For Banwarilal, Life Goes on Regardless

A lot of water has gone past the bridge since I met Banwarilal last. Today, I met him after more than eight months. I saw him sitting at the place where I used to drop him whenever I happened to give him a lift in the past. I pulled up by his side to say, “Hi!”

“Hello Banwarilal, how are you doing? Tired today? Relaxing here before you resume your walk home?”

“I am doing fine, Sir. Not really tired but barely able to walk,” he said with a diminishing smile.

“What happened?”

“Life has been difficult since we met last. A vehicle ran over my foot, crushing it almost. I was bedridden for several months. In the meanwhile I lost my job. Now, I am working for a contractor––more work, and less pay. Earlier I used to get Rs 9000/-, now it is a mere 7,500/-.”

“I feel sorry for you. I hope your son is doing well enough to take care of the family?”

Banwarilal.jpg“He has also suffered much setback. He can barely support himself and his wife. Our lives are in a mess.” He massaged his foot as he spoke to me. A chill ran down my spine when I saw the scar marks on his foot.

I had no doubt that he had gone through hell.

“Uhmm,” I encouraged him to continue, hoping that it would make him feel lighter.

“Now, I have only one desire––to be able to repay a loan of Rs 40,000/- before I die. If I don’t pay it,” he looked at the sky and continued, “I’ll have to settle the score up there.”

I stood speechless for a period that felt like an eternity. He had refused monetary help last time I had offered him cash. Would he accept it this time on?

I re-mustered my thoughts and offered to give him some money to repay part of his debt. I thought his hardship might have changed his outlook to such unconditional assistance.

Smile returned to his face, “Thank you Sir, for that generous offer, but I don’t want to be in debt of a kind person like you. God willing, I shall be able to settle all my debts before I knock at His door.”

I didn’t want to leave it at that so I continued talking with him for some more time, clicked a picture (something that will inspire me in the times to come). He told me that he takes a break everyday at that spot between 5:00 pm and 5:30 pm before resuming his walk back home.

I bade him goodbye, hoping to meet him again. Soon.

On my agenda now, is to work up an offer that he cannot decline when we meet next. I owe it to him for teaching me some of the good things in life.

 

 

Chivalry in the Times of #MeToo

It was in Kanpur, some time in the early 1990s. Two of my men approached me to preside over and settle their dispute. Warrant Officer Mishra alleged, “Warrant Officer Tiwari (both names changed) is jealous of me because my son has graduated as a commissioned officer of the Indian Air Force.”

“So what?” I wondered.

I didn’t have to wait long for an answer. “Sir, he says that officers are characterless people. During their mess parties they go around hugging each other’s wives and even dance with them. It offends me because (now) my son is an officer.” Mishra added.

A little scratching of the surface was enough to reveal what was in Tiwari’s mind. Years ago, when Tiwari was a corporal, he used to be deputed to install and operate the PA and the music systems for formal parties in the Officers’ Mess. Because he came from a modest rural background, where women stayed indoors and performed household chores, he found the behaviour of the officers and the ladies inappropriate.

It wasn’t his fault.

It being a stricture against the officer-community, I felt ineligible to preside over the dispute. I brushed aside the case saying, “I expect you warrant officers to be mature. Now, get going and mind your personal businesses.” I felt educating Tiwari at that point in time could be counter-productive. Such an action would not guarantee success in moulding his concretised perception.

All through my service since that day, I have consciously devoted time and effort to educating my men on gender issues.

The #MeToo movement and the issues of gender equality that have inundated the media (social media included) have served as a recall of the Mishra-Tiwari dispute for me. Here is a peep into officer-lady relations in the armed forces.

Chivalry IMG_1695An officer, and a gentleman, stands up to greet a lady on her arrival. He does not address her by her first name unless she approves of it. A gentle hug or a peck on the cheek is purely a personal matter between two individuals. The ladies––young and very young, girls and even children) have a sixth sense. They know when a touch is inappropriate––they can distinguish well between a friendly gesture and a predatory move. This sixth sense is not unique to the ladies in the Armed Forces. That sense is universal. Besides, a lady is not obliged to display uniform level of familiarity with everyone she meets. The officers respect the freedom of the ladies to draw lines selectively for different people depending on their level of comfort.Chivalry 44

Don’t go by the optics. There’s a lot more to how men must carry themselves in the presence of ladies than mere opening the door, leading the way and talking softly in a their presence. Chivalrous is one word that summarises an officer’s behaviour in the presence of a lady. It is not the fear of punishment, which is severe for offences against women but the upbringing in the Armed Forces that spells the difference.

If the prevailing noise and din in the country confuses the youth, perhaps flipping the pages of the Customs and Traditions of the Armed Forces or meeting a gentleman and an officer will help.

The Akbar I Don’t Know

I have hardly known Mr MJ Akbar who is making news for the wrong reasons lately. I spoke to him once on the telephone, in the late nineties. He was with The Asian Age then. I gave him ten on ten for his manners and politeness. Then, for over a dozen and moreMJ Akbar years I have feasted on his articles in the print media––his analysis of the current national and international affairs is remarkable. I find his diction good, better than most others. Then, on two occasions, I have heard him live and found him to be a very eloquent speaker. My cognition has created a certain image of him––that of an intellectual. Period.

I think I still don’t know Mr Akbar. Do I need to know him? Well, I don’t think, I do. But what I am interested in is a discourse, which leads to improvement in the prevailing environment for women in the country in general, and the workplaces, in particular. I owe that approach to many I care for.

Something that started as a ripple a few days ago is metamorphosing into a tsunami of sorts. In its spate it has taken many big names, the likes of Nana Patekar, Alok Nath and of course, Mr MJ Akbar. Trial by the media has begun; verdicts on the basis of loud debates are already being splashed on the walls.

The lifestyles and work ethos of the people who are making the headlines are like closed books of Greek literature to many in the stands. The impression is that people involved, either do not understand the meaning of a clear ‘NO’, or blatantly exploit their power and position. One can only be a spectator until a designated court pronounces a verdict. Not really! Media reports of the last few days raise a valid question: “There is smoke; where is the fire?”

Beyond applause for daring to speak up against the treatment meted out to them in their workplaces these courageous women deserve the support due to them; a cheer less, for those who jumped on the bandwagon as an after thought. At the moment, some of the people who are speaking up appear to have axes to grind. Many others, who can, or must speak, and more importantly, whose voices matter, are silent. Are there skeletons that might tumble out of the cupboards if they broke their silence?

It is time for well-meaning people, people who are in the know of the working in those domains, to speak up. Dante has said, “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” That said, there is no reason to speak in favour or against an individual. People can speak on the issue of harassment in workplaces and how it needs to be addressed.

One last thought: Some in the media are using the epithet––Battle of the Sexes––while discussing these issues, which incite passions. Other expressions doing the rounds are picking up cudgels and, in similar context, demolishing the male bastion. People would do well to coin and use terms that bring the people (of the two sexes) to see in the same direction rather than be adversaries working for the same cause. There are enough people on both sides of the imaginary line who think alike. Their solidarity needs to be consolidated for whatever it is worth.

Out of the Blue into the Tree!!

“Out of the blue, into the tree,” is the Hindi equivalent of: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.” That is exactly what happened to me (the Hindi one) when I parachuted through the clear blue Goa sky on a fine January day in 1986.

It was a skydiving demonstration as a part of the Silver Jubilee Celebrations of the Liberation of Goa. I was in charge and leading a team of skydivers. The forecast winds were way beyond the performance characteristics of the parachute we were using, and the capabilities of the jumpers, to counter. Prudence demanded that I called off the demonstration jump. But then, the thought that organisers and the spectators would be disappointed impelled me to give it a try.

To our good luck, the winds died down absolutely by the time our helicopter came overhead to commence the drop. Flight Lieutenant Thapar from the ground control transmitted the position of the streamer (a piece of cloth that has the descent characteristics of a parachute) that I had dropped to judge the actual winds. The position of the streamer also confirmed gentle winds. It was safe to jump.

It was a clear blue sky and fine weather for a parachute jump but my mind was still clouded by the forecast of very strong winds. So, I decided to err on the positive side. I signalled thumbs up to the jumpers (to jump out) much upwind of the sports ground––where we were to land in front of the spectators––hoping that the winds would help them drift and make it to the target on the ground.

It was a mistake. Jumpers could barely make it to the sports ground––a few landed in the front of the spectators others landed scattered outside the ground. I was the farthest from the landing area. Tall trees welcomed me as I approached mother earth. Despite my best efforts to avoid them, I landed in a big one. My fall through the tree broke several branches before the suspension lines of my parachute got stuck and I was jolted to a stop. It was an uneasy feeling dangling ten feet above the ground.

In the time I took to take stock of the situation, several thoughts flashed past my mind.Burma Radio Operator The worst recall was that of the vivid account of a radio operator who had bailed out of a disabled aircraft over the thick forests of Burma during the Second World War. In a similar situation i.e., hanging from a tree, he was attacked by giant red ants. He tried to cut free of his parachute harness by shooting at its webbing with his service weapon. He shot himself with the last bullet when he failed to come out of the situation and the nuisance of the ants became unbearable. His skeleton was found hanging upside down in the parachute harness when the search and rescue team found him several moths later.

It was a silly recall. I was in a much better situation, less than half a kilometre from the ground. People would soon come looking for me. In any case, I did not wait for them. I followed the standard drill: I whipped open my reserve parachute and lowered it to the ground; carefully unfastened my parachute harness and slithered down to safety. Recovering the parachute was an arduous task.

That parachute jump in Goa is one of my most memorable ones for all the wrong reasons.

Clinking Goblets, Morsels of Love and Life

Like all who get married, Chhaya and I looked forward to a happy life ever after. Respect for each other, love, care… were fine––they were packaged neatly in the blessings, wishes and advice showered upon us. Discreetly though, some scared us with sacrifices (read compromises) people have to make for marriages to work. And of course, the added responsibilities and the little quarrels so typical to the people who dare tie the knot.

It was a tad scary.

We struck an understanding to understand each other and consign our differences, ifGoblets ever they cropped up, to the nearest waste bin at the first opportunity. We devised a pleasant way of weeding out undesirable moments before they could take roots. On rarest-of-the-rare days when we had higher-than-usual-decibel conversation, we clinked our crystal goblets and flushed down evil thoughts with a sip of fresh water. That ensured a clean slate and no baggage to carry on life’s journey.

Perpetually building on mutual respect, love and care is an even better way to avoid sorry situations. We don’t know how and when it commenced––at every meal together, we started offering the first bite to each other. We have now been doing it for over three decades. The unspoken words: “I love you” are embedded in the gesture.

It happened so gradually that we didn’t realise when the habit of offering the first morsel to each other elbowed away the need of clinking goblets for good.

Question of a Sabbatical

Another page from my dateless Delhi diary…

The date and the year are of less consequence; it was a hot April afternoon. I saw the three of them walking on the footpath in Subroto Park and offered them a lift. They got into the car hesitantly.

“Thank you Sir. I am Ravindra Sharma, he is my brother Navin and he is my son, Ajay (names changed),” one of them broke the ice as they settled in the car.

“I am Group Captain Ashok Chordia,” I introduced myself and asked, “Where do you want to go?”

“We have to board a train from Nizamuddin railway Station. It will be kind of you, if you could leave us at the nearest bust stop on your way,” he urged.

“The Station is on my way. I’ll leave you there.”

“So nice of you, sir.”

Then there was prolonged silence. The three sat quietly, perhaps not knowing what to talk about. I have experienced this type of a mix of reticent and introverted behaviour on the part of simple people in the presence of strangers. In the presence of service officers, the behaviour seems to be more pronounced.

It was going to be a fairly long (15 kms) drive along the Inner Ring Road and was going to take in excess of 30 minutes. Silence with four people sitting in the car would be menacing.

“You don’t seem to belong to Delhi?” I initiated a polite meaningless conversation.

“Sir, we belong to Kota. We were here for a counselling session for Ajay.”

“How was it? What does your son intend doing?”

“Just so. I am disappointed with his board exams result,” said the father with concern.

“What’s the matter?”

Books“Sir, he has scored 94 per cent marks. He just doesn’t read. If he studies properly, he can get more marks. He wants to do engineering. Why don’t you advise him, please?”

My jaw dropped. “Here is a father dissatisfied with his son scoring enviable marks, and he wants me to guide him? What advice do I render a kid who in my assessment is brilliant,” I wondered.

I did not want to disappoint the father so I continued talking. In a while I realised that the boy was very intelligent and could understand concepts rather fast. Therefore he used to take less time as compared to others to complete his assignments. Repetition used to bore him and that’s where his ideas conflicted with his father.

With much thought I came out with a piece of advice to him, “If you read more books of each subject you will have a deeper understanding of the concepts. Solving question papers and numerical problems from different books will give you a strong base. Lastly, if you still have time, devote it to improving your communication skills––an effort that will stand you in good stead, what ever you do later in life.” All three were listening to me intently.

“Sir, I’ll do as you have suggested,” assured Ajay.

“That’s good. You are capable of better performance and must try to exploit your ability to grasp things fast to broaden your knowledge base and communication skills.”

The father was happy with the interaction. At the railway station, I took him aside and advised him to give a freer hand to the boy to manage his studies. I told him that meddling with his approach to academics might be counter-productive.

The chapter was over, I thought.

Not really!

A month later, I received a call from Ravindra, “Sir, you have cast a magic spell on my son. He is a transformed being now. I want to thank you for making a difference.”

“I am happy to hear that. I hope he continues to work that way. Convey my good wishes to him.” We exchanged some niceties before disconnecting.

It was not over yet.

A few months later, I received another call from Ravindra, which put me in a very difficult situation. “Sir, I am in dire need of your advice. Ajay wants to take a sabbatical and prepare for IIT entrance examination. If he doesn’t get through, a year will be wasted. What shall we do?”

In a few seconds which seemed to last an eternity, I gave a thought to Ravindra’s request for advice. I realised that he had called me with great hope. I found it difficult to turn down his request. But then, what advice could I give him?

I collected my thoughts and organised them in the few seconds in which we exchanged less important information. Then I started, “Ravindra, our lifespan is 75 to 80 years if we lead a decent life. One year in a lifespan of 75-80 years is a small fraction; it is insignificant. If you allow, Ajay to have his way, he will put in his heart and soul in the preparation and, in all probability, he’ll get through. It will be great if that happens. If he doesn’t get through, the hard work that he puts in through the year will not go a waste. The knowledge that he will gain, will stand him in good stead in whichever college he joins subsequently. Besides, if he doesn’t make it to the IIT, he will come to know of his limitations. One last thing… if you let him take a sabbatical wholeheartedly and support him in his endeavour, without bothering about the end result, he will love and respect you more than he does now. I feel he deserves your willing support.” Ravindra thanked me profoundly for sharing my thoughts.

For the next few months, I waited eagerly to hear from him. There was silence.

Much later, when I had forgotten everything, Ravindra called me again. It was a courtesy call. “How do you do, Sir!? All’s well here. Ajay is doing very well. He’ll be an engineer soon. He joins me in conveying regards to you for all the valuable advice you gave us.”

“That’s heartening. What about the sabbatical? Did he take it? Did he get through to IIT?” I was curious to know.

“Sir, I gave him a free hand; told him to go ahead and take a sabbatical and prepare for IIT. But then he decided against it. He got admission in a college of his choice and a course of his liking. I’ll keep you posted of his progress.”

Ravindra has been calling me occasionally to share his little joys.

Damsel in Real Distress

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

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

“Are you in need of help?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t hers.

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

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

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

A few days later…

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

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

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