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.



Postscript to “It Happens Only in India!”

The other day I wrote about my experience with a couple whose vehicle had broken down on their way to the airport. It was incidental that I saw them stranded on the roadside and offered them a lift. And when the lady (an NRI settled in the US), expressed disbelief––“I never expected this to happen in India”––I responded spontaneously: “Young lady, it happens only in India.”

Kavita, my niece, now a US citizen, has responded to the post with:

“LOL! Though it happens outside India too, I can say for sure, having been on the receiving end of so many gracious gestures from so many strangers; country or continent no bar…”

I have revisited the incident in the light of Kavita’s remark. And, now I see an all new dimension of the incident.

The lady I wrote about was carrying a perception of India and the people here. For that reason, she did not expect such assistance in India.

My response was spontaneous, rather impulsive. Today when I look back, and analyse it dispassionately, I find two reasons for it. One, when she said: “I didn’t expect this to happen in India,” she inadvertently assaulted my pride as an Indian. And two, I haven’t been many places; I haven’t experienced much of the good behaviour of the people IMG_3770abroad. To say––“It happens only in India”––is, I guess, incorrect.

I love my India so do others love their countries.

What would I tell the lady if I were to go back in time and meet her under the same circumstances?

I would perhaps tell her (of course with a more pleasant smile), “My lady, there is more to India than you have seen, read or heard about. Now go, feel the heartbeat of my country.”

Thank you Kavita for sharing that thought. I value your opinion  🙂

It Happens Only in India!

Early one summer morning, I was on my way to Gurgaon to participate in a golf tourney. It was an annual feature in which the logistics officers (serving and the veterans) of the Indian Air Force vie for honours. The modest prizes mean little; actually it is an occasion for the logistics officers to meet and catch up with friends. I had started a tad early from Noida to be able to spend some quality time with buddies before teeing off.

I saw a white Ambassador car parked by the roadside as I was driving past the Film City. Someone was working under the bonnet. Another person, back towards the car, was looking expectantly at the passing vehicles. It was daybreak and there were very few of them on the road. The man was fidgety, gesturing to stop the passing cars.

I stopped abeam his car and lowered my window. “What’s the matter?”

“Sir, my car has broken down. I have to catch a flight from the Indira Gandhi International Airport. The driver has not been able to place his finger on the fault yet. I’ll miss the flight if I wait till the car gets repaired…”

“Hop in,” I said cutting him short. “You are lucky. I am heading for a golf course in Gurgaon. The airport is on my way and I have some time in hand. With a small detour, I’ll be able to drop you.”

He was accompanied by a lady who stepped out of the car as we spoke. They sat in my car; the gentleman by my side and the lady on the rear seat. We exchanged niceties. Then the gentleman expressed their profound gratefulness. What he couldn’t express in words, he tried to convey with his body language.

They were in their late twenties; maybe early thirties. Just married. They were on their way to Leh for a honeymoon. The gentleman was a senior executive with a Government of India enterprise. The lady was an NRI settled in the US. She had come to India after decades.

As we drove along, we indulged in polite meaningless conversation, the type we make with strangers to while away the time––we talked about the weather, about the beauty of nature, about global warming, about congestion on the roads… The lady, who was a bit reserved in the beginning, started participating actively.

I was buIMG_3770sy making calculations as I drove; I wanted to be in time for the golf tournament after dropping the couple at the airport. With the mind racing ahead of the car and trying to reach the golf course, I was participating passively in the discussion. But then, the lady said something, which drew all my attention. After thanking me for the lift she said, “I never expected this to happen in India.”

I turned my head for the first time, smiled at her and said: Young lady, it happens only in India.” There was silence.

The silence was broken by the man. He gave a long monologue, which was meant for his sweetheart. He highlighted every good thing that happens in India.

The lady was sheepish when I left the honeymooners at the airport.

“Can you make me look like Shah Rukh Khan?”

It was a terribly warm day in mid-May; the outside temperature was in excess of 40C. I had wound up early from the office and was driving back to Noida. I wanted to get home fast. A traffic jam on the Ashram flyover had caused a holdup. I entered the Delhi-Noida-Delhi Expressway and heaved a sigh of relief. “I can speed up now.” I thought. Just then, I saw a man on foot, about a hundred metres ahead, dragging a motorbike.

I stopped by his side, lowered the glass and asked him if I could be of any assistance. He was sweating at each pore. Wiping his forehead, he said, “ Sir, my bike is not starting. I don’t think you can do anything.”

“Don’t tell me you will drag your bike four kms across the DND Flyway in this scorching heat.”

“I don’t have a choice.”

By then I had come out of the car. “Why don’t you lock your bike and come along with me to Noida and get a mechanic.”

“Sir it will be a big exercise, if the mechanic is unable to detect the fault. Besides, he’ll fleece me for coming here. Please do not bother. I’ll manage. Thanks anyway.”

He was in a pitiable condition. I wanted to help him somehow. I had my towrope in the car. And I had had sufficient experience of towing cars––until then I had towed more than sixty cars on Delhi roads. “Would I be able to tow a bike behind my car?” I debated in my mind. “I just have to tow the bike the way I have been towing cars. It is this guy who has to balance the bike.”

“I have a towrope. What if I tow your bike?” I asked him. “Will you be able to manage? It’s a long distance.”

“I can give it a try.” He was hesitant.

“Are you sure? It will be a tad risky.”

He mustered courage and said, “I’ll do it.”

I tied the towrope to his bike and connected it to my car. I then briefed him on the hand signals that I would use along the way. And finally, I briefed him about the likely emergencies, and the actions in those situations. I wished him good luck and settled in my car.

Thumbs up! And we rolled slowly. I gained confidence as we moved. I had an eye on him in the rear view mirror. I gave him another thumbs up; this time, to indicate that I was going to accelerate. He smiled and gave me thumbs up to go ahead. I was tense all along the way, worrying about his safety.

When we reached the tollbooth at the other end of the DND Flyway, I disengaged the bike to get past the barrier and asked him to re-join me on the other side. When we met on the other side, he looked at the IAF stickers on my windscreen and enquired, “Sir, are you from the Air Force.”

“Yes, I am a Wing Commander,” I nodded.

With gratitude in his eyes, he said a few sentences in praise of the armed forces. I cut him short politely and asked him to reposition his bike for towing further, he said that it was OK and that he would manage further. When I said I had no issues towing him up to a mechanic, he said that he had to go close by. “Sir, Thank you so much. Please don’t bother anymore. I have to go to the Film City. It is just here.”

“Do you work there?”

“Yes Sir, I am a makeup artist,” he said with a sense of pride.

IMG_3925I was impressed. I posed to look smart, and winked, “Can you make me look like Shah Rukh Khan?” That question was just for fun; I didn’t want an answer.

He smiled and said, “Sir, you must be joking. Shah Rukh Khan is just an actor. You are a real hero. Does he do what you are doing? If at all, the likes of Shah Rukh Khan must crave to be you; act your role.” He gave a pause and winked back at me and said, “In any case it would be easier for me to make you look like Anupam Kher rather than Shah Rukh Khan.”

We parted on that light note.


Years later…

My book on Operation Cactus had been published (I had participated in that Operation in November 1988). Discovery channel had telecast a documentary on Operation Cactus (they had given me the credit as ‘Episode Consultant’). Bollywood producers had expressed a desire to make a feature film on Operation Cactus.

I was sitting with two producers, a director and a scriptwriter and was discussing the film in Mumbai. I recalled with a sense of déjà vu what the makeup artist had said that day. I thought, “If all goes well, a Bollywood star would be acting my role in the film.”


“I’ll hit you!” to “I’ll stitch a lounge suit for you.” in two hours

The planets had conspired to get me on the Ashram flyover that day at that time….

There was more than the usual traffic. Two cars had stopped (one behind the other) in the middle of the road. The drivers were arguing to establish culpability for a prang involving their cars. Having settled the scores, the athletic young driver of the lead car walked back to his vehicle. Unmindful of my car passing his through the narrow passage, he flung open the door. His wrist got caught between his door and the rear view mirror of my car as I was trying to manoeuvre through the passage. He shrieked as the mirror assembly of my car broke and hung by its wires––he was hurt badly.

It was the beginning of a two-hour ordeal.

“Are you blind? You can’t see even with specs on. I’ll hit you!” He raised a closed fist as I lowered the glass.

Here was a youth half my age, threatening to cause me physical harm. It felt as if he was challenging my years of training and grooming in the Air Force. A deluge of memories of my days as an instructor in the Paratroopers Training School and as the Chief Instructor at the Garud Regimental Training Centre flooded my cranium.

It was difficult to hold back the urge to counter rage with rage. His last words were still echoing menacingly in my ears: “I’ll hit you!” I looked piercingly into his eyes and said  calmly, “Please go ahead. Just try.”

I don’t know what did him in. “Get lost!” He said with his clenched teeth; turned and walked back to his car.

I drove off slowly not knowing that the ordeal was not over yet.

The youngster blocked my car at the end of the underpass near Moolchand Hospital. He raised his bleeding wrist and asked, “Who will get me first aid?”

“I will,” was my instant reply. He refused to go along with me to the Air Force Medicare Centre for treatment. So I followed him to a nursing home of his choice. At 8:30 am, the night duty staff were leaving; the day duty staff had not taken charge. They were not in a position to treat him. Half-heartedly, he let me take charge.

I made him park his vehicle and drove him to Moolchand Hospital in my car. He was given first aid and medicines. “Take these tablets after eating something and return for further treatment,” the doctor said handing over the prescription. His wrist had suffered a hairline fracture.

He had calmed down considerably when we reached the cafeteria. “Sir, I’ll have a coffee and half a pizza if you don’t mind having the other half.”

We chatted as we ate. He was Atul Batra (name changed), a fashion designer, educated in London and worked from there; had an office in Delhi too. His father was a retired Inspector General of Police. He was a kick boxer. After we agreed that it was an accident in the true sense of the term, we opened up and talked on more interesting subjects including fashion. Having served as the Assistant Quality Assurance Officer in the Ordnance Parachute Factory––where they manufactured parachutes and a wide range of garments for the Indian armed forces––I had a fair knowledge of garment manufacturing.

Just for fun, I asked him if he knew why the buttons on the garments for ladies and gents were stitched on the opposite sides. He did not have an answer. He guessed that it had something to do with the two lobes (left and right) of the brain, which functioned in diametrically opposite way for the two sexes.

“Did people have the knowledge of difference in the brains of the two sexes in the era when buttons were invented?” I winked as I asked.

“No, people of that era did not have this knowledge about brains.” He looked quizzically at me. “Do you know the answer to that question?”

I told him that when buttons were invented several centuries ago, only the kings and the membeIMG_6640rs of the royal family could afford them. The men folk used to dress up on their own––the buttons were placed on the right side for convenience. The queens and the other ladies of the royal family, on the other hand were assisted by maids. For the convenience of the maids, the buttons on the garments of the queens and the princesses were stitched on the opposite side. The practice has continued.

He was impressed by my knowledge. “I didn’t know that,” he said.

Both of us laughed when I told him that my source of information was Google.

Our interaction lasted two hours. His parting words when I left him by his car were: “Sir I’ll stitch a lounge suit for you.”

An instance of road rage need not always end in broken noses.