COVID-19, India’s Options: Fight, Flee, Pray, or…

A slave went to his master in Cairo with a request to save him from ‘death’.

The wretched man shivered as he narrated his encounter: “I met ‘her’ in the marketplace during my morning errand to buy grocery. ‘She’ was giving me threatening looks. I guess my time has come.”

The master, a benevolent man, gave him the best steed in his stable and advised him to ride to faraway Basra. He owed that kind gesture to a man who had served him devotedly for two decades. “Abdullah, I don’t think death can reach you that far,” he said as he waved the grateful slave good luck.

Abdullah galloped away into the horizon leaving a cloud of dust.

It was a matter of chance that the master too came across ‘death’ when he went for a stroll in the evening. He couldn’t help question the menacing looking ‘creature’ in her black cloak, “Why did you scare Abdullah. He is such a pious Moslem, prays five times a day; follows all rituals; is kind hearted and has served me so selflessly all these years?”

“Why? Why at all would I scare such a good being? I had only one thought when I saw him perambulating here in the streets of Cairo this morning. My appointment with him is in Basra over the next weekend. I was wondering how he would reach Basra in such a short time for our scheduled meeting.”

That was an Arab folklore.

There’s a real story too; wonder if it is true:

Among the victims of the Ukranian jetliner that got shot in the Iranian airspace recently––in the aftermath of the killing of Major General Qassem Soleimani––was an individual who had texted his friend before boarding the ill-fated aircraft that he was concerned about the mounting tension between the US and Iran and wanted to leave Tehran before the situation worsened.

That was for the preface.

In dealing with COVID-19, things cannot be left to fate. Everything good, bad or ugly will not happen automatically. Not luck, but actions taken now will determine the outcome.

उद्यमेन हि सिध्यन्ति कार्याणि न मनोरथै ।

न हि सुप्तस्य सिंघस्य प्रविशन्ति मुखे मृगाः ।।

The essence of this Sanskrit Shloka can be summarised thus: Physical action is essential to fulfil wishes. A deer does not walk into a sleepy lion’s mouth––even he (the lion) has to hunt to satiate his hunger.

The global war against Corona Virus is on. Deliberate and conscientious action can spell success. Today, the worst affected countries are China, Italy, Iran and South Korea. Each country is doing its bit to keep the epidemic at bay. Chinese efforts stand out in as much as there’s a decline in the number of new cases. A close scrutiny reveals that unmindful of the ‘world opinion’ they have resorted to dictatorial (draconian, for some) methods of implementation of the medical directives to succeed in their endeavour. Tough times require tough measures. While the end of the crisis is not in sight yet, it is possible to review our own actions thus far and take mid-course corrections to arrive at the desired destination.

Schools have been closed and use of biometrics for identification at entry/exit to offices has been suspended. Teams of doctors, the Armed Forces and the paramilitary forces have been pressed into action. The checks at the airport have been made stringent. There is a suggestion to close the Taj Mahal to tourists. The government has issued an advisory to: “Avoid mass gatherings.”

But, as brought out in an earlier post (“Salam, Namaste Kovid-19”) either the magnitude of the problem has not sunk in, or the attitudinal deficiency has still not been made up. Congregations are still taking place. Recently there was a ‘Page Three’ kind of wedding attended by the who’s who of Delhi. The very people who (supposedly) are to lead the lesser mortals to salvation were visible engaging in apparently long firm ‘handshakes’. Still later they were engaged in more serious and essential meetings elsewhere in Delhi to restore normalcy in riot hit parts of city.

All are equal in the eyes of the Corona Virus

Likewise, there was another mega event where the country’s sportspersons were honoured and people mingled. In the larger national interest such gatherings may well be avoided. A lot depends on the willingness of the people at the helm.

Elsewhere, people with colour-smeared faces could be seen throwing caution to the air––the mood to celebrate Holi has already taken the better of people. Hand sanitisers and facemasks have disappeared from the shelves. More and more jokes and cartoons laced with cynicism and weird remedies like names of some herbs, alcohol and cow’s urine etc. (rather than useful tips) are being shared on social media.

Time to issue advisories has long gone

If only people could understand one thing: “Corona Virus is socialist and secular in the true sense of those terms––it is going to spare none. The adage: “Example is better than precept,” was never as relevant as it is today. The chosen and the educated few who can make ‘the difference’ must lead by example. For the government, the time to issue advisories has long gone. These are tough times; tougher times are yet to come. Firm directives rather than suggestive advisories, is the need of the hour. Not prayers but action alone can save this country despite the blessings of the 54,000 and more Gods and deities taking care of its destiny.

Viva Delhi Traffic Police!

The lecture hall of the Delhi Traffic Police Headquarters (PHQ), Dev Prakash Shatri Marg, Pusa, New Delhi is like any other classroom, anywhere––a table, some chairs, a rostrum, a whiteboard with markers and a stand-alone computer terminal connected to a projection system. Leaders of India’s freedom struggle look down (pun intended) upon the occupants of the room from the posters mounted on the walls. For a facility, which is much in demand for continuation training of cops and for educating errant drivers, and is in use seven days a week, it is fairly well maintained. And, like a Catholic church, it doesn’t discriminate between people on the basis of their caste, creed, colour, sex or status. For the training sessions, sweaty drivers of trucks, taxis and auto rickshaws are huddled in that room and democratically share the limited space with smartly accoutred chauffeurs providing proxies for their rich masters and, of course, with the snobbish who call themselves ‘educated’.

Avoidable!

When the room is packed to more than its capacity and the lights are switched off for audio-visual training, the darkness and the half asphyxiating stench of sweat, Banarasi paan, bidi/ cigarettes, Rajnigandha and the cheap make-up and deodorants attack senses and sensibilities alike. They remind of parts of The City of Joy described so vividly by Dominique Lapierre.

There, in that room, the traffic police instructors ‘try to’ re-educate several hundred wayward drivers daily.

That chaotic situation as described above, is not the doing of the PHQ. The ever-increasing number of unruly drivers causes the mess in that under-sized room as it does on Delhi roads.   

Now, how and why I landed up in the ‘that’ lecture hall is unimportant. Suffice it to say that I was an utterly harassed sapiens by the time I reached there after running from pillar to post for three days. And, before you draw any conclusion, let me also tell you that whatever I was getting by way of treatment was my absolute entitlement––I had earned it by dint of my ignorance of the procedure to get back the driving license confiscated by a vigilant cop for a traffic violation.

What followed when I reached the PHQ might be of relevance for those who aspire to learn from the experience of others.

To begin with, the nearly 30 kms drive from my residence in Noida to the PHQ was a nightmare. Well-meaning activists, both pro and ante Citizenship Amendment Act, had ‘unintentionally’ caused clogging of roads. Google Maps had gone crazy suggesting different alternatives every few minutes. I still arrived at the destination on the prescribed date and time. In the absence of an authorised parking for visitors, I parked my car on the roadside, half a kilometre away––at ‘owner’s risk’. And, for the next four hours, a part of my brain was occupied; worrying about the well being of my new car.

I had paid a fine of Rs 1000/- online to be eligible to attend the corrective driving training session at the PHQ and stood at the end of a very long queue to register for the same. A mixed feeling of torment and humiliation swept over me like a little tsunami as I stood in that line (mind the stress on the word ‘that’). For once, I wanted desperately to take advantage of my being a senior citizen but couldn’t do so as there wasn’t a separate line for senior citizens. There was a shred of preferential treatment for women, though. A stern cop appeared every once in a while and chastised the men trying to jump the queue.

Deterrence!

All that huffing and puffing and pushing around at 2:00 pm was for a class that was to commence at 4:30 pm. The anxiety of the people in the queue was comparable to the hurry of the drivers trying to get past a crossing when the amber traffic light is blinking––about to give way to red.

I heard bits of interesting conversation as I waited for my turn. Here are some excerpts:

“They caught me for jumping the traffic light whereas they left the guy behind me who was guilty of the same offence.”

“I have been fined for over speeding… I was driving at 80 km/h on DND on an empty road, absolutely no other vehicles. They said, the speed limit is 70 kms/hr.”

“We know what they are going to teach us now… They’ll only sermonise us. Their aim is to torture us for one hour… Close to 150 people, waiting for nearly two hours each… So much time is being wasted… It is criminal. Why don’t they charge us another hundred bucks and let us go.”

And then the masterpiece that drew a laughter even in that not so friendly atmosphere––“These guys are too much, they are not even accepting bribe to let us go without attending the corrective training.”

The PHQ, in its own simple ways, was encouraging entrepreneurship: A typical chotu was minting money, selling tea, samosas and bondas. Young men sitting with inkjet printers/ photocopiers in shacks by the wall were producing facsimiles of documents––RC Book, Aadhaar and Driving License etc––doing good business. Some men who were helping others to fill the various forms and documents, I guess, were doing so for remuneration.

After a wait of about two hours and a half, at 4:30 pm sharp, the door to the lecture hall was opened. There was a clamour yet again to get inside the room and occupy a seat. I was rather lucky to find a seat in the front row.

The cacophony in the room died down to a pin drop silence when a Police Officer––an Assistant Superintending Inspector (ASI) walked into the room. He was tall and well built. He spoke Hindi with a heavy Haryanvi accent. His delivery was laced with humour that only a Haryanvi can generate.

He spoke with authority; was polite and firm at the same time. He snubbed and put in place an odd participant who tried to mock the training process. He reminded me of my drill instructor at the National Defence Academy who appeared tough (and sounded rude at times) but was tender hearted; his only aim being: to train us to be ‘officers and gentlemen’. The ASI was attempting a similar feat with regards to our driving habits. I learnt later that he was a Yoga Instructor too, and had mastered the art of staying calm amid chaos and cacophony.

He spoke with passion about the concern of the Traffic Police and the Honourable Supreme court about the deaths and injuries in road accidents and the traffic jams that are becoming a norm on Delhi roads. A spellbound audience listened to him as he suggested simple tips to avoid mishaps and holdups on roads.

So far as communication of message is concerned, ASI Rajesh Grewal’s performance was as good, if not better than that of Akshay Kumar. Don’t forget, the latter has the advantage of star appeal. What Grewal speaks, flows straight from his heart. He speaks with conviction and there is passion in his appeal.

After making his point the ASI got the ceiling lights turned off and projected videos of real accidents captured from cameras installed at accident-prone crossings. Those clips, which shook and jolted most of us in the audience, were followed by a documentary made by the traffic department of New Zealand (or, was it South Africa?). All the videos were rather old, dark and blurred but conveyed the intended messages aptly––careful driving and adherence to traffic rules is the key to road safety and fuel economy.

Notional income through careful driving

I took the advice to heart (the fuel economy part, in particular). Following the driving tips given by ASI Grewal, I have improved the efficiency of my car from a mere 12-13 km/litre to 20-22 km/litre. Thus, I have more than recovered the thousand bucks I had paid in fine. A process of notional earning has begun. I am certainly more peaceful when I take the wheel now; a tangible gain indeed. I owe my peace of mind while driving to the training session at the PHQ.

After about a fortnight, I attended another class at the PHQ; this time, of my own accord––to consolidate my gains. Also, as a return gesture, I have offered the training staff my assistance and cooperation in improving the training films.

Rambo and I

It all happened on a day when my immunity to honking in Delhi traffic dropped momentarily.

I was driving to my office in Subroto Park. As usual at 9 am in the morning, the traffic on the airport road near Dhaula Kuan was moving at a snail’s pace. Everyone on the road seemed to be in a great hurry. Scooters and motorbikes were moving like free electrons in the little spaces between the bumper-to-bumper moving mass of buses and cars. The car behind me seemed to be in greater haste than all others. The driver’s hand seemed to be glued to the horn in perpetuity. Unfortunately, there was no space to allow him to pass.

It just happened that the planets were not aligned favourably for me at that instant on that day. In fact, I am certain that they had conspired to make me feel ragged by the blaring noise. So, otherwise always unmindful of the etiquettes of the drivers sharing the road with me, I responded with a comical gesture. I rolled down my window, and with my hand, signalled the car behind me to go over my car.

Did I infuriate the man behind? May be, I did, because I saw an enraged being in the rear view mirror of my car.

Sometimes weird thoughts come to one’s mind when one gets ragged. It was one of those moments for me. “Why wasn’t he born a few minutes earlier than he did?” I wondered, “He would have reached in time everywhere, all through his life.”

A crooked smile broke on my face.

Did the man behind see my smile? Did it add fuel to fire? From what followed, I have reasons to believe that my spontaneous, silly and uncalled for action and the smile, which in retrospect, I feel I could have avoided, had caused a volcanic eruption. He had seen my face as I looked at him in my mirror. But like a child, I was oblivious of the consequences of stoking a fire.

I saw the first ominous signs of what was to follow when he overtook my car on the first opportunity. He was a hulk of a man with long hair that covered his entire mane. A metallic hairband––like the spiral binding of the notebooks I use––secured them. He wore a thick gold chain around his neck with a heavy looking pendant––Hanuman or some other deity. His left ear lobe had a large diamond stud.

He must have been a member of the Gold Gym for many years. In the slow moving traffic I got a glimpse of his muscled biceps revolting to break free of the tight sleeves of his black round-neck tee shirt. I couldn’t miss the large tattoo depicting a dagger peeping out of his short sleeves.

He removed his large sized Ray Ban goggles as his car crawled past mine and gave a stare that crucified me. Almost! Then his eyes turned into slits as if he were taking a dim view of my actions. He must have been watching many of those western classics, the Clint Eastwood kinds, I thought. We were a few feet apart and separated by two toughened glass panes, yet I heard the crushing sound of beetle nut between his teeth.

Was he planning to chew me? Hallucination!

I avoided his gaze and hoped it was all over.

Far from it, it was just the beginning of, should I say, an ordeal.

Massive fenders and the picture of a not-so-benevolent Hanuman on the rear pane of his car seemed to say, “Boy, better don’t mess with me.” They looked intimidating when he stopped his SUV in front of mine near the main entrance to the Headquarters of the Western Air Command at Subroto Park. Everything on his car’s number plate was obscure except the number 1111––it was a VIP number. I got a glimpse of a tattered tricolour lying limp by a flagstaff on the bonnet of his elephantine car.

VIP

I needed no more introduction of the man who stepped out of the car and stood, arms akimbo, by its side gesturing me to come out. He was wearing cargo pants with camouflage print.  A broad black canvas belt was a formality around his slim waist. The bottoms of his trousers were casually tucked in his more-than-ankle-high boots.

He was a Rambo of sorts.

I quickly evaluated my two options––to fight or, to flee.

Talking of the option to fight…

Attacking first, I had once knocked out an opponent taller than I was. But that was as a schoolboy. Much later, in service, I had trained hundreds of paratroopers and the Garuds of the Indian Air Force. More than a dozen years later, some of the close combat techniques that I had taught my pupils lay embedded in my mind. But I doubted if my fighting abilities at sixty would match this menacing man’s in his late twenties. The red juices of Banarasi Paan oozing from the corner of his mouth and sliding down his lower jaw confirmed that he was not what he appeared to be. He was certainly not a Rambo. He was a youngster, managing his affairs using his appearance and perhaps, his connections. Yet I didn’t want to risk the seven implants that I had just got to regain my ability to bite and chew. At over Rs 2.2 lakhs paid to CLOVE Dental, my mandible had suddenly become precious. It was in my interest to avoid a physical fight.

Needless to say, to be able to conquer the enemy without fighting is the Art of War.

Talking of the option to flee…

I recalled that once Bruce Lee was asked by an interviewer, “What would you do if you were actually cornered by a goon?” The legendary actor and Kung Fu master had said something to the effect that he would find an escape route and run away. The Western Air Command with its gate manned by armed guards was just about fifty metres away. But this man stood like a wall in my way. Besides, having overused my knees during my days as a paratrooper, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to outrun him, even if I could dodge him once.

The time was running out, as I opened the door of my car gingerly; I did not want to be trapped in my car. Was there a third option?

Even at that moment of extreme peril to my being, my mind took an errand to an incident, some forty years ago. We, as first term cadets at the National Defence Academy, had failed to produce a variety entertainment programme, in the given duration of time, for the send off party of the graduating seniors. So a cadet sergeant had taken us to task. An hour of intense physical activity (front rolls, push-ups and crawling in the battalion area) under his supervision had made us all realise that there was an actor lying dormant inside of all of us.

It was a Eureka moment; it was another moment of reckoning; it was time to awaken that actor in me.

Without a second thought, I ran into this guy who was preparing to pounce on me, and held him tightly (as different from hugging warmly). “Long time! When did you return from Siachen?” I asked. And then without looking him into the eyes, I continued, “Are you posted in Delhi now? Army Headquarters? How is Pammi? …And the kids?”

Then I held his limp hand and shook it firmly and let off a second volley of questions: “You ass, you don’t feel like staying in touch. You are in Delhi and you haven’t even called me? If I had not seen you today and waved at you… (a pause for effect)… you would have gone away without meeting me. Very bad!” I admonished him with fatherly affection.

The giant looked absolutely dazed. My stun-grenade had had the desired effect. Before he could regain consciousness, I emptied my last magazine of rubber bullets on him: “Why are you looking so puzzled? Aren’t you Chow? Major Chowdhury? …(another pause for effect)… Son of Brigadier Chowdhury? Don’t you recognise me? I am Group Captain Chordia? Ashok uncle, your dad’s NDA course-mate.”

It must have been a stupendous performance, a great monologue indeed.

The body language of the man suggested that he was still in absolute confusion. “Sir, I am not Major Chodhury,” he said meekly. My father is a primary schoolteacher in Greater Noida….” It was my turn to listen to him. I released him from my embrace and gave him an innocent look.

To cut the long story short, we parted with another hug after about five minutes. It was definitely a genuine and much warmer hug this time. And, in those few minutes that we spent together, he told me that he was one of the the general secretaries of the youth wing of one of the major political parties in Uttar Pradesh. He was a property dealer and ran a construction business too. He offered me his services (including his political affiliations), if I needed in the future.

Epilogue

Six months later…

I received a telephone call. “Sir, I am Manoj… Manoj Sharma. Do you remember me; we met on the airport road when you mistook me to be Major Chowdhury? Can you help me with getting some documents attested by a gazetted officer? I promise, they are genuine.” I willingly obliged my young buddy with that little favour.

(Author’s Note: Although fictionalised, this story is based on a real encounter.)

A Generation That Cares

Lately, Chhaya, my better half and I have started travelling by Delhi Metro wherever and whenever possible. And honestly, the reason for choosing to travel by Metro Rail rather than by our own car has less to do with our concern for the environment (although it is always uppermost in our minds). The main reason for that choice is to avoid the pain of driving in heavy traffic because of which the time one takes to travel from a place A to a place B is uncertain. I recall an occasion when I even failed to convey a friend from Amity University, Noida to Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station in time. A journey, which takes about twenty minutes, took more than an hour and a half that day, and he missed his train. In addition to that ‘harassed’ feeling on the road, there is the problem of finding a parking slot in most places.

Travelling by Metro hasn’t been an experience to write home about either. The stations are crowded. In the peak hours, the trains are so packed with commuters that people have to take turns to breathe. That said, we still find it a good option, at least in the lean hours. There’s relatively less rush and we are sure of reaching our destination in time. To think of it, it is a conscious effort to avoid road rage too. I often recall an instance when a youth, half my age wanted to enter into a physical fight with me. It is a different matter that when we finally parted, he wanted to stitch a lounge suit for me; he was a fashion designer.   

So when we boarded the Metro at Okhla Bird Sanctuary last Saturday, it was just another day. We had to travel to Nehru Place––a 17-minute journey with seven stops en route. At 7:30 pm, although there wasn’t a big rush, there were no vacant seats either. We were prepared to go standing.

Good Samaritan

Just then, a lean and rather fragile looking man, with a bag in hand stood up and offered his seat to Chhaya. Chhaya politely declined because looking at his health, she felt that he needed the seat more than her. Besides, he was travelling to Vasant Vihar; sixteen stops and double the time away. But he insisted and prevailed. So without further ado, Chhaya accepted the offer and thanked him.

Even before the import of that kind gesture could sink in, another young man stood up and offered his seat to me. I was a bit embarrassed because standing ramrod straight, I maintain that in appearance I still do not look like a senior citizen. This gentleman who was to travel to Palam Vihar (20 stops and 42 minutes away) was even more insistent. Left with little choice, I succumbed to his request.

While all this was happening, there was a rapt audience watching us with smiles on their faces––a bit amused by the transaction. Why?

A Generation that C-A-R-E-S

Perhaps because such a behaviour in public, is still not-a-norm in India. In fact, momentarily even I was taken aback because somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind there was a somewhat colonial thought, which declared chivalry as the fiefdom of the armed forces. In the end, I wasn’t so surprised. The emotion that we carried when we got out of the train was one of deep satisfaction; the generation next is one that C-A-R-E-S.

Two reasons have prompted me to share my thoughts on this apparently trivial issue. Firstly, not really expecting them to behave the way they did, the gesture of those young people has touched our hearts. Secondly, there was an urge to share that feeling of appreciation.

Dear Mr Kejriwal, are you listening?

Dear Mr Kejriwal,

You began your journey of sweeping the muck in Indian Politics with baby steps alongside Anna Hazare. Soon you outpaced him; the old soldier could not march by your side. You left him behind. Nothing is wrong about that decision of yours because when a mission is still unaccomplished; it is not incorrect, unfair or unethical to leave behind the weak and the wounded. They can be attended to; their wounds nursed, and their contribution to the war effort can always be lauded after the flag has been hoisted on the objective. In some cases, a nicely worded epitaph can make up for everything.

The problem is of shifting goal posts and ever-changing objectives. Selection and Maintenance of Aim is a principle of war. It is difficult; nay impossible to recall a victory wherein this proven principle has been flouted. Needless to say, the journey is long and arduous; you have miles to go. Be sure what you want to aim at: purifying Indian politics or uplifting aam admi or uprooting BJP with the help of others with whom you otherwise don’t see eye to eye. 

I hear you have done remarkable job in some walks of Delhi’s life; your team’s effort to provide quality education and healthcare is, beyond any doubts, unparalleled; it deserves a very special mention and appreciation. May you have the resources, power and support to keep going great guns.

Now, how does one keep going when people are jumping off the bandwagon at regular intervals? Some members of your core team who have left you have compared you with Napoleon. Napoleon––not the French Emperor, but the Napoleon of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And, Ms Shazia Ilmi thinks she was the Boxer (of the same epic). Others who left you also perhaps thought so, but didn’t say it openly. But, you don’t have to worry on that count. Animal Farm, written nearly three quarters of a century ago as a satire on communism fits Indian politics of today. It fits very well! Rejoice in the fact that you don’t stand alone––every party has Napoleons. When I look at you (people) dark humour amuses me to no end.

That’s just the preface to draw your attention; what follows is more serious. I only hope you have the time, and the inclination too, to read on.

What has struck my imagination recently is your decision to consider granting free travel to women in DTC buses and Delhi Metro. The reason you have extended this proposal is––women’s safety. It baffles me to no end. How can making the ride free for women in public transport enhance their safety? A large number of women can afford public transport and are already availing DTC and Delhi Metro services. The additional number of women who will get attracted to (government) public transport because of the freebie will be miniscule. And, if I am not grossly wrong, in these times of #MeToo, by this very gesture of yours, you might end up offending many a self-respecting woman who seek absolute equality in thoughts and actions.

If you still implement your plan, I fear that you will start a practice, which will nurture yet another breed of people getting used to free lunches with added burden on the state. Mind you Mr Kejriwal, the public are smart. Blame yourself for it; you made them smart. I remember you telling them long ago, to accept whatever freebies (and bribes) other parties were giving, and still vote for AAP. I will not be surprised if, in the next assembly elections women do just that––accept your freebie and still go by their choice.

Freebies

Think of it, there are umpteen ways of making women safer than by just giving them free rides. Directing the resources and energies towards, and focussing them on the source of crime can make people, let alone women in our cities safe.

I have a suggestion, if you care.

We have a large population living in slums all over the city, on footpaths, and under the flyovers. People living in those places work as labourers on construction sites and as servants in bungalows, offices and factories. The stark reality is that Delhi “needs” them. Delhi cannot do without them––Delhi will come to a standstill if they are not there. Their children sell pirated bestsellers, used flowers, hand towels and ballpoint pens on traffic lights. To earn a livelihood, some of them take to crime. And, if one was to go by what our films depict, they are picked up by bigger fish to get their works accomplished.

Such places where survival is a daily chore, people are vulnerable. Those places can easily turn into nurseries for crime.

Convert those slums into double-storey accommodation with the very basic amenities (drinking water, sanitation and electricity). Give them medical facilities and schools. That will demolish some of the nurseries where little ones get to learn their basics of crime. How so ever difficult it might appear, it is achievable. All that is required is a strong will to do it.

A single court decision in the US––to legalise abortion––brought down the crime rate drastically. But that took nearly twenty years. If you give a decent livelihood to the poorest of the poor today, it is just likely that the positive effect might be felt twenty years hence.

Are you ready to wait that long, Mr Kejriwal?

Remember, a lot can be achieved in this world, if one is not bothered about who gets the credit for the achievement or, who reaps the harvest. Are you ready to switchover from the alleged Napoleon’s role to that of Boxer’s in the yet-to-be-conceptualised Animal Farm Revisited? Keep the answer to yourself.

At this juncture, may God bless you with the wisdom to choose the right path.

Yours truly,

Group Captain Ashok K Chordia (Re-attired)

An Indian Air Force Veteran

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.

 

 

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.

Damsel in Real Distress

I spotted her from a good distance. She was standing by her parked car; distress lights blinking. Her mobile pressed to her ear, she was gesturing half-heartedly at the drivers of passing vehicles. There were two young men standing by their bike parked a little IMG_0981away on the other side of the road. Several cars passed her before I reached her. There was light traffic on the Barapullah Elevated Road that day.

“Is she really in need of help?” Some old memories flashed past my mind. “What if she is a journalist and the guys on the other side of the road are her colleagues?” With those questions still lingering in my mind, I stopped ahead of her car and walked up to her.

“Are you in need of help?”

“Yes Uncle, my car has run out of petrol.”

I wasn’t surprised. My wife had been stranded on the roadside twice for the same reason.

“No problem,” I said. “I can tow your vehicle down the elevated road. There is a CNG station near the exit of Barapullah. On the other side of the road is the petrol pump.”

I taught her some hand signals while I connected her car to my car with my towrope. Then I asked her to call me on my mobile and listen to my instructions as I towed her car. She was confident and followed my instructions to the letter. Within minutes we were at the CNG charging station. She parked her car and came and sat in my car. We drove across to the other side of the road––to the petrol pump.

She bought a litre of petrol in an empty water bottle. To get back to the car we drove to the Ashram Flyover and took a U-turn. I emptied the bottle in her car’s tank. The engine came to life when she turned the ignition key, but within seconds it ceased. I shook the car, the way mechanics often do. The car started again. But before the girl could drive on, the engine became silent.

With a little effort we found a mechanic who suggested that we put more petrol into the tank. So we bought a 5-litre jerry can of distilled water and emptied it in the nearby gutter and got it filled with petrol.

With more petrol in the tank, the car started again; this time, the engine continued idling. It did not stop. I followed the girl’s car to the petrol pump where she got the tank filled to the brim. Relieved at last she thanked me and handed me a visiting card.

It wasn’t hers.

It was her father’s. The national emblem embossed in gold on the top right corner drew my attention. “Is your father a parliamentarian?” I asked.

“No uncle. But he provides technical support to the Sansad Bhawan complex. He’s been there for many years, about to retire. I have just spoken to him. He has thanked you and will call you sometime.”

Mr Praful (name changed) called me later in the evening. He went overboard, thanking me for being of help to her daughter when she needed it most. He asked me to feel free to call upon me if he could be of any assistance to me.

A few days later…

Mr Praful called me. “My daughter is planning to join the Air Force. Is it OK for girls to join the Air Force?” He continued, “She has to appear at the Air Force Selection Board at Mysore. She can’t be there in Mysore on the given date. Can the date be changed? Or, at least the venue be changed to Dehradun? How do I go about it?”

With a little guidance he was able to find his way. Finally the girl did not join the Air Force. She chose another profession, is in the US now.

Postscript: Months later, I requested Mr Praful to get me connected to one of the Members of Parliament––who was present at the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to discuss the rescue of President Maumoon Abdul Gayuum (Operation Cactus, the Maldives, November 1988)––to seek an interview for my seminal study on Operation Cactus. Mr Praful did give me the contact details of the MP but the interview could not materialise. My book, published in February 2018 is devoid of a view from that angle.