Halloween 2020


With the convergence of a full moon, a blue moon, daylight saving time and Saturday celebrations with the pandemic with high transmission rates, Halloween 2020 is bound to be remembered in Canada.

The word ‘Halloween’ means ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening.’ It is believed to be of Scottish Christian origin, dating back to mid Eighteenth Century. Halloween falls on 31 October, the evening prior to the Christian All Saints Day on 01 November.


Halloween came to North America with the influx of Scottish and Irish settlers by early Nineteenth Century. It was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the Twentieth Century it was being celebrated all over North America by people of all social, racial and religious backgrounds.


Trick-or-treating is a customary celebration for children on Halloween. Children go out in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as candy or sometimes money, with the question, “Trick or Treat?” The word ‘Trick’” refers to ‘threat’  to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no ‘treat’ is given.

Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario Province recommended against trick or treating door-to-door this Halloween for Toronto, Ottawa and also our city of Mississauga.  Prime Minister Trudeau has declared that his three children will not venture out this Halloween for ‘Trick or Treat.

Most homes put up Halloween decorations as what one sees in the ‘Dracula’  movies with cobwebs, skeletons and various scary models. The most common is the ‘Jack-O-Lanterns’ which originated in Ireland where children carved out potatoes or turnips and lighted them from the inside with candles. In North America, pumpkins were cheaper and more readily available than turnips, thus carving them and making them in to Jack-O-Lanterns lit by a candle inside became a North American Halloween tradition.


Whether Halloween is a devil’s holiday or not, the children really have a lot of fun and enjoy the evening going for ‘Trick or Treat’; the adults enjoy accompanying the children and also treating them at their homes.  People of all ages do have a lot of fun ‘dressing up’ in the most grotesque way and they do not ever associate the devil with what they do.


31 October night happens to be a ‘Full-Moon Night’ and also a ‘Blue-Moon.‘  The idiom ‘once in a blue-moon‘ refers to a rare occurrence, but in fact it appears once every 2.7 years, because the lunar month – from new moon to new moon-  is 29.53 days compared to 30 or 31 days of our calendar month.  Hence February (with 28 or 29 days) can never witness a blue-moon.  Last blue-moon occurred on March 31, 2018.


Now comes the Daylight Saving Time (DST) when we turn our clock by an hour on the first Sunday of November. This year, the day falls on 01 November.  It reduces  one hour to standard time with the purpose of making better use of daylight and conserving energy.  Even though the Sun will rise and set as before, the clocks will show the time one hour earlier than the day before.  The first to use DST was Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada In July, 1908.  Other cities and provinces followed suit by introducing DST bylaws.

DST is now in force in over 70 countries worldwide and affects over a billion people every year. The beginning and end dates vary from one country to another. In 1996, the European Union (EU) standardized an EU-wide DST schedule, beginning  last Sunday in March and ending  last Sunday in October. It is believed that DST showed a decrease in road accidents by ensuring that the  roads are naturally lit during the peak traffic hours.

(Images from Halloween 2018)

The Good Old Days


On my blog on Z – The Commanding Officer’s Jeep,  was a comment by Veteran Colonel BIS Cheema as appended below.

‘How things have Changed with use of Public Property? I was commissioned in 1948, and joined 1 DOGRA, at Jalandhar. No one including the Commanding officer ever used any public transport for any private or personal use, unless, it was specifically hired, on payment of 8 Ana, equal to 50 Paisa, per mile. The duty slip was made out in Red Ink. All offers, including the Commanding Officer, used to come from the residence to Office/ Unit lines in their personal transport, that was mostly cycles. Sahayaks were allowed only in field units, and on payment of Rs. 30/- per Month. The same was deducted by CDA from pay. Ladies and Children were not allowed access to Officers Mess, except a specially dedicated room, that was marked as Ladies Room.

Officers never used any Government item, of clothing and equipment. we purchased cloth from Officer’s Shop, got our uniforms stitched to fit each individual at his own cost. One never saw an officer using regular Government issued Shoes for Other Ranks. We got our Service Pattern Boots made by cobblers under own arrangements. There were no free rations for officers at peace stations. Officers Messes were run on the basis of No-Profit-No-Loss. Daily Messing costs were equally shared by all dining members. Such was concern shown by officers towards use of Public property, to be able to earn the respect of the all ranks under their Command.’

How did these aspects change?  When did these change?

Has any officer ever paid for using government vehicle? I never paid for it during my service (1982-2004).

When was the practise of allowing ladies and children into officers’ mess commence?  When I joined our Regiment, the practise was in vogue. Ladies and children had access to ante-room, dining room and even the bar.

When was a Sahayak/ helper/ buddy/ orderly authorised for officers? When was the system of payment for the same discontinued? I was never charged a penny for the same.

Who was that Doctor?


In December 1992 I attended the three month long Junior Command Course at the College of Combat (now Army War College), Mhow, India.  The Army War College is a tactical training and research institution of the Indian Army. It develops and evaluates concepts and doctrines for tactics and logistics for the army. The college trains about 1,200 officers of the Indian Army, and also from friendly foreign countries as well as paramilitary forces each year.

The Junior Command (JC) Course aims to train Army officers who have gained theoretical knowledge of warfare and practical skills necessary to lead company-size units in various war situations and terrain.

I went to attend the course with Marina and our little daughter Nidhi was about 20 months old.  As a student officer I was busy attending classes, outdoor exercises, working on solutions for the tactical discussion on the next day or reading.  Marina found that she had lot of time at hand after I left for classes by 7:45 AM.

That was when Marina with the assistance of our neighbour’s wife, a Masters degree holder in music, tried her hand at honing her singing skills.  As a child she had a passion for music and did attend a few classes in preliminary Carnatic music.  Later she joined a boarding school and her musical interests perhaps gave way to athletic ones!

Marina learned to sing a few Hindi songs and Urdu Ghazals.  On return to our Regiment after the course, at a party she sang two Hindi songs and an Urdu Ghazal.  It was a real surprise package for our Regimental officers.  A lady from Kerala who could barely manage to communicate in Hindi until then was now singing classical Urdu Ghazals.  At the end of her singing, our then Commanding Officer Colonel Rajan Anand in appreciation remarked   “Even if Reji hasn’t learnt much during the JC Course, Marina has learnt to sing pretty well.

We had a Regimental Jaaz Band, led by Major Gulshan Kaushik and Marina became part of the band.  Her Hindi and Urdu diction was polished up with the help of both Major Kaushik and Mrs. Ritu Kaushik.


Later, in 2001, while I was posted at Delhi, Marina sang a high pitched song during the Christmas party at home.  Next morning, she was in serious trouble with her vocal cords, so much so that she just could not speak.  She went to the ENT Specialist at the Base Hospital Delhi.  The specialist, a Major from the Army Medical Corps, inserting a scope through her mouth (video-stroboscopy) and showing her the lacerated condition of her vocal cords said “You must have tried to sing at a very high pitch and you are not trained in classical singing.  This is what happens when you suddenly strain your vocal cords.”  He diagnosed it as a case of ‘vocal cord hemorrhage.’

Our larynx, or ‘voice box’ houses the vocal cords and has several groups of muscles that raise or lower it when we sing, swallow or yawn.  Many singers raise their larynx unconsciously when they sing high notes. If the larynx is too high on high notes, it can actually strain the vocal cords.  Vocal trauma, such as excessive use of the voice when singing, talking, yelling, or inhaling irritants can cause damage to the tiny blood vessels of the vocal cords. These may then rupture and bleed.


We are familiar with players or other athletes moving into the injured reserve list.  Similarly, many singers too move into the injured list, resulting in cancellation of many of their performances.  This often happens primarily due to vocal cord hemorrhage.

Diagnosis done, but the most interesting was the treatment – complete voice rest – मौन व्रत  (Mauna Vrat).  That meant she should not strain her vocal cords at all.  She was advised not to speak for a week, else she may even end up losing her speech all together. She had to communicate with the children and me through writing and often through a comic sign language.

The news spreads fast – even in those days before the advent of cell-phones and social media – it spreads faster in the Army circles when an officer’s wife is sick.  By evening there were many visitors calling on to enquire Marina’s health, especially those who were guests at the Christmas party the previous evening.

Every officer who came over had only one serious question “Who was the doctor? May be, I need to take my wife to him for consultation

The lesson I learnt after the ordeal was that children must be put through vocal music training and I ensured that both our children attended vocal music training.  To read more about it, please click here.

The Whisky War


The news is ripe with Indo-China border stand-off these days. How does Canada fare in their border management?

Canada and the United States share the world’s longest undefended border, running along the 49th parallel from the west coast to Lake Superior and following natural boundaries for the remainder.


Denmark and Canada share maritime boundary in the Arctic and it runs in the middle of Nares strait  through which runs Kennedy Channel.  This 35 kilometres wide strait separates Ellesmere Island from northern Greenland.  The strait is home to two islands – Franklin and Crozier – which falls within the territorial waters of Denmanrk


The third and the contested island is within the territorial waters of both Canada and Greenland, an uninhabited barren rock of 1.3 Sq km, named after Hans Hendrik, an Arctic traveller.  A theoretical borderline in the middle of the strait goes through the island.  According to an international treaty, any island which is in 12 miles of mainland comes under the territory of that country which technically allows both Denmark and Canada a claim over the island.

The Permanent Court of International Justice of the League of Nations in a landmark judgement of 1933 ruled the island to be a sovereign part of Denmark.  The League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations after World War II and Canada claims that this decision became irrelevant with the demise of the League of Nations.

The dispute between Canada and Denmark re-emerged in 1973 when Denmark and Canada started demarcating their borders through negotiations. They agreed on all other disputes except Hans Island which was then decided to be resolved later.


The Whisky War commenced in 1984 when Canadians sailed to the island and erected the Red Maple Flag on the island and kept a famous Canadian whiskey as a symbolic expression.

In return, the Danish Minister of Greenland visited the island and replaced the Canadian flag with the Danish flag. He took the Canadian whisky and replaced it with world-famous Danish schnapps.

This Whisky War continued until 2015, with both the armies taking turns in unfurling their national flags and placing their famous whisky for the other.

Canada and Denmark, both NATO allies, both agreed to resolve dispute citing the presence of the Russian Army in the Arctic region during the cold war.  On 04 May 2008, an international group of scientists from Australia, Canada, Denmark, and the UK installed an automated weather station on Hans Island.  On 23rd May 2018, Canada and Denmark announced a Joint Task Force to settle the dispute over Hans Island. A committee of arctic experts was constituted to resolve the dispute peacefully. One of the main resolutions, they are thinking of, is to declare the barren stone island into condominium.

A condominium does not mean that the two countries are going to build a high-rise apartment building on the island, but it means that the island will be co-owned and co-managed by both the countries . Thus the will have both Canadian and Danish flags on it.

RIP Mr Louis Fernando


When we were in grade 6, it was a norm that on the first Monday of the month a teacher spoke during the assembly and on other days it was the cadets of grade 11, the senior-most then.

That Monday the speaker at the assembly said that the tendency of people to ‘discard’ or disregard their aging parents is unfair. He emphasised that parents were not a pair of shoes that one throws away once worn out, or when one grew out of it. What a comparison to bring a great lesson home to the young cadets!

After the assembly, our first class was biology by Mr CAS Raghavan, better known amongst us cadets as Jigs. There was a brief discussion about the morning speech and he asked as to whether we knew as to who the speaker was. None of us knew his name. Then Mr Jigs declared – It was Mr I Louis Fernando (ILF), the physics teacher.

Mr ILF  was an amazing human being, an amazing teacher and an amazing mentor who always motivated me to give my best. He was the one who used to urge me to put my best and was very confident that I would join the National Defence Academy and he was dead right.

A flamboyant Late Mr PT Cherian (PTC) headed our physics department and he was in the forefront of all activities – both academic and extracurricular. Mr Cherian was well known for his  skills at basketball and volleyball and every cadet dreamt of imitating his ‘Fosbury Flop’ at the high-jump pit.

There we had Mr PTC on one end and Mr ILF on the other end of the physics department.  A soft spoken thorough  gentleman Mr ILF, I have never seen him upset or angry ever. The actions of both Mr PTC and Mr ILF were more like the Newton’s third law of equal and opposite reactions. Like the two unlike poles, Mr ILF and Mr PTC were attracted to each other and the physics department achieved many a glory for the school in all spheres.

I cannot forget his house then, the first building opposite the Administrative Block. It was aptly named மலர் (Flower) as Mr ILF had the best garden in the campus, brimming with many varieties of roses.

Mr ILF taught us electronics, his favourite subject  in our grade 9, beginning with valves and transistors. Like many in our class, I can proudly say that the foundation for my knowledge of electronics was laid by Mr ILF.

My association with Mr ILF grew mainly during various physics club activities, the public address system management and light & sound arrangements during various cultural activities and plays the cadets and staff staged.

Mr ILF was a great Guru, silent ever, with a smile on his lips and knowledge up his sleeve. All the lessons he taught me – both life as well as academic – will be with me always.

Death cannot take away Mr ILF, he will always remain alive in our hearts. I feel lucky because I was one of his students who  got to know him personally. It was such a bliss. I pray he is in the good place now, watching us from the right side of the Creator.

 

An Eagle’s Eye

Recently on the social media I received a clip showing as to how an eagle blinks.  Eagles as well as certain other birds like vultures, hawks, falcons, robins etc. have three eyelids. The inner or third eyelid is not visible from outside and is the called the ‘nictitating membrane.‘  This thin and translucent membrane is drawn across the eye for protection and to moisten it while maintaining vision. It also functions like a windshield wiper, sweeping across the bird’s eye from side to side. This keeps any particles from being lodged in the sensitive tissue.

On watching the clip about the eagle’s eyelids, I was reminded of my first movie at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu in July 1971.  It was Mackenna’s Gold, a 1969 Hollywood film directed by J. Lee Thompson, starring Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif. It was photographed in Super Panavision and in Technicolor by Joseph MacDonald.  This movie was the last one to be filmed by him and was released in 1969 after MacDonald’s death on December 15, 1968 at the age of 62.


During our school days, a movie was screened every Saturday.  The swimming pool doubled up as an open-air movie theatre with the viewers sitting on the stadium steps, and the screen was placed on the opposite side of the swimming pool.

As a nine-year-old watching an English movie while not knowing the English language at all, you can well imagine my plight.  There had been much gossip amongst us cadets about the movie, mainly originated by those who had already watched it.  The pre-screening hype was very high and I was anticipating a thrilling experience, though I was a bit scared.

After night fell on the open air theatre, the movie commenced with its opening song – Old Turkey Buzzard – as depicted on the video clip above.  The song sequence was shot at Monument Valley, on the Arizona-Utah border.  The shot of the vulture’s head and its winking eye scared the hell out of me. I got so scared that I closed my eyes with both hands and placed my head between my knees. When I look back now, it is difficult to define the fear of the nine-year-old and nor could I assign an exact reason for it.

Here the skill of the cinematographer needs to be appreciated.  Remember the movie was shot in 1968 with the cameras available then.  To capture a vulture’s eyelid with such a precision with those cameras would indeed have been a herculean task.   No wonder Joseph MacDonald was the most sought after cinematographer with 20th Century Fox and he filmed over 50 movies with them from 1941 to 1959. It is sad that he never won an Oscar Award though he was nominated thrice.


(Illustration by Sherrin Koduvath)

Back to the movie. Now I was looking down into the swimming pool waters and there it was – the reflection of the screen on the water below.  To make matters worse, the movie having been shot in Super Panavision (Cinemascope), the screen covered the entire length of the 25-meter pool.  Where ever I looked with my face tucked between my knees, I saw the all too scary image of the vulture’s head.  That scared me even further and so I closed my eyelids tightly – luckily we humans have only one set of eyelids.

After about five minutes, I managed to fall asleep only to be woken up by my friends after the show ended.  What a relief!  I later watched the movie in 1980 while on vacation from the National Defence Academy and made for up what I had missed as a nine-year-old. It was only then that I realised the movie was an all time classic.

  • There is shadow under this red rock,
    (Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
    And I will show you something different from either
    Your shadow at morning striding behind you
    Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
    I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
    TS Elliot in ‘The Waste Land’

 

 

 

A Soldier’s Promise


Marine Master Sgt. William H. Cox and Marine First Sgt. James ‘Hollie’ Hollingsworth first met as Privates, taking cover from rockets and shells raining all around them in a bunker in the Marble Mountains of Vietnam in 1968.

They made a pact: “If we survived this war, we will  contact each other on every New Year’s eve“.

They did that every New Year for the next five decades.

In January 2017, 83-year-old Cox made the trip from his home in South Carolina to say goodbye to his dying friend, Hollingsworth, 80, in Georgia. That day he made a final promise to his Vietnam buddy – to stand guard over his coffin and deliver the eulogy at his funeral.


In October 2017, Hollingsworth passed away and keeping his word, the 83-year-old Cox put on his blue Marines’ uniform and turned up at his buddy’s funeral service on October 20, without the cane that the 83-year-old normally used. He stood without his cane during his vigil at the casket and at the funeral.’

They both were door gunners with a Marine Helicopter Squadron and flew many combat missions together. At the end of each mission, they had a saying, which Cox repeated at the end of Hollingsworth’s eulogy: “Hollie, you keep ‘em flying, and I’ll keep ‘em firing.”

Carrying a Burden of Guilt


Our Regiment was deployed in our operational area in  Rajasthan deserts for Op PARAKRAM when I assumed command.

In the first week I passed directions regarding day-to-day administration of the Regiment.  For sure, a Havildar (Sergeant) Clerk was the first one to flout one of my directions.

I instructed the Adjutant, Capt Subhash, that  the Havildar Clerk  be chargesheeted.

Subhash came to my office in the CO’s Caravan with the charge sheet which I approved.  He asked me ” Sir,Can I march him up tomorrow morning?  It’s already 8 PM now.”

No.  March him up now,” I replied.

Now Sir? At night Sir?” He asked.

Yes. Now. Remember we are in our operational area, ready for a war any minute,” I affirmed.

On taking over command, I realised that there were lots of gaps in the documentation of our soldiers.  Most data was either outdated or was missing.  I got into designing and coding a software for capture and analysis of soldiers’ information, soon after I took over command.  My initial two weeks were fully devoted to automating the entire system.

During the designing and coding stage, I used to work day and night, mostly sitting in my comfortable Lungi.  That evening too I was dressed in my Lungi and vest.

Subhash looked at me and said “Sir, if you want him to be marched up now,  you need to change into uniform.

Give me five minutes and I will be back,” I said, and walked into the bedroom space of the Caravan and changed into a uniform.

The Havildar was duly reprimanded for his minor offence.  It had a great impact on the soldiers – not because it was the first punishment I awarded, but more because the recipient was a Havildar Clerk.

After two years in command, I hung up my boots, to migrate to Canada.  During my dining out, Subhash narrated what happened in the five minutes I took to change into uniform that day.

“After you said ‘Give me five minutes,’ I went out of your office and realised the gravity of what I said to you.  I rushed to Major Suresh, our Second-in-Command and narrated what happened. 

Major Suresh gave a smile and said ‘Don’t worry. The old man will never take you wrong.  I know him very well from our young officer days.‘”

Now Subhash’s question to me was “Why did you not admonish me for what I said?  Before coming to this Regiment, I served in a Field Regiment for four years.  There if I had said so, you can well imagine my plight.  Even Major Suresh didn’t seem perturbed over my conduct with our CO.  That hurt me even more and I have been carrying this guilt with me for the past two years.”

Looking at Subhash I said “If you felt guilty for something you did in good faith, you should have confided in me then and there.  You would not have had to carry the burden this far.”

But that day why did you act the way I told you to, and not admonish me,” was his next question.

If I had said anything to you or admonished you for an act done in good faith, you would have lost your self-confidence and self-esteem.  Later, you would not have had the courage and conviction to advise the Commanding Officer and point out any error or folly in my decisions or directions,” I philosophised.

Z – The Commanding Officer’s Jeep

Commanding Officers (CO) of all Artillery Regiments travel by a Jeep/ Gypsy  which is identified by the alphabet ‘Z‘ painted on all its sides.  Most other arms/ services have ‘COMMANDING OFFICER’ written in the front of the CO’s vehicle. Needless to say that it is the most decked up and mechanically fit vehicle of any unit, driven by the most competent and disciplined driver. It carries with it an air of sacred and infallible exclusivity.

Our unit was a cooperating unit of School of Artillery, Devlali.  We had to provide equipment and soldiers for smooth conduct of training of students of various courses. This was at a time when I was a single parent CO as Marina had migrated to Canada by then. The responsibility of bringing up our children now  rested solely on me.

My residence was about 400 m behind the unit with the Officers’ Mess in between.  Thus I could walk to the unit or Officers’ Mess at any time and hardly ever used the Z.

One day our daughter Nidhi, a grade 6 student, returning from school asked, “Dad, are you a CO?

Yes,” I replied “What ‘s the matter?

Everyone in my class tells me that you cannot be a CO,” she said.

But why?” I queried.

I was taken aback by her reason.  “They say that if I am a CO’s daughter, I would be dropped at school on a Z and not be cycling down to school.” She replied quite innocently.

OK. I am not a CO then.  You continue to cycle to school,” I justified.

One morning I received a call from a senior Staff Officer at the School of Artillery Headquarters.  His concern was that our Regimental officers travelled in jeeps while Colonels of Tactical and Field Wings – many approved as Brigadiers – were travelling on their scooters.  It was not that our officers were travelling on Jeeps, even their ladies used it.  Surely it was an eyesore for those Colonels who had commanded their regiments ‘well’; else they would not have been posted to School of Artillery.

I explained to this Staff Officer “When some of these Colonels were commanding their regiments, they had five Jeeps with them – one for the CO, one for his wife, one for his daughter, one for his son and one for his dog.  I have only one and the rest are shared by other officers.  It is my command and I will decide what to do with my jeeps and henceforth please keep away from my command functions.”

On a Saturday I was informed by our Adjutant  that the in-laws of  Captain Vikrant, who joined us just a week before, are in station.

Then let us have a get together in the evening at the Officers’ Mess.  Please invite them too,” I suggested. The CO’s mild suggestions are invariably directions to be implicitly followed.

During the evening get together I asked Captain Vikrant “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s a Sunday.”

My in-laws want to visit Shirdi,” he replied.

How are you going?” I enquired.

I have booked seats in the School of Artillery bus leaving from the Club tomorrow morning,” he replied.

When our officer’s parents or in-laws visit Shirdi, they take the Z.  Naik Suresh, my driver will report to you tomorrow morning,” I said.

Hearing this our Quartermaster, Captain Subhash passed the customary instructions to Naik Suresh to include carriage of adequate water, soft drinks, sandwiches and a spare jerrycan of petrol.

Sunday morning at five, I was quite rudely awoken by my telephone.  It hardly ever rang unless there was some very very important information to be conveyed to the CO, which was indeed a rarity.

It was Captain Vikrant at the other end. “Good Morning Sir.  Sorry to disturb you at this hour. Your vehicle is standing in front of my residence.”

It’s there to take you all to Shirdi,” I confirmed.

I thought you were not serious when you told  me that,” he said, embarrassed and apologetic.

I shot off a volley of choicest  profanities in my vocabulary ending with, “Now you take the vehicle to Shirdi and on Monday morning see me in my office.”

On Monday morning Major Suresh, our Second-in-Command escorted Captain Vikrant to my office and said “Sir, please don’t get angry with him.  He is only a week old in the unit.  He is yet to know you.”

I looked at Captain Vikrant and he said “This is my second unit.  Before this I served only in a Field Regiment for five years.  There the Z was regarded as something holy, something of an institution. I have never travelled in a Z till now.  That is why I called you early in the morning to reconfirm.

I dismissed both with the words “The Z did not come as a dowry to me when I got married to the unit.

Building a UAV Base


In 2002, our SATA Regiment was designated to be equipped with Unarmed Aerial Vehicles  (UAV).  Having experienced as to how our Medium Regiment was equipped with Bofors Gun, I realised that there is a critical need for complete infrastructure to house and operate the UAV and the crew.

In 1987, our Regiment received Bofors Gun while located in the Kashmir Valley.  The Guns and the Gun Towing Vehicles were parked in the open, with these costly and high-tech equipment wizening in the vagaries of weather.  It was in true sense proving an old Malayalam adage ആനയെ മേടിക്കുവാൻ കാശുണ്ട്, തോട്ടിമേടിക്കുവാൻ കാശില്ല  meaning ‘You have enough money to buy an elephant, but not enough to buy a hook (ankus) to control the elephant.’  It was a similar case – Indian Army had spent crores for procuring the equipment, but did not have a few lakh to build the sheds to house them.

Copy of THE ELEPHANT AT WORK !. HD...avi - YouTube
Whatever it was, I got down to working out the infrastructure requirement as specified by the manufacturer- that too by someone who had hardly any clue of aircraft operation and avionics.  The UAV Base was to come up in Agolai, Rajasthan, which already had an Aviation Squadron operating from a small airbase.  The UAV infrastructure was to be created there which involved extending the existing runway – both in length and in width and also reinforcing it to facilitate UAV operation.

Luckily for me, the Commanding Officer of the Aviation Base was our course mate from NDA – Colonel Kesar Shekhawat.  He provided all technical and aviation inputs and extended all out cooperation in planning the UAV base.  I made many trips to his Base and he always provided me transport and accommodation and also looked after me very well.

I visited many UAV Bases in all corners of the country – operated both by Indian Army and Air Force – interacted with the crew operating the UAVs and learnt their needs and the deficiencies they had.  They suggested many modifications to the existing infrastructure they had and also provided lot of valuable inputs.  Most of these bases operated UAVs with existing infrastructure the base had and they had very few of the infrastructure as specified by the equipment manufacturer. 

After two months of detailed planning, we came out with an extensive document regarding the layout of the augmented Base, buildings, accommodation for crew, housing for all technical equipment, hangars for UAVs, and so on.  The entire project cost ran over three Crore.

Project report did raise shackles of the higher Headquarters who wanted me to scale down the project so that the project could be sanctioned by the Army Headquarters.  With this high-cost project, sanction of Ministry of Defence was needed.  I refused to budge and held on and advised them to scale it down if they felt so.  The other option offered was to phase out the entire project, which I again refused and advised the higher Headquarters  to do so if they deemed so.

No one wanted to bell the proverbial cat.   The file moved at a snail’s pace through the corridors of power to be ultimately sanctioned.  Now Indian Army had enough money to buy the hook for the elephant.

Immediately on sanctioning of the project, work commenced in full swing.  Every month I had to fly to Jodhpur from Devlali for a day or two to oversee the progress of the  work.  

Why did the Commanding Officer had to travel every month for a task that could have been executed by any Major in the Regiment?  It was all because in those good old days, Majors were not allowed to fly even on Temporary Duties.  The backchat (apparently emanated from our Second-in-Command) among the junior officers were that in case someone displayed a sad face early in the morning, the Commanding Officer would detail him to proceed to Agolai to oversee the progress of the work.   The officer detailed would end up spending at least three days on the train – from Devlali in Maharashtra to Jodhpur in Rajasthan.

I took a cue from it and during a Regimental Officers’ Mess event declared that in case I see any officer with a ‘long face’, I will despatch him to Agolai.  Our Regimental Ladies understood what it meant.  After that the mere mention of the word “Agolai” by me to any officer of the Regiment  would be followed by the officer’s reply “Sir, She is really taking care of me.  There is no problem.

I hung my boots a year after the project commenced in full swing, duly supervised by Colonel Kesar Shekhawat.  A complete UAV Base as envisaged in my project report was completed in two years.   Then only our Regiment took over the UAVs and made them operational. 

This must be the first time in the history of the Indian Army that the complete infrastructure as specified by the equipment manufacturer,  including air-conditioned living accommodation for the crew came up well before the induction of high-tech UAVs. I am told that this base is the best UAV Base of the Indian Army today.

Marina & Motorcycle

 

In 1993, I met with an accident fracturing my right arm, resulting in my right arm being put in a cast for three months.  At that time, I was posted as a Brigade Major at an artillery brigade headquarters.  I owned a Yamaha Rajdoot Motorcycle then.  The accident resulted in the motorcycle resting in a corner of our garage.

A few weeks into this sedentary state of my motorcycle, Marina, very nonchalantly asked me whether she could ride it.  She until then was riding her moped and I never took her question very seriously.  I casually explained to her the gears, clutch, brake, accelerator etc and also the methodology to start and ride the motorcycle.

Little did I realise that she will take off immediately, but she did.  She was the champion athlete in her school days and had represented her district at Kerala State level – no mean achievement.  I did not appreciate that she was still enthralled by speed, now of a different variety.  That was it – like fish to water, she took on to driving the motorcycle and I, on to the pillion with my hand in a cast, fearing the worst for my hand that wasn’t in a cast!

 

Broad Arrow Number

 


Everyone must have seen military vehicles plying in most Commonwealth Countries with a number beginning with a vertically upright Broad Arrow.  This number is called a Broad Arrow Number in military parlance or BA Number.  It is used by the Army, Navy and Air Force and also some civilian establishments that work under the Ministry of Defence.

Many, including those in military service have humorously referred to this ­‘Up Arrow’ to indicate ‘This Side Up’ as seen in many packing cartons.  Is it there so that no one erroneously parks it upside down??  Is it to indicate ‘Right Side Up’ in case the vehicle topples???

The ‘Broad Arrow’ was used by the British to depict an item to be a military property.  It was also referred to as the ‘Crows Foot’, or the ‘Pheon.’  The Broad Arrow number with other symbols, numbers and/or letters convey various details of the equipment – manufacturer, year of entry into service, ownership, inspection, alteration, repair, etc.

The origin of the Broad Arrow is unclear. It could have originated from the actual arrow to depict anything military.  It is believed that Broad Arrow was used as a symbol to identify British government property by Henry Sidney, Earl of Romney who was Master of Ordnance to William and Mary (1689-1694 AD).  In order to reduce theft of British property, Henry was asked imprint a mark on all government property.  He is said to have chosen his family emblem – The Broad Arrow.  In those days the prisoner’s uniforms were also stenciled with a Broad Arrow , but later this practice was discarded.

In the book ‘A Complete Guide to Heraldry’ by AC Fox-Davies, he states that “Perhaps the case which is most familiar is the broad arrow which is used to mark Government stores. It is a curious commentary upon heraldic officialdom and its ways, that though this is the only badge which has really any extensive use, it is not a Crown badge in any degree. Although this origin has been disputed it is said to have originated in the fact that one of the Sydney family, when Master of the Ordnance, to prevent disputes as to the stores for which he was responsible, marked everything with his private badge of the broad arrow, and this private badge has since remained in constant use. One wonders at what date the officers of His Majesty will observe that this has become one of His Majesty’s recognised badges, and will include it with the other Royal badges in the warrants in which they are recited. Already more than two centuries have passed since it first came into use, and either they should represent to the Government that the pheon is not a Crown mark, and that some recognised Royal badge should be used in its place, or else they should place its status upon a definite footing.

Most British Military equipment in the earlier days was marked ‘BO’ as all these equipment came under the Board of Ordnance.  Then ‘WD’ was used to denote War Department.  During World War II, a standalone depicted British military equipment.

That was the history of the Broad Arrow .  Now let us decipher the Broad Arrow Number on an Indian military vehicle which begins with symbol .


The Broad Arrow is followed by two digits depicting the year of entry.  Up to 1971, a letter depicted the year of entry.  It was ‘Z’ in 1971 and from 1972 onward, the last two digits of the year of entry into service was used (as English language has only 26 letters of the alphabet) and the practice outlived the number of letters in the alphabet.


This Jeep is displayed at Grenadiers Regimental Centre, said to be the Jeep with which Late Company Quartermaster Havildar Abdul Hamid, Param Vir Chakra (Posthumous) of 4 Grenadiers hunted down eight Pakistani Patton Tanks during the 1965 Indo-Pak War.  Look at the BA Number of this Jeep.  Letter ‘Y‘ indicates its year of entry into service as 1970.


All vehicles Indian military used during 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak war would not bear the last two digits of year, but a letter.  Can you make out the repainting error in the BA number of the Jeep in the image above? If the year of manufacture 1968 is correct, then it should have been letter ‘W‘ instead of ‘68’, as per the then prevalent policy.


The two digits depicting the year of entry is followed by an alphabet indicating the class of the vehicle.  Some of the letters I came across during my military service are A-motorcycle; B-car or a jeep; C-light truck; D-heavy truck; E-towing vehicle; K-ambulance; P-water bowser, and there are many more.

It is then followed by the serial number of the vehicle, given by the Ministry of Defence.  The last alphabet is the check-alphabet for the serial number using the ‘Modulus 11’ formula.  A check digit is a form of redundancy check used for error detection on identification numbers. 

Now readers must be able to decipher the Broad Arrow number on an Indian Military vehicle.  It is not surely to indicate ‘This Side Up.’

Where’s the Creativity?

For the Passing Out Parade of our nephew, I landed at the Officers’ Training Academy, Chennai, two days in advance to be a guest of our regimental officer Major Subash.  That evening, Major Subash’s Company Commander had invited all passing out Gentleman Cadets (GC) for a customary dinner.  Major Subash, a Platoon Commander, forced me to accompany him for the dinner despite my efforts to wriggle out of it.  He wanted me to interact with the soon to be commissioned officers.

During the event, I was fairly reticent and kept to myself as I thought that I had hung up my boots some sixteen years ago and living in Canada ever since, what would I share with these youngsters?  Some of the GCs prodded me for some advice.

The advice I gave was that everyday ensure that you read five pages and write a page.   To this a GC enquired “What should we read?”  “Anything and everything – newspaper, magazine, military pamphlet, user manual – or even porn, but ensure you read every day.”

The GCs it seemed were a bit bewildered by my rather unexpected advice.  One of them asked me “What about saving money?  Many have been advising us about it.”  It must have been advised to them by many senior veterans who are currently employed by banks as ‘Defence Accounts Specialist‘ and why not catch them young! 


When they persisted, I went on to add “On joining your regiments, learn to be part of it and be a soldier first.  Learn about your soldiers, equipment and so on.  Remember to enjoy your life.  Pursue your passions/ hobbies/ interests.  Participate in adventure activities and use your vacations to travel around the country and around the world” I suggested.

What about savings?” perhaps, some of the guys who joined the service for a few dollars more, persisted.  The financial genius in me said “You do not have to worry much about it for the first three years of your service.  Contribute to your Provident Fund to save you some taxes!

Analysing the conversation that evening, I will state confidently that each and every officer of the Indian Armed Forces can be classified as ‘Gifted.’  Most of us are through Sainik/ Military Schools where for admission we went through a test in grade 4/5 similar to the one in Canada to identify gifted children.  If I recall correctly, it was a bit tougher than the test administered in Canada.

After graduating from School, we all went through a very tough entrance exam for the Academy where the qualifying result was a fraction of a percent.  Then we qualified a much more rigorous Services Selection Board (SSB) interview stretching five days.  If anyone qualified through it, that person is real Super-Gifted.  Training at the Academies is not an easy one, especially the need to qualify in academic subjects along with the strenuous physical activities and tests. 

On commissioning, the problem of diminishing creativity begins.  Officers tend not to learn but to study.  Here let me define both – What you study, you forget soon after the exam; but what you learn, you retain for life.  The study tendency can well be attributed to the grading system in most courses.

While I was in command of our unit, we were tasked to write a paper on tactical employment of modern surveillance devices.  I tasked the junior officers to come up with a draft and one of them said “Sir, you write well.  This paper is for Army Headquarters and why don’t you write it.  Our efforts may not be that good and creative.”

I pointed out to them how they had closed their minds to creativity. “You all have gone through the SSB where in you were shown nine caricature images of which you could not make out head or tail, but you all managed to write nine good and creative stories.  The tenth one was a blank one, but still you wrote a credible story.  One hundred words were flashed to you with an interval of 30 seconds and you all wrote one hundred sensible sentences.  Now you say that you are incapable of writing a creative paper” I explained sternly.

The death of creativity begins when a young officer given any particular task is asked to go through an older file/paper/ Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to understand how it was done previously and then accomplish the task in a similar manner. Many military units have SOPs even for the most mundane activities like organising an Officers’ mess function. These SOPs, while they serve to accomplish a task quickly and without confusion, also serve as creativity killers. 

One of the first documentation tasks for a young officer is usually a Court of Inquiry (C of I) and in most cases it would pertain to a severe injury suffered by a soldier.  The Adjutant would invariably ask the young officer to refer to a previous one and carryout a C of I in a similar manner. If you want the young officer to be creative, you need to make him understand the need for the C of I, and from where he should read up on what evidence is, how to adduce evidence and reach a finding on the investigation based on evidence. The manner in which the proceedings of the C of I are recorded on paper is perhaps the only thing that an old court of inquiry would reveal.   

The trend of ‘ஈ அடிச்சான் கோபி (ee adichan copy)’ or blind copying or ‘Cut & Paste’ begins from here and it continues through service, culling all the creativity one had at the time of the SSB. 

Reading five pages and writing a page everyday are the very first baby steps to professional creativity and competence. As the youngsters anxiously awaited their entry into the mysterious Olive Green world, what better piece of advice could I give them?

Military Special Trains

The story of my romance is never complete without the story of the military special. Indian Railways and the military have a close and intimate bonding. The military refer to the special coaches as ‘rolling stock’ and the engine simply as ‘power’.  The Military has its own ‘Movement Control Organisation’ (MCO) with its personnel closely integrated with the railways and located at important railway stations/ headquarters.

This special relationship goes back to the very formation of Indian Railways. One of the main reasons for establishing the railway network was to provide an effective and trustworthy method of transporting large amount of troops from one part of the country to another. The colonial masters found this as an imperative requirement, which enabled the government of the day to maintain control over the vast lands it governed.


Indian Railways run these Military Special trains all the time. These trains move both in peace and in times war. Some of these trains are freighters only, while others have accommodation for personnel as well. Some military specials carry armed forces personnel for aid to civil authorities, such as earthquake or flood-relief work. Some Military Special trains have rakes formed totally by special ‘Military’ coaches in their own distinctive greens while others have rakes formed by ‘normal’ Indian Railway coaches. Some movements get decided suddenly (such as due to natural or man-made disasters), while other movements are planned well in advance – as per the strategic relocations of operational units of Indian armed forces. The mobilisation plan of military units and formations are made in close coordination with Indian Railways.

I had my first experience of travelling with our Regiment by a military special in 1983, a move from Delhi  by a meter gauge military special for firing practice of 130mm medium guns at Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan.  We had to move to Pokharan as that was the only Field Firing Range with the Indian Army that offered 30 square km of uninhabited area to fire the guns over 27 km.  Railway lines in Rajasthan then were all meter gauge.  Indian Railways today operate mostly on broad gauge.  The gauge of the railway track is the distance between the inner sides of two tracks.   For broad gauge it is 1676 mm (5 ft 6 in) and for meter gauge it is one meter.

A 24 wagon rake for loading of the medium guns – MBFU – (M – Meter Gauge, B – Bogie Wagon, FU – Well Wagon) was placed at the military siding ramp at Delhi Cantonment Railway Station -12 for loading guns and 12 for Russian Kraz towing vehicle. The gun weighs over 8 tonnes and the wheelbase just about narrowly fits on to the meter gauge rake.  Today with broad gauge rakes, the wagons offer sufficient width to maneuver the guns.

The most crucial part of loading is to mount these guns and Krazes on to the MBFU.  I watched in fascination how the most experienced driver, Havildar Kuriakose, drove the leading Kraz towing the gun.   He drove on to the ramp and then straight through, over the wagons to the last-but-one wagon and halted in such a way that the gun was exactly adjusted in the well of the MBFU.  The gun was unhooked and he drove his Kraz in to the well of the last MBFU.  A slight wavering or error in judgement would have caused the unthinkable. It was a critical operation which only best of the specialist drivers can accomplish.

Tank drivers of armoured regiments too face similar predicaments driving onto the MBFU and sometimes end up in mishaps.

By nightfall, the train was formed with 24 MBFU, one first class coach, four sleeper coaches, a military kitchen car and seven wagons for carriage of ammunition and stores.  Now it was an eternal wait at the station for ‘power’- a diesel engine – to tow the train.  They had the crew – loco pilot, his assistant and guard ready, but no ‘power’.  By midnight, an engine was made available after it had towed a passenger train.  There were three halts enroute, each over six hours, all waiting for ‘power’ and after 36 hours, we were at Pokharan railway station.

The last military special train I travelled was while commanding the Regiment in 2002.  Our Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve.  The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan.  The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were mobilised to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days.  The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.

After ten months, the move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite. An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely had no priorities in anyone’s mind.  Our Divisional Headquarters had entrusted me with an important and critical task two days prior to the move back of our Regiment.  I was given a week to complete the task and fly back to Devlali on completion.  I did not want to miss travelling in the Military Special, that too as the Commanding Officer.  I burnt the midnight oil for the next two days, completed the task, handed it over to the Divisional Headquarters.

On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), our soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train.  A diesel engine was connected but now the Railways had the ‘power’, but no crew.  As many Military Special trains were run from Jodhpur taking the army back home, adequately rested crew was at premium.  We waited for 24 hours for the train to commence its journey. Our train stopped at every possible station, even to give way to freight trains.  Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways.  The onward move executed in less than two days now took five days on the return leg.

After my premature retirement and move to Canada, I very much miss my passionate association with the Indian Railways. Now, even when I travel in India, it is mostly by air, due to time pressures. Gone are the days of those never ending train journeys. I can only recollect those days with a sense of loss and nostalgia.

My Romance with the Indian Railways


My journey with the Indian Railway commenced with my first travel way back in 1966 when I was in Grade 1.  In the Malayalam text book there was a small verse on the ‘Steam Engine’ – (കൂ കൂ കൂകും തീവണ്ടി, കൂകി പായും തീവണ്ടി) Koo koo kookum theevandi, kooki payum theevandi.  I was fascinated by the poem and insisted on travelling on a train.   My dad took me on my first train journey – an eight kilometer one from Kottayam to Chingavanam on a steam engine powered passenger.  Little did I realise as a toddler then that I will serve in the Indian Army and travel the length and breadth of the country on trains. It was the beginning of a long and cherished association with the Indian Railways.


My father first took me to the steam engine as the poem was more about the steam throwing coal eating monster.  He showed me three persons working on the engine.  The Engine Driver (Pilot or Engineer) was the overall commander of the engine.  He was responsible for ensuring punctuality, watch the signals, the track ahead and the train behind, see that the locomotive is running safely and efficiently, blow the whistle when required and plan ahead for stops.


The engineer was assisted by two Firemen who stoked the fire, maintained steam pressure in the boiler, watched the track and signals ahead, and relayed signals from Guard.  They took turns with one stoking the fire and the other watching the signal and blowing the whistle. Firemen were also apprentice engine drivers, allowed to run the train under the engine driver’s supervision and expected to learn enough to be ready for eventual promotion.  Even today, the Indian Railways recruit only Assistant Loco Pilots for their Diesel and Electric Engines, who over a period of service are promoted to be Loco Pilots. I am told that the Assistant Loco Pilots of today earn a salary more than that of the average software engineer!


Steam engines of yesteryear may have been slower and ‘dirtier‘ than diesel/ electric ones, but they were much safer.   As per records, out of every 100 accidents on Indian Railways, only two involved steam engines as the steam engine staff had to be on their feet, busy stoking the fire, adjusting gauges, tightening gears and releasing excessive steam pressure, polish gleaming brass fittings and gauges, filling the water tender and so on.

The train was controlled by a Guard who impressed me with his well starched and ironed cotton white trousers and coat as white as snow.  For the life of me, I could never figure out as to how these Guards on the trains pulled by steam engines, maintained their white uniform so well.  A short journey on such a train always invariably resulted in my dress and hair getting covered with coal-dust.


I might add here an interesting aside. The Indian Railways currently runs a luxury heritage train from Delhi to Alwar, renamed The Palace On Wheels, (earlier Fairy Queen, since 1855) powered by a 70-year-old renovated steam engine, named ‘Azad‘- engine number WP 7200, built in 1947 in USA.


Indian Railways is still maintaining its oldest working steam locomotive named Fairy Queen at New Delhi. I wonder whether the Railways still have the drivers to operate it.

When I joined Fifth Grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu), in June 1971, travelling from Kerala to the School was the longest train journey one undertook until then.  It commenced by boarding a Meter-Gauge train at Kottayam, hauled by a steam engine to Ernakulum.  From there in the afternoon it was on to famous No 20 Madras Mail – a Broad-Gauge train – which ran between Cochin and Madras to alight at Coimbatore.  The only reprieve was that the train was hauled by a diesel engine, and therefore no coal dust.

The advantage in a diesel or electric engine is that it can run at same speed whether forward or backward. Steam engines were to run at lesser speed when running with its water tank in the front side. To avoid this there were engine turn tables at major loco sheds for turning the engine to keep engine side in the front.


We got off at Coimbatore by 9 PM and at 10 PM there was a train to Rameshwaram, again a steam engine train on Meter Gauge.  This train would drop us at a tiny station called Udumalaipettai at 2 AM.  Then there was the agonising wait in the small waiting room at the railway station for it to dawn so that the restaurants in town would open their shutters. Early in the morning it was a walk of about a km to the bus-stand, lugging our bags.  Near the bus-stand there was a restaurant which served vegetarian breakfast and we would enjoy the last civilian meal of the semester before joining the Military School. From then on it was going to be the much loved ‘bill of fare’.

After breakfast it was a bus ride of 24 km on the No 10 Bus which plied between Udumalaipettai and Amaravathinagar – about an hour of a bumpy ride, but it ensured that the heavy breakfast we had consumed was well truly digested without any hiccups.


By the time I was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1982 the railways had evolved a great deal; the steam engines had given way to diesel ones which were much faster and did not deposit coal dust in our hair and clothes. With the army life came some really long and memorable train journeys. For a Mallu posted to most military stations in North India, 72 hours was par for the course.  If your unit was in the North East, it was 96 hours and beyond. A colleague of mine used to travel from Trivandrum, then the southernmost station of the Indian railways to Ledo, in Assam, almost on the then Burma border, where his unit was located. It was small matter of some 4000km, 3970km to be precise, taking seven days.  It involved travel by five different trains, with changes at Ernakulum, Madras Central, Howrah Junction, and Tinsukia. The journey from Trivandrum began with a meter-gauge train and ended at Ledo on a meter gauge train. But the bulk of the journey in the middle was by broad gauge. In some ways, the experience of a journey such as this is as exhilarating as that of a mountaineering expedition

Once or twice a year it was a journey homeward to avail the much awaited leave. Also the initial years in the army one had to undergo a lot of training courses at various institutions widely dispersed all over the country. So this resulted in at least one more long train journey. Very often one had to travel at short notice and therefore without reservation. It was nothing short of high adventure.

As the trains rumbled across the length and breadth of the country, I was able to directly imbibe the diversity of our ancient land. As they crossed the many rivers flowing West to East, East to West and North to South (Only the Son River in India flows from south to North), and climbed the many hill ranges and plateaus, I came face to face with school geography. The vastness of the Indo-Gangetic plains, the stunning beauty of the Konkan tract, tenuous criticality of Siliguri Corridor, mesmerising  beauty of the plains of Punjab engulfed in endless fields of wheat, mustard  and sunflower, and he endless barren expanse of the Thar desert all lay bare before me.   I couldn’t help but notice the gradual change in climate, topography, flora, demography, culture, architecture and so on. It was an ever changing landscape of every facet of human existence. There is no better way to learn about this vast country than to simply travel by train. No wonder, the Mahatma, loved to travel by train.

When I am at Kottayam the Pole Star is not visible as it is always hidden behind coconut trees. As the train takes me northward from Kottayam, on the first night I begin to see it quite high above the horizon. On the second night it is much higher in the sky than the previous night. It was much later, during a training course that I theoretically learned that the latitude of a place is the vertical angle between the horizon and the pole star (altitude of the Polaris.) But the railways had made me understand the phenomenon much earlier. Latitude until then was just a line on a map.


Over the many years of train travel I also realised that the Indian railways is a truly humongous organisation any which way you look at it. It is one of the largest rail networks in the world with over 68500 km of track network and nearly 7200 railway stations. It is one of the world’s largest employers, employing some 1.4 million people. Every day it transports 25 million people. It is simply mind-boggling to think in terms of the likes of the entire population of a country like Australia or Taiwan being transported by the Indian railways on a daily basis. Of the worlds 230 odd nations only 55 odd have a population more than 25 million.  The railways also move some 1200 million tons of freight every year.

One got to fully subscribe to Michael Portillo, British journalist, broadcaster, and former Conservative politician- “The two biggest legacies of the Raj are the unification of India and the English language. Moreover, without the railways, India would not have been connected and could not have become one country.” 

Next : Military Special Trains

Regimental Training for a Young Officer


On commissioning I joined 75 Medium Regiment in January 1983.  The Regiment then had an interesting class composition – one battery of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.  Today the Regiment consists of soldiers from all classes from the entire nation.

I was allotted the Brahmin Battery commanded by Late Major Daulat Bhardwaj.   He was a Brahmin and his first advice was “To command Brahmin soldiers, you got to be a Brahmin yourself, beat them in all aspects – physical, mental and spiritual. You got to be mentally alert and morally straight, else they will never respect you. Once you earn their respect and confidence, they will blindly follow you.

You got to be a better Brahmin than your soldiers.  You are a Christian from Kerala and you got to beat the Brahmins in spiritual aspects too.  You attend Mandir Parades with the soldiers every evening; learn by-heart all the aratis, slokas, mantras and hymns; understand their meaning and apply them to your everyday life.”

Within a month, I could sing the arati and recite the slokas fluently and thus became a ‘Brahmin.’  Even though the first of the Ten Commandments the Christians follow say ‘You shall have no other Gods before Me‘, for any officer of the Indian Army, the religion or Gods of the soldiers they command come before their own. While praying to the Hindu Gods during Mandir Parades, in my heart I was praying to my Lord and Saviour Christ.  In fact, now I was praying to a God I did not believe in for the soldiers who believed in me.

The soldiers, especially the ones who manned the guns called Medium Gunners were all well built and nearly six feet tall.  They were selected keeping in mind that they had to handle the eight ton 130mm Russian gun, the toughest being bringing the gun into action mode from travelling mode and vice versa.  The shells the guns fired being heavier also dictated this.

Training for the gunners involved bringing the gun into action, laying the gun at the specified bearing and elevation to engage targets far away, loading the shell into the gun and firing. This training on the gun is called Gun Drill in artillery terms.  Among these giant gunners, I stood as a Lilliput.  I had to look up to meet their eyes when I spoke to them. Rather than they looking up to me, now I was looking up to them.

The first place I lived in the Regiment was the soldiers’ barracks.  My bed was placed next to Havildar Brij Bhushan Mishra’s, who was better known among the soldiers as BB Major. Soldiers address Havildars as Majors, short for Havildar Majors.  He was then the senior most Gun Detachment Commander and was well known for his gunnery training abilities. BB Major spoke in a soft and low voice and the soldiers had to strain their ears to listen to him. He did not believe in talking much, but the soldiers of the Battery respected him and many were scared of him; all because he knew his job well and he had a reputation of being a tough detachment commander and also he sported a ferocious looking handlebar moustache. He believed in the doctrine that soldiers and brass – they shine well when rubbed hard and polished well.

I commenced gunnery training as any other recruit soldier on joining the Regiment would do – to be the Number 9 of the detachment. I attended Gun Drill classes with the soldiers under the watchful eyes of BB Major. As days passed by, I was ‘promoted’ until I became the Gun Detachment Commander in two weeks.

I was pretty impressed with my ‘promotions‘ until the day I goofed up while bringing the gun into action. My omission at that time would have jeopardised the safety of the crew, but timely intervention by BB Major saved the day for me.  He ordered “Stand Fast” – meaning everyone to freeze as they were. This command is used when a commander or a trainer feels that safety of the soldiers is at risk. BB Major pulled me out, shook me hard and said “Saheb, you have got to take care of the soldiers under your command. You got to be alert at all times. You cannot risk injury to your soldiers because of your callousness.” Major Daulat Bhardwaj who was witnessing the training called out “BB, तेरे  मूछों  में  दम  है  [therey moochon mein dum hai] (there is strength in your moustache).”

I did not speak a word, for I was shaken up and also feeling guilty of committing a major goof-up. After this incident BB Major and I developed mutual respect. While conducting gunnery training later on, BB Major would often quote the incident to the young soldiers and how well I took it in a positive stride. He would also add “If I could do it to the Lieutenant Saheb, you guys better watch out.

 

Welcome Spring 2020 with Tulips


Every year, the cold winter snow melts away and we welcome spring, a new beginning.  This new beginning is marked in our garden by tulips.


April rains bring in May flowers‘ is a common saying in Canada. Tulips and daffodils do not wait for the rain and by end of April they sprout out marking the beginning of spring.


Tulip flowers last only a fortnight.

 
We have Early-Spring, Mid-Spring and Late-Spring varieties.  Thus we extent the Tulip flower season in our garden.
  
This year around we did not receive many showers in April and it did have a telling effect on the quality and size of tulip plants and flowers. It is said that the tulip’s velvety black center represents a lover’s heart, darkened by the heat of passion.
 
At least we were lucky to have the best flowers in the city as claimed by many visitors.

 
Tulips Originated in Persia and Turkey and were brought to Europe in the 16th century. They got their common name from the Turkish word for gauze (with which turbans were wrapped) – reflecting the turban-like appearance of a tulip in full bloom.
 
Canadian Tulips have a great history.  In 1945, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered the future Queen Juliana and her family for the preceding three years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. 
 
he eleventh wedding anniversary flower is also tulip, it conveys forgiveness too.   
Yellow tulips symbolises cheerful thoughts.
  
The Red Tulip became associated with love based on a Turkish legend.

 
Purple symbolizes royalty.

 
We have multi-colored varieties too.

With all of the history, sentiments and meanings of tulips, it’s not surprising that their popularity continues to endure. The wide range of colours and varieties available allows them to be used for many occasions.

CARS Without Scars

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) test is designed to test comprehension, analytical skill, and reasoning power by comprehension and critical analysis of a given passage. Today, it forms an important part of most competitive entrance examinations for important universities the world over.  To develop this skill, the only mantra is to read more – that too from all disciplines across the board. Some you may question how and why reading is connected to CARS? After all the answers to the questions are all there in the given passage! Now the explanation is pretty simple. The more you read, the more is your ability to quickly comprehend. The more you read, greater is your vocabulary and greater is the speed of comprehension and less the chances of your not comprehending something in the passage. The more you read more will be the chances of your familiarity with the subject matter and with greater familiarity comes greater ease of analysis. So reading is fundamental to development of the mental faculty …no escape!

CARS is a skill that needs to be initiated in a child as early as possible.  Parents and primary school teachers play a very important role in developing this skill in children.  Some of the tips for teaching critical thinking to children, as recommended by American Philosophical Association (APA), are as listed below: –

  • Start as Early as Possible. Children can be encouraged to give reasons for their decisions or conclusions rather than teaching them ‘formal’ logic.

  • Avoid Pushing. Whenever we tell our children to do things. it would be pertinent to give them reasons for the same. Some, they may understand; others, they may not.
  • Encourage Kids to Ask Questions. That is the only way to instill and encourage curiosity in children. They should never feel any pressure in asking questions to their parents or teachers.  Many a times, children are hesitant to ask a question due to this pressure from their peers or siblings.
  • Get Kids to Clarify Meaning. Rather than the rote system, encourage children to explain things in their own words.
  • Encourage Children to Consider Alternative Explanations and Solutions. Allow children to experiment or consider multiple solutions rather than always looking for the bookish right answer. This will surely enhance flexible thinking.
  • Talk About Biases. Children can understand how emotions, motives, cravings, religious leanings, culture, upbringing, etc can influence our judgments.
  • Don’t Confine Critical Thinking to Purely Factual or Academic Matters. Encourage kids to reason about ethical, moral, and public policy issues.
  • Get Kids to Write. Writing helps students clarify their explanations and sharpen their ideas. Only kids who read and analyse develop good writing skills.

When faced with preparing for a CARS test, you are what you are. In  case you have a few months or at best a year before you take the test, can you actually prepare for and improve upon your CARS score? Surely Yes. Let us see some of the aspects of preparation for CARS.

Reading Speed
Speed of reading is very important for any CARS test.  Generally, there are five to six passages and 60 questions to be answered in 90 minutes. Thus you have less than 15 minutes to read each passage, the set of associated questions and answer them.   The only way to increase your speed of is by reading and more reading. There are of course many speed reading techniques that one may try but eventually you must settle down to a particular reading technique.

Most of the modern-day CARS tests are computer based, the examinee needs to develop speed of reading onscreen.  Reading onscreen in a test environment calls for better training of your eyes and mind as it is 20% slower than reading it on paper.  If the test you are taking is onscreen, you must practice more onscreen.


Some tips to speed up your onscreen reading are: –

  • Do not Move Your Head – either up/down or left/right – to see an entire page on most computer screens. Practice shifting your focus between words and lines without moving your head.
  • Avoid ‘Sub Vocalization’ – also known as auditory reassurance. It is a common habit where readers say words in their head while reading, thus slowing down.  Your mind is capable of perceiving and analyzing text much faster than you think – at least double that of your speaking speed.
  • Never Stop in Between and Go Back and Forth. In case you do not fully understand a part of the passage or you lack clarity about what the inputs are, first read the complete passage and then look for what you need to clarify.
  • Practice Reading Phrases or Small Sentences Rather Than Reading Each Word. Remember that you are looking for the overall meaning and not referring to a dictionary. Reading word by word slows you down as you tend to pause between words.

Selective Reading
As part of your reading in preparation for CARS you need to read for pleasure and entertainment as well as concentrate on some dense and difficult prose. In both categories your reading should be only non- fiction and generally related to social sciences and humanities. The CARS passages are hardly ever science based. In the light reading category, a few national and international current affairs magazines would suffice such as Time, Newsweek, India Today, Frontline and so on. It is also important to read the editorials of daily newspapers and a few articles that appear on the editorial page. As for difficult prose try for example Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Reading such as this is essential so that you develop the ability to read and assimilate difficult prose.

Practice
While wide multidisciplinary reading is the best solution in the long run, if your preparation time is limited to a year or less, then the solution lies in relentless practice. Even if you do nothing else by way of preparation, just practice alone may well see you through. Repetitive practice will in the long run build up your stamina and help improve your reading speed and your analytical skills and above all your scores.   Roughly one mock test a day or five to six per week should suffice. After a month or so, if you are on the right track there should be improvement in your scores. If not there is something seriously wrong in your approach and you may need professional help to identify your weakness.

Vocabulary Improvement
A good vocabulary is a basic requirement for proficiency in the CARS test. If you have been a reader of storybooks since your childhood, generally your vocabulary ought to be good. However, if you have been a poor reader, your vocabulary will need to be supplemented in the short term. Some of the books or Audio-visual materials specifically meant for this purpose are readily available in the market. Some research on effectiveness must be done before you home in on what you need.

Adopt A Simple Strategy
During our Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC), the objective tests often contained a section where examinees are required to tick true/false on a series of statements. The questions had negative marking and often bamboozled a lot of us trainees. Eventually some someone came out with a strategy that proved to be effective for at least some of us: –

  • Those questions that you CLEARLY KNOW to be true/false should be first attempted.
  • Then, those that you FEEL are true should be ticked false and vice a versa.

Similarly, there are many strategies in attempting the CARS test. The simplest and the best strategy is to read the entire passage first and then answer questions in the given order. Some may advocate obviously stupid strategies such as reading the first and the last paragraphs and then answer the questions or even reading the questions first (not the answer choices) before you read the passage so that apparently you know where to focus when you read. These stupid options must be shunned. Some other strategies such as devoting a disproportionately longer time for reading and assimilation of the passage and then answering the questions may be useful to some. Yet another strategy may be to devote meaningful time only to say five out of six, or seven out of nine passages and apply pure guesswork on the remaining passage(s) without reading. First skimming through the passages with a view to and identify and attempt the easier passages first may also be another strategy. Early in your preparation time you need to firm in on your strategy and then practice relentlessly on the chosen strategy. If there is no noticeable improvement in scores after a period of time, you may need to think of changing your strategy.

How to Read the CARS Passage
Remember that the CARS test is basically aimed at testing whether you can see the big picture, not the minor detail. By the time you finished reading the passage and applying a few minutes of thought, a central theme should emerge, shouting from roof tops so to say. How do we reach that stage? Central to all prose writing is the point that a paragraph contains a central idea. When we complete each paragraph of the passage, we should ask ourselves what this central idea is and preferably jot this down on a scratch paper in just four or five words. We may call this a paragraph review. We may also jot down as part of the paragraph review, inferences and conclusions that we can draw, comparisons if any and the purpose of anything that is unique Once you have completed this process for all the paragraphs of the passage, look at your scratch paper and go through the ideas jotted down. Try and link these together and form a central theme, which should also be jotted down on the scratch paper. Now give a thought on the authors tone. Is he light hearted, serious or matter of fact? Is he trying to sell a new idea? Is he emotional about the central idea? A clear understanding of the central idea and the author’s tone are essential to answer the following questions. Once this process is done you may answer the questions and there will rarely be a need to re-read any portion of the passage. If there is any question which cannot be answered now, it is better to guess rather than go back to reading the passage as this will only waste time and rarely find the answer.

Instead of using a scratch paper some may be more comfortable with highlighting a few words/sentence in the passage itself to bring out its central idea. To my mind his is an inferior technique but by all means use it if you are more comfortable with it.

Some Sample Questions

Question 1:  ‘Meter’ is a unit of measure derived from one millionth of the radius of the planet Earth. Based on this which of the following is true:

  1. A) The radius of the planet is the perpendicular bisector of all the auxiliary latitudes
  2. B) The first geodetic survey of the Meter was(?) done by Willebrord Snell.
  3. C) The Nautical Mile is equal to Imperial Mile in meters.
  4. D) It is impossible to derive the Meter using land based geodesy techniques and materials as was available in the 18th
  5. E) None of the above.

The answer is E as all of the other statements are red-herrings.  Do not get caught up looking for the red-herrings.  It may be prudent to skip such a question and revisit at the end time permitting.

Question 2
A) Some days are longer than others during the calendar year

  1. B) A few of Da Vinci’s paintings were lost over time.
  2. C) It is possible that there were no protests in Washington D.C. in 1946
  3. D) All students writing the MCAT do well on the CARS section
  4. E) None of the above.

Here there is neither a passage nor a question.  If you analyse, other than for statement D, all other statements are ‘some’, ‘a few’, ‘is possible’.  Statement D is the only specific sentence with ‘all’.  By elimination, the answer got to be D.  Can you now guess the question?

Question 3:  Gautier was indeed a poet and a strongly impressive one- a French poet with limitations as interesting as his gifts. Completeness on his own scale is to our mind the idea he most instantly suggests. Such as his finished task presents him, he is almost the sole of his kind. He has imitators who could not mimic his spontaneity and his temper. Alfred de Musset once remarked about him “at the table of poets his glass was not large, but at least it was his own glass”.

Why does the author quote de Musset in this passage?

  1. A) To show that all of Gautier’s contemporaries were his fans.
  2. B) To prove that Gautier’s poetry was objectively the best.
  3. C) To show how different Gautier and his poetry were.
  4. D) To show the weaknesses of the French style of poetry.
  5. E) None of the above.

The answer is C.  The quote by Musset ending with ‘it was his own glass’ points to the answer.

CARS is not at all be the nightmare that it is made out to be. In fact, if your vocabulary and ability to see the big picture are okay, then half the battle is won. All that remains is to polish the skills by relentless practice, backed up by record keeping of your scores.

 

Identity Discs


The movie 1917, based on the First World War, tells the story of two young British soldiers, Lance Corporals William Schofield and Tom Blake who are ordered by General Erinmore to carry a message to Colonel Mackenzie of the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, calling off a scheduled attack that would jeopardise the lives of 1,600 men, including Blake’s brother Lieutenant Joseph Blake.


Schofield and Blake cross no man’s land to reach an abandoned farmhouse, where they witness a German plane being shot down.  They drag the burned pilot from the plane. However, the pilot stabs Blake and Schofield shoots the German pilot dead. Schofield promises Blake as he dies that he would complete the mission and to write to Blake’s mother.  He removes two rings from  Blake’s fingers  along with the round Identity Disc worn around his  neck.

Schofield succeeds in reaching Colonel Mackenzie, who reads the message and reluctantly calls off the attack. He is told that Lieutenant Joseph was in the first wave, and after  searching for him among the wounded, finds him unscathed. Lieutenant Joseph is upset to hear about his brother’s death, but thanks Schofield for his efforts. Schofield gives Joseph his brother’s rings and Identity Disc and requests him to write to their mother about Blake’s heroics.

As I watched it, I made a mental note to write a post on the identity discs worn by the soldiers. On a philosophical note it reminds every man in uniform that martyrdom is just around the corner. However, at the practical level, it has a specific purpose. They bear the personal number, name, regiment, religion and blood group of the soldier and serve the twin purpose as both a recorded evidence of a soldier’s death in action as well as for the eventual recognition of the body, in case there is a need. When there are a large number of fatal casualties over a short duration, it serves a purpose of keeping a record of death. It must be sounding a bit eerie to the uninitiated.


In the Indian Army we had to wear these Identity Discs while on operations and during various training exercises.  Actually there are two discs – an oval disc with holes punched on either ends and a round one with a single hole.  Our soldiers wore the oval disc on their left wrist and the round one around their neck.  On inquiry they said that it is to ensure that one disc will remain with the body even if the hand shears off.  The logic did not appeal to me at all, but I could not find any instructions regarding the proper way of wearing the discs. Surely we were not fighting a battle with swords to have either our heads or hands to shear off.

I had no difficulty wearing the round disc around my neck, but the oval disc around my wrist was always a worry.  I lost them during most training exercises and had to get a new one made every time.  Obviously there was something amiss – I thought.

In 1988, I had to appear for a promotion examination in which ‘Military Administration’ was a subject.  Disposal of the mortal remains of a martyred soldier was an issue on which I often had many questions.  Our Battery Commander was Major VN Singh, a 1971 Indo-Pak War veteran.  He was well known for his knowledge and meticulous military administration skills and had just been posted to our Regiment after a stint as an administration and logistics staff officer of an infantry brigade.  I approached him and he clarified the mystery and explained to me the procedure and the proper way of wearing Identity Discs.

The oval disc, through one hole a cord 24 inches long  is passed through and the chain is worn around the neck.  Using a small cord of about four inches, the round disc is attached to the bottom hole of the oval disc.  In case of death in war, the round disc is removed to identify the dead and the oval disc is left on the body for identifying it whenever the body is recovered.  The round disc along with the soldier’s personal belongings is despatched to the Depot Regiment of the Regimental Centre of the soldier and the oval disc is removed at the time of cremation/ burial or despatch of the dead body to the soldier’s home and kept for records.

Identity Discs of Indian Army owe its origin to the British Army.  The first British ‘Disc Identity’ was introduced in 1907.  It was a single identity disc, fitted with a cord to be worn around the neck underneath the clothing.  The single-disc led to many postmortem problems in identification of the dead in that the disc was being removed for administrative purposes, leaving the body devoid of identification.


In May 1916 the second disc was introduced – octagonal in shape – known as “Disc, Identity, No.1, Green”, with the original disc becoming “Disc, Identity, No.2, Red”. The No.1 disc was to be attached to the long cord around the neck, with the No.2 being threaded on a 6 inch cord from this disc. No.1 Disc was intended to remain on the body whereas No.2 Disc was to be removed for administration.

In the movie 1917, Lance Corporal Schofield is shown removing the Red Disc, leaving the Green Disc on  Lance Corporal Blake’s body.


During World War II, British Army soldiers were issued with aluminum Identity Discs – oval and round.


Canadian soldiers’ Identity Disc is scored by a horizontal groove so that the lower portion may be detached. If the wearer becomes a fatal casualty, the lower portion of the disc shall be detached and returned to the Headquarters with the soldier’s personal documents. The chain and upper section of the disc shall not be removed from the body.


US Army Identity Discs consist of two discs. One disc is on a 24 inch chain and the other is attached to the main chain by a four inch chain.

Soldiers can sometimes make decisions that are smarter than the orders they’ve been given.”   ― Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game

A look at Friendship from a Gender Perspective


For most of us, making friends is neither a difficult task nor an uphill climb.  If it were so, we would never have had so many friends at different stages of life.  The aim must be to keep it simple and not complicate it by thinking too much about it.

We make friends from kindergarten to this day in our life and we never really give any serious thought to it.  Some friends are long lasting, some casual and some are ‘once a while’, some have left for the heavenly abode and many are forgotten down the lane.  It all depends on the manner in which we view our friendships. For a person like me, educated in a military school, graduated from two military academies and having served a lifetime in uniform, the bonds are very strong. Whenever I had to call up my friends for any assistance or advice, despite being out of touch for years, they have all responded way beyond my expectations. We may be out of touch for ages, but the bonds are glued all too well that when the link is renewed for whatever reason, the relationship blooms all over yet again.

Our son Nikhil wanted to do volunteer service at Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity at Kolkata for a month.  He booked his air tickets and was planning to look for accommodation near the venue.  Without a second thought, I called Brigadier S Ramakrishnan, my friend since our school days who was then posted at Kolkata, and requested him to help Nikhil to find a suitable place to stay. Without a second thought, he and his charming wife,  Mrs. Vijaya Ramakrishnan welcomed Nikhil into their home and looked after him for the entire duration of his stay.


One day, in June 2018, my close friend and partner in teenage pranks and escapades at school, Vijayabhaskaran (alias Vijas),called me up right out of the blue. Even before he spoke a word, the memory of our many colourful escapades  and the resultant punishments we endured together flashed through my mind. He went on to announce that their daughter Sandhiya, pursuing her engineering education in Germany had found her life partner in Ernesto, a Peruvian citizen.  The marriage was scheduled for 05 January, 2019 at Piura, Peru.  I felt honoured as I was the first one outside the family that he was informing of this cross cultural development.  “Surely, we will be there!” I assured him without a second thought. It was only later that the realisation dawned on me that a school boy friendship was now taking me to a new continent and a lost civilisation where I had not tread before.

I had learnt about Peru in middle school geography and about the Inca civilisation in history.  I knew Peru was in South America, with Lima as its capital.  But where is Piura?  A Google search helped us to locate the venue enabling Marina and I to travel to Peru and attend the wedding.

Vijas and I shared nothing in common – a Tamil Hindu and a Mallu (Malayalam speaking) Christian- brought up in different family and cultural settings, pursuing different professions- Vijas is a top Chef of India who features in the book ‘25 of India’s Biggest Chefs’ by Sagrika Ghoshal.   Our friendship blossomed at school and remains as strong till date, despite the geographic distance that separates us. After school, I served the Indian Army, later migrated to Canada,  whereas Vijas is based in Bangalore. Distances, geography and professions don’t seem to matter much to our lasting friendship.

Now, here is a different perspective. Marina studied in a residential school and was in a hostel for graduation.  She was very excited to join the WhatsApp group of her school friends, but the excitement lasted barely a month.  She remembers most of her school friends, but appears to have forgotten most of her university friends.  Our daughter Nidhi too seems to be treading the very same friendship path as her mother.

Our son Nikhil has four good friends from his school days who belong to different ethnicities around the globe.  They follow different passions and areas of studies – Patrick in literature, Nam in drama, Thomas in art & design, Kevin in music, Nikhil in Pharmacy with a career in the Canadian Military. The Five Boys, they ensure that they get together once a month at Toronto, just to toast their friendship.

Patrick’s grandmother recently passed away at the ripe old age of 91.  She meticulously maintained a dairy.  During her funeral, excerpts from her diary were read.  It contained many references to the Five Boys.  Surely, during their many visits to Patrick’s home, the boys would have kept the old lady in high spirits with all their charm and humour.

After Nikhil’s Graduation Dinner, there were ‘after-party’, ‘after-after-party’ and so on, with lots of alcohol flowing.  Next day noon I picked him up and while driving home he said “I did not know that these girls are so messed up with their friends.  Those we thought were the best of friends were getting at each others’ throats after a few drinks with their bitching and free flow of profanity.   We boys appear to have less complicated relationships.

You can very well call me a sexist, but I am pretty sure that the outlook is poles apart and gender specific.  As in many facets of life, even when it comes to friendship, ‘Men are from Mars and women from Venus’!!

Developing Reading Skills in Children


While on a family trip in our car, Marina asked our son Nikhil, then a University Student, as to how he developed reading skills.  The question was pertinent as Marina had migrated to Canada and I as a single parent had brought him up through his Kindergarten and Grade 1 while I was serving in the Indian Army.  Our daughter Nidhi was initiated into reading much earlier by Marina as she was a home-maker and I was invariably tied up with my military duties.


Nikhil explained “While I was in Kindergarten every evening Dad would read with me stories from many story books that I had inherited from Nidhi.  The story which interested me the most was ‘Three Pigs and a Wolf.’  The book was a well illustrated one from a kid’s point of view and every page had a small sentence, thus easier for me to comprehend.  Dad would use different voices for the three pigs.  The best was he named the third Pig the smartest one as Nikhil.  That held my interest.  Further he would make changes to the story every time he read it and I used to be very inquisitive about it every time he read it to me.”

The four words माता पिता गुरु देवा (Matha Pitha Guru Deva) simply translates  as ‘Mother Father Teacher God’. The word sequence originates in the Vedas, the scriptures that contain the essence of Hindu Philosophy. The four words contain an axiomatic truth regarding the order of reverence as laid down in the scriptures, which everyone needs to adopt. Irrespective of religion, down the ages, the idea has always been fundamental to Indian thought. It follows that as Parents You are your child’s first teacher.  Not that one needs a philosophical backing to comprehend this basic truth. It’s just that this basic tenet of human understanding had evolved thousands of years ago, at the very dawn of civilisation.

One of the first tasks of the ‘parent teacher’ is to develop reading skills in your child.  You’ve got to read with your child every day.  Children will always imitate their parents – obviously children of parents who read turn out to posses better reading skills.  Children who are read to will end up loving to read.  It’s got to begin when your child is very young, as soon as you can make him/her sit with you.


When I joined Sainik School in Tamil Nadu in Grade 5, I could neither speak nor read Tamil, the native language of the state.  By interacting with my classmates learning to speak Tamil came very easily, but how to learn to read the language?  When I was in Grade 8, my buddy Vijas gave me an advice which hardly anyone would have heard of – “Look out there, it is the cinema poster for the movie ‘Raja Raja Cholan’.   Read each letter of the Tamil alphabet to form a word and continue the exercise whenever you see a poster while on the run to the dam every morning during Physical Training.”

I employed Vijas’ technique with Nikhil.  While driving – dropping him off at school, picking him up after school, commuting to the swimming pool or tennis court or for music class in the evening – I used to point out to various road signs, billboards, store and restaurant signs on the roadside and make him read them out aloud. Then we would discuss the various aspects of displayed signs.  Every time we came across the McDonald’s logo, he would react differently.


Here is the link to his reaction and reading.  McDonald’s logo is one of the most popular emblems in modern history.  It consists of an arched golden coloured ‘M‘ on a plain red background.  This simple one letter logo with two contrasting colours is bound to stay in the memory of any child, even without the gastronomic connection. Their eyes get promptly zoomed on to this simple logo from a long distance.  Whatever it is, the use of a single letter or the colours, everything homes on to a child’s imagination without making it look complicated.  The mantra is Just Keep It Simple.


What should your child be reading? Priority should obviously be given to what evokes his interest as obviously will sustain the reading habit and improve reading skills. Books about your country, other important places in the world, wild animals or dinosaurs – anything and everything, but age-appropriate.  Fiction – action, fantasy, science fiction, funny stories, comics, all of them foot the bill.  Adventure stories where the child can imagine to be the super-hero, princess, detective, and so on are ideally suited.

When your child raises questions?  Ensure that your child has time to think while he is reading and this can be assessed by the questions that may be thrown at you.  Many a time it could be somewhat uncomfortable too.  Be prepared to answer all the questions and never snub the child.   While answering, instead of preaching, ask a question that will lead your child to talk about what he or she thinks.  That will give confidence to your child that you are listening.


Which language to communicate with your child?
  A pertinent question mainly for the immigrants.  I recommend the language which you and your child are comfortable with.  It need not be English all the time.   Communicating in your mother-tongue will enthuse your child to learn more about your own cultural history.

With the effort you devote to developing your child’s reading skills, your child will grow up to become an excellent reader with strong writing skills. The knowledge gained will eventually transform him/her into and a valuable citizen. Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man (Sir Francis Bacon). It’s a gradual flow from one to the other. We all need to remember that even in today’s age of technology there is simply no substitute to reading skills. It will surely reflect on your child’s grades and will make a difference when he or she enters university or the workforce.

You don’t need a lot of special skills to help your child learn to read and write. You need not be super-parents.  Just spending time with your child doing everyday activities with a focus on the ‘written word’ makes all the difference in the world.

Public Address (PA) System


Can you hear me at the back?”  Queried the Reviewing Officer at the Passing Out Parade of our nephew, prior to commencing his address to the Cadets.  There was a seven second utter silence that followed – as if those seven seconds did not exist in this world for everyone gathered out there.

Did the Reviewing Officer not trust the Commandant of the Academy, a General Officer, who invited him to be the Reviewing Officer?  Would everyone at the Academy have not put their best foot forward to ensure successful conduct of the most important and venerated event at the Academy?  As Cadets during our own Passing out Parade in the past, haven’t we all seen the Herculean efforts put in by everyone, especially the team responsible for the PA system, to ensure that each word spoken is audible at every nook and corner of the Parade Ground and beyond?


Was the Reviewing Officer expecting a reply?  Was he expecting a Cadet lined up in front to acknowledge his query?  Did he expect the Adjutant mounted on his charger, with a sword in his right hand and reins of the horse in the other to raise his sword as an answer?  Did he expect the buglers standing on the ramparts of the fort behind to play a note in acknowledgement?

What if the address was not audible to the Cadets? Would it make a huge difference? No. They would have already been bored to death with the surfeit of advices from all and sundry.  I do not remember a single word of the address by the Reviewing Officer at our Passing Out Parade, though the Reviewing Officer was the most charismatic of them all, Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.  So would be the fate of any lesser mortal here and now. Senior military officers could sometimes do well without recourse to ‘out of place clichés’.


My mind flashed back to my military service days.  Once a month in military service, it was the day of the ‘Sainik Sammelan’ (Address to Soldiers of the Regiment by the Commanding Officer (CO)), a monthly ritual, mostly held on the last Saturday of the month.  During my Regimental service, I had observed that a Sergeant responsible for the PA System would set it up well before everyone assembles, tested it by tapping his fingers on the microphone and saying “Testing, Testing, Testing.”

Once the Regimental Sergeant Major assembled all the soldiers, he would also test The PA System by tapping his fingers on the microphone and saying “Testing, Testing, Testing.”  After the Sergeant Major gives his report to the Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer.  The Adjutant then receives the report from the Subedar Major who then hands over the parade to the Second-in-Command (2IC).  At every stage of reporting, no one seems to trust the poor PA system and everyone tested its functionality.

Now comes the auspicious moment of the arrival of the CO.  The 2IC gives the report to the CO and the CO settles down on the dais.  As he is about to commence his speech, the PA system would sabotage by itself and give out a most shrill and unholy tone “Koooooooooooo  Thap” and refuse to do its job. Pure and simple system generated retribution for the lack of faith!! The CO looks at the 2IC, who in turn gives a frowning look at the Adjutant, who gives a dirty look at the Subedar Major, who now gives a dirtier look at the Sergeant Major, who finally gives the dirtiest look at the hapless Sergeant who set up the PA system.  Obvious display of lack of trust at every level of command.

Sainik Sammelans have been an event for the CO to demonstrate his oratory skills.  Some COs believed that they could communicate all their ‘accumulated wisdom’ on to their captive audience during the Sainik Sammelan and often in such cases, it would extend to several hours.  In effect there is no transmission/reception of wisdom, but it always ends up with sore bottoms, numb feet and a few caricatures of the CO by the officers.

Captain Desh Raj was the self appointed commander for all young officers (Lieutenants and Captains) of our Regiment. One day, after the CO’s Regimental Sainik Sammelan, Captain Desh Raj summoned all of us, five young officers of the regiment, and directed us to show him our note pads where we had noted down the points briefed by our Commanding Officer.  All of us, except one, were reluctant to display our pads.  We were all trying to hide our note pads, but Captain Desh Raj successfully managed to snatch them from us and glanced through them.  Soon thereafter he declared “None of you can make a good caricature of our CO.  Your artistic skills need to be toned up.  Look at my note pad and the next time I would like to see a better caricature of our Commanding Officer from you all than this masterpiece of mine

That was when I realised that all those serious note taking by all young officers were much the same and on similar lines to what Captain Desh Raj did!  When I became a Battery Commander and later a CO, I ensured that all my Sainik Sammelans were of less than ten-minute duration. Possibly, I was mortally scared of my subordinates drawing my caricature! So I resolved not to give them time for the act.

Whether the PA system is working or not, there is no need to raise the question “Can you hear me at the back?”  Every speaker must realise that nothing much can be done at the nick of time other than the speaker straining his vocal cords to make the speech audible to all.  It only shows lack of trust in the organisation or the person who invited you to speak. Above all, a routine and meaningless cliché that is best avoided!!

Abiding Faith


While commanding the Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA) Regiment at Devlali in 2003, I received a call from the Colonel General Staff (Col GS) of the Artillery Division, our higher HQ, that he wanted our soccer team to represent the Division in the Corps level soccer tournament. The tournament was to commence in a week’s time and our Col GS knew that we had a very good soccer team.

The Col GS is in charge of the General Staff branch, responsible for training, intelligence, planning and conduct of operations, beside a host of other less important subjects. Most orders from the General Officer Commanding (GOC), pertaining to these issues are actually drafted and signed by him.

Our Col GS was Colonel Azad Sameer (now a Veteran Brigadier) and he was my friend, philosopher, mentor and guru while I was in command. Our relationship had started off on a strictly official level and evolved into a personal one of mutual respect and friendship at an emotional level. The entire Regiment knew this for sure, such that one day our Adjutant (the officer who acts as an administrative assistant to the Commanding Officer) came to me and said “We implicitly respond positively to all orders and instructions passed by the Col GS as we all know that you would always want them to be executed without a question.  Rather, there is no appeal against it even in the Supreme Court of India.” Now these words coming from an Adjutant who was fully aware that his Commanding Officer was no ‘yes man’ and invariably had issues with unfair/ incorrect orders or those that were either complicated or made no sense; these words quite simply summed up our professional and personal equation.

Colonel Sameer and I had never met before during our military career and our first meeting was when our Regiment became part of the newly raised Artillery Division.  We developed an instant liking for each other from our first meeting, a continuing equation as on date.

Our Regiment was then a cooperating unit of the School of Artillery, and as such we were not administratively under the Artillery Division.  The request for sending the soccer team came from the Col GS (who was also a soccer enthusiast and a very good player) and I had to take a decision whether to send the team, or politely tell him why it was not possible.  I was not obliged to do so, rather it was against the norms of the Indian Army. Also I was aware that if my response was negative, he would well understand.  But somewhere deep down I wanted to be positive in keeping with the ethos of our relationship. If I were to ask for approval from the School of Artillery, it would surely have been turned down.  The Regiment had immense training and administrative duties under the School of Artillery and manpower was always at a premium. The question was ‘will we be able to spare 14 soldiers for three weeks?  That too without proper military authority?‘ It’s also a case in point regarding some tough decision making that a Commanding Officer is required to do in a peacetime army.

I summoned Major Suresh Babu, our Second-in-Command to discuss the issue.  He led our soccer team to victory in the Station Tournament.  The most critical game of this tournament was with the team of officers attending Young Officers’ Course at School of Artillery for they were fresh out of the Military Academy and were fit as a fiddle.

After hearing me out, Major Suresh said “We got to send the team; it’s obvious from your words.  We can cover the soldiers’ move as a training event, but to send an officer we need explicit permission from School of Artillery which is near impossible.”

A decision was made – we will send 14 men comprising the football team and the Col GS was to find an officer to lead the team from any of the other regiments of the Artillery Division and the same was conveyed to Col GS. Well that was that.

In the normal course, a divisional sports team would be drawn from the talent of all its dozen or so units, after a competition or trials and would have trained together for a while. So it is very seldom that a regimental team gets to represent a division. Sometimes in the Army, the Command and Control Hierarchy can be a strange animal. Here in this case while our Regiment was operationally under the Artillery Division, we were not under them for administration, sports or training. To that extent the orders to send the football team may even be viewed as illegal!! But having made the decision, more with my heart than with my mind, I got the team around, explained the overall situation and simply told them that they ought to do well. Being a Regimental team, we maybe a little short of talent, but that was well compensated by the ‘espirit de corps’.

After three weeks I got a call from Colonel Sameer – his voice brimming with excitement and pure elation.  He said “Reji, Congratulations!  Our team came runner-up in the Corps soccer tournament!  I never ever dreamt that this experiment would work the way it did and your boys would do so well!” Well I was a bit surprised too at the progress they made and thought to myself that although the orders were not entirely correct, I was happy with the decision I made and its outcome, both for the formation as well as the Regiment.

A few days later, we had a long chat over the phone about the soccer tournament.  Colonel Sameer was really thankful for our Regiment sending the team and said “Only you could have done it!”  I too was bit surprised about the laurels our team brought for the Artillery Division.

It turned out that a young subaltern from another regiment was appointed the team captain and as per his report it was very clear they would not have progressed to the finals of the tournament without the dedication and commitment of the soldiers from our Regiment.  He said that rather than he leading the team, they were forcing him to lead them.  They used to be up early morning and would reach the ground for practise and he too had to follow them.  They devised strategies for each game and he only had to lead and implement them.

He reported that the senior Havildar (Sergeant) of the team, Havildar Dharambir had said to him “Our Commanding Officer has sent us on a mission having complete faith and confidence in us.  He spared us to play this tournament despite the heavy commitment of our Regiment.  Other soldiers in the Regiment had to put in extra hours to cover our absence.  We got to do our best as we cannot let down our Commanding Officer and the Regiment.  I am sure you will surely lead us to our aim.

Keep abiding faith in the men under your command. Laurels will surprise you. 

Trusting your soldiers will not diminish or vanquish the anguish, but will enable you to endure it. 

Passing Out Parade at Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) Chennai


It was an important milestone for Gentleman Cadet Jerrin Koduvath who passed out from OTA Chennai on 07 March 2020.  The entire Koduvath family were there at the Parameshwaran Drill Square to witness the occasion and bless Jerrin on the auspicious moment of him stepping into being an Officer in 56 Engineer Regiment of Indian Army.


The Drill Square was smartly decked up befitting the ceremony with all military ornamentation.  The most conspicuous was the seating area for guests to witness the parade.  The witnessing area was covered with hydraulically operated awnings extending forward towards the Drill Square.  Under the covered space were rows of permanently fitted comfortable seats and under the awnings were four rows of removable chairs.  A bottle of mineral water was placed on all seats and that was really worth and refreshing.  The ceiling fans ensured a constant movement of air to ward off the Chennai heat and high humidity.


We were 24 family members and all of us ensured that we were at the Drill Square by 5 AM so as to get the seats that offered the best view of the proceedings.


Admiral Karambir Singh, PVSM, AVSM, ADC, reviewed the Parade.


The Cadets marched with precision at the Parameshwaran Drill Square and the proud parents and relatives of the Officer Cadets and dignitaries witnessed the mesmerising parade. 136 Gentleman Cadets and 31 Lady Cadets along with eight Gentleman Cadets and three Lady Cadets from friendly countries were commissioned as Officers following completion of vigorous training at the Passing Out Parade.


At the Parade, it was a pleasant surprise for me to meet Veteran Major General PK Ramachandran and Mrs Hema Ramachandran.  General Ramachandran commanded 75 Medium Regiment at Sikkim and Ambala.


After the Parade, we had a sumptuous breakfast at the Cadets’ Mess and then we moved to Pratap Pipping Lawns for the Pipping Ceremony.  Pratap Pipping Lawns too had excellent seating arrangements facilitating everyone a clear view of the proceedings.


Late Captain Pratap Sing, MVC (P), and I grew up as Lieutenants together at 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) from 1983 to 1988.  In May 1988 he attained martyrdom at Siachen Glacier.  Hence, I was emotionally charged, with my heart thumping, to be at this place, to pip Lieutenant Jerrin Kodvath.  More about Captain Pratap, please click here.


On culmination of all ceremonies, I walked to the Jessami Company living area where a bust of Captain Pratap had been installed by his OTA course-mates.  While training as a Gentleman Cadet at OTA, Captain Pratap was in Jessami Company.  It was a bit disheartening to note that the bust had no resemblance to Captain Pratap.  May be, I would have been among a few who interacted with him closely during his last days in Indian Army.

The Commandant OTA, Officers and staff need to be complimented for exceptional organisational skills and administrative arrangements for conducting such a Parade and all other connected ceremonies.  Everything was as fit as a T.


After the ceremonies got over, a grand tea was hosted for us at the residence of Major Subhash Chander of 75 Medium Regiment, now posted as Instructor at OTA and his wife Preeti.  We, the Koduvath Family stand indebted to Major Subhash and Preeti in extending all-out support and guidance to us for attending all the events connected with the POP and making us extremely comfortable.


With gratitude we the Koduvath Family thank all the staff of Trident Hotel, Chennai for ensuring a comfortable stay for us for three days during the celebrations.  Special thanks to Sudharshan Iyer who recommended Trident Hotel  and Varun Sharma, Trident Hotels for coordinating all arrangements for us.

Trees : My Childhood Companions


Growing up as a child in the ‘God’s Own Country’, – Kerala – in Amayannoor village of Kottayam District, I was fascinated by the trees, mostly due to the variety that grew in our homestead. Our parents bought this land in 1958 as Amma was a teacher in the village school. Our father decided to move away from our ancestral village to Amayannoor, 15 km away. He wanted to be close to Amma’s school which was just five minutes walking distance – all to ensure her maximum presence at home as we children were growing up.

Some of these ‘companions’ of mine, on which we children climbed as exercise, entertainment and also to bring down their fruits for Amma to cook; their memories linger in my mind. Many of these trees are now uncommon even in rural Kerala.


At the Western end of the homestead grew a Breadfruit (Artocarpus Altilis) tree. The Breadfruit tree in Malayalam is called Kadaplavu – loosely translated to be ‘tree of debt.’ From this name must have originated the local myth that if a Breadfruit tree grew in the homestead, the family would end up in heavy debt. As if to prove their point, many locals advised our father to cut down the tree saying that the previous owners were ridden with debt and it resulted in them selling the land and migrating to the hills of Wayanad. Our father being a rationalist refused to heed to their words. Fortunately, it remained a myth and we were never indebted to anyone as the Breadfruit tree grew luxuriantly and died a natural death about 30 years later.

The breadfruit tree is a fast growing tall evergreen tropical tree, reaching a height of 20 meters, with many spreading branches. The leaves are large which are deeply cut into lobes. It is believed to be native to New Guinea and is now cultivated throughout the tropics for its tasty fruits. A fully grown Breadfruit tree produces up to 200 fruits per year. The fruit is usually the size of a large cantaloupe, but looks like a smaller cousin of the Jack-fruit.


A key ingredient of the Syrian Christian Fish Curry, specially the Kottayam variety, is the Kudampuli (pot tamarind), also called the Malabar tamarind (Garcinia Gummi-Gutta), a special variety of tamarind that grows only in Kerala in India. A Kudampuli tree stood adjacent to the Breadfruit tree and its fruits would ripen in May-June, well before the monsoons. On the garb of plucking the fruits, we children would climb on the tree in the evenings.

The fruit of the kudampuli looks like a multi-lobed pumpkin, the size of a tennis ball, yellowish-red when ripened. We used to break open the fruit to relish the tangy-sweet pulp around 12 seeds inside. The outer covering of the fruit is then sun-dried, smoked over the chimney and then stored.

When I landed in Canada in 2004, there were many Health Supplement stores selling extract of Kudampuli to help speed up weight loss, reduce appetite, and boost exercise endurance. It was claimed that this extract contained Hydroxy-Citric Acid (HCA) that may inhibit an enzyme that helps your body store fat.

This might have prompted a study by Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, New York, which concluded that it had only a placebo effect to help lose weight. A word of caution; some other studies also found that the fruit extract contained some liver toxins. Be that as it may, we still use Kudampuli in Kerala and also here in Canada as an essential ingredient in our fish curry recipe.


Next to our house grew an Irumban Puli or Bilimbi (Averrhoa Bilimbi) tree, another tamarind variety. Its fruits were cooked as a curry and was also pickled for later use. The tree was about 10 meter tall with its leaves similar to curry leaves, mainly clustered at the branch tips. The fruits grew mostly on the main trunk and the thick branches that emanated from the trunk. We used to relish it raw with a bit of salt.

The tree being short, did not have much entertainment value for us kids, but the brood of hens we reared spent their night on this tamarind tree. In spite of all the tricks that we tried, they refused to go into the coop built for them. In the evenings they perched on this tree with the rooster on the top with the hens and other cocks below him; typically, echoing the idiom ‘ruling the roost’. The rooster would crow at the break of dawn, announcing to the world his presence and dominance in the brood. It also served as an alarm for our father, who would wake us all up and commence the morning prayers.


Another interesting tree was Kudappana (Literal translation from Malayalam would be Umbrella palm tree) or Talipot Palm (Corypha Umbraculifera), one of the largest palms in the world, growing to a height of 25 metre. The plant’s single trunk is straight, un-branched and cylindrical, one meter in diameter and ringed with prominent leaf scars. The top is a crown of immense, fan-like leaves; a single leaf-blade at full size being as much as 5 metres in diameter, with a leaf-stem 5 metres long. The leaves are used for thatching, making fans, mats and umbrellas.


We had three such trees growing in our homestead, but we were too scared to climb it being very tall and they did not offer any branches to rest during any such endeavour. These trees were cut down as we shifted to rubber cultivation from tapioca cultivation.

The Talipot Palm tree only flowers towards the end of its life, usually at around 80 years of age. It then produces a spectacular display with an inflorescence up to six metres long containing several million flowers. I have never witnessed this event in my life as almost all of the Talipot Palms in our village have been cut down before flowering. Talipot Palm is today categorized as ‘Threatened Species.’ In Trivandrum, there is a locality called Kudappana Kunnu (Umbrella Palm Hill); sadly, now there is not a single tree of the genre which gave the locality its name.

The fascinating aspect of Talipot Palm was not the tree itself, but the tiny Draco lizard or Flying Dragon (Draco Volans), flying from one Talipot Palm tree to another in search of insects, its main food. With the cutting down of Talipot Palms, these little creatures too vanished from our village.


These so-called flying dragons are wonders of evolution with elongated ribs, which extend and retract. Between these ribs are folds of skin that rest flat against the body when not in use, but act as wings when unfurled, allowing it to catch the wind and glide. These lizards use their long, slender tails to steer themselves, and each sortie can carry them up to 20 meter.

These brown coloured lizards have a spectacular flap of skin on the bottom of their necks called a dewlap. This is bright yellow in males and bluish gray in females. These dewlaps become visible when they make their shrill calls, either to chase away rivals or to attract their mates.

Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” – Khalil Gibran (Lebanese-American writer and poet)