularly. My game had improved greatly. I was hitting good distance, fairly accurately. I was confident about my short game and could manage puts equally well. Getting a few pars and an occasional birdie had become an expectation.

IMG_4287“Small bets make you fight; they get the best out of you.” That suggestion from a fellow golfer had appealed to me and I had got into what I thought was competitive golf. The bet used to be modest: breakfast on the loser, or meagre amounts that would be barely enough to pay the caddie. Howsoever small those amounts were, there used to be a great charm in winning. If nothing, honour used to at stake. No wonder, the hundred-rupee note that I won for hitting an Eagle on the seventh hole, signed by the fellow golfers (those days scribbling on currency notes was not considered an offence) became a trophy of sorts for me.

The habit continued when I left Bangalore. I have been playing with very modest stakes for more than a dozen years now. When I look back, I find that in all these years, my game has deteriorated gradually. I have analysed the decline in my performance and have been satisfied with my conclusions: I have not been playing regularly; age is catching up, my strength and stamina has gone down…

“Could playing with stakes have taken toll of my game?” The idea never cropped up.

This afternoon I was with someone I consider my golf guru, Minky Barbora. It was not for a lesson in golf, but we were at the Noida Golf Course just for lunch. Discussion on my own performance was not even the last thing on my mind. There were two other gentlemen and as it always happens, the discussion moved on to performance on the course.img_4280.jpg

Minky had an opinion on betting, much different from mine. He said that when one bets, one is content with performing to a level, which ensures a win––just a win. One is satisfied with a par when the opponent has a bogie. He is fine with a bogie, if the competitor has a double bogie and so on… The determination to go for pars and birdies, regardless of the competitor’s performance, erodes. Under the circumstances, progress is a far cry.

The guru had a point, a valid one in that. I have so often seen people conceding holes when playing with stakes––to save time and to move on to the next tee.

In my case, quiet introspection has led to a decision: On the next visit to the course, I’ll play G-O-L-F. The modest betting amount that I have been setting aside—If I improve upon my previous performance, I’ll tip the caddie.  If my game is bad, I’ll give it to him assuming that I have lost a bet.