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.

Smothering a Smouldering India

“The hottest corners in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”

~Dante Alighieri

To be able to have an opinion in times of crises, one must be in the know of things. How does one become well informed when one is not sure of the veracity of what one hears? How does one believe what one sees when there is doubt about the genuineness of the source? The faith in the media (social media, included) has eroded considerably. There’s a limit to the size of a pinch of salt with which one can accept a bit of information these days. That limit is breached so often. Truth is a casualty of our times and circumstances.

The sense that something was drastically ‘amiss’ (I do not consider myself knowledgeable and qualified to use the word, ‘wrong’) dawned on me last week when I spent nearly four torturous hours in traffic travelling from the IGI Airport to my residence in NOIDA. Google was in a state of confusion too, as I guess, three categories of people had stifled the NCR––those, who were against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), those in support of it, and the police force trying to contain the mob’s fury and to maintain law and order.

There were riots in several parts of the country; some people died, many were injured. There were conflicting claims of police brutality and counter claims of policemen being hounded and beaten. There were visuals (some ‘doctored’) to support those claims. It was time to get off the fence, out of the comfort zone, and to have an opinion.

How?

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

The speeches and the debates on television were high on decibel, low on content. The speakers did not sound convincing in absolute terms. Quite a few of the speeches reminded me of my visit, a few years ago, to a world heritage site in Canada: “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.” It is a cliff where the first nation (the native) people guised in the skin of the wild buffaloes used to mingle with the herds, cause panic and make the unsuspecting animals run through channels guiding them to their death by falling from the cliff.

Are opinion-makers guised as well-wishers driving a naïve population down different cliffs to mass deaths? Time alone will show. For now, there’s a dire need to defer the urge to follow the Pied Pipers wearing cloaks of any colour.

Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

But how long can one be a sorry spectator and be insensitive to what is going on? A serving general officer of the Indian Army opened his mouth to air some thoughts on the issue. His own breed of men who had donned the military uniform at some point in time in the past, pounced on him, tried to shred him. I shuddered looking at his plight because I had donned military uniform for 35 years before re-attiring. Should I, or I should not, have an opinion, which in any case would instantly regard me as politically inclined (either side)?

I wouldn’t have been so indecisive even in a warlike situation; the dilemma was damning.

A Roman mosaic depicting Medusa, National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Then I saw this activist. Her countenance reminded me of Medusa, the mythical being with snakes in place of hair––one who could turn things to ashes by just staring at them. She was spewing venom; advising the youth to give incorrect information when the officials visited them to collect data. “Give your names as Ranga-Billa…,” she said something to that effect. She must have been joking, I thought, because she was smiling as she said what she said. I am sure, as a responsible citizen, she wouldn’t want the youth to epitomise criminals like Ranga and Billa. Also, if people gave incorrect information, one would be groping for reliable data in the future, to write a treatise on the “Algebra of Infinite (in-)Justice (in India).”

To, or not to, give information sought by the government is one thing; to give incorrect information, is quite the other. The latter, would be a grave mistake––could at best be avoided. On demand, we give (with proof) whatever information a foreign government seeks from us when we apply for a visa. We let open our world to Google, WhatsApp and Facebook. Some of these agencies have been found to be misusing the information.  What then, is the harm in sharing the same with our own government?

Some are wary, and are nudging others to be fearful of the intentions of the government.

We are a vibrant democracy. We have proved it repeatedly. If there is a trust deficit, when time comes, people at the helm can be voted out of power as easily as they were voted in; and others, with ‘better’ credentials can be made to replace them. If something has been done unconstitutionally, it can likewise be undone.

The constitution itself is but a document compiled by humans; there are ways to rephrase it, amend it to meet the demands of the changing times.

That said. I am still confused and undecided on the issues causing so much consternation. Until, I form an opinion, I have decided to continue to be neutral. For, in this bitter winter the hottest corners of hell (reserved for neutral people) might still provide some comfort.

I pray to God to grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. In my own small way, I have taken it upon myself to urge people––regardless of their stand on the issue––to refrain from burning buses, pelting stones and causing disruptions. I firmly believe that any increase in my ilk is sure to help smother a smouldering India. In the final analysis, whichever side prevails, we all will have to pay for the senseless losses the country is incurring today.

A Mender of Soul

Sitting on the corner of D-Block Market of Sector 27, Noida is a mender of soles. Since the days of Julius Caesar, and before, people have called a person in that profession, a cobbler. Yesterday when I went to him for a minor repair work, I saw a half rusted last that had apparently not been put to much use in the last many years. A torn hundred-rupee note lay half dead next to the last.

At long last

The adhesive he was using to revive ‘Gandhiji’ was the same as the one he uses to repair the soles for people. He calls it ‘solution’.

I wished his ‘solution’ could repair the souls of the country’s people, and the economy, too.

He took nearly fifteen minutes to do my work and demanded Rs 10/-. I took out my wallet to pay him when I saw his children playing in his ‘shop’ which measured not more than four feet by four––a girl in school uniform, and a boy.

I felt a lump even as I paid the man Rs 20/- and told him to keep back the change.

One would be miserable if one were to take such things to heart. With a little deliberate effort, I managed to erase that memory for there were other things on my mind. A day to go, I was still waitlisted on the train to Bhopal; I was eagerly looking forward to being with my folks. I had not yet received the RC Book of my new car; I was praying to get an odd number. Why ‘odd’? Elementary, my dear Watson!

Television news and the Whatsapp messages were full of rage, discussing the recent rapes and murders. There was a deluge of solutions––hang them; chop their arms; improve policing; treat everyone equal; fast track the process…. I switched off the set.

No uniform; no school

I slept soundly, but certainly, not peacefully. Was I becoming immune to what was happening around me? 

This morning I had to get some photos printed. I was back in the same market. The lab attendant at Anjalis was busy so I took a walk to while away the time.

As luck could have it, I crossed the same cobbler again. He looked at me with an expression that said, “So you’re here again?” I exchanged half a smile and was about to pass on when I saw his children playing like the previous day. Without actually wanting to get an answer, I asked him, “Kids, haven’t gone to school?”

“Sir, only my daughter goes to school. She has one set of uniform. She has not gone to school because it has been washed. She’ll go tomorrow.”

“How much does a uniform cost? You must ensure that your child does not miss school….” I knew, those questions and sermons were meaningless.

He shed a tear when I placed a currency note on his palm, ‘requesting’ him to get another set of uniform for his child.

I had found a way to spend the extra penny I make by writing.

Who knows: “A child going to school today might be a criminal less in the street tomorrow.”

Apostrophe Catastrophe and the Impending Tsunami

The iToon in today’s (Monday, December 2, 2019) Times of India struck a chord.

Tongue Twisters of Sorts

For many years, I was hesitant ordering food in restaurants. I owed that behaviour to my inability to pronounce the exotic names of some of the equally exotic dishes. To me their names were tongue twisters. They still are.    

I am reminded of Mr Jagjit Singh, our French Professor at the School of Foreign Languages (SFL); he retired two years ago. A true teacher to the core, he had an agenda beyond teaching us how to read, speak and write––he wanted us to learn how to ‘communicate’. A near hundred per cent daily attendance, and a high degree of punctuality through the year was a tribute to his ability to elicit interest.

One Tuesday morning after exchanging the usual niceties, he posed a simple question to the class: “Est-ce mardi? (Is it Tuesday?).”

He turned to Amit Mittal (name changed) for an answer. Amit was a young engineer about to join a French power tools company, was at the SFL to learn the language, which would stand him in good stead later in his career. The young man scratched his beard, which he had started sporting to look like the French novelist, Émile Zola. Not to talk of the round lenses of his specs––equally French. Forget the looks, words evaded his lips.

As if to throw a hint, a smiling Jagjit Singh, looked at the calendar hanging from a nail on the wall and repeated the question: “Est-ce mardi?” There was an extra effort to pronounce the letter ‘r’ in ‘mardi’, the way French pronounce it.

Murmuring grew in the class because almost everyone knew the ‘expected’ answer: “Oui, c’est mardi.” (Yes, it is Tuesday). The names of the days of the week and the months of the year were taught to us three days ago––most of us knew them by heart. Therefore, the question was a no-brainer.

When he couldn’t bear the whispering around him anymore, he nodded in a universally accepted gesture that conveys: “Y-E-S.”

The class exploded into laughter. Prof Jagjit Singh waited for us to calm down. And when the class became quiet, he asked us the reason for the laughter. A girl sitting in the front row, still giggling said, “The answer is: ‘Oui, c’est mardi’.”

Prof Jagjit Singh: “What did Mr Amit say?”

The girl: “He just nodded.”

Jagjit Singh, a little seriously, “What do you think that meant?”

The girl replied rather reluctantly and grudgingly, “Of course, it meant ‘Y-E-S’… but he didn’t say the full sentence: “Oui, c’est mardi.”

Without ado, Jagjit Singh explained the importance of learning a language. He said it is to communicate with people: “The aim of learning a language is to share ideas. For a communication to be effective, the receiver (of the communication) must understand the intention of the initiator of the communication and give a feedback to that effect; and act accordingly, if possible. In this case, I asked a question; all of you, including Mr Amit Mittal understood my question; and all of us understood what he conveyed by nodding his head.”

Then smiling again at Amit and addressing the entire class he said, “Notwithstanding your ability to share thoughts with gestures and pictures, it is always advantageous to know the right words and expressions. That enhances your ability to communicate.” Through his small monologue he impressed upon us that most important purpose of learning a language (i.e., to communicate) must remain uppermost in the minds as people go along building a vocabulary and learning the grammar.

That pearl of wisdom from Prof Jagjit Singh is a valued possession of all his students.

To the chagrin of the language purist similar realisation is dawning on people. In the latest instance, the ‘Apostrophe Protection Society’ has eased its grip on the use of the APOSTROPHE, the little thing that hovers above the letters and hides at the end of words and keeps confusing people. As per Duncan Kennedy (of the BBC), John Richards, the 96-year chairman of the Society––having agonised over the issue for two decades––has given up the struggle to revive this endangered species of punctuation marks.

The apostrophe catastrophe is a gimme, to say the least. The lingua franca of sms, Twitter and WhatsApp will ensure it and take more toll of spoken and written language. The changes that are causing ripples will turn into big waves some day, if not, tidal waves or tsunamis. To nod (due to ignorance) and watch, would not be a good choice.

The sooner one picks up the jargon and the grammar of the emerging language(s), the better of one would be in the New World. 

Stumbling on a Purpose at 60

Like any other day, I woke up early and got down to my routine; brushed, and made myself a cup of tea. I felt a pleasant nip in the air when I opened the door to fetch the newspaper. Soon it’d be winter. There was no breeze; a thick layer of dust had settled on the leaves. People like robots had started walking the street in front of our house––the safaiwallahs, the housekeeping staff and the sleepy guards trudging or riding rickety bicycles enthusiastically to handover charge and go home. A dog yawned, another peed on the revered Tulsi plant from which, thanks to Baba Ramdev, passers-by have been plucking leaves to ward off many known and unknown diseases; some others barked, exercising their lungs. A bird chased by a dog, chirped and hopped from a branch to another as it mocked its canine adversary.

Champagne in his elements

It was like any other day.

Then came Champagne, running. He licked my hand as I bent down to pick up the newspaper. He was all over me, wagging his tail. He calmed down and sat by my side only when I gave him a caress that he considers his birth right. Champagne is an affectionate stray who stakes claim (with authority) on the membership of our family.

Chhaya, all smiles, walked in as I settled down to read the newspaper. “Good morning dear,” she said as she gave me a warmer-than-usual hug. “Happy birthday! Many happy returns of the day….” She was lavish with her wishes. “So, now you are a senior citizen…. Unh!” She added with a meaningful, yet guileless smile. With that, not only did she make my day but also triggered a chain of serious thoughts.

Now, I was 60. I had heard a lot about the woes of the elderly. Most of them related to issues concerning health and relationships. A major concern was finding a suitable job to remain ‘occupied’.

I realised, I had been happy blogging, reading, writing odd articles, and editing books. A lecture here, a seminar there, or a talk to students/ young officers once in a while had been keeping me occupied. Since it is fashionable to be working after retirement, I have broken my vow (of not picking up a nine-to-five job) and have consented to being an adjunct faculty in a College––to share my life’s experiences with students, twice (emphasis added on ‘twice’) a week. Period.

Inspired by my late nonagenarian father’s zeal to learn, and motivated by my niece Swati, I am also planning to enrol into a ceramic art class. I wonder if I’ll be left with time to do more things concurrently.

Sharpening the brain?

Everything looks yellow to a jaundiced eye.

As if the thought of being a Senior Citizen came to me to stay, and nag––a news item in The Times of India that day read: “For sharp memory in old age play a lot of board games.” “Why board games?” I question that finding as I do so many others. I vie with Chhaya to grab the newspaper and solve Sudoku, Kakuro, Hitori, Spellathon and Jumble. We solve them not because researchers say solving puzzles sharpens the brain, but because we enjoy both––haggling for the newspaper supplement, and then solving the puzzles. Besides, for several years now, Lumosity, a set of online brain games has been keeping our grey matter in good condition. Another habit––playing rummy and a few other card games before hitting the sack, keeps our minds active.

A set of stretching exercises, as I listen to the BBC News podcast, is the next ritual of the morning. Incidentally, a news item on my birthday had to do with the life and woe of a senior citizen. A burglar who had made a forced entry into an 82-year lone woman’s house was thrashed and clobbered by the lady after she blinded him with hand wash until the cops arrived. Bravo! I am inspired!

Family and extended family apart, friends don’t look for reasons to get together––we meet fairly regularly. An occasional cup of thoughtfully brewed green tea with my NDA coursemate, JK Kaushik in the afternoons is another ritual I look forward to. Arun and Prashant both of whom I had met during a train journey (1993) are best of friends, a phone call away. Akhilesh Mishra, whom I met at the reception of CLOVE Dental Centre, is another friend I just added to my list.

Blissful on railway platform

In the last few days, I have come across children who have nudged me to think. Last month I saw two children (about six years of age) lying on a sheet on a platform of Nizamuddin Station, glued to the screen of a mobile phone. Their mother was breast-feeding a third one. I pitied them. Then, more recently, at the Wedding Asia Exhibition, I came across children playing video games on mobile phones; their ‘educated’ parents were engrossed in appreciating flashy haute couture presented by reputed designers. At least one of those children wore glasses with thick cylindrical lenses. Need I elaborate?

Engrossed

In another instance, in different circumstances, a wretched boy, barely ten, nose running, sitting in a roadside puncture repair shop where I was getting a flat tyre repaired, drew my attention. Vidhyanshu’s school had been closed due to heavy air pollution in the area. I felt sad for him. I certainly did not expect him to think about making up the loss of studies sitting at home or in that shop. I got into a conversation with him and, while at it, I made a paper ‘bird’ (origami) that could flap its wings. I do it quite often. Happiness was writ large on his face when I gave him the bird for keeps. Then I gave him a pen to write his name on a piece of paper, which he did fairly legibly. I was trying to relive one of my childhood memories when I appreciated his handwriting, and told him to keep the pen. I could read on his cheerful face, he was thinking of more possibilities with paper (origami). He displayed a great sense of pride in getting a pen as a reward for writing his name legibly. Nose still running, his unadulterated smile was a big reward for me. The incident gave me a purpose in life––60th birthday was but a catalyst that helped me crystallise my thoughts.

A precious smile

Post that incident, Chhaya and I decided to skip my birthday bash; and share some time cheering the underprivileged students of a school run by an NGO. Some origami, an odd magic trick, some eatables and a hamper of items of stationery, is what we have in mind.

That much on ‘stumbling upon a purpose on my 60th birthday’.

An epilogue of sorts…

A reward

We had a quiet dinner on my birthday––just the two of us. Chhaya presented me with an automatic car. “I hope now you’ll have no excuse to skip a game of golf due to your joint pain?” She had said slyly eluding to the excuses I make to skip golf. She believes that driving an automatic will help relieve my joint pain.

What more do I need at 60?

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.)

Adrenaline Comes to #MeToo

My day started with physical training, as usual. BBC News podcast was playing on my mobile phone by my side. The reporter was all praise for a remote village of the Indian State of Haryana where the male-female ratio had improved greatly in favour of females. The issue was being talked about as a matter of great achievement for a state that had, for years been rated low on issues concerning women.

A chirpy old woman talked of Goddess Lakshmi being born (and being ‘welcomed’) in their family. I appreciated her joy, although I have reservations about that welcome to Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. I very rarely hear of a new-born being welcomed as Goddess Saraswati or Durga. My prejudice apart, the women who were spoken to, gave credit to Prime Minister, Narendra Modi’s initiative: “Beti Bachao; Beti Padhao.”

It’s a pleasant change, yet there’s a long way to go.

Then, in between the exercises, I did something which I had stopped doing after I read ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport (I very strongly recommend this book to one who wants to cram more hours in one’s day; and to get better control of one’s activities.). I clicked open the Whatsapp application a second time before noon. And, lo and behold, I saw a video that had gone viral. A lady officer of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) had resigned from ITBP as a deputy commandant (several months ago). The video of her interview to a media-person had gone viral. She was complaining of (sexual) harassment. She seemed to have taken up cudgels on behalf all women in uniform. She wanted to stop the rot and overhaul the system.

Enraged, I was. The emotion lasted a long minute. Then it withered away. Thoughts of similar (‘similar’ as different from ‘identical’) cases flashed past my mind wherein the accused were proved innocent. Much against my impulse to believe the lady officer, I forced myself to take a neutral view and moved on with my morning chores.

ITBP in the service of the nation

Then, with a sense of déjà vu, I saw a post in the newspaper, obviously sponsored by the ITBP: “ITBP Salutes the Nation on its 58th Raising Day.”

“Forget the glorious past,” I thought, “It would be a mammoth task for ITBP to undo the damage caused by the lady officer’s video gone viral.” Besides, whatever might be the outcome of the inquiry in this case (I wonder if it has already been done, and matter ‘closed’), the incident (the viral video) will have far-reaching effect on the intake and treatment of women in the military and the paramilitary forces. On that count, I foresee knee-jerk reactions all over––within the forces, men will start maintaining an arm’s distance from women. I am already hearing people saying, “Who will send their daughters to join the armed forces now?” People are passing judgement and verdict without trial, “Such men must be castrated! They must be made specimen of.” “The laws must be made more stringent.” “We have the laws but implementation is poor….”

There’s an opinions galore, most of which suggests enactment and enforcement of stricter and more nuanced laws and deterrence by way of severer punishment as remedy for the ailment. To my mind, all these suggestions are excellent suggestions, but in some ways they recommend locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. In any case, the government and the judiciary will take care of that aspect.

If only stringent laws, severe punishments and forceful implementation could lower crime rate the world would have been a much safer place ‘as of yesterday’. On the contrary, the crime rate of all sorts, including those against women, is on the rise. More important than good laws and severe punishments is the need of change in the mind-set––more of men, than of women. Sermonising and education can influence people and bring about positive behavioural changes in them but a more effective thing would be if the changes come about from within.

Adrenaline comes to #MeToo

Just when I was wondering: “What could be the way,” I received a message on the Whatsapp––it was a joke. It read: “In a competition, the challenge was to express peacefulness, happiness and calmness in a single sentence. The winning entry was: ‘My wife is sleeping.’”

Had I received the same joke (say) a month ago, I would have laughed and shared it with my contacts (including women friends) on Whatsapp. It didn’t happen this time. I didn’t share it; deleted it. I had decided to make a conscious effort to prevent the spread of material that makes fun of, or demeans, women even if, in the smallest of ways. That would be a very small step in the positive direction; it’s not too late in (my) life. Sharing material, which shows them in positive light, as persons in control of their lives and the environment around, could happen simultaneously.

I am not alone in this awakening at a late stage in life (I’ll turn 60 next month). I read today, that Asterix has been inspired likewise. For the first time in its 60-year history––thanks to the duo of Jean-Yves Ferri and Didier Conrad––the magazine has got its first female hero, Adrenaline.

Adrenaline coming to #MeToo is good news.

More are welcome to jump on the slow, but steadily moving bandwagon!

Candlelight Dinner

It was their big day.

In the forenoon, Gurinder and Pammi had finalised the deal for the two-bedroom flat overlooking the Yamuna in the Supernova Towers right next to the Okhla Bird Sanctuary Metro Station. Their ears had made a ‘chitchat’ sound when they had come out of the lift on the breezy 67th floor. Oops! It was like taking a small hop flight in an aircraft. The balcony provided an awesome view of Delhi. The meandering Yamuna with its green banks; metro, resembling a toy train; the Delhi-Noida-Delhi Expressway, the miniature cars; the Lotus Temple and what have you––an enlarged Google map.  Only two flats per floor meant sufficient privacy. Their offices in Sector-127 would literally be at a handshake distance––no more pulling hairs in the unruly traffic. They had reasons to be euphoric about the deal. It was a-dream-come-true.

It called for a celebration.

So very relaxed, they spent the evening whiling away their time in the DLF Mall of India. At 8 pm, they were at L’affaire. From the open-air restaurant on the seventh floor of the newly commissioned hotel in Sector 18, they would be able to see their soon-to-be Sweet Home.

With a gloved hand placed neatly and deliberately on his red cummerbund, the magnificently accoutred burly durbaan, bent at his waist to welcome the two. He opened the door gracefully to usher them in with a smile that looked absolutely out of place on his rugged face with thick black eyebrows and sideburns, and a handlebar moustache.

A smartly dressed floor manager smiled at them from behind the counter near the entrance; he was busy talking on his mobile phone. Despite his smile, he was visibly hassled. Only five tables were occupied by customers; there wasn’t much rush. Subdued light and Kenny G’s Songbird playing softly in the background were providing the perfect ambience for a candlelight dinner they had fantasised through the afternoon.

They had barely settled in their chairs in the far end of the restaurant when a young man in whites, in his early twenties, came running to their table. Although dishevelled, he wore a smile, and a genuine one in that. He had a small crystal-glass flower vase in one hand and an ornate candle stand in the other. His greeting––“Good evening Ma’am, good evening Sir”––turned out to be an exercise in apology as he almost stumbled and placed nay, slammed his wares on the table. Mumbling an apology, he made a couple of clumsy attempts to light the candle. And before one could say, Jack Robinson, he was gone.

Gurinder and Pammi looked at each other. “Did we bargain for this sort of service when we chose to dine her?” They seemed to say. And before they could exchange any words, the man returned. With two glasses filled with water on a tray. He was still in some kind of hurry––he managed to spill some water on the table.

Another genuine “S-O-R-R-Y.” But Pammi was furious. Her lips quivered as if to spew some harsh advisory. But he had vanished again before she could vent her anger. Gurinder took charge and signalled her to calm down. “Let’s not spoil our evening. We’ll not tip this guy and will never return to this joint,” he said.

Their minds were on a different trip when the waiter returned with the menu. They ordered food half-heartedly. They observed that there were only two waiters serving all the guests in the restaurant. They were like butterflies fluttering from table to table, taking orders and serving. This made Gurinder and Pammi feel deprived of their rightful services.

It happened so gradually….

The flickering flame of the candle consumed the dreams the two had woven through the day. Like the black smoke of the candle burning silently between them, their aspirations got lost in the thin air. The silhouette of Supernova Towers, which was looking so charming when they had arrived on the terrace, lost appeal. The switch over from their discussion on their dream house to the subject of deteriorating quality of food and services in restaurants happened quite naturally. Kenny G too, lost its charm.

At the end of the dinner when the waiter suggested a layout of desserts, Gurinder declined rudely and gestured for the bill to be produced. In a huff he pulled out his wallet and even took out his credit card and waited impatiently to make the payment.

The waiter didn’t return; instead came the Floor Manager.

With hands joined in a namaste and a disarming smile he approached the table. “Sir, today four of our staff have been injured in a road accident. They have been taken to the hospital; nothing serious but they will take some time to be fit and join duty. Since we could not provide you with proper service, as we would have wanted to, the food is on us. You needn’t pay the bill.” Then with a pause he added, “In fact Sir, the wife of the waiter who was serving you is also indisposed; he was on leave. But he surrendered his leave to help us tide over the crisis. He is a very sincere guy; full of initiative. I hope he looked after you well? Thank you for visiting us. We hope to see you again! Good night Ma’am, good night Sir!”

(Author’s Note: This story is inspired by the Forum conducted by Landmark Education where they teach: “Actions are actions (they are meaningless); ‘we’ attach meaning to them.”)

‘Spirited’ Mind and a Woman!

Results of researches have telling effect on ‘spirited’ minds. If the researches have their origin in the West, in the Americas, in particular, their findings and conclusions are looked at with even greater awe––seldom questioned. “If a pearl of wisdom comes from that half of the world, it must a gospel truth.” This sort of reverence to things western doesn’t really matter so long as it moulds social behaviour favourably in other parts of the world. Now look at this one, which caused a little tsunami in the bar next-door yesterday and swept one away.

The three had got together for a usual round of drinks. It was a ritual they followed once a week; and each of them had the tacit approval of their better halves for it. They had barely downed their first small when the banner scrolling past on the large 55-inch LED screen caught Kapil Malhotra’s eyes:

“Women Who are Stressed During Pregnancy More Likely to Have Girl Child, Claims Study.”

He couldn’t but draw the attention of the other two towards the screen. They turned their heads and were all ears. It was science news. The news caster said with a straight face: “A study by researchers led by Catherine Monk at New York-Presbyterian/ Columbia University Irving Medical Center has concluded that women with high physical (or physiological) stress gave birth to four boys for nine girls, a ratio of 4:9. In case of mental stress, the conception ration of boys to girls was 2:3. According to Ms Monk, wombs are an influential ‘first home’ for babies and conditions of the womb deeply impacted the sex and health of the foetus. Women who undergo stressful pregnancies are more likely to give birth to a female child rather than a male.” After a pause, she added, “The research brings out that traumatic events have been known to affect the male birth rates. President Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City were cited as examples. The research has re-iterated the age-old wisdom that trauma sometimes results in premature childbirths and discontinuance of pregnancies, in extreme cases. Therefore, providing moms-to-be with adequate care and understanding in the families and workplaces was important for healthy pregnancies.”

That triggered the ‘intellectual’ (if it can be called that) discussion that ensued.

Karan Juneja was the first to open his mouth, “I read in the Washington Post some years ago that overall, there are slightly more men than women in the world. According to 2015 estimates by the United Nations, there are 101.8 men for every 100 women, with the number of men rising gradually each year since 1960.”

He paused for a while till the other two absorbed what he had just said, and continued, “Does that mean that women are generally happy the world over and becoming happier by the day?”

It was time to order another drink. Each was for a ‘large’ this time, as the interest grew in the subject under discussion. Somewhere in the process, the ‘during pregnancy’ part of the research was left out. The correlation that lingered in the three minds now was between ‘women’s state of mind’ and the ‘sex of the babies.’ It was like: ‘Happy women give birth to boys; stressed women, to girls.’ Period.

For once, the three were on the same side, supporting each other with crumbs of wisdom. While the other two were munching peanut-masala and Uncle Chips and the barman was busy putting ice cubes in the third lot of drinks, Ajith Aiyar took time to quickly surf the net on his recently acquired One Plus Seven smartphone. He discovered that a map by the Pew Research Center with recent UN data suggested that men and women are distributed unequally around the globe. In former Soviet republics, for example, women outnumbered men. There are more men than women in Asia, Arab countries and Northern Africa.

So?

“Women in Russia and the former Soviet Republics are the most stressed in the world because in those countries, the sex ratio favours women. They are happier in Asia, Arab countries and Northern Africa,” Ajith put forward his point.

More wisdom flowed out as more single malt flowed in. By the time they parted at midnight, Karan, otherwise so eloquent had become unusually silent. Something was playing on his mind as his thoughts ran way ahead of his staggering feet. He had drawn an odd extra conclusion, and taken a decision, based on the evening’s discussion in the bar.

He surprised a sleepy Sheela with an unprecedented warm embrace when she opened the door for him. “What had brought about that change in Karan,” she wondered, as she adjusted the blanket over their year-old daughter sleeping blissfully in her cot.