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.

Water! Water!

“Water,” they say, “is a medicine for sick people; a tonic, for the healthy.”

I drink sufficient water every day to stay hydrated and healthy. Never thought of carrying some in the car except while embarking on long journeys. Until one day, a few years ago when we were driving from Noida to Lajpat Nagar. It was just a 15-minute drive and we were halfway home. Swati, our niece enquired if I had drinking water in the car. I regretted and told her that we would be home soon. I continued to drive. In a little while, she became restless and desperate for water. She was in agony till we reached home. In a couple of hours, she was in Moolchand Hospital under the surgeon’s scalpel undergoing surgery for appendicitis.

Swati did not get water when she needed it so much. That day marked the beginning of a new habit with me; I started carrying a bottle of drinking water in the car. Sometimes I take a sip from the bottle to wet my throat when I am stuck in traffic. On numerous occasions the small water reserve has come in handy.

IMG_4023Once, at a traffic light I saw a kid hanging out of a school bus. He was unwell and was trying to throw up. He was relieved when he drank some water from my bottle. The bottle of water has also provided succour to people in similar state, standing by their cars parked by the roadside. Interestingly, the number of times this bottle of water has quenched the thirst of dried up car radiators is large.

IMG_4258When I started, I used to be carrying water in a plastic bottle. Then came the warning that drinking water from a pet bottle kept in a car parked in the sun could cause cancer. So I started using a beautiful wine bottle. Green glass and a cork––it looked good! Very good, indeed! It became the envy of friends who saw it.

Then one day, when I was taking a sip at a road crossing, waiting for the traffic light to turn green, I was asked by a cop to pull up to the side of the road. Everything looks yellow to a jaundiced eye! He thought, I was consuming alcohol in public. It was not his fault; he comes across many daring drunken drivers during the tour of his duty. It took some polite talking on my part and a puff into the breath analyser to be let off.

That incident nudged me into some creativity. I removed the wine label (Cuvée Spéciale) and pasted another label, which reads: “Water! Water!

Damsel in Distress!?

Come September the 28th, Hotel Taj Mansingh will be under the hammer (if the date is not changed)––some of the top names in the business of hospitality will vie to acquire the coveted premises. The Hotel has been witness to events of historical importance. I too have attended seminars and private parties in its elegantly decorated convention halls. But what I remember the Hotel is not for its grandeur but an incident, which twenty years on remains a mystery for me. It took place on the roundabout near the Hotel.

It was a Wednesday in DecTaj Mansinghember of 1998 (or 1999); I am not too sure of the year. Not that it is of much consequence. It was a Wednesday for sure, because I was in civvies. On other workdays we used to wear the uniform to Air Headquarters. I was driving along APJ Abdul Kalam Road (it used to be Aurangzeb Road then). On the roundabout near Hotel Taj Mansingh I narrowly missed a car parked dangerously in my path. I swerved and went around it. The cars following me had to take even more drastic evasive actions. I looked furtively at the driver of the parked car as I went past it. It was a lady.

Thinking that something was wrong and perhaps she needed assistance, I stopped a little ahead and approached her car. “Is there a problem? Can I help?” I asked.

“My car has stopped. It is not re-starting.”

“Let’s see what can be done. But before that let me push your car a little ahead. It is dangerously parked.”

She sat at the wheel as I pushed the car. Once the car was at a safe location––not in the path of the other moving vehicles––I asked her if there was sufficient fuel in the tank. She got out of the car as she confirmed, “There is enough petrol in the tank.”

She handed over the key to me and looked intently at the Defence Headquarters’ Identity Card hanging from my coat pocket and said, “I am an Air force Officer’s daughter. The need for me to introduce myself had become redundant––she had read my name.

I sat in the driver’s seat, inserted the key and cranked the engine. Lo and behold, the engine started as if nothing was wrong with it. I looked at her victoriously. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “I don’t know how it has started now. It wasn’t starting when I was trying.”

I got out of the car without switching off the engine and gestured her to occupy the seat. “Do not switch off; drive straight to a mechanic before it stops again.”

“Thank you,” she said as she got into the car.

As I was turning to go, I happened to see a “PRESS” sticker on her windscreen. “Are you from the media?” I asked her.

“Yes, I am Anita Baruah (name changed) from Bharat Ek Khoj (name changed).”

It was a popular news magazine––one of the most popular, indeed. But I didn’t know the young lady. Later when I shared the incident with a colleague, he told me that I had met a celebrity (he meant Ms Baruah) from the news media. She was an Associate Editor of the magazine. A few years later, she published a book on a military subject.

For the last twenty years, the instant starting of a supposedly broken down car has intrigued me. I have wondered whether the damsel was really in distress or the media-person was waiting opposite Taj Mansingh with a purpose; keeping an eve on someone or something for her magazine’s next big story.