Women of Substance

सैर कर दुनिया की ग़ाफ़िल, ज़िन्दगानी फिर कहाँ? ज़िन्दगानी ग़र रही, तो नौजवानी फिर कहाँ?

This couplet in Urdu––please do not mind the spellings––nudges one to travel around the world while one is (still) alive, for life would mean less (nothing) in old age.

Although I do not go out of my way visiting places, I try to live up to the spirit expressed by the poet and try to make the best of the opportunities that come my way. And, I love to travel by rail rather than by air. Time spent travelling in the train is fun. Sometimes it is more memorable (and enjoyable) than arrival at the destination. The same is true about life too––the struggle and toil that one goes through in life, is as enjoyable, if not more than the achievement of the goal. A journey is a period of time, it is dynamic. The achievement of goal is, but a stationary point. Talking of train journeys––two of my best friends are the people I met during one such memorable journey more than a quarter of a century ago. Arun! Prashant! Are you listening?

I always carry a book when I travel. But lately, the opportunities to flip pages have become rare. There are enough books to read in the faces of people around you. Thanks to the media (social media, included) people are so opinionated and so articulate these days that it is difficult to concentrate and read a line because of the cacophony that surrounds you. When an issue is debated, it becomes difficult to stay neutral. People nudge and tip you to one side of the fence even if you don’t have the knowledge, let alone an opinion, on a subject.

In those regards, my last train journey from Nizamuddin to Ujjain to visit my nonagenarian mother was no less memorable; I carried back a life’s lesson from it. My co-passengers were three men and four women––a balanced crowd, devoid of gender bias. The ages of the men are not all that important; the women were ‘going to be’ senior citizens in a year or two. This revelation came when the conductor made a round and it was revealed that they had availed the concession, which is due to senior citizens (women aged 58 years or more).

The men sat silently; the women were chirpy––talking and cracking jokes. They were less mindful of the people around. Nonetheless in polite meaningless conversation, it emerged that they were a part of a larger ‘women only’ group (nearly a dozen or more travelling by the same train) visiting Ujjain and the nearby places of tourist interest. Their visit to the holy city had nothing to do with their religious beliefs. They were just going sightseeing.

More about them…

That rare species of genuinely happy humans had got together and embarked on this excursion; they had been visiting places similarly for several years now. They had been abroad in the yesteryears. They said that they were through with their commitments in the sense most Indians look at life. Their children were married and well settled in life with respectable jobs. The husbands? Well, they too were happy doing what they were doing.

They appeared to be working ladies in Government jobs travelling on Leave Travel Concession (LTC). A little more familiarity led to a revelation. They were all working for MTNL/ BSNL. They were travelling at their own expense, not on LTC. They had not received their pay cheques for some months and to add to their woes, there was a move to lower their retirement age. There were some glitches with the Voluntary Retirement Scheme (VRS) too.

Surprisingly, there was no trace of grief that one would normally associate with people in such a state––no pay for months and uncertain future. Their only ray of hope was––the union leaders being true to themselves and finding an amicable solution. If the union leaders fell for any personal allurement by the management/ government, all of them would face doom.

“Why were they, the MTNL/ BSNL, a one time Nav Ratna Company, in such dire straits?” queried a curious listener.

“Sir, for years we (MTNL/BSNL) have been getting a raw deal, a stepmotherly treatment. Successive governments have tried to clip our wings. We were not allowed  to partcipate (actually ‘forbidden’) when 4G spectrum was auctioned. Now even though we give unlimited data, other private companies are preferred because although they offer very little data, they provide much higher speeds (4G). We have enviable assets, which are rotting. If the government has decided to favour the private players over us, so be it. They can go ahead and sell our assets and give us our pay.” With passion they continued to talk in turns. “Now that we do not have 4G we’ll not be eligible to go in for 5G although our R&D people are already working with some world leaders on 7G technology.”

One of the ladies showed a video clip on her mobile in which someone was trying passionately to elucidate how MTNL/BSNL were unscrupulously marginalised.

Their arguments were Greek and Latin to us. And honestly, we didn’t care. We were satisfied with our Jio and Airtel connectivity. Without going into the depth of what those ladies were saying, we tended to believe that MTNL/BSNL were paying for their poor performance. Period!

Did they care what we thought about MTNL/ BSNL or about them? Or, what was in store for them? Not the least.

Women of Substance

Those exuberant women were joined by many others of their ilk when they disembarked at Ujjain Junction. None would have believed that they were going through a crisis of their lifetime with no end in sight. “We want to live life today and now,” said one of them. “Tomorrow when we retire, we’ll go and settle down in different parts of the country and might not get an opportunity to be together ever again.”

Never seen women of such substance, such grit. God was perhaps reading my lips when I picked up my bags to proceed homeward: “Oh God! Give them their due, and more.” I had prayed.

A week later, lost in the din of the UN Climate Summit and Howdy Modi, there are two news items.

One, a threat from a foreign vendor: “Won’t invest more if denied 5G permission, says Huawei.” Is it going to be another nail in the coffin of BSNL/MTNL?

Two, a relief to the deserving: “BSNL pays August salaries to staff: CMD.”

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.

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.