Portugal: A Land of Explorers

But Portugal has a peaceful feel about it. I sit on the terrace overlooking the vineyard there and I feel cut off from the world. You need that sort of thing. – Cliff Richard

Physical Location Map of the Area around 39° 30' 19" N, 7° 34' 30" W

It was Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer who first sailed from Europe to Kozhikode (Calicut) in Kerala in 1498.  Under the leadership of Prince Henry, the Navigator, the Portuguese accumulated a wealth of knowledge about navigation, geography of the Atlantic Ocean and had monopoly on spice trade with Kerala, during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Christopher Columbus who inadvertently discovered a new continent was neither Portuguese-born nor sponsored, but was Portuguese trained. He married a Portuguese woman; obtained navigation charts and related information from his father-in-law, Bartholomew Perestrelo.  He also collected maritime intelligence from returning explorers and sailors.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese born explorer, is known to be the first to first circumnavigate the globe, an exploration sponsored by Spain. He sailed around South America, discovering the Strait of Magellan, and across the Pacific.


On June 18, we flew into the Northern city of Porto – home to Port wine and a beautiful old city centre which UNESCO recognised as a World Heritage Site.  It was a rainy and cloudy summer day and in the evening we set out on foot to explore the city.

Clérigos Tower and Sé Catedral do Porto are the two prominent buildings on the Porto skyline, a must-see location for all those who visit the city of Porto.


From our hotel we walked to Sé Catedral do Porto (Porto Cathedral), built in Romanesque style construction which began in the twelfth century.   The paintings by Nasoni, the carved gilded wood altarpiece and the silver altar of the Blessed Sacrament are all worth a glimpse.


The beautiful blue (azulejo) tiles that cover its galleries, as well as the chapel are from the Gothic period.


The church offers a panoramic view of Ribeiro, is one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Porto. True to its name, the district is situated on the riverbank (Ribeira in Portuguese stems from the word river).


Clérigos Tower is considered a National Monument since 1910. The Tower built in the 18th century, is now a museum, open to the public.


From the church, we walked to the Ribeira, a riverside historic neighbourhood that retains all its medieval charm.  Its colourful and wonderfully decorated façades and many restaurants that line up will please any visitor.


Walking through the Ribeira, along the Douro River, we reached Dom Luis bridge, dating from 1886.  The upper level is used by metro-rail and the lower level by automobiles.  We walked along the walkways on the lower level and reached the wine lodges of Porto.  On one end of the bridge is the former Monastery of Serra do Pilar, characterised by its circular church and cloister.


Port Wine Lodges are located in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite side of the Douro River.  Sandeman’s and Croft’s are two of the best well-known lodges.  Most buildings had red tiled roof, akin to old building’s roof of Kerala, which must be from Portuguese influence.


Below the monastery we found many love locks which couples lock to a steel bridge, and throw away the keys into the river, to symbolise their unbreakable love.  The city authorities are not pleased by such display of love as they consider them as vandalism due to the damage they cause and the cost of removing them.


From the Ribeira, we walked through the rain to São Bento Station, made of glass and wrought iron.  Built in 1900, this beautiful station was named after a Benedictine monastery that once occupied this space in the 16th century.


Inside, twenty thousand azulejos (hand-painted Portuguese blue tiles) cover the grand entrance hall depicting Portugal’s history, its royalty, its wars, and its transportation history. The blue and white tiles were placed over a period of 11 years (1905–1916) by artist Jorge Colaço.


Next to the station stood the Santo Antonio dos Congregates Church built between 1662 and 1680.  During the Siege of Porto (1832-33) by the Liberals, this church became a military hospital and army storage facility.


Our next stop was at the Praça da Liberdade, the commercial hub of Porto, built in 1920s. At the top of the square is the Câmara Municipal (City Hall), with its distinctive clock tower.


Walking through Rua Santa Catarina, a cobblestone paved pedestrian only shopping street, packed on either side with international stores and numerous restaurants, street vendors and coffee shops, we came to a shopping plaza.  My eyes caught on to the Indian made Bajaj Scooter on display in a clothing store.


We continued walking along Rua Santa Catarina and reached the Chapel of Santa Catarina, also called Chapel of Souls. This unique shrine dates back to the 18th century and is completely covered in the typical blue Portuguese tiles.

A bit tired after a long walk through the rain with jet-lag hanging on our eyelids, we dined at a roadside restaurant with entrée being Bacalhau (salted cod fish).  It is the most popular base commodity in Portuguese cooking.  Traditionally there are more than 365 different dishes, one for each day of the year, and the country has a love affair with the pungent smelling fish.

We then returned to our hotel to prepare for the Wine Tour of Douro Valley for the next day

I Quit Smoking


The Beginnings

I have been a smoker from my Sainik School Grade 11 days – from the age of 16. Then as a young teenager in the late 70s, it was all about imitating movie stars. In those far away times, it was cool to smoke both on and off screen. Time was when the great Tamil Superstar Rajanikanth emerged on screen with a cigarette in hand and his bag of tricks. He would flip a cigarette to his lips with uncanny flair and even light a tossed up cigarette with a single shot from his revolver. From Hollywood to Bollywood many including the likes of Gregory Peck to Amitabh Bachan were not far behind. So yes, I simply wanted to be cool. Or was it an adolescent’s act of defiance? Was I telling the world “I am no more my mamma’s boy” or perhaps “I am grown up now and I am tough!’’?

At the time, I had no idea that three out of four adolescent smokers continue to smoke for most of their adult lives, and one out of the three, would prematurely die of some smoking related issue. Years later when I joined the army, smoking continued to flourish aided by the encouraging environment where it was both macho and fashionable to smoke. In our courses of instruction, many a class would commence with the instructor announcing ‘gentlemen you may smoke if you wish’ and would progress with both the class and the instructor being engulfed in a cloud of smoke. It would sound implausible that an ash tray was provided at the desk of every trainee officer. Also, I still remember the formal dinner night banquets in our unit officers mess, at the end of which cigars and cigarettes were passed around as part of the banquet drill!

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Studies are revealing. Statistics show that three fourths of all smokers attempt to leave smoking a few times every year, often unsuccessfully with the average abstinence lasting only three weeks. Nicotine is found to be more addictive than cocaine although in its pharmacologic effects it is much milder. Nicotine is found to increase speed of reaction and improve performance in tasks requiring sustained attention. Per se nicotine is not all that dangerous, it is the tar and other chemicals in cigarette smoke that causes major health problems. Many smokers also feel that smoking is a big help in stress relief, a boredom remedy, and mood enhancer.

I simply relished the act and often reasoned with myself that I really liked it, it helped me in many ways and there is really no reason to give it up but often I went through the cycle of disgust, wanting to give up and restart in full flourish. While serving with our Regiment in Delhi, our revered senior Battery Commander, a chain smoker with whom I shared many a smoke, died of cardiac arrest while undergoing Battle Physical Efficiency Test (BPET), a routine activity in the army. The calamity shocked me a great deal but still it did not deter my smoking. Camaraderie in smoking is just as strong as drinking camaraderie and perhaps only a wee bit less intense than the camaraderie in battle! Smoking friends are simply great friends especially when they come to each others’ rescue as the cigarettes run out.

It was not that I did not want to change, to kick the awful habit of smoking, but just could not do it – for many reasons or rather self found excuses – justifying my continuation to smoke.

My wife Marina, from the day we got married in April 1989 could not make the ‘change’ in me to quit smoking.  She tried all the tricks in her bag and ultimately gave up.  Whenever she spoke against my smoking, I very tactfully looked the other way.

Back in my Devlali days, I had a close friend in uniform. He was a defiant smoker who used to boast that he will never quit smoking.  He, would often tell me quite in jest but with all mock seriousness to place a carton of cigarettes in his coffin, when the time comes. Coming from a practising Christian, the joke reflected his passion for the blue smoke.  Then one day his son was diagnosed with cancer and in six months the young one breathed his last.  After all the rituals of the child’s funeral, at night he took me to a dark corner of the backyard, hugged me, wept like a kid and said “Reji, I smoked so much that my son ended up paying for it.  I never smoked in front of my children, but see what fate has done to me.”  The tragedy resulted in his giving up smoking, but I bashed on regardless, so to say. The thought struck me that emotionally disturbing events in the lives of smokers which are perceived as direct consequences of the smoking habit often result in rapid cessation of smoking.

I wanted to frantically quit smoking when: –

  • I panted for breath in the high-altitudes of Kashmir and Sikkim.
  • Undergoing BPET and various other rigorous physical activities.
  • Our children embarrassed me with their innocent questions on my smoking.
  • I saw the pools of desperation in Marina’s eyes.
  • I did my mathematics to calculate the size of the hole I was burning in my pocket.

But the macho man in me could not and would and do it. Bash on regardless!

In January 2018, my friend-philosopher-guide from my Commanding Officer days, a Veteran Brigadier called me up to say that he quit smoking.  We too were smoking comrades both in and out of uniform.   It was all because his daughter was diagnosed with cancer.  She has fought through it and is hale and hearty now. But this too did not deter me from smoking.

In February 2019, we travelled to Peru to attend my dear friend Vijas’ daughter’s wedding.  It was followed by a week-long tour of Peru.  After two days I suffered prostate gland enlargement or Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) and had to undergo an emergency procedure at a hospital in Peru followed by evacuation to Canada.   My wife blamed it partly to my smoking habit, but this too did not deter me from smoking.


On my last Birthday – 13 March 2019 – our son Nikhil gifted me a JUUL – an e-cigarette to help me quit smoking.  After that, to date I have not smoked.  JUUL was founded by former smokers, James and Adam, with the goal to provide a satisfying alternative for adult smokers.  JUUL’s policy is that they do not want to see a new generation of smokers.

I felt the need to quit for the past 30 years.  I wanted to quit smoking for the past 30 years.  So, it was neither ‘want’ nor ‘need’; but was all about a catalyst.  Our son gifting me a JUUL acted as a catalyst.

The Way Ahead?

Thanks to the initiative by many production houses and sensible movie stars, scenes depicting smoking is now mostly off screen barring a few senseless ones.  Mere statutory warning on the cigarette pack or on screen is simply not good enough.

National Survey on Drug Use and Health, analysis of cross-sectional data from 2006-2013 shows the rate of onset of cigarette smoking among young adults (6.3 percent) was more than three times higher than onset among adolescents (1.9 percent) during this time.  Hence all educational effort must target young adults to achieve any worthwhile results.

Banning cigarette advertisements and sponsorship at entertainment or sports events, and prohibiting free sampling of tobacco products and non-tobacco branded items are worthwhile measures to keep young adults off cigarettes.  Young adults are less monitored and more independent, thus prone to carry on smoking and using other tobacco products.

Meanwhile the tobacco lobby continues to grow from strength to strength with a profit only motive as their inspiration. Reasonably strong worldwide legislation would be required to shackle the tobacco industry.

We have many miles to go in educating young adults about the awful habit of smoking and use of other tobacco products.

Meeting Subedar Major Paramjit Sidhu


We were enjoying the Canada Day long weekend from June 29 to July 01.  Our daughter Nidhi and son-in-law Jay had left our grandson James with us and went golfing the weekend.  We the grandparents were enjoying a laid-back and relaxed long weekend with our grandson.

Canada Day is celebrated on July 01 to commemorate Canada becoming a self-governing dominion of Great Britain and a federation of four provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec in 1867. The anniversary of this date was called Dominion Day until 1982.  Since 1983, July 1 has been officially known as Canada Day.  It is a public holiday, a day off for the general population with all schools and most businesses closed.


In many towns and cities, municipal governments organise many events, often outdoors being summer. These include pancake breakfasts, parades, concerts, carnivals, festivals, firework displays and so on. Canada’s national flag is widely displayed and a lot of people paint their faces red and white – Canada’s national colors.

On June 30 morning, as I was playing with our grandson and also watching the inglorious defeat of the Indian Cricket team at the hands of their English counterparts in the league stage of the World Cup, I received a call on my cell-phone. The caller spoke in a soft and confident voice introducing himself as Subedar Major (SM) Paramjit Sidhu.  He said that he was visiting his daughter in Toronto and had got my number from his Commanding Officer(CO), Colonel Viveka Murthy of 288 Medium Regiment.  He informed me that he was at the Square One Shopping Mall near my home and expressed his desire to meet me.   I could immediately place Colonel Murthy as I had interacted with him on the Sainik School Amaravati Nagar WhatsApp Group.  Colonel Murthy had joined the school in June 1979 shortly after I had left the school to join the National Defence Academy.

Vet Plate
I briefed SM Sidhu that our home is only two minute away and he must come to Gate 8 of the Mall and my car would be parked outside the gate.  It would be very easy to recognise my black Honda CRV with its unique licence plate.

As I pulled alongside Gate 8, a tall smart Sikh gentleman emerged from the shadows.  From his bearing, gait and the meticulous folds of his turban, I couldn’t have missed him a mile away. He was a true representation of the smart and ramrod straight Indian Army Soldier.  On entering the car, he greeted me and introduced himself.  The way he spoke and his conduct was the reflection of the confidence this soldier had and obviously it came from his CO. I felt he was different from many of the Subedar Majors of the Indian Army that I had come across.  Why else should he ring me up in Canada and express his desire to meet a Veteran Gunner who retired 15 years ago?


We drove home to be greeted by Marina and James.  We spoke at length about his daughter, family and military life.  During our interaction I confirmed my earlier belief that he was ‘something different‘ when he casually mentioned about his achievements in powered hang gliding.

After the meeting, I drove him to his daughter’s home, a 30-minute drive.  He was very pleased and thankful to me for this gesture.  I said to him that I take it as a matter of pride and my solemn duty to take care of all soldiers of the Indian Army who visit me. Irrespective of rank and stature, I treat everyone alike.

On returning home, I decided to research on SM Sidhu’s power hang gliding.  SM Sidhu hails from Sangatpura village in Ludhiana district of Punjab.  He joined 76 Medium Regiment and was later posted with the Adventure Cell at the School of Artillery, Devlali.  He has an experience of over eight hundred hours of hang gliding during his 21 years stint there.

On 17 February 2012, he broke the 33 years old British world record in powered hang gliding by covering a distance of 380 km between Sriganganagar and Sanderav near Jodhpur. Gerry Breen, a British Pilot had on May 7, 1979 created the previous world record by gliding 325 km from Wales to Norwich.


Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India conferred Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award to SM Sidhu, named after the first Everest summiteer Tenzing Norgay.  SM Sidhu also holds three national records in hang gliding as mentioned in the Limca Book of Records. What a great achievement for an Indian Army Soldier!!

I am very thankful to Colonel Viveka Murthy for providing me an opportunity to meet and interact with SM Sidhu. It was an opportunity to rekindle a sense of belonging, regale about the good old times and share a camaraderie and esprit de corps, albeit separated in space and time! I felt wonderful and perhaps a wee bit more thankful to him than he was to me.

A Note Pad


During my Indian Army service, I envied all those officers who carried a well organised note pad.  The envy was obvious because I could never maintain one whatever and however I tried.  My pad was almost like God and Time, with neither a beginning nor an end.    I did not know what I wrote where, hence retrieval was never possible.  Why? – I never even attempted it.

Some officers of the extreme meticulous variety had their pad separated into sections to note down instructions and orders from their Commanding Officer, Battery Commander, tasks allotted to Sergeant Majors and Sergeants, and so on.  Some even used different coloured ink to jot down points based on its priority or severity. Some officers even had note pad beside their toilet seat. Supposedly, all the earthshaking ideas dawned on them while they were on the throne, and it had to be noted down there and then for fear of losing them. I did make an attempt once after observing the pad of a senior officer.  I created various sections in the pad, but when I wrote something, it was back to the God status.  When I tried to retrieve some information from it, I realised that it would be easier for me to decipher the Harappan script than my own handwriting.

The Harappan script was used by the Indus Valley civilisation some 4,000 years ago.  From excavations in present-day Pakistan and North-West India, archaeologists have recovered several thousand short inscriptions, mostly consisting of four to five signs.   Till date no one has come out with a satisfactory resolution of these inscriptions.  It is ironic that although the Indus Valley Civilisation existed in the heart of present day Pakistan, the nation claims no cultural heritage from this indisputable fact. Due to the non Islamic roots of the civilisation, Pakistan finds it convenient to hand over all cultural heritage claims to the Indians.

The pad often ended up as an appendage in my uniform’s Left breast pocket.  In the Regiment of Artillery, we very proudly wore the Lanyard on the Right shoulder with its tail end in the Right breast pocket. So the left pocket was reserved for the appendage! At the slightest hint of an order/ instruction coming my way initiated by a senior officer, I took out the pad and dutifully completed the motions.  The pad accompanied me to all the conferences and briefings that I attended.  As every other officer, I too often scribbled into it, using my version of the Harappan script. However, when it came to execution I found it more comfortable to rely on my memory.

Captain Desh Raj (now Veteran Colonel) was the self appointed commander for all young officers of our Regiment.  He was a great sportsman and captained almost all regimental sports teams.  This resulted in him being our mentor and guide in those days.  One day, after the Commanding Officer’s Regimental Sainik Sammelan (Commanding Officer’s monthly address to all soldiers and officers), Captain Desh Raj summoned all of us, five young officers of the regiment, and directed us to show him our note pads where we had noted down the points briefed by our Commanding Officer.  All of us, except one, were reluctant to display our pads.  We were all trying to hide our note pads, but Captain Desh Raj successfully managed to snatch them from us and glanced through them.  Soon thereafter he declared “None of you can make a good caricature of our Commanding Officer.  Your artistic skills need to be toned up.  Look at my note pad and the next time I would like to see a better caricature of our Commanding Officer from you all than this masterpiece of mine

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

In the Army it was all about check-lists and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) and here was I, treading a different path, and relying totally on my memory.  I prioritised and analysed all tasks in my mind and executed them to the best of my ability.  I too had my failures, but my dedication to execute the task always outweighed my failures.  I had a self commitment in that the day I omitted or failed to execute any assigned task, I will accept the consequences and carry a note pad for ever. Well, fortunately, it never got to that.

At the end of our Long Gunnery Staff Course of 13 months, our juniors presented me a mock prize.  You guessed it right!  It was the smallest note pad available in the market with a mention “This will last for your entire military service.”

I was posted as Brigade Major and our Brigade Commander was often peeved with me for not carrying a pad when he summoned me.  He tried all tricks he knew to make me carry one, but failed.  One day his Personal Assistant came to me and said “Brigade Commander has summoned you.  Please carry this pad and pen when you go in.”  I went in to the Commander’s office carrying the pad.  He smiled at me and asked me to take a seat.  He briefed me on ten tasks to be executed and whatever he said I religiously noted them down on the pad.  At the end of it, assuming that he succeeded in making me carry a pad, called for a cup of tea.  The two of us sipped our tea while discussing some mundane matters.  After that I left his office and commenced with the execution of tasks.

After an hour, I got a call over the phone from the Commander. He wanted a progress report on the tasks and I briefed him about the seven tasks completed with three in progress.  At the end he summoned me to his office.  As I entered his office, he pointed at the pad on the table and said “What is this pad doing here?”   That was when I realised that after the discussion over tea, I had inadvertently left the pad on his table.

It is where it is supposed to be.  I do not need it” I said.  Our Commander being a thorough gentleman, even though was livid, asked me “Seriously, please tell me why don’t you carry a pad with you all times like other officers?”  My instant reply was “Only cricket players and women use them.  I am neither.”  (Sorry! My apologies if you deem it sexist).  That was it! Our Commander never asked me to carry a pad ever after.

On assuming command of our Regiment, my orders to all was that no one will take out a pad and start noting down the moment I give any directions or instructions.  They must listen to me with all attention.  In case I felt the instructions were complicated or is likely to lead to any confusion, I or my Staff Officer will issue the instructions in writing with all details.

A few months into command, our Regimental Havildar (Sergeant) Major said “When you start a conversation, my hand first goes into my Left breast pocket.  Then I realise that it is an anathema for you and so bring it down immediately.  Most of our soldiers too face a similar dilemma.

How true was the famous military axiom “It is easier to put in a new idea in a military mind, but it is impossible to take out an old one!

Sacrificing a Family Tradition


When we joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in Grade 5 in June 1971, there were many vegetarians amongst us.  Most Brahmin Cadets up until then had never ever eaten anything non-vegetarian in life.  As the school years went by, many shed their herbivorous status (other than the real hardcore ones) in favour of an omnivorous one.

We were served ground pork curry with bread for dinner on the first Friday of every month.  The meat came from the Yorkshire Pigs that the school farm reared.  Many cadets on joining the school were reluctant to eat pork due to religious reasons and also because they had never tasted it before.  Nowadays the very same pork curry, with all its flavours intact, is very fondly served to the members of the Alumni and their families during the Alumni meet.  Everyone, including little children of the Alumni look forward to this dinner.

Like a true Syrian Orthodox Christian, I too had never tasted pork.  Our family tradition was based on Deuteronomy Chapter 14: Verses 3 to 8 which says “Do not eat any detestable thing.  These are the animals you may eat: the ox, the sheep, the goat, the deer, the gazelle, the roe deer, the wild goat, the ibex, the antelope and the mountain sheep.   You may eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.   However, of those that chew the cud or that have a divided hoof you may not eat the camel, the rabbit or the hyrax. Although they chew the cud, they do not have a divided hoof; they are ceremonially unclean for you.  The pig is also unclean; although it has a divided hoof, it does not chew the cud. You are not to eat their meat or touch their carcasses.”

This was the rule the Jews followed a thousand years before Christ in accordance with The Torah passages in Leviticus that lists the animals people are permitted to consume. It first notes what qualifies an animal that is absolutely permitted.   Muslims also follow a similar rule.  Chapter 6 Verse 146 of Quran says “ We prohibited every animal of uncloven hoof; and of the cattle and the sheep We prohibited to them their fat, except what adheres to their backs or the entrails or what is joined with bone.”

Although Christianity is also an Abrahamic religion, most of its adherents are permitted to consume pork. Since Christianity lost most of its roots from Judaism, Christians are not bound to most of the restrictions of Mosaic Law. However, Seventh day Adventists consider pork taboo, along with other foods forbidden by Jewish law. The Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church also do not permit pork consumption. The Syrian Christians of Kerala belong to this lineage of pork taboo. For many Scottish highlanders too, pork is taboo although the reasons are quite unclear.

It is believed that St Thomas, an Apostle of Christ came to Kerala in 52 AD and converted local Hindus and some Jews to Christianity.  Cochin Jews (also known as Malabar Jews or Yehudey Kochin), are the oldest group of Jews in India, with roots that are claimed to date back to the time of King Solomon (970 – 931 BCE).  St Thomas did not impose any changes to the pattern of worship, rituals and traditions of the locals.  This resulted in Malayali Syrian Christians with the Jews following Mosaic law .  It changed when the Portuguese colonised Kerala in the 16th Century.  Their concept of ‘the cross preceding the sword‘ resulted in forcible conversion of Malayali Syrian Christians to Catholicism.  Portuguese Inquisition used consumption of pork to distinguish between Jews and Catholics and accused the Malayali Syrian Christians of being Jews. Those Malayali Syrian Christians who refused to convert to Catholicism had to flee away from the coastal areas controlled by Portuguese to  the hills in the interior of Kottayam.  They today are further divided into Marthoma, Jacobite and Orthodox factions.

The first Friday of July 1971, we were served pork for dinner.  There were separate tables for all those who did not want to partake the ground pork, where they were served potato and peas curry.  I too joined this vegetarian section. So our taboos were at home. We learned about tolerance to eat what we eat, together, may be at separate tables though, but without hate and rancour.

Cadet Sunil Kumar, our batch mate, a Namboodiri (a hard core Kerala Brahmin) erroneously joined the wrong queue and ended up eating pork.  After eating it, he said it was so tasty that he even went for a second helping.  This motivated me to go for the forbidden pork on the first Friday of August 1971.  I sacrificed a family tradition of not eating pork in exchange for a mouth-watering tasty dish on that day and from then on I never missed it on any first Friday of the month.

So, now I follow the New Testament of Bible (As do most Christians world wide) where in as per Gospel According to St Matthew 15:10, Jesus calls the people to him and says, “Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Minor mercies that religions do offer some flexible options!!

Despite the many health warnings that come with red meat in general and processed pork in particular, to this day I remain a happy and avid pork eater, thanks to Sainik School Amravathi Nagar and Sunil Kumar.

The Lesser Teachers


Teachers play an important role in our lives to become good human beings and valued citizens to society.  Teachers are an extremely important part of any school society and at Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu), it was no different.  What Cadets at our school learned from our teachers at a young age has in most cases stayed with us and will continue to do so till our graves.

Here I am writing not about our great front line teachers, but about those lesser mortals, great human beings, who always worked in the background to make learning easier for us Cadets.  They are the support staff who assisted with most activities that happened at our school.

The oldest of the lab attendants was Mr. Vittal Das.  He was at the Biology lab assisting Mr Paul and Mr George, our zoology and botany teachers.  He made sure that we got frogs for our dissection classes, duly anesthetised with a heavy dose of chloroform.  He was the most politically active among the support staff, even though they were not unionised.  He was in the forefront fighting for their rights.  He was a member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) who remained steadfast with the party and was always singing praises for his leader, Late M Karunanidhi.  Despite the dismissal of Karunanidhi Government in 1976 and the drubbing DMK received in the 1977 elections, he remained loyal to the party.

Manuel, the Physics Lab Attendant was a man for all seasons, all because he was assistant to Mr. PT Cherian, our Physics teacher.  Mr Cherian was an icon and was in the forefront for almost all activities at our school – cultural show, cinema projection, photography club, operating the public address system for all events and so on.  Where ever Mr Cherian went, Manuel was there, like his shadow, to assist him.

Then there was Samuel, our Chemistry Lab Attendant who like any typical lab attendants at any school, posed as a ‘Mister Know-All’. Mr KM Koshy, our Chemistry teacher during a class session, once sent Samuel on a leather hunt.  He asked Samuel to fetch dilute H2O from the Chemistry Lab.  Samuel returned empty handed after about 15 minutes and dutifully reported “Sir, in our lab there is no dilute H2O, all we have is concentrated.”

Whenever we walked into the library, there was Nazeer, assistant to Mr Stephen, our librarian.  He had a smile for everyone and was always on the double in the library – placing books back on the shelves, arranging periodicals and newspapers on the tables, setting the chairs right, etc.  He was very particular that the cadets used the library to enhance their knowledge and insisted that we read newspapers, the only source of information in those days in remote Amaravathi Nagar.  He used to deliver newspapers to us even on Sundays and Holidays at our dorms so that we never missed the day’s news.  He was instrumental in my developing a reading habit, especially the attachment to ‘The Hindu’ newspaper.

Mariya Das, the younger sibling of Manuel had two roles to play.  He was the attendant at the Academic Block whose main duty was to ring the bell at appropriate times.  In those days Cadets did not wear watches (it was a super luxury item and was not permitted as per school rules) and when we saw Mariya Das rushing, we knew that it was time for the period to end.  In the mornings during physical training and the evenings during the games hour he doubled up as a grounds-man.

CMN Grndsmen
(Late Mr C Madhavan Nair with his Grounds-men, from the left – Maria Das, Achuthan, Kuppan and I cannot recollect the fourth one)

It was a marvel as to how our Chief Grounds-man, Achuthan ensured that we Cadets were provided with all equipment needed for the morning Physical Training and evening games.  He was assistant to our Physical Training Instructor, Late Mr C Madhavan Nair.

With his team of four illiterate grounds-men, they ensured that the gym with the boxing ring was always maintained meticulously well.  Every afternoon, it was their duty to ensure that all fields were marked properly and all nets were in place.  We had to draw the balls and other sporting kit from Achuthan every evening at 4 PM.  He ensured that all kit handed over to us was serviceable and kept a track of them even if we left them on the ground.

The ultimate test of the team work of Mr CM Nair and his grounds-men was the conduct of the Annual Athletic Meet and School Day.  How they accurately marked the 400 meters’ track, pits for the jumps and lanes for the throws – all still remains a mystery for me till date.  This most important event of the school year culminated with the ‘Massed PT’ for the School Day, involving all Cadets from grade 6 to 12.  There too the role of the grounds-men in providing us with various equipment and marking the spots for us to stand during the Massed PT was indeed commendable.

Regarding our dedicated and caring Mess Waiters, please Click Here.

School support staff play an important role in ensuring the students are nurtured in a safe and supportive environment. They foster positive, trusting relationships with students and improve school climate by encouraging students to actively participate in all school activities, especially in a residential military school.

Every Cadet who has graduated from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar really had an intimate connect with the school support staff, especially their positive behavior which had a great effect on us the Cadets. In a quiet sort of way, they had touched our lives in ever so many ways with tender care.

Military Ethics and Politics in Canada


The House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament voted unanimously on May 14, 2019 to apologise to Vice Admiral Mark Norman, Vice Chief of Defence Staff, for his legal ordeal  with a resolution that “ The House recognize Vice-Admiral Mark Norman for his decades of loyal service to Canada, express regret for the personal and professional hardships he endured as a result of his failed prosecution and apologise to him and his family for what they experienced during their legal conflict with the government.”

What was remarkable was that the resolution was moved by a member of the opposition Conservative party and passed by the house duly supported by the ruling Liberal party whose government was mainly responsible for the Admiral’s ordeals. Indeed, it was an unmistakable sign of a healthy democracy. The passage of such a resolution was a tacit admission of error on the part of the Liberal government, however much one may argue that the investigation and subsequent procedure is carried out by independent agencies.

However, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had a hard time saying sorry to Vice-Admiral Mark Norman.  He refused to apologise when asked directly to do so by Conservative Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Scheer.  Trudeau’s response was to blame Stephen Harper, his Conservative predecessor, for awarding a defence contract, in which the admiral allegedly had an interest.

Scheer pointed out the double standard and launched a vicious attack on the Prime minister for his willingness to spend untold millions of Canadian tax payers’ money for prosecuting a righteous public servant, Vice Admiral Norman who was a national hero.

When the resolution was put to vote, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already left the chamber and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was absent.  In an election year this will surely have its political consequences.

In stark contrast to the passage of this apology resolution, I was reminded of the several instances of senior officers of the Indian defence forces being convicted by court martial and cashiered/ dismissed from service in disgrace. In quite a few instances the higher courts of appeal have rejected the court martial verdicts and restored the lost honour of these officers. However, there was not a single case of an apology from anyone, not even the concerned service Headquarters to the individual.

At the time when charges were pressed against Vice Admiral Mark Norman, he was the Vice Chief of the Canadian Defence Forces, the Number 2 man in the military hierarchy. For a western democracy, it was perhaps a rare incident of such nature.

What was the case against Vice Admiral Mark Norman?

The Canadian Navy urgently needed a supply ship as HMCS Protecteur, Canadian Navy’s only supply ship was engulfed in a blaze in February 2014, rendering it unserviceable.  The ship had to be towed by a US Naval ship to Pearl Harbour.  The Conservative government in power then placed an order with Quebec-based shipbuilder Chantier Davie Canada Inc (Davie) to convert a civilian cargo ship into a military supply vessel at a cost of $668-million.

Prior to the award of the contract, the Conservative Government changed the federal procurement rules to allow a single vendor contract without competition, which was questioned by the incoming Liberals. The Conservative Defence Minister defended the decision to amend the rules to facilitate the single vendor deal, as the Canadian Navy wanted a Supply Ship urgently and the normal process would involve 30 to 36 months.

In November 2015, the new Liberal Government apparently took a decision to pause and review the deal. The information was leaked to James Cudmore, then a CBC reporter. Following the leak, there was a public outrage in Quebec. The liberal Government then backtracked and quickly approved the deal.  However, furious with the leak, the Government ordered the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to investigate the matter.

In January 2017, Vice Admiral Mark Norman was suspended from service and more than a year later subsequent to raids at his residence, the RCMP charged Vice Admiral Mark Norman with breach of trust, alleging that he leaked cabinet secrets to both an executive at Davie and to a journalist.   In its court brief, it was alleged that Norman ‘knowingly and deliberately’ leaked this information and breached cabinet secrecy on 12 separate occasions between October 2014 to November 2015.

Norman vehemently denied any wrong doing pleaded not guilty to the charges and said that he acted with integrity, ethically and “in the best interests of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Forces and, ultimately, the people of Canada.”

Government’s case against Norman unexpectedly began to collapse in March 2019, partly under the weight of information from several former Conservative cabinet ministers and staffers. The new evidence, gathered by Norman’s lawyers and presented to the court on March 28 included some documents which were not uncovered during the investigation, something Norman’s lead defence lawyer blamed on government obstruction. The independence of the investigation carried out by the RCMP also comes into question.


The case took a turn on its head the moment Liberal MP Andrew Leslie announced his retirement from the federal Liberal caucus and expressed his wish to testify for the defence in Vice-Admiral Mark Norman’s trial.  His testimony would have been politically embarrassing for the government, coming from the ruling party MP.  It was a political ‘hara-kiri’ for Leslie who said that he will not be running for re-election in 2019.

Who is Liberal MP Andrew Leslie?  Why was he defending Vice-Admiral Mark Norman?


Veteran Lieutenant General Andrew Brooke Leslie served Canadian Army for over three decades.   He was an artillery officer commissioned in 1981 and rose to the top of the hierarchy to be appointed as Chief of the Land Staff in Jun 2006.  He retired in September 2011 and was elected MP of Liberal Party in 2015. Prior to his retirement, he was assigned the task of making a ‘transformation report‘ of the Canadian Defence Forces. On this task Admiral Mark Norman was his deputy and part of the team that submitted the report. So Admiral Mark Norman was a subordinate well known to the General.

While appearing as defence witness, Leslie would have no specific knowledge about the allegations that led to the charge against Norman, but would have insight into how the case was treated by the Liberal government, both during the investigation and throughout the pretrial phase. The Admiral’s legal defence had often often made the accusation of political interference which may well get substantiated by the General’s testimony. Also, knowing the nuances of the procurement process and probably having faced frustrations similar to the problem of procuring a supply ship may well state in testimony that the Conservative Government decision to amend the procurement rules was well justified.  All these would surely have been politically embarrassing for the government.

The General acted like a General to defend the honour and well being of his subordinate, a comrade in arms, even at the cost of his political future. This is a classic case of military loyalty to the organisation and ultimately to the Canadian nation in a larger sense.  Notice that there was a personal cost involved and therefore becomes all the more praiseworthy

At the end of it, the government was forced to drop all charges against Vice Admiral Mark Norman.  What caused the prosecution to drop the charge is not yet known.  It is obvious that for the conviction to stand, the aspect of personal gain and damage to public interest would both require to be proved. There is no indication of any available evidence towards this.  In the face of mounting public statements from then Conservative cabinet ministers and staffers that the Admiral’s recommendations for single vendor deal with Davies was made only in the best interests of the Canadian Navy, the prosecution was probably left with no alternative but to drop the charges.

The Canadian public will come to know of the reasons that prompted the state to drop the charges only if Norman ever files a civil lawsuit against the government for the ordeal that he faced.  Norman said he has an ‘important story’ to tell Canadians, which he will be sharing in the coming days.

On being exonerated of all charges, Vice Admiral Mark Norman said “I am confident that at all times I acted with integrity, I acted ethically and I acted in the best interests of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Forces and, ultimately, the people of CanadaThe alarming and protracted bias of perceived guilt across the senior levels of government has been quite damaging and the emotional and financial impacts of the entire ordeal have taken a toll.”  Like a true soldier he did not blame anyone for his ordeal and was preparing to get back to work immediately.

Meanwhile, the supply ship that Vice Admiral Norman fought for, MV Asterix (It is not christened HMCS as the ship is only leased by the Canadian Navy.  It is not commissioned by the Navy and is manned by Naval and civilian crew), has been in service for more than a year, refuelling Royal Canadian Navy ships around the world. Many in the Canadian Navy say that conversion of the Asterix from a merchant vessel to a Naval supply ship is a rare example of a defence project that was delivered on time and on budget.

So, in the face of a decision which apparently went right all the way, pressing charges against a man who recommended the course of action probably seemed meaningless.  Was it simply a case of a political squabble between the Liberals and the Conservatives into which a man in uniform was unwittingly drawn? We shall probably never know!