Banning Cell Phones in Schools


Ontario is banning cell phones in classrooms during instructional time, starting next academic session – September 2019.  Education Minister Lisa Thompson said “Ontario’s students need to be able to focus on their learning — not their cell phones. By banning cell phone use that distracts from learning, we are helping students to focus on acquiring the foundational skills they need, like reading, writing and math.”

The cell phone combined with internet technology has undoubtedly revolutionised our lives in myriad ways. Perhaps there is hardly any facet of life untouched by this revolution. Increasingly, it has become difficult to be active members of our present day societies without the use of cell phones. Like all technologies that have revolutionised human life and behaviour, the cell phone too has its pros and cons. Along with its all too obvious beneficial uses, the cell phones have a number of disruptive influences particularly on children.

Research indicates that in developed countries, a majority of middle school children own cell phones. While some children own their first cell phones when they are 11, nearly 50-60 % of all children own cell phones by the age of 13. In many cases it is the parents who are instigators of the first cell phone purchase. For many families the safety factor along with an enhanced sense of being connected is the major motivator for children being cell phone owners at a tender age. Children from higher income groups tend to own a cell phone earlier than those from lower income groups. Both parents and schools resort to various methods to regulate the use of cell phones to a greater or less degree.

In developing nations, the problem seems to be less acute as it is only a small percentage of well to do children who own cell phones in middle school and majority of children even in high schools still do not own cell phones. While parents of children who own cell phones attempt some sort of regulation on their use, most schools simply adopt a policy of banning these devices within school premises. Just as school uniforms do, such a policy serves as a great leveler between the haves and the have nots. So the dynamics in the developing world seem to be quite different from those in the developed world.

Is the ban proposal a case of resistance to change? During our schooldays too, many such scientific gadgets that enhanced learning were banned and the bans were later withdrawn. It commenced with the slide rule, then it was the calculator. During our children’s schooldays it was the turn of the scientific calculator to be followed by the laptop and then the notepad computers. While it has to be admitted that the revolutionising impact of the cell phone is far different from that of the slide rule or scientific calculator, particularly on the social and behavioural planes, the bottom line is that it is still a new technology that must be incorporated into the learning process sooner or later.

Cell phones help improve Digital literacy, a critical aspect of young students learning. It will also help them to effectively participate in the workforce. The cell phones provide a link between students and their parents, which has an important role to play in ensuring their safety. Evidence indicates parents want this type of access. Students with special needs, such as managing diabetes, and other medical and physiological conditions may be required to access various apps during school(s) hours. Rather than banning cell phones all out, we need to find ways to educate the students to use their phones effectively and efficiently. Banning cell phones will likely lead to underground and hidden use by teens. Rather than reducing cyber-bullying, banning cell phones altogether may show an increase in cyber-bullying.

We know about the 3Rs of learning – reading, writing, and arithmetic. We now need to include ‘research’, thus making it 4Rs. Schools need to educate both the teachers and students about safely negotiating the virtual environment. This means all schools need to develop policies around the use of cell phones during school hours.

A 2015 study by the London School of Economics investigated the impact of restricting  Cell phone use in schools of four cities in England on student productivity. The results  indicated an improvement in student performance of 6.41% in schools that have  introduced a cell phone ban. These findings did not discount the possibility that  cell phones could be a useful learning tool if their use is properly structured. The study  found that cell phone bans have very different effects on different types of students. It  improved outcomes for the low-achieving students (14.23%), and had no significant  impact on high achievers. It showed that low-achieving students are more likely to be  distracted by the presence of cell phones, while high achievers can focus in the  classroom regardless of whether phones are present.

Another study was published in the Journal of Communication Education, Ohio University, based on impact of cell phone usage during class lecture, on student learning. Participants in three different study groups (control, low-distraction, and high- distraction) watched a video lecture, took notes on that lecture, and took two assessment tests after watching the lecture. Students who were not using their  cell phones wrote down 62% more information in their notes, took more detailed notes, were able to recall more detailed information from the lecture, and scored better on a multiple choice test than those students who were actively using their cell phones.

Research published by the University of Chicago found that even if cell phones are turned off, turned face down or put away, their mere presence reduces people cognitive capacity. The paper called the phenomenon “cell phone induced brain drain”.

University of Illinois conducted a study that examined students’ cell phone and Internet use and its relationship to their mental health. The study assessed two forms of escapism amongst students: one that arises from boredom and one used as a way to avoid negative emotional situations.

What are the likely drawbacks of students using cell phones?

  • It surely reduces face-to-face communication. Teenagers tend to message or  text, avoiding a more challenging conversation.
  • Smartphone apps, games and messages prompt dopamine release, creating addiction. Mere presence of a phone in the backpack can distract a student even though the student may not even be checking it.
  • It tends to reduce working memory capacity, mental mathematical ability, logical analysis and fluid intelligence.
  • It has surely reduced the students’ ability to cope with uncertainty and stress. In other words it reduces tolerance for ambiguity. Research shows being uncomfortable with uncertainty is associated with students feeling distracted and tense during difficult examinations or tests. The more uncomfortable young people are with uncertainty, the higher the number of co-occurring psychological problems they report experiencing. Smartphone use is associated with the current epidemic of anxiety and depression.

How can cell phones help in enhancing the learning process?

  • Students tend to carryout research using their cell phones off-campus, later in life in their higher education, and in their professional and workplace learning.
  • In case students want to investigate, collect data, receive personalised and immediate feedback, record media, create, compose, or communicate with peers, in and beyond the classroom, then using cell phones is ideal.
  • Cell phones allow students to learn at a place, time and pace of their choosing, for example, on excursions, or when working on group projects or assignments with friends in more informal spaces like home, while travelling, etc.

Banning cell phones in schools is not the solution as it is important to educate children to live well in the era in which they are growing up. Students must be taught how to use technology to learn, communicate, and work with ideas. Modern technology provides new learning opportunities and the ability for students to develop skills they will need for future careers. The ability to copy what is written on the blackboard or what is dictated by the teacher into a note book is not a particularly useful skill that will help learning in the modern age nor is it what prospective employers are looking for.

An outright ban on cell phone use will hardly ever yield the results intended. Students will always find a way to smuggle it in, even if banned. That said, there is also an overarching need to perhaps severely regulate its use during classes.

Is there a need to regulate the minimum age for ownership of cell phones?

The rules formulated must be implementable at school level without hindering learning and development while at the same time minimise the disruptive effects on tender minds at the social and psychological plane.

Is it worthwhile to ban cell phones in schools? Will the ban be later overturned?

Indian Cricket Team Honours Soldiers


Settling down this morning (08 March 2019) with a cup of tea in hand, I switched on the television to watch India-Australia One Day Cricket match at Ranchi.  the Australian innings had been completed and  highlights showing many blemishes in the field by India was being shown to the discomfort of any Indian fan with Sunil Gavaskar making a snide remark that the best fielder was the wickets standing at the bowler’s end.

Wait a minute! The Indian players were wearing  disruptive pattern Indian Army caps with the BCCI logo in front and the manufacture’s Nike logo at the back.  I scurried through the internet to catch the news about the new headgear Indian players were wearing.

It was Lieutenant Colonel MS Dhoni, a legend from Ranchi, the wicket keeper, who came up with the novel idea.  He handed over the cap to Virat kohli, the Indian Captain, and also to all team members and support staff before the start of the match.  Captain Kohli at the toss said “This is a special cap, it’s a tribute to the Armed forces. We’re all donating our match fees of this game to the National Defence Fund. I urge everyone in the country to do the same, donate to the families of our armed forces.”

This must be the first time the Indian Cricket team must have shown such a gesture to the soldiers.  Obviously, it had complete support from BCCI.


English Cricket Team that played a test match at Rajkot (November 9-13, 2016) were seen wearing the Red Poppy in honour of fallen soldiers to commemorate Remembrance Day (11 November).  Will the Indian Cricket Team ever do so for the Armed Forces Flag Day (07 December)?

Few years ago, we watched a baseball game at Toronto between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rogers Centre is the home-ground of the Blue Jays. The atmosphere was as electric as that of any cricket matches of the Indian Premier League.

During the  innings interval, a sixty year old Veteran from the Canadian Army who was a Captain and had served in many UN assignments was called on to the centre and the Team Management of the Blue Jays presented him with a team shirt with his name printed at the back and with the team captain’s signature in the front. The entire stadium stood up to give the veteran a standing ovation – no one instructed anyone to do it, but was spontaneous. This is what is called patriotism.

Our son then said that during all the matches, a veteran from the armed forces or the police forces, who is a registered fan of the Blue Jays, is honoured this way.

Can we ever expect such a gesture at Mohali from the Kings XI Punjab or at Chennai from the Chennai Super Kings? Why one veteran, we can always honour a dozen at every match.

Will this ever happen in any Indian city? Will this remain a distant dream?

 

 

A Wedding in Peru

Vijayabhaskaran (Vijas), our classmate from Sainik School days. my partner in most teenage crimes at school (we took the resultant punishments too together), called me up in June 2018 to announce that their daughter Sandhiya, pursuing her engineering education in Germany had found her ideal life partner in Ernesto, a Peruvian citizen.  The marriage was scheduled for 05 January, 2019 at Piura, Peru.


Vijas’s voice was beaming with pride, voice choking many a times, narrating as to how and when the two met, experience and interactions he had with Ernesto and as to how they were an ideal made-for-each-other couple.  I felt honoured as I was the first one (other than his wife Amuda) he was informing of this development.


Vijas wanted someone who was just as warm hearted as her, but still had a great work ethic and a sense of determination.  He said that he could not be happier for his little girl – he watched her go through school, music lessons, internships, work, university, immigration to Germany and he realised that he had both God’s blessings, and best wishes from his family and friends in abundance.

I had learnt about Peru in middle school geography and about the Inca civilisation in history.  I knew Peru was in South America, with Lima as its capital.  But where is Piura?  Googled it up and came the answer.

Piura is a city in North-Western Peru, the capital of Piura Province. The population is approximately 400 000.   It was here that Spanish Conquistador (Conqueror) Francisco Pizarro founded the first Spanish city in South America, San Miguel de Piura, in 1532 thereby earning the modern day city its Peruvian nickname: ‘La Primera Ciudad‘ meaning the first city.  Piura served as the first main port through which the Incan gold and silver the Spaniards had gathered was shipped back to Spain. Piura declared its independence from the Spanish on January 4, 1821.  Piura is about two hours of flying time from Lima.

There were four of our classmates from Sainik School Amaravathinagar attending the wedding.  Dr Benoy and Dr Neena from Boston, Aravazhi and Amutha from Chennai, Ranganathan (Ranga) and Akhila from Bengaluru.  We were honoured with the presence of Mrs Anita Chandramouli, wife of Late Group Captain R Chandramouli in the group.  Vijas had planned a Peru tour for a week for all of us after the wedding.  How can we miss a visit to Machu Pichu, the hallowed ancient Inca city?

I booked our tickets from Toronto to Lima and then to Piura and the tour package with the travel agency JourneYou.  All set, we embarked the Air Canada plane to land in Lima on 03 January after a ten hour journey.   This was the first time I ever set foot in the Southern Hemisphere.  Luckily for us, Toronto and Lima fell on the same Longitude, hence no time difference, which saved us the agony of jet lag.  We then took our flight to Piura and reached our hotel in the afternoon, to be greeted by our classmates who had already reached in the morning, travelling over 36 hours.


(From Left to Right : Aravazhi, Self, Benoy, Ranga and Vijas)

Aravazhi was a day-scholar at school as his dad was our teacher – Mr MV Somasundaram.  Four of us lived in the same dormitory of Pandya House and were mentored by our House Master Mr PT Cherian.  We were all meeting Benoy after a gap of three decades, but the moment we met, the timeline seemed to vanish – we were all back as Cadets, sharing all our joy and experiences of life.


(From Left to Right : Shashi Bellamkonda – Vijas’s Catering College buddy, self, Aravazhi, Amuda Aravazhi, Anita Chandramouli, Marina and Akila Ranga)

Our  ladies too got into the act of sharing their life experiences.  Overheard a conversation about recipes and sarees – anything and everything under the sun.

The smartest amongst us all were Ranga and Benoy.  Ranga joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) and served the Indian Navy.  During a football match at school, Benoy suffered an injury to his eye leaving that eye blind.  We were told that with one eye, a person had only 2D vision and could never make out the depth.  We never realised what it meant until we were training on the obstacle course.  One of the obstacles was a ten feet long ditch with a rope hanging in the centre.  Benoy, running to the obstacle jumped forward to catch the rope, but he ended up in the water filled ditch as he could not assess the depth at which the rope was hanging.  That gave us a practical lesson on the 3D vision we enjoy.

Benoy too qualified for NDA but was obviously found medically unfit.  When the final result came out, he was among the top ten who had qualified – What an achievement! After leaving school he joined Madurai Medical College and later specialised in Cardiology.  My question to him was as how he practices cardiology with one eye.  He said that today all procedures are through various scopes which in fact provides only 2D images.


The above image of Ceremonial Parade at school is of 1977 when we were in our Tenth Grade.  Ranga and Benoy are the two Stick-Orderlies with Colonel (Dr) K Jaganathan as our School Captain.


The wedding ceremony was solemnised  on 05 January Afternoon at the Catholic Church.  It was followed by a cocktail and a sumptuous dinner with all Peruvian delicacies thrown in.


We then danced our way through the night to Spanish and Bollywood music.

Remembering a Valiant Soldier


(Regimental Photograph of 1990 with Colonel Rajan Anand, Commanding Officer.  Captain KM Mistry standing in the centre and I seated extreme right.)

Major Khushru Meherji Mistry, a Parsi from Bombay (now Mumbai) was my subordinate at 75 Medium Regiment, who saw action in the Kashmir Valley in 1999. I was then posted at the Army Headquarters, New Delhi.

When Mistry joined our Regiment in 1988 as a young subaltern, my first question to him was whether he was related to Late Colonel KM Mistry, widely regarded as the first great Indian all-rounder and acclaimed by none other than the legendary Ranjitsinhji, who called him the ‘Clem Hill of India’.  In the 1894-95 Presidency fixture at Bombay, he showed what he was capable of with the ball as he recorded figures of 5/11 in the second innings to help the Parsis beat the shell-shocked Europeans – who were bowled out for just 24 – by 120 runs.  Second Lieutenant Mistry was a bit taken aback by my question but he confirmed that he was indeed his great-uncle.  Our journey together as soldiers began that day.


Recently, I came across this photograph of Lance Corporal William Kyle Carpenter who was awarded the United States’ highest military honor, the Medal of Honor.  His citation read For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as an Automatic Rifleman with Company F, 2d Battalion, 9th Marines, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom on 21 November 2010. Lance Corporal Carpenter was a member of a platoon-sized coalition force. Lance Corporal Carpenter and a fellow Marine were manning a rooftop security position when the enemy initiated a daylight attack with hand grenades, one of which landed inside their sandbagged position. Without hesitation, and with complete disregard for his own safety, Lance Corporal Carpenter moved toward the grenade in an attempt to shield his fellow Marine from the deadly blast. When the grenade detonated, his body absorbed the brunt of the blast, severely wounding him, but saving the life of his fellow Marine. By his undaunted courage, bold fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of almost certain death, Lance Corporal Carpenter reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”

Acts such as the one above fully illustrate the expression “raw courage” Thoughts of Mistry came before me on reading about Corporal Carpenter. It was another time and another Kyle Carpenter. Mistry was a professional soldier who loved the men who served under his command.  When we were serving in the valley in 1988, his helper, a soldier from Tamil Nadu, reported that his mother was admitted to a hospital in a medical emergency and that he wanted to rush home.  The Srinagar-Jammu highway was closed due to heavy snowfall and landslides and the only way to reach Delhi was by air. Mistry immediately bought an air ticket for the soldier from Srinagar to Chennai from his own pocket and saw him off.  Yes, he was rich in a monetary sense but far richer at heart.

Mistry was a great orator with exceptional command over the English language.  He was tough, bold, honest and straight forward. We took a spontaneous liking for each other maybe because of our open hearted nature.

On a summer morning in 1995, I got the news that Captain Mistry had been evacuated to the Army Hospital, New Delhi due to injuries suffered by him in a grenade attack. At the time he was serving with a Rashtriya Rifles (RR) Battalion in the Kashmir Valley.   A terrorist had lobbed a grenade in front of the section of men he was leading.  Mistry dived forward and scooped the grenade with his right hand.  The grenade burst mid-air, taking the top two elements of the three fingers off his right palm.

I rushed to the Hospital to look him up and I found a cheerful Mistry sitting in the Veranda of the officers’ ward, reading a book. I enquired as to what happened and he said “let me explain to you in the very same words that I used to tell my mother about the incident, Like Mom prunes her Bonsai collection at home, God did a Bonsai on my Hand. By the way, I have already sent my motorbike for modification so that I can drive it with my Bonsai Hand.”

I was shell-shocked by his reply and we both really laughed it out.

After 30 minutes, while we were having a cup of tea at his bedside, a senior General walked in to meet Mistry to enquire about his welfare. The General commended Mistry stating that it was indeed a brave act which saved the men under his command. Mistry, as curt as he could be, replied “Sir, I did it to save myself.” The General gave a stare and walked off. Obviously, Mistry did not get any award or commendation for his brave act.

On 12 December 1997, while I was posted at Sikkim, Mistry re-joined our Regiment from another one.  He straight away moved into my room and left his belongings there.  In the evening I got my wisdom tooth extracted and due to anesthesia, went to bed early.  At about 8PM, while all officers were at the Officers’ Mess for dinner, my neighbouring room caught fire and in no time my room too was engulfed in fire.  Our exchange operator was the first to react and he took me out of my room.  Everyone assembled to put off the fire.  Mistry and I lost most of our belongings other than my computer and TV which our exchange operator managed to salvage.

Next morning as everyone was quickly going through what the fire had not managed to engulf, I hit upon a few currency notes of Rs100 denomination.  They appeared to have been forming a bundle.  Surely, I never had that money on me and my brain went into overdrive trying to fathom as to from where it came.  My take-home-salary then was much less than a wad of Rs100 currency notes.   Suddenly I realised that Mistry had left his belongings in my room.  I summoned Mistry to enquire and he nonchalantly replied that it was a bundle of notes which his mother had given him as a birthday gift before he left Bombay for Sikkim.  “My mother will give me another bundle if I say I lost it. She will send me another.  So, I am not going to tell her about the fire so that I don’t have to lie to her about her gift”

He passed away a decade later due to cardiac arrest. RIP my friend.

PS:  Have you noticed that both the heroes are ‘Carpenters‘; they share a common last name – the Indian ‘Mistry‘  translates to ‘Carpenter.’

 

Chai –My Favourite Brew


Recently I came across a video clip about TWG’s Yellow Gold Bud Tea.  This tea is believed to have been once the favourite of Chinese emperors and as precious and costly as gold.  In fact, each tea bud is lavished in 24-karat gold, which once infused, yields a delicately metallic and floral aftertaste.

In the Sixties, during our childhood days’ back home in Kottayam, the regular morning brew was coffee.  Ripened red coffee beans were plucked from the coffee trees that grew around our home and after being sun dried their outer covering was removed.  The beans were then fried until they turned black and   ground to a powder at the nearby mill, to be stored in air tight containers. The coffee powder was put into a copper vessel with boiling water and was left for a few minutes for the coffee to be infused and the thick powder would settle at the bottom of the copper vessel.  The extract or decoction was now mixed with milk and sugar and then served to all. Just thinking about it makes one salivate.

The taste of that home-made coffee is now history.  With the advent of rubber plantations, all coffee trees were cut to make way for rubber. Thus the end of home-made coffee powder. We now source our coffee powder from various commercially available brands in the market. Sad change.

Happy change. I took to drinking tea on joining Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, at the age of nine in 1971.  Tea was served to us early in the morning prior to Physical Training, at 11 o’ Clock between classes and in the evening prior to games.  Every cadet took a liking to this tea as everyone looked forward to it.  For many it served as a clock as none of us wore a wrist watch.  The tea had some magic in it as it had the innate quality to kick start all the important events in a cadet’s life!

CadetMessAmar22
What was so special about this magical concoction?  The taste of this tea is beyond words, and could never be replicated.  We tried hard to analyse the secret of this addictive tea. What was special about it? It could be the special blend of the tea leaves or the way in which it was cured. Or perhaps it was the sublime effect of the Amaravati River waters, the vessel in which it was brewed, or the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless.  It still remains a mystery to all of us, but it attracts most alumni to the school every year and they gleefully indulge in consuming steaming cups of this divine tea.

Another most memorable cup of tea that I have had was the tea served by soldiers at the Sadhna Post at Nastachun Pass.  This pass is located at about 10,000 feet Above Sea Level at the entrance to the Thangdhar Valley on the Indo-Pak border.  The narrow one-way road from Chowkibal (about 100 km from Srinagar) was cut along the mountains to Nastachun Pass and then down into Thangdhar Valley.  The road being narrow could only accommodate one vehicle either way.  To ensure a smooth flow of vehicles, all traffic was regulated by a convoy system. The up and down convoys left from Thandhar and Chowkibal at about 8 in the morning and 2 in the Afternoon respectively.  The vehicles on reaching Nastachun Pass would park there, awaiting all vehicles to fetch up from either side.

During this wait, soldiers manning Sadhna Post would serve tea to all.  It was real refreshing cup of tea as one was both physically and mentally tired traversing up through the treacherous roads with many hairpin bends. It was a magic potion that invigorated tired limbs and ebbing spirits.


During winter, the road and the mountains got covered with over ten feet of snow.  The only way to cross over was by foot columns.  The foot columns operated at night, two days after a heavy snow storm to avoid avalanches.  The foot column consisted mainly of soldiers proceeding or returning from leave from their homes, porters carrying essential supplies – fresh vegetables and milk, mail, etc. It took about four hours of strenuous climb to Sadhna Post and was a sure test of anyone’s mental and physical abilities. It was a kind of surreal experience. Talking aloud was not permitted as the vibrations caused by human voice could resonate with layers of snow on the ridge face and trigger an avalanche. On reaching Sadhna Post, everyone was welcomed by the soldiers with a hot ‘cuppa’, a cup of tea that was the most refreshing and tasty—it simply was the best ever. To my mind, it could very well be compared to Amrit – the nectar of immortality in Hindu mythology. The climb down from the Sadhna post appeared easier but was just as treacherous, if not more, due to the tendency to slip and fall.

I have never tasted the Yellow Gold Bud Tea, the speciality of the Chinese emperors. But I am pretty certain that it would pale into insignificance when compared with the Amravati Special or the Sadhna Post Amrit!

 

Brigadier KN Thadani, VSM : An Accomplished Mountaineer


Brigadier KN Thadani and Mrs Sneh Thadani used to take me to the Defence Services Officer’s Institute(DSOI) at Dhaulakuan, Delhi every Sunday and we used to play cards and tambola (housie or bingo).  The evenings would invariably wind up with dinner in some classy restaurant in Delhi.

I also had some interaction with their two sons – Akash and Kailash. I remember signing the documents for Kailash for his adventure training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling.  That was the day when Brigadier Thadani taught me as to why the old rubber stamps had a drawing pin on one side – One needs to always ensure that that correct side faced the document when you stamped one, lest it would turn out upside down!

Brigadier Thadani was also a skilled mountaineer and both passionate and knowledgeable about his craft.  Many years later, while he was commanding 3 Artillery Brigade in Leh, he led the very first expedition of 16 soldiers to conquer Apsarasas I peak. The Apsaras group of mountains lies to the North of Teram Shehr Glacier and consists of a large massif with the ridge line running from West to East. The highest point is Apsarasas I, height 7245 m with Apsarasas II (7240 m) and Apsarasas III (7230 m).


The expedition left Leh on 25 July 1980 (four years before the Indian Army occupied Siachen Glacier), moved across the Khardung La, 18,360 ft (which is reputedly the highest pass in the world over which a road has now been built), and thereafter descended, to the Shyok river and on to the Nubra valley in Ladakh.  The team set up four camps with the base camp at the snout of the Siachen glacier.  The advanced base camp was sited near the confluence of three glaciers, the Siachen, Teram Shehr and Lolofond at a height of about 5180 m (12,000 ft).


A number of parties were sent out on various approaches to determine a suitable route to Apsarasas I. The Western approach along the ridge line was found unsuitable as it had a formidable overhanging glacier on the route to the ridge line. The South-Eastern approach was selected and summit Camp 1 was established on 7 September and summit Camp 2 the next day.

At this stage the expedition was struck by bad weather; heavy snowfall with occasional blizzards prevented further progress on the mountain. The fixed ropes between the two summit camps were buried in the fresh snow and the members had to remain firm in their respective camps. For almost a week, they had to endure extreme privation in the sub-zero environment. Meanwhile, the route to these camps was obliterated by avalanches.

A party of eight moved up to summit Camp 3 having used 15 fixed ropes to secure the route. The following day they reconnoitred the route to the summit and on 18 September, seven of them made an early start and reached the summit of Apsarasas I at 11.12 a.m. They hoisted the Indian tricolour and the expedition flag. They stood in prayer, expressed their gratitude to the Gods of the mountains for having given them the strength to reach the summit and offered oblation. The second summit party of nine members, seeing that the weather was clear and the route to the summit had already been secured, climbed 3000 ft at that altitude. They were fully aware that they could at best return to the security of a camp only after nightfall. They reached the summit at 3.30 p.m., took a few photographs and as the clouds were gathering fast, they hurried back and reached the camp at 9 p.m.


This added another glorious chapter to the history of mountaineering by these 16 gallant men of the Indian Army led by Brigadier KN Thadani. These peaks are now in the enemy held areas of the Glacier. When the line of control was delineated it was not clearly defined in these areas and so the Indian and Pakistani perceptions of the LOC were quite divergent. In those days the ground was not occupied by either army and both countries allowed in mountaineering in these areas. Despite all these circumstances, it was still no mean feat for him and his team to enter what was then palpably Pakistani held territory.  What happened in the years to come with the Indian Army occupying most of the Siachen Glacier is etched in golden letters in the annals of Indian military history.

Even though both his war experience and mountaineering took a toll on his body and mind, like a true soldier, he rarely spoke about it and when he did it was in bits and pieces. He was a man of few words and I used to be ever on the lookout when those pearls of wisdom came from his lips.

Brigadier Thadani loved sports and was a passionate follower of Cricket.  I fondly remember the days when we together watched the Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket, a One Day International tournament held from 17 February to 10 March 1985 in Australia which India won.  The most crucial match was the semi-final with New Zealand – India had to make 207 runs in 50 overs.  In the 32nd over, India was 102 for 3 and needed 105 runs to win in the remaining 18 overs – a difficult task then.   It was Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev who took the team to victory, both scoring half centuries.  The match was nail-biting and intense, and caused Brigadier Thadani and I to smoke two full packets of Wills cigarettes. By the way, Brigadier Thadani, stylish as ever, in those days only smoked his pipe.

As Brigadier Thadani sitteth on the right hand side of God, let me reveal an incident that always remained a fascination with me. Brigadier Thadani, while commanding 3 Artillery Brigade in Leh, had been close to His Holiness Dalai Lama.  In April 1985, His Holiness came to our Officers’ Mess to meet his old friend.  I too had the opportunity to interact and dine with His Holiness and I will always cherish the meeting till my grave.  I was destined to witness this meeting of two great personalities and two best friends who ardently admired each other.

A Letter to Santa


Most children believe in the existence of Santa Claus just as our children did while growing up.  Why wouldn’t they? After all, they always found the Christmas gift they prayed for under the Christmas Tree every Christmas Morning.

During the Christmas of 1994, I was posted as the Brigade Major at Binnaguri.  Veteran Lieutenant General KR Rao, PVSM, AVSM, VSM was then our Colonel General Staff. Before coming to wish us ‘Merry Christmas’ he called up and our daughter Nidhi, aged three, answered the phone and asked him as to who he was.  Colonel Rao with a tinge of humour said “I am the Santa Claus .”  Nidhi was overjoyed and said “Thank you Santa, I got the Barbie which you sent across.  How did you know that I really wanted it?”


Santa Claus – it all began with St Nicholas, saint of children and sailors, a Bishop who lived in the Fourth Century in Myra, Turkey.  He was a very rich and kind man with a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people.  The legend has it that a poor man who had three daughters could not get them married as he could not afford dowry.  One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the chimney and into the house which fell into a stocking that had been hung by the fire to dry.  It was repeated for the second and third daughters. Thus commenced the tradition of hanging stocking by children expecting Santa to drop their gifts down the chimney.


St. Nicholas became popular in the Victorian era when writers and poets rediscovered the old stories.  In 1823 the famous poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ was published by Dr Clement Clarke Moore.  The poem describes St Nicholas with eight reindeer and gives them their names. They became famous with the song ‘Rudolph the Red nosed Reindeer’, written in 1949. The other seven reindeers are named Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen.

Are these reindeer male or female?  Obviously they are females as female reindeer keep their antlers throughout winter whereas the males shed them. It’s a mystery, though, why many of them have obvious masculine names, Rudolph for instance.

Santa in England became ‘Father Christmas’ or ‘Old Man Christmas’, in France, he was called ‘Père Nöel’, in Austria and Germany he was ‘Christ kind’ a golden-haired baby, with wings, who symbolised the new born baby Jesus.

In North America his name was ‘Kris Kringle’ (from Christkind). Later, Dutch settlers took the old stories of St Nicholas with them and Kris Kringle and St Nicholas became ‘Sinterklaas’ or as we now say ‘Santa Claus.’


Canada is home to the tradition of children writing letters to Santa.  Canada Post has been helping Santa with his mail for decades. Since the national program started, in 1981, Santa’s North Pole Post Office has answered more than 27.8 million letters, in 39 languages, including Braille.  Look at the Postal Code – it is ‘Ho Ho Ho’ – Santa’s signature laugh.

Santa is assisted by volunteers called ‘ Postal Elves; who help him with this monumental task. They volunteer more than 260,000 hours to make sure all the children who write to Santa get a reply before Christmas.


The first snowfall or the Santa Claus parades held in most cities and towns across Canada is a trigger for children to write their letters to Santa.  Schools, daycares and homes organise Santa letter writing.  One needs to include full return address for the Postal Elves to deliver a reply.  Postage is free, but Santa loves stickers.  Children are encouraged to write about their favourite sports, jokes, school activities or family fun with pictures and drawings.

A child normally writes two letters to Santa, one from school and the other from home.  In order to prevent a child from receiving inconsistent responses from Santa, all mails from schools and daycares are replied with a generic, poster-size group letter, which will include every child’s name.  A letter from home will get a personalised response from Santa.

Santa is often asked interesting questions by children -, “Does Rudolph have a girlfriend?”; “How many cookies do you eat?” and so on.  Some even ask for reuniting their separated parents.  He also receives requests for toys, pets, dresses, etc. The advent of modern communication technology has not reduced the number of hand-written letters to Santa, but has increased year to year.

Children dealing with issues write letters showing their concerns.  These ‘special letters’ are dealt with by a team of trained Postal Elves — from psychologists and social workers to police —  who help Santa handle them.  If they think the child is in danger, a process is set in motion to solve the issue.  These Elves are trained to give a correct reply that will help provide some reassurance that someone is listening.

We must appreciate Canada Post, the Postal Elves, the teachers, the parents and the children for these letters and for keeping the tradition alive.

Wishing all readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

(Images Courtesy Google)