Love Thy Soldiers Than Thyself

Listening to an interview of Brigadier General Ross Coffman of the US Army on military leadership, I was fascinated by his revelation that it was his father who too served the US Army was the one who instilled in him a duty to serve the nation, and to love the men and women who fought alongside. General Coffman narrated an incident with his father.

A close relative was skimming through the pages of his father’s album and came across some photographs of his father as the Platoon Commander with Sergeant Elvis Presley.  He said “If you sell these photographs, you will earn huge money.”


(Images Courtesy US Army)

When Elvis Presley turned 18 on January 8, 1953, he fulfilled his patriotic duty and legal obligation by registering for the US Army draft.  At that time he was a rock and roll music sensation.  Though the US Army offered Presley an option to enlist in Special Services to entertain the troops, he decided to serve as a regular soldier. This earned him the respect of his fellow soldiers and countrymen.  Thus Presley became US Army Serial Number 53310761 and after his basic training was assigned to D Company of the Third Armored Division’s 1st Medium Tank Battalion.  This took him to Germany on October 1, 1958 and he served with the Regiment until March 2, 1960.  On January 20, 1960, Presley was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

What impressed young Ross the most was his dad’s reply.  “I love all the soldiers who served with me.  My love for them will never be on sale.

On assuming command of a Surveillance and Target Acquisition(SATA) Regiment at our operational area in Rajasthan during June 2009, where we were deployed to go into battle at any moment, I walked into our office and asked for the ‘Last Will and Testimony’ of all soldiers.  I realised that most were incomplete or inaccurate with respect to the name of the next of kin, spouse and children. When I inspected the documents of the clerks who were responsible for their preparation, I found the same glaring errors and omissions.  Realising the gravity of the situation at the juncture when war clouds were looming, I decided to automate the personal documentation of our personnel, starting with the generation of the Last Will.

Having served throughout with a Medium Artillery Regiment, and on staff assignments, I had a very basic, broad based knowledge and exposure to the equipment and operational functioning of my new unit which was all about radars, surveillance equipment and survey. Achieving thorough proficiency in these subjects became my foremost priority. Therefore, my mornings were well spent on training with our soldiers on the equipment.  By noon it was too warm for any worthwhile learning and I used the rest of the day to familiarise with the soldiers by interviewing them at my office.  Please read https://rejinces.net/2015/12/28/firstmlname/

When I moved in to command, I had four boxes – two for my personal belongings and two housing my desktop computer, printer, scanner and various other accessories.  My personal computer was the only functional computer in our Regiment then.

I began my automation project by creating a basic database comprised of  the soldiers’ personal number, rank, name, next of kin, spouse and children. With each interview, the database expanded to include other relevant aspects.  By the time I completed the first round of interviews, I had to conduct another round as I had more data to collect.

With the assistance of three soldiers, we captured most of the required data and I programmed it to ease various documentation aspects – Part II Orders, pay & allowances, promotions, qualifications, training schedules, nominations for Insurance & Provident Fund, leave availed and printing of relevant forms and certificates concerning every aspect of documentation pertaining to soldiers.

The interviews went on to the third round and our soldiers appeared to enjoy the experience.  During one of the breaks while on a reconnaissance mission, my radio operator, Naik Ranjith, a good mimic, enacted a soldier’s expression on being summoned to the Commanding Officer’s (CO) tent for an interview.  It commenced with the discomfiture of the soldier seated on a chair in front of the CO.  Until then, soldiers always stood at attention in the CO’s office unless ordered to stand ‘at ease’.  On being seated, he was served a cup of tea and to complicate the matter further, he was offered a biscuit!  The soldier’s dilemma was,  how he could drink the tea and eat the biscuit while answering the volley of questions fired at him by his CO.  The seat in front of the CO’s table came to be named as the ‘hot seat’.

The ‘hot seat’ helped me to learn a lot about our soldiers and also to break the ice with them. Rather, it melted the ice altogether. At the end of this process, we had a robust database which could execute most documentation tasks at the click of a mouse. Our biggest achievement was that we could print all documents that were required to process the grant of  pension to soldiers who were due to retire, running into over sixty pages, accurately, without errors, with the click of a mouse.  It made the clerks redundant.


By the end of November 2002, we returned to our permanent location at Devlali as a cooperating unit of the School of Artillery.  The news about automated functioning and other welfare measures instituted in our Regiment reached the ears of Commandant, School of Artillery. Two weeks later, the Commandant directed me to be prepared to conduct Lieutenant General GS Sihota, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VM,   the Army Commander, Southern Command, during the administrative inspection of the School of Artillery.  I was tasked to conduct the General in our Regiment for thirty minutes after the briefing by the Commandant at his office.

General Sihota accompanied by the Commandant reached our Regiment and I straight away demonstrated the software and the automated office functioning.  We also discussed various welfare measures that we had initiated in our Regiment.  At the end of the discussion, the General asked me “If other Units of the Army would like to procure this software from you, how much would you expect?”

“Ten thousand rupees,”  I replied.

“Why ten thousand?”

“This software has been designed for our Regiment. I need to work to customise it for others.  I can provide it free of cost, but then, no CO would value it.  Only those COs who sincerely value the importance of documentation of their personnel will spend money to procure the software.”

The Army Commander was convinced with my reply and he gave me the go ahead.  We all left from our Regiment for lunch and the Commandant was happy that the administrative inspection of School of Artillery was concluded with the GOC-in-C’s visit to our Regiment.  About a hundred units, mostly Artillery Regiments and a few Infantry Battalions procured the software from us.

The money from the software accumulated in our Regimental Fund Account.  Our Second-in-Command, Maj Suresh approached me to say that it was my money as it was the fruit of my hard work.  I refused to accept a penny though Suresh was adamant that I take at least 25%.  I said:-

“I developed this software for our soldiers.  I love our soldiers from the bottom of my heart.  I cannot sell my love for our soldiers.  All the money we earn from this software must go to them.”

Having joined our Regiment with four boxes, I left the Regiment after a very fulfilling command tenure with two boxes, leaving behind my desktop computer which dutifully served me for seven years.

Making of a General : A Himalayan Echo by Lieutenant General Konsam Himalay Singh


Congratulations to the author for a well written book with the aim of motivating our youth – an aspect that very few military leaders have  attempted.  The journey of life of a young lad from Charangpat (Lake of the Dragonflies)- a remote hamlet in Manipur – ‘the Switzerland of India’,  to becoming a General in the Indian Army and on hanging his uniform.  His choice to return to his roots to serve  the society instead of enjoying a well-earned retirement at any place of his choosing, is well etched.  He was, in his own words, was a child who was physically weak, shy, scared of heights and the darkness.

Manipur has the highest per-capita number of officers in India’s armed forces.  Now, being the Chairman of the Manipur State Public Service Commission, I have a suggestion.  While appearing for Canadian citizenship, we were required to clear an examination which had 20% questions from Canada’s military history, mostly covering Canada’s contribution during the two World Wars.  India has a very eventful military history, especially post independence.  Through my various blogposts I have been suggesting that the Union Public Service Commission and State Public Service Commissions must have least five percent questions from Independent India’s military history.    This will enthuse the coming generation and will make them aware of the role and sacrifices of India’s Armed Forces. It is sure to make them feel proud.

All through the book, the author’s love for nature has been vividly painted, taking the reader through a visual fete. The description of the author’s grandfather ‘Even the horses kept silent when he coughed,’ kept me thinking for a while. The author’s initiative to recover plastic junk accumulated over the years of army deployment in the Siachen glacier is another example.

The impact of seeing a ten year old handle a weapon by; the need to have a dream in life – to dream big and how to pursue it; participating in family activities and chores; care  for his mother by buying her salt with all his pocket money; overcoming stage fear; moral fibre, by choosing to throw away that ‘chit’ carried by him to the examination hall; listening to the English news to enlarge his vocabulary; the importance of reading (even if not comprehended at that age;) the need to remain focused;   the power of pardon and  courage to be truthful; his adventurous train journey;  the importance of education in the development of any society; the need for hobby – great life lessons that any child will value and benefit from during his growing years.

13th Manipur Polo International 2019 underway
It was a revelation to me that the game of polo originated in Manipur.  His requesting for half a mark to make it to 60 – brought back memories of many of my class mates and also, officers during various courses, begging for a  mark or two to make a better grade.

Team spirit and camaraderie instilled in cadets at the National Defence Academy,  the lack of facilities and time to enhance individual skills; modification of curricula to incorporate leadership skill development;  have been well brought out.

The initial grooming and training  of a Young Officer in his Regiment; the need and role of a mentor; the impact of his carrying the additional load of a soldier during a gruelling professional competition; the importance of participating in adventure activities – provide an interesting peek into the development and growth of a military leader.

The need for re-orienting training and educating the soldiers in dealing with the local population – through the eyes of the author – recipient of the adverse effects of lack of empathy  by soldiers; the adverse effect of Armed Forces Special Powers Act; effect of movies to turn the youth to violence – have been well explained.

The author has given a first-hand information about the plight of the Bangladeshi Chakma refugees; peace-loving Mizos; the clashes between  Meiteis, Naga, Kuki tribes, Manipuri Muslims; religio-communal  divide and its present day implications; present cultural and socio-economic situation   – the voice of a true son of the soil.

Submitting Kanchejunga rolls out like a movie as one reads, especially the fall of the author into a crevasse, coming out of the jaws of death and the felicitation by the Prime Minister of India that followed.

The conviction of the author to stand up against an unsavoury remark against Manipuris by a General at the Defence Services Staff College and the methodology adopted to make the General retract his words shows the maturity of the author and his adeptness in dealing with ‘difficult ‘situations.

A tinge of well appreciated  subtle  humour – panic is fear at highest level of military; the golden epaulettes;   gifting of a telephone by a Pakistani soldier.

The first hand details of the attack on Point 5770, mostly unsung,  gives the reader goose bumps with each activity explained with brevity.  It showcases the leadership traits of the author.  My salute to you Sir for the respect you showed to the fallen enemy soldiers in keeping with the highest military values. Not being awarded the Battle Honour – I hope the Indian Army will make amends for the oversight even at this stage.  It needed an American author, Marcus P Acosta to bestow the honour the author’s Battalion 27 RAJPUT deserved.

The Siachen Glacier experience, the after effects on both the body and mind of the author is well expressed.  The dogs Pista and Pisti and the author pinning his commendation on Pisti, concern against  euthanasia of  aged mules shows the author’s love for all God’s creations.  His wish to command a brigade in the glacier – that too for a rupee – proves his military leadership traits.

The causes that led to the Ind-Chinese recent stand-off as viewed through the author’s eyes is worth a read.


As suggested by the author, the need for a test to assess the psychological and emotional condition of the officers prior to assuming command of units is of utmost importance. If implemented, it will prove to be extremely beneficial to the Army.  Also, the case of boots for soldiers – why every piece of the soldier’s uniform – were privately bought.  There is no worthwhile water-bottle for a soldier since 2000.  The author’s concern for the soldiers’ needs and his moral fibre  to convey it to none other than the Defence Minister in the presence of the Chief of the Army Staff shows the author’s convictions.

The author has fulfilled his childhood dream – he did not stop there – but went on to become a Lieutenant General of the  Indian Army.  He has rightfully credited his achievements to his family, his teachers, his superior and subordinate officers of the Indian Army; above all to the soldiers who served under him.

After writing this review, I felt that I missed a great deal in never getting an opportunity to meet or serve under our first General from the North-East – a true soldier and a gentleman. I sign off with a quote from this book:-

Meeting and interacting with thousands of officers and men under my command gave me more faith in the inner strength and capability of our officers to win any situation.  Only the Generals have to live up to it.

Book Review : Float My Boat by Anil Gonsalves


Statutory Warning :  Do not blame the author for gelastic syncope. 

Compliments to Captain Anil Gonsalves for an excellent biographical book.  The book begins with a well composed poem, which I wasn’t expecting in such a book, that too about our alma-mater, the National Defence Academy (NDA.)  Many pages have been written about NDA over and over and the ‘snake killed many times,  still being beaten harder.‘  Is the tail still moving??

This was a welcome change; something different. The narration, all humorously radiant with an infectious enthusiasm.  It is a collection of  hilarious, stimulating, and thoughtful set of events as they unfold.

When I read the anecdotes about life at the NDA, I relived it with a smile at the corner of my mouth though the real life experience was far too terrible.  The readers who have been through this type of training will enjoy reading  it with a smile, both in their hearts and on their face.  The author has captured all the important and landmark events in a Cadet’s life at the NDA.

The habits acquired at the NDA continue with us like the ‘never used, starched handkerchief.’  Measurements of distance and time during the reunion, I thought it was only my mind’s creation during our reunion.  Now I realise that I have company.  Returning to NDA, I too felt that I must not have grown up so quickly.

The author has effectively brought out nostalgic moments of his Naval life with a tinge of humour, beginning with the last sailing of the beautiful INS Mysore, the cadets’ training ship. Various life lessons the author has hilariously unwrapped are :-

  • Taking care of the sailors or soldiers or airmen, acceding to their request for leave even if it was fake, is sure to make any young officer feel like the Captain of the Titanic.
  • Life as a young officer was always about setting up a classic rattrap and ringing the bell, but every time the rattrap by itself and the tone of the bell had to be different.
  • The weatherman is always right on a wrong day and is the only one to keep his job or not get kicked even if he is wrong 75% of the time.
  • It’s the Commanding Officer who is responsible for every action of his ship and he is the ship.
  • Triskaidekaphobia‘ the fear of number 13 (from Greek tris (‘three’), kai (‘and’), and deka (‘ten’). Hence look intelligent, talk with technical terms, but always check one’ facts before blurting out.
  • English may not be you mother tongue – ‘working hardly’ on your language skills may not be beneficial always.
  • Beware of un-mastered Indian languages – they will land you in a soup.
  • Bathing nude at the NDA did has its advantages.
  • Bull-shit is Indian Army’s prerogative, never knew that it was Buffalo-shit in the Navy.
  • Gunners – the Naval and Army versions – are well known for their stiffness and pranks.
  • You can’t be thrice lucky – especially with a DRDO scientist – that too with a hammer.
  • You must salute the Armed Forces chopper pilots twice.
  • The hard service lesson to follow the Chetwode credo will remain etched in all Armed Forces officers’ minds even after retirement :-“The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.”
  • Travel the world – you will realise how much you missed of the God’s beautiful creations and how much is left for you to see. The travelogues are excellent – I can vouch for the Canadian part of it – and provide excellent tips and a peek into places of interests.
  • The 16 hour flight from India to Toronto is as comfortable as the Taliban therapy.
  • Canadian side offers the best view of the Niagara Falls.
  • Canadians take courtesies to the extremes. They will say ‘sorry’ even if you stamp on their feet.  The magical words like ‘hi,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ – you have to punctuate every phrase you utter with least one of it. Racism or any racial comment or gesture is not liked – especially with young school going children around. (I have had it many a times from our children.)

A Glossary of NDA and Naval terms at the beginning or explanation of the terms would have benefited the reader.  If the reader finds difficulty in getting the meaning of those terms, always remember –It means the same as the first that came to your mind – else Google it up.

If you believe that ‘Laughter is the best Medicine,’ then this book is for you.

Buy Float My Boat Book Online at Low Prices in India | Float My Boat Reviews & Ratings – Amazon.in

Amazon.com: Float my Boat (Anil Gonsalves) (9798675829514): Gonsalves, Capt Anil Trevor: Books

 

The Final Journey of a Fallen Soldier


My book ‘Son of a Gunner’ is partly inspired by this hero – Late Lieutenant ET Joseph.

June 1992 in Nagaland, Lieutenant E Thomas Joseph had finished packing for his trip home for a two-month-long leave to his hometown – Kanjiramattom near  Kottayam, Kerala. Commissioned in June 1991 in the Corps of Military Intelligence, this young officer had finished his year-long attachment with the First Battalion of the Fifth Gorkhas (1/5 GR.)

Suddenly reports of some movement from insurgents in the area began to come in. The Commanding Officer got his Quick Reaction Team together. No one suggested that Joseph go along because the young officer had already got his posting orders and had been dined out from the Unit the previous day. Since he knew the terrain well, he volunteered to go with the team for the operation at night. The other officers tried to dissuade him, but he insisted on going- never to return.

By the next day, his father, Subedar Major A T Joseph, received the news of his son’s death. He immediately left for Nagaland where he laid the mortal remains of his only son to rest.

Col Sajan Moideen, one of Joseph’s coursemates from IMA days, wrote about this tragedy in his blog years later: ‘Deep down, both Joseph and his wife Thressiamma tried their best to overcome their grief. But a sadness that had no closure couldn’t be overcome. The mother in Thressiamma longed to visit the burial place. But they were unable to afford the long journey. Where would they gather that kind of money? How would they travel thousands of miles? Who would know the place? Who would help them? With old age catching up, the hope just faded away. They hoped to meet their son at God’s abode one day.’


June 2016, Lieutenant Joseph’s IMA coursemates from the 88th Regular and 71st Technical Course celebrated their 25th year of service to the nation.  They remembered their fallen comrades.    Eight spouses, brothers and sisters of the Martyrs travelled from far and wide including Australia to participate in the three day celebrations where over 140 officers, 100 ladies and 100 children attended. To remember and honour the fallen amongst them and  to make their families proud, they were presented an apt memento.

But Joseph’s parents were not there. AT Joseph and Thressiamma could not be contacted as they had settled down in Kottayam, Kerala.

With great difficulty, an officer posted in Kerala traced out Joseph’s parents and the mother, Thressiamma expressed her wish to visit her son’s grave as she was not present for the funeral. She also requested that her son’s grave be shifted from the remote region of the North East to his home town at Kanjiramattom.

Determined to fulfil a mother’s only wish, Joseph’s coursemates swung into action.  There were many hurdles on the way to get Thressiamma Joseph to her son’s grave – the old age of the parents, the finances, the long travel, and most of all to locate the grave.

The search for the tomb of the fallen soldier led them to the grave in Chakabama, 30 km from Kohima.  Though the grave was inside a military garrison, no one knew about it.

Thanks to the efforts of the coursemates of  Joseph to find the finances and the magnanimity of Indigo Airlines, his parents and sisters were flown from Kochi to Bangalore to Kolkata to Dimapur.

08 October 2016, Indigo Airlines with Joseph’s parents took off from Kochi airport.


11 October 2016, the parents reached the grave of their son.  Then  commenced the religious rites for exhuming the body. The tombstone was removed and all the mortal remains gathered and placed in an ornate coffin. Full military honours were observed, the Tricolor draped and the casket was transported to Dimapur.


13 October 2016, Courtesy Indigo Airlines, an airline that always honoured the defence forces – the coffin in the company of  the parents and many of his coursemates – landed at Kochi.  A Guard of Honour was presented as the mortal remains touched Kerala. A decked up cortege led by police escorts transported the remains to Kanjarimattom. The Ex- CM of Kerala, Mr Oomen Chandy and Late Mr KM Mani paid a visit to the parents and conveyed their  condolences. After all their boy had come home, after 8890 days of Martyrdom.


14 October 2016, Lieutenant ET Joseph was finally laid to rest close to his house at Holy Cross Church, Kanjiramattom with full Military and State honours.


Now  the mother can visit her son whenever she wishes and place flowers on the day of his martyrdom. Some of the tears in her weary eyes have been wiped. Her dream, fulfilled by her son’s coursemates.


To order my book Son of a Gunner in India, Please CLICK HERE.

For US customers, please visit Amazon.com by clicking here.

Canadians can buy it at Amazon.ca by clicking here.

(Image courtesy A Mothers Dream – The Final Journey – SajanSpeaks)

Should You Vaccinate Against COVID19???


Our family friend and travel partner, Jijo Sptephen, he is a nurse with a Long-Term-Care-Center, catering for senior citizens.  It was chivalrous of Jijo that during the pandemic he did not miss a day’s work and has been a great motivator for the staff at the Care-Center.  With his wit and humour, he has a knack of keeping every one in high spirits.  We have experienced it many times during various trips together.

As he is in the front-line taking care of seniors, he was amongst the first few to receive the COVID19 vaccine in Canada.  He called me up after vaccination and said that he is safe now and there are no side-effects as being propagated in the social media.

The literature handed over to him said ‘Some people may experience side effects from the vaccine, but they will likely be mild to moderate and resolve after a few days. Some of the symptoms are part of the body’s response to developing immunity.

Serious side effects after receiving the vaccine are rare. Should you develop any serious symptoms or symptoms that could be an allergic reaction, seek medical attention right away. Symptoms of an allergic reaction include:

  • Hives (bumps on the skin that are often very itchy.)
  • Swelling of the face, tongue or throat.
  • Difficulty breathing.

After his vaccination, he picked up his wife Annie from work. On reaching home, Jijo called me over the phone and said ”Reji, Please don’t get vaccinated for COVID!”

A bit surprised and assuming that he had had some sever side effects, I asked “Hope everything is fine?

I,m fine, but you don’t get vaccinated before Marina,” he advised.

Why so?” I enquired.

While they were driving home after Jijo picked up Annie, she asked Jijo to stop at the grocers to buy vegetables.  After he parked the car, she handed him the shopping list and said “You go and buy everything as per this list.  I’m staying in the car. You are protected against COVID19 as you are vaccinated!!!!”

 

 

 

Book Review : Serendipity of Soldiering by Colonel (R) Badal Varma

The first word of title of the biographical book ‘ Serendipity’ made me scratch the vocabulary storage of my brain and the obvious way out was to ‘google’ it.  Serendip is the Old Persian name for Sri Lanka.Parts of Sri Lanka were under the rule of Chera kings of Kerala in the fourth and the fifth century.  Dweep in Malayalam, Kerala’s native language means island and hence they called the island Cherandweep.  The Arab traders engaged in spice trade with the Cheras called the island Serendip. The word ‘serendipity’ first appeared in a letter written by Horace Walpole (1717–1797) to his distant relative Sir Horace Mann dated 28  January 1754. Walpole  formed the word from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’

Serendipity could be defined as an act of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for. There are many scientific inventions as a result of serendipity.  Microwave oven, penicillin, x-ray, pacemaker and most importantly and recently Viagra are a few examples.

Kudos to the author, Colonel Badal Verma for essaying the journey of a soldier.  He has given due credit to everyone who helped him traverse through this journey – his soldiers, instructors at various Academies and institutions, his subordinated officers and his seniors.  Shri Bachu Singh, his civilian attendant at the academy too gets a deserving mention. He has brought out the role his parents, wife and children played in this tough and thrilling journey.

In Chapter 9, the author has summarised his relationships with the humans around him and also  brought out the need to respect women, empower them and give them the needed space, both in the society and at home.

Importance of conditioning a soldier’s mind to accomplish the most difficult tasks and how the mind is conditioned for it is explained in detail.  Life of soldiers on a lonely far flung post and his travails, his moments of pleasure and despair, his need to communicate with his family miles away – gives an insight to the reader into the mind of a soldier.

Soldiers’ bond with nature, especially in North-East India, has been captured very well by the author.  The social life of the beautiful people who live in this part of India, their culture, beliefs have been painted well.  I must salute the conviction of the author in pointing out the fault line of the people of mainland India towards these minorities of the North Eastern states and Kashmir, especially the women.

The author has explained what goes through a soldier’s mind when he faces death, that too sure death, having taken two bullets at close range.  The psychology of a soldier and his will to survive and live another day is very well chronicled, especially as the author had a close shave with death not once, but six times.  I haven’t read such a beautiful explanation of the sequence of events and the beautiful line that was ‘The most expensive liquid in the world is a tear. It’s made up of 1% water and 99 % feelings.’

The ultimate sense of soldiering is in forgiving one’s enemy – the man who would have potentially taken his life – by not identifying him in a court.  It proves ‘To forgive is divine’ : from a poem An Essay on Criticism, Part II by poet Alexander Pope.

The author’s encounter with snakes is detailed, but it tends to encourage killing snakes which is unlawful.  The chapter reinforces the prevalent myth that most snakes are poisonous and they got to be killed.  A paragraph or two as to how to deal with snakes, their capture and release in the wild would have been useful.

The journey out of one’s uniform is very difficult for any soldier and even worse is the life in the world outside the army. The experiences of the author in this regard – his candid acceptance of his failures and short comings – and how he faced them must be lauded.

Buy Serendipity of Soldiering Book Online at Low Prices in India | Serendipity of Soldiering Reviews & Ratings – Amazon.in

Mall Walking


Every morning after seeing off my wife to her pharmacy at 8:30, I drive to the Square 1 Mall, about 400 meter from our home.  I drive to the mall only in the winter as the walkways are slippery

One morning Mr Mark, our neighbour inquired, “I always see you with a backpack.  What do you carry in it?” Old habits die hard and you can never take the soldier out of me.

Two bottles of water, three energy bars, a packet of tissues, a bottle of moisturising lotion, a tube of hand cream, a cap, a pair of gloves, a neck warmer, a face mask and some cash,” I said, reminiscent of our cadet days when we had to rattle out the contents of the backpack of our Field Service Marching Order (FSMO.)

This morning as I stepped out of my room with my backpack, our son asked, “What do you do while walking ? Why don’t you get a pair of earphones? You can listen to either music or a podcast while you walk.”  A wise idea! I thought and I immediately placed an online-order for a pair of  earphones.


The Square 1 Mall opens at 6 am, not for shoppers, but for the cleaning staff and for the salespersons to set up their stores.  The aisles are nearly empty where it is always warm at +25°C with music and it never rains or snows.  The ground is even and level and there is no chance of slipping and falling.  Morning walkers, mostly senior citizens use the facility.


Another attraction to walk in the mall are the washrooms at every turn, all spic and span, providing various options.


Square 1 Mall has two levels, the upper and the lower.  Walking fast through the aisles at each level takes me about 15 minutes.  I walk on the upper level for 15 minutes, come down to the lower level and walk for 15 minutes and repeat it.

What do I do while I walk for 60 minutes?

Thanks to Whatsapp, I use this time to call up my friends and relatives in India to exchange pleasantries.  It is the most convenient time – between 6 and 7 pm in India.


While walking, I enjoy the window displays of various stores, especially fashion, attire, accessories, shoes and perfume stores.  While great products and excellent customer service can keep customers coming back, visuals and branding are the elements that get people to walk into a store and the store’s window display plays a big part in this. It got to be fresh and attention-grabbing as possible, positioned at eye level to draw customers’ attention. The message got to be conveyed to a stroller in three seconds and it is not nearly enough time to read anything.


As this is the Holiday Season with the Christmas and the new Year around the corner, it is the time most stores in the mall do maximum business, notwithstanding the pandemic. Thus, all stores put up their best window displays and it keeps changing too.  I look for the changes like the game where one got to identify ten differences in two similar images.

During the walk, I plan out various activities for the day, many based on instructions from Marina in the morning.  It is all about grocery shopping or a visit to our family doctor, buying the correct cut of meat at the butcher’s, trying to figure out the ingredients of the marinade for the meat to be cooked that evening – the list is endless.

I often get calls from her after she reaches her pharmacy about an impending medication delivery with instructions regarding the time of delivery based on the patient’s availability at their home.  Sometimes, it is a query about a report, an invoice or a payment.  In fact I am the CEO, accountant and delivery boy of our company with Marina and I as partners.


These days it is all about Christmas with the mall and the stores all decked up with Christmas themes with red and green – the Christmas colours.  I enjoy all the Christmas trees put up all around the mall.


Last week while walking I observed various advisory and warning signs put up in view of the pandemic.  Many a thoughts flashed through my mind.  Why can’t they be creative?  Why do they have to make it on a drab grey background instead used the Christmas colours?  Why can’t they base it on a Christmas theme with the Santa and his eight reindeer to depict social distancing?


A couple of days ago, I tried to measure my ‘lateral deviation’ while I walked.  In medical terms, it may be classified as gait dynamics. The first time I attempted it was as a cadet to measure my deviation from a straight line as I walked on a pitched dark night during various navigation exercises.  I walked along the side lines of the soccer field and it was about a quarter meter to my right when I traversed 100 meters.

Here I walked along the line made by adjoining tiles on the aisle floor for 100 meters and it was still about a quarter meter to my right.  Neither age nor my being in the Western hemisphere altered it.  I should have measured it while vacationing in Peru in the Southern hemisphere.  May be, it could be to my left.  Anyhow I reserved it for my next trip to Australia and New Zealand.

Book Review : The Be – Know Do – of Generalship by Major General Anil Sengar (Retd)

A well written book – it takes a lot of courage to come out with the truth – and the author has successfully done it.  One could feel the conviction in the writing – not like the utterances of most veteran generals of today – as if the problems did not exist during their times.  My heartfelt compliments to the author.  I have neither served with the author nor interacted with him before and I consider it as my misfortune.

The language is simple and easy flowing.  The book contains worthwhile anecdotes and quotes, mostly from American and German Army and a few anecdotes about Sam Manekshaw.

Our Generals were Colonels and Commanding Officers before becoming a General.  The last place where one is in direct command of soldiers is as a Commanding Officer.

In the book, the word ‘General’  if replaced by ‘Colonel’ and if it is read by Lieutenant Colonels before being promoted to be a Commanding Officer, it  is sure to help them.  The contents are least likely to be of any value to the Generals as most may not accept what is written and their minds are already ‘hardwired.’ A Colonel’s mind can still be influenced.

The chapters 1 to 3 speaks about listening skills in details, but hardly about reading – ‘The Generals who command against me will never read it and the young men who read it will never command.’

The Conference syndrome begins at Battalion/ Regiment levels.  If a Commanding Officer needs to hold a conference, I feel there is something wrong with him – he surely does not know his job and is not clear about the way the task is to be executed.  It is more for finger pointing and to save his ass.  Conferences must be avoided at all costs and must be held only if inescapable.

The author speaks of thirty percent of Infantry Brigadiers being incompetent – thanks to the pro-rata system – in fact only 30 percent are fit.

Lack of moral courage is surely the cause of downfall of many Generals of the Indian Army and it did not happen because they got promoted beyond a Colonel, it was inherent in them during the Academy days itself. Moral values and the lack of it begin to be expressed in command – from battery/ company/ squadron commander days.

It is high time the Indian Army goes in for an objective performance assessment of officers and it got to begin with the Commanding Officers.  Peer evaluation by officers and Junior Commissioned Officers – selected at random, maintaining confidentiality – as suggested by the author will prove credible in the long run – though there may be a few aberrations, but would end more objective and accurate than the present appraisal system.

A must read for all officers of the Indian Army.

Stress Levels : Indian Army Officers


During a recent discussion with a Veteran Brigadier Azad Sameer of the Indian Army who was my mentor while I commanded our regiment, he was concerned about the spate of sudden deaths by heart attacks among number of middle level Indian Army officers (Majors / Lieutenant Colonels.) He attributed it to the increased stress level caused due to heavy operational commitments of the Indian Army.

Is it so?

I took my mind back to my Indian Army days – as a Second Lieutenant in 1982 to being a Commanding Officer  (Lieutenant Colonel) in 2004.  As the years rolled by, operational commitments did increase, but with it improved the availability of resources, life styles and more open interaction among officers at least at Battalion/ Regiment level.

The reasons for increased stress levels among Indian Army officers have been attributed by many to:-

  • Lack of freedom among junior officers to give free feedback about work concerns.
  • Incompetent senior officers.
  • Lack of avenues to express domestic and marital concerns.
  • Lack of support from senior level especially when situations went out of control.
  • Difficult and emotionally demanding work,
  • Uncomfortable management/leadership style of senior officers.
  • Non-recognition of efforts.
  • Complexity of performance review system – Annual Confidential Reports.
  • Lack of mutual trust and unsupportive culture, especially while one is in command of a Company/ Battery/ Squadron – where the Annual Confidential Reports become critical for promotion to the rank of Colonel.

It was so when I joined in 1982 as a Second Lieutenant, but it did improve leaps and bounds as years passed by. To cite an example, when I was a Major, our General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Division passed an order that the entire Mechanical Transport of the Battalion/ Regiment to be jacked-up for a week in case of any vehicle accident.  Our neighbouring Regiment did have an accident and the Commanding Officer had to walk to the Divisional Headquarters for a dressing down by the GOC.  I always wondered as to whether that GOC knew how a Battalion/ Regiment functioned, especially its transport section.  Such Generals became a rarity as years went by and might even be extinct by now.

Another bugbear was the availability of married accommodation for officers and soldiers.  It improved tremendously over the years and Separated Family (SF) accommodation for those deployed in field areas too more than doubled. More married officers’ accommodation was available at training institutions where officers underwent various military courses.  During our young officer days, it was an anathema for any student officer to bring their spouse for a training course, but a lot had changed while I was in command at Devlali, co-located with School of Artillery.

Resources needed for executing operational tasks improved manifold with better weapon systems, equipment, vehicles, etc.  Grants and funds available at the disposal of the Commanding Officers multiplied  with each passing year, which tremendously improved operational efficiency.  There were marked improvements in the living condition of soldiers and officers in field areas, especially along the border and Line of Control.  The road communication network improved with time.  Soldiers and officers mostly travel today by air while proceeding on vacations – an unheard of luxury during my service days.

Improved communication with the advent of cellular phones have revolutionised the communication aspects of officers and soldiers.  Even the remotest posts have reliable communication systems and soldiers easily keep in touch with their family, spouse and children.  Gone are the days of the snail paced ‘Forces Letter.’

The better financial status of officers and soldiers coupled with modern banking facilities like credit/ debit cards, online banking, easy credit and advances have made life much more comfortable.  Gone are the days of ‘installments’ and being perpetually indebted to the Regimental Wet Canteen Contractor.  I remember buying Marina a Fashion Maker Sewing Machine, my first wedding anniversary gift to her on six monthly installments.

The lifestyles of today’s Indian army Officers and soldiers have gone up many a rung.  It was a rarity to find a Regimental officer other than the Commanding Officer owning a car during my young officer days.  While I commanded our Regiment, many soldiers were driving to the Regiment in their cars.

During our young officer days the common saying was “No one ever died because of work, but by the lack of it.”  It was also said that “It is better to be in a field area and carryout professional work than be in a peace station and carry out more administrative tasks.”

Taking into account the above two dictum to be true even today in the Indian Army, increased operational commitment should not result in over-stressed officers and soldiers.

Why there is increased stress among Officers and Soldiers?

Today’s military spouses – of both officers and soldiers – are better qualified with equal or greater aspirations than their spouses.  Many spouses prior to their marriage were working in managerial or high-end jobs and some had to leave their jobs to be with their spouses for a better family life. Those spouses continuing with their jobs remained separated, maintaining a long-distance relationship.

These factors causes work-family conflict which results in exhaustion, both physical and emotional.  Many a times this leads to depression, anxiety, frustration, anger and increased levels of psychological strain.  This work-family conflict adversely affects the quality of the officer’s/ soldier’s relationship with the spouse as well as the quality of time spent with children, family and friends.

Here I would again cite my personal example.  The evening the result of my promotion to the rank of Colonel was announced, Marina invited all our friends for a party at home.  Everyone trooped in and complimented me.  After everyone assembled, Marina said “This party is to celebrate my husband  not making it to a Colonel.  Now I can have my plans rolling and he can take a back seat.”  Marina emigrated to Canada and after two years the children followed and then I landed in Canada.  By then Marina was a licensed pharmacist and earning handsomely.  Thus, I became a house-husband taking care of our children and the household.  The turn of events may not be so for many Indian Army officers, especially those who do not make it in the deep selection to the rank of Colonel and then even deeper selection upwards.

Another major cause of concern for Indian Army is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  A study in Canadian Armed Forces showed that among those invalidated out or those who sought voluntary retirement due to medical disabilities, about 40 percent  were for mental health issues, about half of those were diagnosed as PTSD.  The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS) noted that military service meant moving often and spending time on duty far from family and was a major source of mental health risks – a standard practise for most Indian Army officers and soldiers.

Most Indian Army officers and soldiers suffer from PTSD due to the intense combat situations they face – Canadian Armed Forces hardly face any such situations. Luckily the military echelons never accepted the existence of PTSD in the Indian Army!  I had never even heard of PTSD while in service with the Indian Army until I read a paper by a US Military Doctor on the subject.  Now think of the PTSD suffered by the driver of the vehicle that met with an accident wherein the GOC jacked-up the entire Regimental fleet.  Did anyone address the PTSD suffered by that soldier driver?

Was I prepared to command the soldiers on being appointed the Commanding Officer?

I will emphatically say “NO.”  It was merely by observation of one’s Commanding Officers and analysis.  The Senior Command Course every officer underwent prior to taking over command was nothing but re-frying of what one learnt during Junior Command Course as a Major and also Staff College Course.

Our son when in Grade 12 worked at the city’s swimming pool as a swimming instructor and lifeguard.  One day he said “I teach the kids for thirty minute class and to become an instructor and lifeguard I had to undergo ten levels of swimming, three courses on leadership and swimming instructorship, first aid, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), child psychology and obtain a life saving certificate What qualifications did you  have to parent?”

I did not have any qualifications to be a parent.  It was all by trial and error and also by the knowledge gained through reading and interactions.  Now I asked myself – “What qualifications did I have to be a Commanding Officer? Was I trained for it?  Did I have any formal qualifications like first aid, CPR or soldier psychology?”

There was a suggestion to employ more psychiatrists and psychologists to help soldiers tide over the pressure situations they face.  Where will these psychiatrists and psychologists be located? Will they be available to the officers and soldiers in the field?

It would be prudent to train the officers during Junior/ Senior Command Courses in the psychological aspects of command and HR management to be effective Company/Squadron/ Battery Commanders and Commanding Officers.

Soldiers’ Pensions and Disability


Recently the social media was abuzz with the news of Indian soldiers’ pension being cut by 50% for those seeking voluntary retirement after 20 years of service.  One suggested methodology is to follow the Canadian Armed Forces Pension scheme.  Canadian Armed Forces Pay scales are second only to the Australian.

It is a well established fact that the Armed Forces have a steep pyramidcal structure – more at the officers level – and also at the soldiers level.  The need is to have a young and large base – Lieutenants, Captains and Majors  for officers and Privates for soldiers.

Canadian Armed Forces offers 50% pension on completion of 10 years of service.  Officers who continue further are only put through command and staff courses and they rise up to command battalions/ regiments. This results in:-

  • Those wishing to retire after 10 years of service are generally about 35 years old and many even get married and raise their families on retirement.
  • The 50% pension assures them a constant income and facilitate them to embark on a new career.
  • The pyramidical structure of the Forces is considerably reduced.
  • Those wishing to serve beyond 10 years receive their pension on a sliding scale to be 100% with 20 years of service.

Among those invalidated out or those who sought voluntary retirement due to medical disabilities, about 40 per cent  were for mental health, about half of those were diagnosed as  post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Most Indian Army soldiers and officers do suffer from PTSD due to intense combat situations they face – Canadian Armed Forces hardly face any such situation. Luckily the military echelons never accepted the existence of PTSD in the Indian Army – hence no claimants for disability pension.

Canadian Veterans who qualify for disability benefits receive up to 75 per cent of the salary they were earning when they left the Forces. They are guaranteed benefits for 24 months initially, or until age 65 for those completely disabled, after which the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) kicks in.

The rise of mental health claims is often chalked up to Canada’s difficult 2002-11 combat mission in Afghanistan.  The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat (TBCS) noted that the Afghanistan mission was  far from the only source of mental health risks. Even at home in Canada, military service means moving often and spending time on duty far from family – a standard practise for most Indian soldiers.

Common disability among Canadian soldiers  for Fiscal Year 2018–19 were:-

  • TINNITUS                              6,726
  • HEARING LOSS                   6,139
  • PTSD                                    2,440
  • ARTHROSIS OF KNEE          842
  • OSTEOARTHRITIS KNEE     781
  • DEPRESSIVE DISORDERS  721
  • LUMBAR DISC DISEASE      629
  • OSTEOARTHRITIS HIP         617
  • CERVICAL DISC DISEASE   578
  • FACET JOINT SYNDROME    50

Tinnitus is defined as the perception of a sound in one or both ears or in the head when it does not arise from a stimulus in the environment.  A single indication or complaint of tinnitus is not sufficient for diagnostic purposes. The condition must be present for at least 6 months.  Individuals who experience tinnitus have provided many different descriptions of what the tinnitus sounds like to them. Descriptions include high-pitched sound, ringing sound, whistle, squealing sound, hum, pulse-like sound, etc

There are two general types of Hearing Loss – sensorineural (sometimes called perceptive) and conductive hearing loss.  Sensorineural hearing loss is hearing loss due to a defect in the cochlea or the auditory nerve whereby nerve impulses from the cochlea to the brain are attenuated. Conductive hearing loss means the partial or complete loss of hearing due to defective sound conduction of the external auditory canal or of the middle ear. A mixed hearing loss is a combination of sensorineural and conductive.  A hearing loss disability exists when there is a Decibel Sum Hearing Loss (DSHL) of 100 dB or greater at frequencies of 500,1000, 2000 and 3000 Hz in either ear, or 50 dB or more in both ears at 4000 Hz.

Most Indian Soldiers and Veterans will vouch that a great chunk of them are suffering from  Tinnitus or Hearing Loss and also that most soldiers under their command suffered from it – especially those from the Armoured Corps, Regiment of  Artillery, Aviation  and also Mechanised Infantry.

Will the Indian Military hierarchy ever be willing to accept the existence of Tinnitus, Hearing Loss or PTSD?

Over Structured Training in the Indian Army


While commanding the Regiment, I tasked our young officers to draft a letter in reply to a query from the higher Headquarters on deployment of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones.)  After two days I asked them about the status of the draft and one of them said “Sir, why don’t you please write it as you write much better than all of us.”  I did not like it a wee bit, but my usual response I curtailed and I analysed the reason with them.  I explained to them:-

We all came through the Services Selection Board (SSB) where we were shown nine caricature images of which one could not make head and tail of.  We all wrote nine convincing stories.  The tenth was a blank and still we wrote a story.  We were flashed a hundred words at the rate of two words every minute and were all wrote a hundred sentences.  Had what we wrote not make sense or was not creative enough, none of us would be here.  Where did we lose all those critical thinking, analytical power and  creative thinking?”

A case study I projected to them.  It was about a section capturing two militants in a hideout by an infantry  section.  The situation was posed to ten Gentleman Cadets  (GC), ten Young Officers (YO) Course qualified officers, ten Junior Command (JC) Course qualified officers and ten Staff College qualified officers.

Ten GCs will come out with nine solutions of which eight will work.  Ten YOs will come out with seven solutions of which five  will work.  Ten JC officers  will come out with five solutions of which three  will work.  Ten Staff College qualified will come out with one solution which is sure to fail at its very first step.

It’s all because of the over structured training in the Army at various stages with the level of structuring increasing up the hierarchy.  

It all commenced from the very first document most of us as YOs in our regiments would have created – a Court of Inquiry mostly to regularise an injury suffered by a soldier while playing.  The task would be given by the Adjutant with a caveat “Refer to a previous Court of Inquiry and do the needful.”  From there commences the procedure of looking back and copying forward.

A decade ago, a friend, a Brigadier at DSSC was tasked to suggest methodology to make tactical exercises more creative.  My suggestion was based on the education here in Canada for Gifted Children who form 2% of students.  Gifted Children unusually possess advanced degree of general intellectual ability that requires differentiated learning experiences of a depth and breadth beyond those normally provided.  They are usually segregated at Grade 4 based on a written examination.

Gifted Children Programme is a  carefully designed the self-contained program to meet the needs, characteristics and interests of gifted students. Self-contained classes for gifted students offer a space where the child can relate to their intellectual peer group.

The programme is run by teachers who have additional qualification for such special education. It aims to provide:

  • Learning content more relevant to their interests and abilities than in a regular class.
  • The opportunity to work with and learn from other children with similar or higher intellectual aptitude.
  • The ability to work with like-minded peers who also have creative and complex ways of thinking.
  • The ability to relate with others who have similar interests.

It was mutually agreed that the Gifted Children situation is similar to the student officers at DSSC.  Based on the experience I gained working with both our children who were in Gifted Children programme, I suggested that for one tactical exercise let the students be given a blank map sheet with minimum inputs regarding force level, weapons, logistics etc and let the students commence by marking the International Boundary onward and create an exercise and also a solution.  Here no ‘pinks’ will come handy as every time only the map sheet is changed and there is no pre-made solution.  The instructors will have to work overtime to correct and assess each solution and one or two  among all the exercises may be conducted for the course.

The idea was presented to the DSSC Commandant who asked the Brigadier to present the same to the entire faculty.  At the end of the presentation, senior faculty members came out with a question “How will we assess the students?”

The ‘baby’  was thrown out of the window – with the bath, loofah and soap.  It appeared that the aim of all military training is to assess and not to teach.

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.


It is said that over 60% of pumpkins grown in North America gets converted into Jack-O-Lanterns for Halloween and end up as trash.


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 2019)

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!

 


After three months, I was accompanying our Brigade Commander to the Field Firing Ranges.  As we entered the Cantonment on our return journey, a motorcycle zipped past us.  Marina was driving my Yamaha with the Brigade Commander’s wife on the pillion.  Our Brigade Commander looked at me in askance and said “Your wife can drive the motorcycle, but not with my wife on the pillion.  Please tell her to maintain speed limits.  If some mishap happens, you can well imagine the station gossips.” I secretly wished that I could tell him that he should restrain his wife. But then, boss is boss.

Speed in general and other activities that cause an adrenaline rush were an integral part of Marina’s DNA. She had migrated to Canada in 2002 and the family followed suit in 2004.  While on a family vacation to San Francisco in 2006, Marina was booked by the cops for driving at 100 miles per hour (mph) on a 65 mph highway.  With the consequent heavy fine she had to pay and a steep rise in the insurance premium, I thought she had come to terms with her obsession for speed.

During our vacation to Chicago, Illinois, in 2009, Marina went Skydiving (in tandem) from 18,000 feet, a freefall of a minute and a half.  The advantage of skydiving in the State of Illinois is that it is not mandatory to wear a helmet (even on motorcycles), but the safety goggles is a must to protect the eyes. Thus the videos come out much better without the helmet on.


She had to prove my heavy fine hypothesis wrong when in 2010 she expressed her long cherished dream to own a motorcycle.  I tried to dissuade her saying that motorcycles are not cheap and would cost a small fortune, much more than our cars.   They require more maintenance and insurance is much more expensive. Also, you can drive it only for six months in Canada.  In addition, we also need to procure very expensive associated gear such as helmet, jacket, pants, gloves and footwear over and above the purchase of the bike.  

Unable to convince her, I was out with the ultimate weapon, statistics. I warned her that according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, your chances of dying on a motorcycle are 35 times higher than in a car!  Canadian Medical Association Journal says that motorcycles are the cause of 10% of motor vehicle deaths in the country, even though they only make up 2% of what’s on the road.

Her pharmacist friends and her elder sister who too is a pharmacist advised her that riding a bike to work may not be befitting a Pharmacy Manager and possibly look very unprofessional.  


All sane advice from well wishers and yours truly, did not deter her a wee bit from her avowed intention to own and ride a motorcycle. Throwing all caution to the winds, she went ahead and passed the eye test and written examination to obtain a M1 licence – the first step to riding a bike in Canada.   

The next step was to buy a motorcycle.  To ride on a Canadian Highway where the speed limit is 100 kmph, a bike with an engine capacity of at least 250cc to 400cc is needed.  We visited all motorcycle showrooms from Harley Davidson to Honda – but much to her great disappointment, no one was willing to sell Marina a motorcycle.  But Why?

In Canada, in order to buy a motorcycle, the buyer must sit on the bike with both feet flat on the ground while comfortably holding the handlebars.


They all agreed to sell her a smaller motorcycle – 100cc to 150cc which can be taken only on city streets – but she would not settle for not riding on the highways. And why would they not allow a light motorcycle on the highways?   While driving on Canadian highways with a speed limit of about 100 kmph, the motorcyclists need to share the road with sixty feet long commercial trucks which are also is cruising at about 100 kmph.  Due to various factors such as air pressure and airflow, a large vehicle can create heavy air turbulence. In case your motorcycle is not heavy and powerful enough, this turbulence may affect your ability to control your vehicle when passing a large one.

Well, that was the end of her motorcycle ambitions. Or was it? Perhaps, like a dreaded virus, it lies dormant in some corner of her brain to re-emerge at some opportune moment in a not so distant future!  

Illustrations by Sherrin Koduvath

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.