Grandma or Tom Sawyer!?

One of my all time favourite books is Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In particular, I remember the part published as a separate story titled Whitewashing the Fence. Briefly, Tom is assigned the job of whitewashing the fence by aunt Polly––something that he does not really like. He starts whitewashing the fence, but ultimately makes the other kids of his neighbourhood do the job for him. He sells the idea that whitewashing is a work of art and not many can do it well. His friends fall for the challenge and come to do it in turns. They even pay him in kind to be able to get a chance at it. He not only gets the job done (he is able to get three coats of whitewash on the fence) by his friends but also makes some gains in the form of the core of an apple, a kite, a dead rat and a string to swing it with, twelve marbles, part of a Jew’s-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through… the list is very long. Says Mark Twain, “If he (Tom Sawyer) hadn’t run out of whitewash he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.”

Mark Twain summarises Tom’s exploitation of the kids thus:

“He (Tom) had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”

Throwing small challenges, which a kid cannot but accept, is an art. Grandma Rita Jain, a Professor of Botany, seems to have mastered the art well. She has stitched a colourful mat with leftover pieces of cloth that she had. She makes her grandson, Kartik sit on the mat and proposes (that’s her way of challenging the little one), “Kartik, I wonder if you can point at the red squares.”

3aaa0de2-c2b9-436b-ae18-5a72c4d58887Kartik feels victorious when he is able, not only to point, but also count the squares of a particular colour. Sitting in Padmasan, the Lotus Posture on the same mat and performing some other actions form a package deal of challenges, which he enjoys accepting.

One trick cannot keep a kid engaged for long. Kartik seeks variety. The other day, the grandma sat by him and started whipping curds with the traditional Indian whipper (Mathani). It was a stratagem. As the grandma had expected, the little one was attracted to it and wanted to do it all by himself. “Dadiji, I want to do it,” he expressed his desire.

e60e8f23-aed3-4f1d-9828-a4196a484cde“Beta, it is difficult. Do you think you can really do it?” She made the exercise of whipping the curd sound like a highly technical job.

“I’ll do it slowly. I’ll not spill anything. Let me try at least. Please, Dadiji.” Kartik urged.

“Okay! Go ahead! Let me see how well you do it,” the grandma ratcheted up the challenge.

Kartik did it; and did it well. There was nothing great about it. But that little challenge was a step forward in improving eye-hand coordination. The sense of pride that he had at the end of the exercise, gave him confidence for yet another challenge.

In these games that Kartik and the grandma play, both are winners.  

 

 

“Now a Silver Medal is Assured!”

This post is inspired by a caption, which appeared in a newspaper supplement and drew my attention. It read: I had prepared for the Asian Games, but didn’t expect to win. Why would a sportsperson enter a competition undetermined to win? The individual might have genuine personal reasons for being less hopeful. But I believe that the environment also kindles and fans this type of hopelessness.

TOI I did not hope to win

I have heard coaches encouraging their trainees thus: “Haar kar mat aana,” meaning “Don’t lose and come.” And parents saying: “Win at least a medal.” Why are we so shy of even desiring to win? Perhaps with the following words of encouragement they would stand a better chance of returning victorious: “Guys you have toiled for this day. Elements of the universe are aligned in your favour. Now go for the Gold!”

The media, both print and electronic, have their way of reporting sporting events. Here is a standard line they use to report the entry of an individual (or a team) into the finals of an event:

“Satbir Singh has reached the finals of the Men’s Badminton. Now he is assured of a Silver Medal.”

Although this is truthful reporting, but it lacks the nudge that can possibly encourage a sportsperson to give that last bit in him/ her to win. If I were a media-person, I would tweak the same report to read thus:

“Satbir Singh has entered (mind you, not “reached”) the final round of the Men’s Badminton. He is now a step closer to the coveted Gold Medal” or “He’ll now fight for the Gold.”

Similar tweaking in the reporting of events in other walks of our daily lives can bring about a pleasant change in the way we start our days. That is a subject of another post, another day.

Tipping the Fear of the Unknown

“Aren’t you scared abandoning a perfectly well flying aircraft mid-air? How did you feel when you made the first parachute jump? What motivated you to volunteer for such a perilous duty?” I have been asked those questions, and the like, umpteen times since I qualified as a Parachute Jump Instructor (PJI) at the prestigious Paratroopers’ Training School, Agra way back in the October of 1982.

I have trained hundreds of jumpers, including the NCC cadets. Individuals undertake parachute jumps for different reasons. Some want to prove a point––to themselves, to others, to the world. Some do it for adventure. Many in the army do it for the lure of the Maroon Beret and the paratrooper’s brevet––by far the most coveted insignia on a military uniform. The saying goes: “On the eighth day God created the paratroopers and the devil stood at attention.”

I knew little about PJI duties when I volunteered for selection for such a job. I was newly commissioned and posted as a logistics officer at an Equipment Depot in Devlali. Flight Lieutenant UR Rao, a PJI himself, was a role model for us youngsters. He said that it was a wonderful life as a PJI; we would get a glimpse of it during the selection process. “In any case, you’ll be able to see the Taj Mahal when you go to Agra,” he used to chuckle.

My training at Sainik School Rewa and the National Defence Academy, saw me through the tough selection. During the process, we were taken for an air experience in the Packet aircraft (an aircraft of WW II vintage). “The noise and the vibrations of this aircraft might be enough to force a person to bail out,” I wondered.

The toughening phase commenced on the following New Year’s Day (1982). Even in the biting cold and foggy winter of Agra, by 7 am, one could squeeze half a litre of sweat from our jerseys. There was no compromise. We were being trained to undertake assignments that would involve lives––on our actions would depend the safety of scores of paratroopers.

The training for the Para Basic Course lasted 12 days. Following an aptitude test we were ready for the first jump.

“Why the heavens did I opt for this?” That question hit me hard as the aft end door was opened over the drop zone and I was made to take position at the edge. It was scary standing in the open door of an aircraft flying at 225 kmph at a height of 1250 feet above the ground level. I wondered if I was better off as a logistics officer back in Devlali.

“Why? Why? Why?” The fear of the unknown was gnawing at my confidence. There were 30 seconds for the “G-R-E-E-N” signal to come on.

Turning back or looking back would amount to a weak resolve on my part––I had a decent opinion of myself. I couldn’t let myself down. Nonetheless, I managed a furtive glance into the aircraft. Standing behind me were four jawans, also ready to take their first plunge. They were quiet, absolutely quiet. Their faces were open books. Perhaps each was fighting a battle within. They were looking up to me to lead. I couldn’t have let them down.

I had found my trigger to go ahead.

Someone in the line hailed, “Chhatri Mata ki Jai!

“Green ON… G-O,” barked the despatcher.

Like a bullet I threw myself out of the aircraft. The parachute opened before I could count: “One thousand, two thousand, th-r-e-e…” The winds were gentle. On landing, the parachute collapsed like a pricked balloon. It was an experience of a lifetime. I smiled at my pre-jump apprehensions.

In the following years, as an instructor I always allayed the anxiety of my trainees by telling them that jumping from an aircraft was safer than crossing roads in Delhi.”

It takes right trigger to overcome the fear of the unknown.

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Hunger Pangs at Night

It was nearing midnight when Chhaya Chordia completed her round of the hostels. She was the Director (Hostels) and resided on the campus of Amity University, Noida. Random visits were her way of feeling the pulse of the hostels. They gave her insights into the problems of the students. Sometimes she would come across pranksters or stumble upon cases of indiscipline. Then there were cases, which belonged to the grey zone––one would wonder whether or not to treat them as flouting of norms. In over a dozen years in the business, she had developed a knack of resolving the issues of the young adults.

Today was a day when she would use that knack.

The wardens and the assistant wardens had submitted their ‘All Correct’ reports. There was silence in the corridors. Most students had gone to sleep; some were studying and some others were netsurfing. Occasionally, a student would step out to fill a bottle of drinking water. Peace prevailed.

Chhaya stepped out of the hostel to return to her residence when she saw someone walking towards the hostel. He had a carry-bag in his hand. She hailed him.

“Who are you?”

“Ma’am, I am Amit Sharma (name changed). I am…”

“You are II Year B Tech Biotech student,” Chhaya cut him short. “You are supposed to be in your room. What are you doing here on the road at this unearthly hour?

“Ma’am, I fell asleep in the evening and couldn’t eat my dinner in the cafeteria. So I ordered food from the dhaba across the road. I have just collected the stuff from gate number 4A.”

“Didn’t the guard on duty stop you?”

“He wasn’t there. He had gone to the loo when I collected the food packet.”

“You are a II Year student. You are fully aware that outside food is not allowed on the campus. Why then did you order food from the dhaba? Don’t you know that consuming food obtained from these roadside vendors can lead to food poisoning?”

“I’m sorry Ma’am. I was very hungry and every outlet in the food-court was closed. I promise, it will not repeat”

“There is no reason that I can allow you to consume this food. Please throw it into that garbage bin. And don’t repeat it.”

Amit complied grudgingly.

“Which is your room?”

“Room number 2 LGF in Hostel-6.”

“Now go back to your room and see me in my office at 11:00 am tomorrow.”

“Good night, Ma’am.”

Amit walked back towards the hostel gate as Chhaya headed for her residence. On her way she called the attendant on duty. “Malati, come to my residence right away.”

Back at her residence, Chhaya took out some food from the refrigerator and heated it. IMG_4039She baked some chapatis. Then laying out the food on a tray, she told the attendant, “Malati, take this to room number 2 LGF of Boys’ Hostel-6. Amit Sharma is the name of the student.

At 11:00 am in the Hostel Office.

Amit walked in and touched Chhaya’s, “Last night I had returned to my room much annoyed with you. I’m so sorry. We have always seen you as a strict disciplinarian. Never knew about this trait of yours.” A tear rolled down his cheek as he added, “You are a godmother.”

The Little Coin-Collector

I just phoned a friend. I fall back on Banjo for solutions to many problems. Today it was to know the right word for ‘one who collects old coins’. His prompt answer was ‘numismatist’. Now, that word is a little difficult for me to spell and more so to pronounce. And, I guess not many people are familiar with it, at least in India. So for this post I’ll stick to a simpler expression: ‘coin-collector.

IMG_4035I had just been introduced to this new hobby. I had started with a few coins, which my grandfather had given me. I had not seen them in common use. Some were shapeless and not as shiny as the coins I was used to seeing. I washed them with soap and water but there was no improvement in the looks. I tried other cleaning materials to no avail.

“How do I shine my coins?” Now, this was a worry wearying me out. I was five then.

Where there is a will there is a way. In a different context, unrelated to my problem, I heard someone say, “Petrol is a good cleaner. I use it to clean my cycle chain.”

“Coins! Petrol! Cleaner! Eureka!” I had stumbled upon a solution to the nagging problem that had taken away my sleep. “I will clean my coins to a sparkle and surprise everyone,” I was determined.

“I would need a very small quantity of petrol to clean my coins. Where do I get it from?” The solution to the subsidiary problem came instantly. We had a moped.

“I’ll draw some petrol from our moped. How do I do that?”

Where there is a will there is a way. I took a piece of sponge fastened it to a metal wire and lowered it into the petrol tank, dipped it in petrol and pulled the wire. It wasn’t easy.

The piece of sponge got detached and fell into the tank. My efforts to take it out failed. The problem was that the inside of the tank was dark and I could not see the piece of sponge. “How do I see it to be able to fish it out?”

Where there is a will there is a way. I’ll light a match and illuminate the inside of the tank; locate the piece of sponge and fish it out. Simple!”

I ran inside our house and fetched a matchbox. I took out a matchstick and struck to ignite. I failed to light it. It was destined that way. Before I could strike the match a second time, I saw my eldest brother approaching.

A word about my eldest brother: Born on December the 25th he has been a guardian angel to us, the younger siblings––warding off our troubles.

I staggered when I saw him approaching. Not that I was afraid of him; I loved and adored him. Just that I did not want to seek his help in this endeavour. I wanted to go it alone and surprise everyone.

I shelved the project for sometime.

In due course, I had other pressing issues to deal with––my homework, a game of football with my friends in the neighbourhood…. Coins, sponge and petrol were forgotten. A big tragedy was averted.

Not really! When it strikes again the second time, my guardian angel would not be around to steer the path for me. I leave that story for another day.

Anything can ignite a child’s mind.

 

 

One Anna

In the early sixties one anna used to be big money for a little kid in a small sleepy town likeAnna Ujjain. It was equal to six naye paise. It had the power to buy half a dozen candies, or to hire a bicycle for an hour, or to buy a bus ticket to travel half way across the city. An anna wrapped in appreciation could do much more.

Read on to truly appreciate the power of the copper-nickel coin.

I was barely five then. Dr Lalit Khanna had given me the coin in appreciation of a poem I had copied on my slate at the behest of my sister under whose tutelage I had learnt to form the letters of alphabet. I had gone around showing off my handwriting to every moving thing in my small world. I was fishing for compliments. Dr Khanna appreciated my handwriting amidst a group of three adults as he presented the coin to me.

When I grew up, I realised that there was nothing great about how I had written the poem that day. My handwriting wasn’t all that beautiful; I had just arranged the letters and words neatly in straight lines. Dr Khanna, the great motivator that he used to be, wanted to encourage me. The reward let my innocent mind believe that my handwriting was actually beautiful.

It marked a turning point in my life. That moment onwards, everything became a writing instrument and I used all the blank spaces on any piece of paper that I came across, to write. Writing became a passion. The word ‘calligraphy’ entered my vocabulary much later in life, after the art had become my hobby.

Thanks to Dr Khanna, I have a cherished hobby.

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Calming Crying Kids – Puneet’s Way

Puneet happens to be a gem of a jeweller friend––a burly figure; used to weigh 20 stones at one time. Although much less at 18 stones, he is no less burly; can easily eclipse two of my size. I just met him and told him about my blog He was amused when I told him about the Section on “Being Parent” and about some of the posts contained therein.

I was a little surprised when he told me that he too has to deal with crying kids, and on quite a regular basis. Parents come to his showroom with children, mainly girls, to get their ears pierced. The process lasts a few seconds for each ear. The child is confused when one ear is pierced. But when it is time to pierce the second, she becomes uncontrollable. A team of five people including the parents standby to assist when the second ear is pierced.”

Puneet has a way of calming the child. “First I tell her that the stud fitted in her first earlobe is looking pretty. If she doesn’t get the stud in her second ear, she would look funny. I show off my own studs and her mother’s earrings. If this effort does not calm her, I show her a mirror.” He says that children, girls in particular have a decent opinion about themselves; they wish to look pretty, always. They stop crying when they look at themselves in the mirror.

“I use the Brahmastra when my normal efforts don’t seem to work,” he adds. “I start crying and wailing louder than the child.” He explains that children are not used to seeing adults crying; a giant of a man like me crying baffles them. They give a pause to their crying and try to understand me. It is also a fact that their memory is short, and they tend to forget and do not resume crying.”

The formula works.

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Making Reluctant Horses Drink Water

Never in a quarter of a century of my service as a commissioned officer had I been so grossly off the mark in gauging the collective behaviour of my men.

It was like this:

The year was 2005. I was commanding the Logistics Squadron at Air Force Station Jalahalli. “Logistics Squadron” was a fancy new term coined for the erstwhile “Logistics Section.” Only the name had been changed, all else had remained same.

On a routine round, I came across an airwarrior preparing a report on a desktop computer. I was taken aback when I saw him typing raw data in the columns of an MS Word Table; then carrying out calculations on a calculator, and finally entering the calculated figures in the last column of the Word Table.

“Sergeant Dhillon, Why don’t you prepare the report using MS Excel?” I asked.

“Sir, I don’t know how to use Excel.”IMG_3915

On more inquiry, I learnt to my dismay that among my staff of close to forty men, just about four or five knew how to use Excel. Most of them were using calculators to produce reports. The three desktop computers on our inventory were being used as dignified typewriters. The reports that were being put up to me had much room for error, errors that would be difficult to detect until the reports were made afresh.

It was a sad state considering that computers were introduced at the unit level in the Air Force two decades ago. Something had to be done to change that uneasy state of being.

Education was the way forward. I mustered my men and addressed them. I told them the advantages of using Excel over the calculator. Briefly, a hundred per cent accuracy was assured and it was time saving too. It was a powerful tool in the hands of a logistician who had a lot of data to handle and to generate reports. In the interest of the Air Force and in their own interest, it was essential that they learnt how to use it. “It is easy, even I can use it,” I said.

I told them that I would soon commence classes of one-hour duration for them. “I want six to eight volunteers for the first batch. Please raise your hands.” I expected at least a dozen hands to go up.

Never in a quarter of a century of my service as a commissioned officer had I been so grossly off the mark in gauging the collective behaviour of my men.

Not one hand came up. It was a rude shock for me. I asked them, “Why don’t you want to learn Excel?”

Very sheepishly one of them said, “Sir, I guess you will conduct the classes in the afternoon. That will eat into our time.”

“I too love my golf in the afternoon. I will conduct classes during office hours,” I laughed, “Your afternoon rest will not be sacrificed. Any volunteers?” People looked at each other; no hand came up. There was something in their minds that they were holding back. I was determined to know: “Why?”

After much needling and nudging (read: “coercing”) Sergeant Mishra opened up, “Sir if we learn MS Excel we’ll get more work to do.”

I was shell-shocked. I did not know what hit me. “My men not wanting to learn something because it would increase their workload? …Did I hear him correctly?” I wondered.

It was a clear case of attitudinal deficiency. Intolerable! Such behaviour was just not acceptable. Letting the men get away with that attitude would amount to promoting inefficiency; nurturing penguins in the Air Force. Something had to be done. “Now! How?” My mind was working in overdrive.

I waited for a brief while till murmuring stopped and men gave me their full attention. “Gentlemen!” I began, “Trust me, if you do not volunteer to learn Excel the Squadron or the Air Force will not come to a grinding halt. The Air Force will continue to fly. I know how to use Excel, and with the four or five men in the Squadron who know it, the work will go on.” I continued.

“But let me tell you. And listen to this carefully….” I gave a long pause. “If you do not learn Excel today, in a few days from now, you will fall in the category of illiterate people. Those of your mates who know how to use applications on computers will be sitting and working in the cosy comfort of air-conditioned rooms… you, who will be illiterate, will be sweeping the floors and dusting the stores. You will be doomed to do menial work.”

“Worse still,” I continued with greater emphasis. “If you don’t learn computer applications today, at a later date, you will not be able to guide your children. Their progress will be slow. They will have to struggle hard to achieve their dreams. You are smart young air warriors, I don’t have to talk of the worst case scenario.” I painted the gloomiest possible picture of their future.

After another long pause, I ended my address to them, “With that I rest my case. Get back to your workstations. Be happy! No Excel for you! Jai Hind!” And with that I walked out of the room very briskly, and returned to my office.

My orderly was awaiting me with the usual cup of tea. I settled in my chair to have it. I had barely taken the first sip when more than a dozen men barged into my office. They stood in a row, saluted smartly and said in a chorus, “ Sir, we want to learn Excel!”

We got down to business; men learnt Excel enthusiastically; there was a sense of purpose. I enjoyed those classes as much as they did.

Epilogue: Months later, one of my equipment assistants who was under posting orders came to me to bid bye. “Sir,” he said with tears in his eyes. “You opened our eyes that day. I have not only learnt Excel, I have bought a PC for my family. I am learning more applications and teaching my children too.”

One can take a horse to the water but to make him drink, one has to whisper things in his ear, which strike the right chord in his heart.

I Love my India

Patriotism in our country follows a sine curve. Almost. Come Republic Day, come Independence Day, The tricolour surfaces and flutters atop everything moving and non-moving. It can be seen atop buildings and on cars and motorbikes. Forget the debate on the use of flags made of synthetic material, the sales peak around this time. Patriotism also dominates the theme of the songs played on blaring speakers in every street. Television channels vie to screen films with themes patriotic. Film producers, some more patriotic than the others, time the release of their multi-starrers to coincide with the big day.

My childhood memory of those celebrations is simple yet vivid. We kids always remembered the day more for a half day at school without school bags, and the distribution of sweets. The unfurling of the flag, chanting of national anthem, Vande Mataram and some patriotic songs did instil some good feelings, which we could hardly define. But for sure, we used to talk about Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Bhagat Singh, Chandra Shekhar Azad,… all the year round––not just twice a year.

That was a half century ago.

Blog I Love My India Flag Fluttering IMG_3425The other day I spent some time with my nephew Lakshya, an intelligent youngster. I was driving him around when we passed a large tricolour atop a sixty odd feet flagpole. I looked at it with reverence and asked Lakshaya, “What thoughts come to your mind when you see our national flag?”

He gave me a blank look and said, “Nothing, really.”

“Doesn’t it remind you of our national heroes? Doesn’t it fill you with love for the country?” I tried nudging him into answering with a stereotype that I had in mind.

But his answer left me speechless. “Nanaji,” he said, “I have so much homework to do. I am left with little time to think about all these issues.”As we drove along, we came across a giant hoarding of Mahatma Gandhi. I dared not ask him who he was. I feared he might say, “Ben Kingsley.”

 To be concluded some day…

Calming a Crying Kid – II (Kartik)

It is always fun discussing parenting with Ravi, my nephew and Swati, his wife. They come up with innovative ways of addressing issues concerning Kartik, their son, my grandnephew.

The last time we met, I asked Ravi whether Kartik, otherwise a very well behaved toddler ever causes ruckus. And how do they calm him. Ravi said that Kartik doesn’t normally cry. He cries when he has a genuine reason to do so. Say, when he hurts himself. But then, he becomes quiet soon enough, on his own.

Ravi added, when Kartik cries because of a genuine problem, they try to pinpoint the problem and resolve it. On very rare occasions, Kartik cries purely to draw attention. He even says: “See Papa, I am crying.

Ravi says that they have discovered a way to deal with those situations; and it works.

In rarest of the rare cases when Kartik cries for no apparent reason, Ravi initiates the following conversation:

“Kartik, let’s play carom, now. Or, shall I read the story of the tortoise and the rabbit, now?” Or, would you like to drink a glass of milk, n-o-w?… … You can resume your crying later.”

Note: playing carom, being read a story, drinking milk,… are some of Kartik’s favourite pastimes.

Says Ravi, “Most often Kartik chooses to indulge in an activity of his choice and postpones his crying for an opportune moment later, which never returns.”

Agony deferred is agony lost!