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.”

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.