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.

Ferrari/Volkswagen/Merc or Tata/ Maruti/ Mahindra & MacBook?

One day when Mudit was still a child, he felt very magnanimous and promised to buy me a Ferrari one day. I was delighted with the visions of me driving the dream car. With a degree in Mechanical Engineering, a Masters in Petroleum and another one in Sustainable Technology, the idiot has got on a track to develop technology that supports development of environment friendly cars. His promise of buying me a Ferrari stands.

But now I have a change of mind.

If I were to believe this morning’s BBC World News, the EU Commission is likely to open an investigation into the allegation of collusion between the Circle of Five (BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and its subsidiaries (Porsche and Audi) not to compete in the area of emission control technology––to develop such technologies slowly. If the allegations were to be proved it would mean deliberate denial of cleaner cars to the customers. It would also amount to breach of competition law, which can attract heavy penalties, and the side effect of reducing access to cleaner technologies.

In another case, three years ago––the notorious Volkswagen diesel scandal––Volkswagen was found guilty of developing software that could enable the company to get past the stringent emission control norms while still polluting the air. The company suffered nearly 2 billion dollars in penalty and had to buy back its cars. Did it lose face and a share of the market? Maybe. Or, who cares!

The investigation is yet to take place; the allegations against the Circle of Five may or may not be proved. I also don’t know whether this smoke is with or without fire.

But I have made up my mind.

“Bro, are you listening (reading this post)? I no longer want a top-of-the-rung foreign car. Firstly, because those reports have cast a doubt in my mind. Will I get what these companies say they sell? Secondly, I cannot possibly enjoy those cars on congested Delhi roads. Some of those companies boast of a good performance like good acceleration and high speeds in excess of 150 kmph or so. Why would I pay for a performance, which I would not get to experience while driving in Delhi? In fact, driving woes had needled me to resign from the Centre for Air Power Studies where I was so happy working.”

What about the status those cars accord to the owners. Well, my Mamaji has a fleet of Mercs, BMWs and the like and I go for a drive with him for the thrill of it. That’s enough for this sapien.

“Bro, are you still listening (reading). I want you to tweak your promise. I’ll be delighted now to have a Tata, Maruti or a Mahindra vehicle rather than one of those cars. With the money you thus save, buy me another Mac (the present one seems to have outlived its utility for me). I will derive greater pleasure tapping the keys of my Mac and publishing my next book rather than getting stuck in a Ferrari or a VW or a Porsche or a… and pitying my state of being.”

A parting thought: A few years after the purchase has been made, what is left of a car (any car)? Are the grapes sour? Whatever may be the case, I am decided.

Why would I pay for a performance that I would seldom get to experience?

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“I’ll hit you!” to “I’ll stitch a lounge suit for you.” in two hours

The planets had conspired to get me on the Ashram flyover that day at that time….

There was more than the usual traffic. Two cars had stopped (one behind the other) in the middle of the road. The drivers were arguing to establish culpability for a prang involving their cars. Having settled the scores, the athletic young driver of the lead car walked back to his vehicle. Unmindful of my car passing his through the narrow passage, he flung open the door. His wrist got caught between his door and the rear view mirror of my car as I was trying to manoeuvre through the passage. He shrieked as the mirror assembly of my car broke and hung by its wires––he was hurt badly.

It was the beginning of a two-hour ordeal.

“Are you blind? You can’t see even with specs on. I’ll hit you!” He raised a closed fist as I lowered the glass.

Here was a youth half my age, threatening to cause me physical harm. It felt as if he was challenging my years of training and grooming in the Air Force. A deluge of memories of my days as an instructor in the Paratroopers Training School and as the Chief Instructor at the Garud Regimental Training Centre flooded my cranium.

It was difficult to hold back the urge to counter rage with rage. His last words were still echoing menacingly in my ears: “I’ll hit you!” I looked piercingly into his eyes and said  calmly, “Please go ahead. Just try.”

I don’t know what did him in. “Get lost!” He said with his clenched teeth; turned and walked back to his car.

I drove off slowly not knowing that the ordeal was not over yet.

The youngster blocked my car at the end of the underpass near Moolchand Hospital. He raised his bleeding wrist and asked, “Who will get me first aid?”

“I will,” was my instant reply. He refused to go along with me to the Air Force Medicare Centre for treatment. So I followed him to a nursing home of his choice. At 8:30 am, the night duty staff were leaving; the day duty staff had not taken charge. They were not in a position to treat him. Half-heartedly, he let me take charge.

I made him park his vehicle and drove him to Moolchand Hospital in my car. He was given first aid and medicines. “Take these tablets after eating something and return for further treatment,” the doctor said handing over the prescription. His wrist had suffered a hairline fracture.

He had calmed down considerably when we reached the cafeteria. “Sir, I’ll have a coffee and half a pizza if you don’t mind having the other half.”

We chatted as we ate. He was Atul Batra (name changed), a fashion designer, educated in London and worked from there; had an office in Delhi too. His father was a retired Inspector General of Police. He was a kick boxer. After we agreed that it was an accident in the true sense of the term, we opened up and talked on more interesting subjects including fashion. Having served as the Assistant Quality Assurance Officer in the Ordnance Parachute Factory––where they manufactured parachutes and a wide range of garments for the Indian armed forces––I had a fair knowledge of garment manufacturing.

Just for fun, I asked him if he knew why the buttons on the garments for ladies and gents were stitched on the opposite sides. He did not have an answer. He guessed that it had something to do with the two lobes (left and right) of the brain, which functioned in diametrically opposite way for the two sexes.

“Did people have the knowledge of difference in the brains of the two sexes in the era when buttons were invented?” I winked as I asked.

“No, people of that era did not have this knowledge about brains.” He looked quizzically at me. “Do you know the answer to that question?”

I told him that when buttons were invented several centuries ago, only the kings and the membeIMG_6640rs of the royal family could afford them. The men folk used to dress up on their own––the buttons were placed on the right side for convenience. The queens and the other ladies of the royal family, on the other hand were assisted by maids. For the convenience of the maids, the buttons on the garments of the queens and the princesses were stitched on the opposite side. The practice has continued.

He was impressed by my knowledge. “I didn’t know that,” he said.

Both of us laughed when I told him that my source of information was Google.

Our interaction lasted two hours. His parting words when I left him by his car were: “Sir I’ll stitch a lounge suit for you.”

An instance of road rage need not always end in broken noses.

Being a Player

The seeds of this endeavour were sown in the December of 1996 when I arrived in Delhi on posting to Air Headquarters. For one like me, who had until then lived in small towns, the transfer was a cultural shock. I was not used to the fast paced life of Delhi. Heavy traffic, growing heavier by the day troubled me most. It was painful travelling every day by the Air Force bus from my home in Noida to the office in Vayu Bhawan and back. It was even worse if one were driving a car. Being stuck for long hours in traffic was a routine, almost. The stretch between Outer Ring Road and Akshardham was particularly bad. The traffic jams could be kilometres long and could take in excess of an hour, at times, to clear up.

Those jams sucked, turning helplessness into a permanent emotion.

The inauguration of the new bridge across the Yamuna, and the road connecting the Ring Road and Akshardham, came as a big respite. I did not enjoy the benefits of it for long. I was posted out to the tranquil town of Tezpur.

Everything had changed by the time I returned to Delhi on posting about eight years later. More than a dozen new flyovers had come up. Infrastructure to support the Commonwealth Games was also nearing completion. Ideally, these developments should have solved the problem of hold-ups in traffic and should have provided succour to the commuters. But the respite was short-lived because Delhi and the NCR had contributed vehicles to the roads at a very high rate.

The infrastructure development fell well short of the need. Traffic snarls returned with a vengeance. They were unpredictable in terms of time and location. The choice was between accepting the situation as it were (fate) or to do something about it. I chose not to be a sorry spectator; but to be a player and to contribute my tiny bit to address the problem.

I had observed that on many occasions the trigger for a jam used to be a broken down vehicle. The recovery van used to take some time to reach the spot and remove the vehicle. Ironically, the jam caused by the broken down vehicle used to hamper its recovery. For the jam to be eased it was imperative that the vehicle be taken away to a location where it would not obstruct the traffic; and it had to be done expeditiously.

IMG_3800I started carrying a towrope with shackles in my car. And, whenever I came across a broken down vehicle causing traffic jam, I started towing it away to a location that would ease the traffic situation. Drivers of such vehicles are always surprised getting help from a stranger and at a time when they need it most (and expect it the least). For me the glow in their eyes is a big reward.

In the last ten years, I have towed more than a hundred vehicles to comfortable locations. In addition, I have helped others looking for assistance on the roadside. Each encounter has been a memorable experience.

Author’s Note: Some of those who were towed/ assisted by me, and some others with whom I have shared these experiences, have resolved to follow suit. Some have even started carrying contraptions (rope and shackles) to provide assistance likewise. The contagiousness of the endeavour has nudged me to write this post and the ones that follow in the Section: “O Delhi!”

Being ‘a spectator’ or ‘a player’ is a personal choice.