Beyond Work & Golf

Sapan Das.

My meeting with him was incidental. It (just) happened.

When I was posted to Tezpur in the December of 2000, I had to leave behind my family in Delhi to avoid disruption in our son’s studies. He was in the XI standard then, and had to appear in the board exams in the following year.

In the Exotic East it was rather difficult for a forced bachelor (that is the term commonly used in the Air Force for an Air Warrior separated temporarily from his family) to spend the time after work hours. I had taken to serious golfing to put my spare time to good use but then, there were days when weather stymied that effort.

It was one of those days when, although it was not raining, the golf course was flooded and I had little to do. So I started my scooter and headed aimlessly towards the sleepy town of Tezpur. I stopped en route to visit Sapan Das. I thought I’d buy one of those wooden rhinos sold at his complex. Normally I would have requested one of my colleagues to buy one for me.

Hidden from view, a little off the road among the trees was his set up. A better word would be ‘Ashram’––‘Ashram’, because he used to sculpt his masterpieces in that serene environment. He had mastered the art of carving a rhino in wood. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he could carve a rhino with his eyes closed. All his creations were identical to the minutest detail––only the size varied.

Sapan’s Masterpiece

Everyone posted in the region used to buy one for self and more for gifting. It was almost a ritual, and I had gone there to fulfil it.

In his hamlet among the trees, there was a low platform, half the size of a volleyball court, covered with a thatched roof. He sat there on the floor engrossed in chiselling a piece of wood. He greeted me with a smile and pointed at a cane chair opposite him.

“Dada, I have come to buy a rhino,” I said, as I sat down.

“Sure Sir, please choose one from those kept on the shelves,” he pointed at a rack. It amazed me that he was looking at me while his deft fingers worked unceasingly on his next masterpiece. Awestruck, I postponed the selection of a piece and sat down again in the chair and started observing the master.

I sat mesmerised for the greater part of an hour.

The spell broke when Sapan Das took a break. Otherwise a quiet person, he opened up when I made small talk over a cup of tea. He had won several national and international awards for his work. He had also been training youth in the area. A large number of them were learning the art from him. I sat for another hour looking at him work. I bought a rhino and returned to the Air Force Station only to come back to Sapan’s abode the next day.

Golf, my passion, had taken a back seat.

My second day at his premises: he was amused at me watching him work so intently. Soon it became a routine. I would visit him whenever time permitted and just watched him work. It used to be a soothing experience; next best to a round of Yoga.

Then, one day, I asked him, “Dada, why do you carve only rhinos? Why not any other thing?”

“Because it represents our region; it symbolises Assam. Besides, it sells and generates funds for me to train these children.”

“For a change, why don’t you carve something else?”

“What else?” He was quizzical.

“I’ll get something for you.”

Sapan’s New Creation

The next day, I brought a clay dog for him to copy. For him, it was a refreshing change. He got down happily to carving a replica. While he did so, I took a piece of wood with his permission and tried my hand at woodcarving with my Swiss Knife. This amused Sapan Das to no end. He encouraged me by giving me a chisel and a larger piece of wood to carry to my room and work on it in my own time.

My Maiden Effort

A few days later, when I went to collect the wooden dog, I surprised Sapan Das with my work––a statue of Ganesha. He was mighty happy with my maiden effort. He appreciated my work and wax-polished it for me.

A Professional Work by an Amateur

I continued visiting Sapan for the rest of my stay in Tezpur.

Observing me learning woodcarving, one of my men too got interested. He was talented and picked up the art really fast. I was delighted when he carved a miniature replica of Sapan’s iconic rhino, and presented it to me. Still later, he carved a large, 18-inch statue of Ganesha––an absolutely professional work by an amateur.

Sapan Das is one of the most unforgettable characters I have met in my life. Time spent at his abode, was time well spent. There I learnt that there was life beyond work and golf.

Abracadabra! Kids, Mahatma Gandhi and; the Freedom Struggle

We, humans like challenges. The children like them even more, particularly when they appear to be within their capacity to meet. Last summer, I was assigned the duty of engaging our grandnephew and grandniece––Aarav (5) and Dhwani (6)––while their parents went visiting their friends.

Although I accepted the assignment, I was a bit tired and wanted to take a nap before I could join them. But it didn’t work out my way and there I was, trying to keep the two kids entertained. I yawned like a dog as I narrated fairy tales, and tales of adventure to them. Soon they lost interest and became fidgety.

When sleep seemed to get the better of me, I came up with a stratagem. I promised to show them a magic trick provided they counted the hair on my head. They found the challenge amusing. Hesitant first, they looked at my balding head and spared a thought to considering the exciting proposal. Together they felt confident of counting the very few hair on my scalp. Then, of course, there was the lure of the Magic Trick that would follow.

The deal was done; I dozed off as soon as they began counting.

Poor little things! I must have slept for the greater part of an hour as they went through the exercise (read “ordeal”). They were still counting when I got up: “…2347, 2348, 2349, …”

Now it was my turn to fulfil my part of the agreement––to show them a magic trick. “Do you know Gandhiji?” I started with a preamble, as I had to keep them engaged for another hour before their parents returned. And then, without waiting for an answer, I described the greatness of the Father of the Nation. I took time to narrate the life of the great saint and the freedom struggle of India. I ended my monologue with: “Now I’ll show you his power.”

I took out a crisp two-thousand-rupee currency note and flashed it for them to see. “Whose picture do you see on that note?”

“Gandhiji,” they chorused.

Then I slipped the currency note in a long envelope as they watched curiously. I had cut windows in the envelope for the kids to be able to see the currency note kept inside. I held the envelope in front for them to see. With a pair of scissors in the other hand I said, “Now I’ll cut through the envelope but the currency note with the picture of Mahatma Gandhi will remain intact….” With a pause, I added, “That is the power of the Mahatma.”

“Abracadabra! Here I go!” With more theatrics, I chopped the envelope into two pieces and, lo and behold, the Mahatma remained unscathed. The note was still in one piece. The two clapped with joy.

Abracadabra! The power of the Mahatma!

It was a win-win situation. The kids thoroughly enjoyed my sleight of hand. They also had a gala time counting the hair on my head. I enjoyed my siesta. Above all, they learnt a few things about the Mahatma and India’s freedom struggle. Since the lesson was associated with spectacular magic, they’ll remember it for long.

Abracadabra!

Of “Butcher’s Bill” and Gallantry

The mission to rescue the Maldivian President (Operation Cactus, November 1988) was a race against time. The Indian troops had to cover 2600 kms (Agra to Hulule) and find him in the capital, Malé before the rebels could spot him on that small island measuring barely two square kilometres. If the rebels, led by Abdullah Luthufee were to find him before the Indian troops, and if they could gain control of Malé, then the rescue operation by the Indians would be construed as an act of aggression against a sovereign state. Besides, when the IAF aircraft landed at Hulule airport, a single gun-toting rebel lying in wait by the runway could have caused catastrophic damage to the rescue force.

India could have ill afforded a debacle in the Maldives following its setbacks in Sri Lanka in the preceding year. The stakes were very high. Most pundits, and strategic thinkers would have forecast failure on the eve of the Operation, yet the spectacular success of the Operation was met with relative disdain.

There was an opinion galore: Some compared Operation Cactus with the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade albeit with a twist in the tail, others found parallels with the kinds of Operation Eiche (the rescue of Benito Mussolini by the German paratroopers in 1943) and Operation Jonathan (popularly remembered as the Entebbe Raid––the rescue of over a hundred hostages by the Israelis in 1976).

Brigadier FFC Bulsara, the dynamic commander, who led the paratroopers in that Operation knew what his men had gone through and had recommended names of a few individuals for recognition of their gallantry. Grudgingly, very few of them were doled out decorations––hardly any for gallantry. Bulsara was observant enough to recognise the contribution of the then Indian High Commissioner, Mr AK Banerjee also. The diplomat had mustered the courage to join the task force (with apprehensions, of course) on the mission impossible. Needless to say, his presence did make a difference. But, Bulsara’s recommendation went unheeded. At a later date, he lamented the apathy of those at the helm for ignoring the deserving.

A Commander’s lament

As it seems, body bags elicit greater awe and emotion than victorious troops. In fact, when they head for the war-zone, people often bid the soldiers to ‘lay down their lives’ for the sake of the country. Perhaps, a tweak in the attitude towards the soldiers (and war-fighting) will make a huge difference to their morale (and to the outcome of their endeavour). Annihilate the enemy and return victorious!” will surely be a better wish for a soldier than die for the country.” Likewise, a greeting: You fought well! We are proud of you! might be a pleasant recognition of his effort.

That Feverish Feeling…Gone!

The other day I had a feverish feeling after an exhausting afternoon at work. I wanted to be horizontal as soon as I got back home. But then, hitting the sack before sunset makes me feel even more miserable; it has been ingrained in me that “Lethargy embraces those who sleep until after dawn or go to sleep when the sun’s still up.” I didn’t want to be more miserable than I already was. So, I avoided lying down, instead did a thing, which relieves me of such physical condition, always. I called my mother (nearing 90). Speaking with her is ever so refreshing.

“Charan Sparsh, Bai,” I said. “How are you doing? How’s your joint pain?”

“I am doing well. How about you? You don’t sound alright,” she said with concern.

“Nothing at all, just a bit feverish and exhausted. Will be fine soon.”

“Why don’t you try Peepli. It’ll relieve you.”

“Peepli?”

“It is in that small plastic box of home remedies I gave you. Chew one every three to four hours. Should do you good.”

I popped one Peepli and chewed it for a while until it became very soft, and then swallowed it. By next morning, I felt much better. I popped and chewed one after breakfast, and my fever was gone. I took another one later in the day and that feverish feeling was forgotten.

I was fit as a fiddle when my mother called later in the evening. I took the recipe of the home remedy from her in case I needed it again. Here it goes:

Step 1.  Soak some Peepli (Long Pepper) overnight in buttermilk, or curds diluted with water.

Step 2.  Next morning roll the Long Pepper in table salt.

Step 3.  Roast the (salted) Peepli on a hot plate (Tawa) until it is dry and crisp.

Disage: Chew one salted (and roasted) pepper three to four times a day to get over that feeling of exhaustion and fever. It works for most people. This home remedy for feverishness and exhaustion has no known side effects. (Note: Long Pepper (or Peepli/ Lendi Peepal) is available at shops (Sattar) selling Indian herbs.

Operation Cactus: The Indians did not sleepwalk into the Maldives!

A coup attempt in the Maldives in November 1988––by Abdullah Luthufee, a Maldivian businessman supported by the People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Elam––sent President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom into hiding. Malé flashed SOS messages to the US, the UK, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan seeking military assistance. While others took time to decide, India responded with concrete action.

It was a race against time––the Indian troops had to reach President Gayoom before the rebels could find him on Malé Island. If the rebels could find President Gayoom before the Indian troops, and if they could gain control of Malé, then the rescue operation would be construed as an act of aggression against a sovereign state. India could ill afford a failure in the Maldives after its setbacks in Sri Lanka in the year gone by.

The decision to launch an airborne operation 2600 kms away in the Maldives was a difficult politico-military choice. India’s pre-occupation in Sri Lanka did weigh heavily on the Indian Prime Minister’s mind. The advice and the confidence of the military leadership enabled him to give a ‘go ahead’.

In response to Delhi’s clarion call, the paratroopers got into action. The IAF airlifted them to rescue the President and secure the islands. The Indian Navy chased the rebels and forced them into surrender.

It is a fact that there were no maps; there was very little intelligence; the notice was short, …the men were scattered––the list of handicaps on the eve of the launch of Operation Cactus is long. Owing to the extreme uncertainties, most pundits, and strategic thinkers (of that time) would have forecast failure, nay a catastrophe. Three decades later, the opinions about Operation Cactus still fringe on disdain and indifference. The reason perhaps is the absence of well-researched material on the subject. Articles and books analysing the Operation are few and far between. The available literature throws light on small segments of the Operation. Many views are devoid of facts and informed analysis. It is no wonder then, that some people question the sanity of the very decision to embark on this mission. They feel that India could well have avoided going into the Maldives.

The fact is that the decision to go to the Maldives was deliberate and sufficiently contemplated––contingencies had been catered for, including abandoning the Operation and returning to Trivandrum, if the situation so demanded. The decision was followed up by prompt military action. The resources, and the capabilities were limited, but the ability to exploit those resources was tremendous––what was achieved was perhaps the best that could have been done under those circumstances.

The Indians did not sleepwalk into the Maldives.

TIME Magazine CoverOperation Cactus underscores three fundamental issues: One, success of military operations depends on innumerable factors. Two, all such factors cannot possibly align favourably, always. Three, success favours those who dare and act regardless. Operation Cactus is the saga of men determined to achieve ends despite all odds. It proved the prowess of Indian military and diplomacy alike and showcased India as an emerging Regional Power.

‘Harad’: A Potent Home Remedy

The medicine men of yore, and the elderly had an interesting way of bringing home the importance of flora and fauna that affected our lives. Here is one that talks (read, “boasts”) about the medicinal value of Harad, the dried fruit of a medicinal plant.

Harad Quote

Translated into English, this quote boasts that Harichika (the Sansktit name for Harad) is the mother of anyone who doesn’t have one. Boastfulness apart, Harad in its powdered form finds extensive use in Ayurveda. Here are two of its popular uses.

Cough: With the winter setting in and the air quality deteriorating, soreness and irritation of throat will be a common complaint. Harad powder mixed with an equal quantity of bee’s honey is said to relieve such condition. It is to be licked from a spoon several times a day to relieve throat irritation and soreness. A concoction of Harad and honey can be prepared and kept, and licked whenever there is irritation. For those, who do not take honey, Harad (a level teaspoonful) can be consumed with food (rice and chapatti etc.).

Constipation: Two grams Harad consumed with lukewarm water at night (before sleeping) is said to relieve constipation.

What is Harad? Harad is the common name of the fruit of a plant known by the botanical name, Terminalia Chebula. The other names are: Harichika (Sanskrit), Kadukkai (Malayalam and Tamil), Shilikha (Assamese) and Myrobalan/ Chebulic Myrobalan (English). It is found aplenty in the forests surrounding Pachhmari (MP) and elsewhere in India. Harad AttariIt is commonly available (as dark coloured wrinkled dried fruit) in Ayurvedic Medicine Shops and at Attar (typical shops run by the Bohra community in many towns and cities). It is also readily available in powdered form. Incidentally, Harad is one of the three ingredients of the magic potion, Triphala.

Preparing Harad Powder is easy: Take a handful of Harad (in dried fruit form) and roast for about ten minutes. Harad PreparationThere will be practically no change in the looks of the fruit. Add 5 grams of butter oil (Ghee) and continue roasting. Each fruit will start bloating and will acquire a smooth and bright appearance. In five minutes of adding butter oil (Ghee) all the fruits will turn into brightly coloured smooth looking nuggets. At that point stop roasting and let the contents of the pan cool to the room temperature. Grind the contents to a powder in a mixer/grinder. The powder will be chrome yellow/ light brown. Use the powder as per requirement.

(Note: The above facts about Harad are courtesy my parents who have been strong proponents of the use of home remedies. Botanical information on Harad is courtesy Mrs Rita Jain, a former Professor of Botany).