Where did the Air Conditioner Go?



On reaching Devlali, our Regiment’s permanent location after the deployment in the operational area for about 10 months in November 2002, I ordered the purchase of a window air-conditioner (AC). After two days the AC arrived and was placed in front of the main office complex. That day I went to the Regiment and the Subedar Major (Senior Warrant Officer) with the Regimental Havildar Major (Sergeant Major) and the Second-in-Command (2IC) Late Col Suresh Babu were waiting for me.

My question to everyone present was “Where will this AC go”?  Subedar Major Thangaswamy said “As per the norms of the Indian Army, it is meant for the Commanding Officer’s office, but knowing you well, surely not to your office, sir – we need to find a place for it”. Someone suggested the Medical Inspection (MI) Room and someone else suggested the Regimental Information Room and someone pointed at the Dining Hall of the soldiers.

My contention was that one window AC will not suffice for either the Information Room or the Dining Hall and the MI Room, the Nursing Assistant will lock it up and leave early morning with the sick parade to the Military Hospital and hence no one will be able to use it. Anyhow, I told everyone to ponder over the question and come out with an answer after consulting their men, the next day.

We had a nice barber’s chair in the Barber Shop and by that time I had received the consignment consisting of a hair-washing station, blow dryers, latest electrically operated hair clippers, set of cosmetics, etc through an old colleague and dear friend from 75 Medium Regiment (my Parent Regiment) – Veteran Major GR Kaushik. After hanging up his boots, he is running a high-end hair replacement business at Delhi called “The Marchers International (http://www.marchers.in/ )”.

I took the consignment I had received from Major Kaushik along and headed straight to the barber shop with Colonel Babu. I instructed everyone about the layout of the barber shop and the usage of all the new equipment and cosmetics. The package had a high powered music system and a television too. I then pointed to the window and said that the AC will find a place there. It surprised everyone.

My logic was that it is only the barber shop that any soldier can enter at anytime without any formalities and either of the barbers would be available in the Regiment all throughout. The soldiers really enjoyed the cool air from the AC and also the haircuts with the hair-wash becoming an instant hit.

The barber shop was provided with all sorts of creams – face, skin and hair creams and also shampoo and conditioners.  The SM’s contention was that the soldiers would misuse it.  My view was that they may misuse it once or at most twice, after which they will get used to it.  The barber was instructed to refill anything and everything that ran out from the regimental Canteen and the same was to be charged off from the Regimental fund.  As time progressed, the expenditure on creams and shampoos came down drastically after the initial two months.

After a year, Captain Nagaraj Shetty Jayaram was posted to the unit. He being a bachelor, moved into the Officers’ Mess and I found him ideal to be appointed the Adjutant of the unit. Adjutant is a staff officer who assists the Commanding Officer and is in charge of the organisation, administration and discipline of a unit. Adjutant has to be available at all times and is generally always on the run. Who else would fit in the role of an Adjutant better than a hardworking, enthusiastic and intelligent bachelor Captain.

After meeting me on arrival, Captain Jayaram went to his room in the Officers’ Mess. Prior to leaving the unit, he had called our Barber, Naik (Corporal) Puran Singh. Puran Singh walked in smartly, saluted the new Adjutant to be told that he should report to Captain Jayaram’s room at 3 PM to give him a good soldierly haircut. Naik Puran Singh immediately told Captain Jayaram that the new Adjutant must come to his ‘office’ for a haircut.

This shocked Captain Jayaram , but he maintained his cool.  Being the very first day in a new unit, he decided to visit Naik Puran Singh’s ‘office’ at the appointed time. On reaching the ‘office’ Captain Jayaram realised why Naik Puran Singh had summoned him there. Captain Jayaram had never in his life seen such a luxurious and well equipped barber shop, even in five-star hotels he had been to.

This incident was narrated to me by Captain Jayaram two years after I reached Canada. He said that on the very first day he realised that this Regiment was something ‘different’ and all men were really motivated, confident and professionally skilful.

After I moved out of the Regiment in 2004 and immigrated to Canada, the AC moved out of the Barber Shop.  You all can guess as to where it went.  In the end Subedar Major Thangaswamy was proved right.

Srinivasan Ramanujan : Mathematical Genius


Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematician of the early twentieth century,  whose contributions to number theory, continued fractions, and infinite series revolutionised the field of mathematics.  Mathematician across the globe are even today trying to prove or disprove many theorems left behind by him.

While at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, we had Mr. Venkitesha Murthy (VM) teaching us mathematics in 1977 in Grade 11.  He was a great fan of Srinivasa Ramanujan and had taken up extensive study of his works and life.  The effort would have been really painstaking in those days (without internet and Google) to collect such enormous data, that too sitting in a remote village of Tamil Nadu, called Amaravathinagar.

In 1977, to mark the ninetieth birthday of Ramanujan, Mr. Murthy staged a one hour play on his life and achievements.  Veteran Commander Reginald was responsible for the light effects and I did the sound effects.  We both sat through many rehearsals and the personality of Ramanujan left a deep impression on us.  Teachers and students enacted different roles with Mr. Murthy as Ramanujan leading from the teachers’ side and Ashok Kumar (now Vice Admiral) from the students’ side.

SRamanujan Skit Gp Photo
Group Photo of the Play on Ramanujan- Extreme Left :  Mr K Ekambaram as Ramanujan, Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar as Komalambal (Mother of Ramanujan), Mr KM Koshy as Professor Hardy, Mr Venkatesha Murthy as Collector of Nellore, Mr M Selvaraj as Father of Ramajujan, Mr AKR Varma, Mr R Subramanium as Professor EH Neville (Photo Courtesy Mr Venkatesha Murthy)

Mr Murthy helped his students to be aware of the achievements of Ramanujan, when many in India (including my siblings) had not even heard of him.  This post is based on some of the scenes from Mr. Murthy’s play.  The announcement of the release of a movie ‘The Man who knew Infinity’ rekindled my thoughts about Ramanujan.  I hope the movie will bring in significant awareness about a mathematical genius from India.

Ramanujan was born in Erode (1887), and schooled in Kumbakonam (Tamil Nadu), where his father worked as a clerk in a cloth merchant’s shop.  Until high school, Ramanujan was a ‘good’ student, interested in the curricula.  During his high school days, he began to display his immense mathematical sense; worked on his own on summing geometric and arithmetic series.  He had a great memory and could rattle out the value of the constant ‘pi’ to any number of decimal places.  Here he came across a book ‘ Synopsis of elementary results in pure mathematics’ by GS Carr.  This book is said to have moulded the mathematical thought process of Ramanujan and had a great influence on his early works.  The irony was that the book, published in 1856, was out of date by the time Ramanujan used it.

In 1904, Ramanujan joined Government College in Kumbakonam. The following year his scholarship was not renewed because Ramanujan devoted most of his time to mathematics and neglected all other subjects.  In 1906 Ramanujan joined Pachaiyappa’s College at Chennai (then Madras). His aim was to pass the First Arts examination, ended up passing only in mathematics and failing is all others.  In the following years he worked on mathematics, developing his own ideas without any help .  The only guidance he had was Carr’s book, which had theorems, but hardly any proofs.  Ramanujan is said to have developed his theorems using a slate as he could not afford paper.  This aspect along with the proof-less theorems in Carr’s book might have influenced Ramanujan in that he noted mostly the results and hardly any proofs.  He married on 14 July 1909 to a ten year old S Janaki Ammal.  

Ramanujan continued to develop his mathematical ideas and began to pose problems and solve problems in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.  He became well known among the mathematicians of Madras area after he published a research paper on Bernoulli numbers in 1911 in the Journal of the Indian Mathematical Society.

In 1911 Ramanujan approached the founder of the Indian Mathematical Society for advice on a job. He got a temporary post in the Accountant General’s Office in Madras and in 1912.   Ramanujan later became a clerk in the accounts section of the Madras Port Trust.  

In January 1913 Ramanujan wrote to Professor GH Hardy of Cambridge, having read his book ‘Orders of infinity.’  He had enclosed some unproved mathematical theorems and some proofs.  Hardy, together with his colleague, Professor JE Littlewood, studied the theorems.  It seems that Hardy initially thought him to be a crank or a prankster as most of the 120 theorems had no proofs.  Hardy replied to Ramanujan that he wanted proof for the theorems.    

Ramanujan was delighted with Hardy’s reply and then he wrote to him “I have found a friend in you who views my labours sympathetically. … I am already a half starving man. To preserve my brains I want food and this is my first consideration. Any sympathetic letter from you will be helpful to me here to get a scholarship either from the university or from the government.”

Madras University awarded Ramanujan a scholarship in 1913 for two years and, in 1914, Hardy brought Ramanujan to Cambridge, to begin an extraordinary collaboration – between a believer and an atheist – an educated and an uneducated genius.  Ramanujan, being an orthodox Brahmin and a strict vegetarian, did not want to cross the seven seas (a taboo in Hindu culture).  He was convinced by Professor EH Neville, Hardy’s colleague, who met with Ramanujan while lecturing in India.

Hardy entrusted Littlewood with the task of teaching Ramanujan ‘formal’ pure mathematics.  Littlewood failed miserably as the classes would end up with volley of questions from Ramanujan.  World War I took Littlewood away on war duty but Hardy remained in Cambridge to work with Ramanujan.  He remained sick, mainly due to the cold winter – a difficult proposition for anyone from Chennai even today.  He had problems with his diet as the outbreak of the war resulted in a scarcity of vegetables which worsened his health.

Ramanujan credited his mathematical gift to Goddess Mahalakshmi-Namgiri who he said appeared to him in his dreams.  He claimed that he had unusual experiences and dreams while asleep and Goddess Mahalakshmi would appear to him and show him the answers to the puzzles in his mind. As soon as he woke up, he would write them down.

On 16 March 1916 Ramanujan graduated from Cambridge with a Bachelor of Science by Research (the degree was called a Ph D from 1920).  Ramanujan’s dissertation was on Highly composite numbers and consisted of seven of his papers published in England.

Ramanujan fell seriously ill in 1917 and his doctors feared that he would die. Hardy went to see him when he was ill.  On reaching Ramanujan’s bed, Hardy said that he rode a taxi cab with a dull number 1729 .  Ramanujan said that it is a very interesting number as it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways 1729 = 13 + 123 = 93 + 103Click here to read my earlier post ‘Arithmetic of Licence Plates’, inspired by this anecdote.

On 18 February 1918 Ramanujan was elected a fellow of the Cambridge Philosophical Society and then three days later, the greatest honour that he would receive, his name appeared on the list for election as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and on 10 October 1918 he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge.

Ramanujan returned to India in 1919 and died the following year.  His birthday, 22 December, is celebrated as the National Mathematics Day in India.

‘The Man who knew Infinity’  – the movie is being released world-wide on 29 April 2016.  Waiting to see what the movie offers beyond the Mr. Murthy’s play of 1977.  Review of the movie follows (after I watch it).

Here is a photograph (1968)  of Sir Dr CV Raman with  Mr. Venkitesha Murthy and Cadets of  Sainik School, Amaravathinagar.  Photo Courtesy Vetran N Vijayasarathy


The Metallurgist


Across the street from our house lived Shankara Panikkan, the village blacksmith.  He had a foundry adjacent to his home.  The foundry flooring was covered with fine sand, black in colour over the years of heating and cooling and the charcoal powder from the furnace mixing with it.  The furnace had a leather airbag at one end, which was compressed and released to force air to the burning charcoal.   The compression was done by way of pulling a rod about six feet long projecting over the Panikkan’s head, when he was seated in front of it.  The other end of the rod was connected to the bottom of the leather airbag with an iron rope as shown in the image.  On the right of the furnace was a small water tank, to quench the heated metal and to the left was a small anvil.

Everyone in the village used to come to the Panicken to get their kitchen knives and farm tools sharpened and he used to charge a rupee per item.  At the age of three (1965), I was attending the village Anganvadi (Kindergarten) and the classes used to end by afternoon.  In the evening I used go to the Panicken’s foundry and watch him at work or play with his youngest son Krishnan, who attended the Anganvadi with me.

Watching Panicken at work was quiet entertaining for me as I enjoyed the sound the forced air from the foundry’s air bag made while it hit the burning charcoal.  I used to observe the Panicken heating the edge of the implement to be sharpened until it became bright red or yellow, then move it to the anvil and bang it a few times with his hammer and again heat it on the furnace.  At times he would put the heated metal in the sand and wait for it to cool.  The final action was the one I enjoyed the most.  The Panicken would heat the piece and then would immerse it in water.  The enjoyable part was the hissing sound it made when the hot metal touched water.  The entire operation was executed with the Panicken sitting in the same position in front of the furnace and he never moved until he quenched the metal in the water tank.  At that age I never understood why the Panicken did all these, just to sharpen a small sickle or an axe, that too for a rupee.

The main source of income for the Panicken was not from sharpening tools, but from his lathe, housed in a shed between his house and the foundry.  To turn the lathe there was a wheel of the bullock cart attached at one end, which had to be rotated manually at a particular speed and Panicken’s elder son Thankan, was an expert at the task.

The villages around our area grew sugarcane as a major crop (rubber plantations now).  The customers at the lathe were the sugarcane crusher owners.  In those days the crusher had two vertical steel rollers, rotated by a bull going around it in circles.  The metallurgy was not that well developed and the rollers used to get worn out, especially in the middle, due to the extensive pressure the passing sugarcanes exerted.  As the rollers lost their cylindrical shape, their effectiveness reduced drastically and had to be turned on the lathe, especially at the two ends of the roller to make them cylindrical.  Panicken used to charge 20 rupees per roller he turned on his lathe, but this bonanza came to Panicken on a few days, that too only during the crushing season.

The day Panicken got the bonanza, the evenings would be more entertaining, especially for the neighbourhood (no one had a radio then).  Panicken that evening would visit the “Kallu Shop (Toddy bar)”.  (Toddy is an alcoholic beverage made from the sap of palm trees by fermentation).  He would return home drunk by nightfall and would sing folk songs and Hindu devotional songs.  The way he used to sing would put any of today’s professional singers to shame.  His favourite songs were the one he sang in praise of Lord Aiyyappa of Sabarimala.  Panicken never undertook the pilgrimage to Sabarimala, but I remember Thankan and Krishnan undergoing the ritual.

In 1971, I joined Sainik (Military) School in Tamilnadu and my evenings at the Panicken’s foundry came to an end.  After four years, Panicken passed away and the foundry became silent.  His elder son Thankan now runs a metal fabrication unit with modern welding and cutting machines in the very same place the foundry stood.  The younger son Krishnan runs an auto repair garage in the town.

In 1996, while attending the Technical Staff Course at Pune, we had metallurgy as a subject and was taught by the head of the department Dr Kulkarni.  That was when I learnt that steel is a solid solution of carbon in iron and it is impossible to produce 100% iron like we cannot get 100% alcohol (Chemistry students would understand).  The closest to 100% iron the humanity has ever made stands in the form of the Ashoka Pillar located next to Qutab Minar in Delhi.  100% iron would never rust as there is no carbon in it, but the technology of making it has been lost as neither it was passed down the generations nor documented.  In case the technology was available today, the iron would have neither rusted nor corroded and the paint industry would have not survived.  The ship’s hull would have remained intact and would not have suffered corrosion from the saline sea water and hence the ship-breaking industry would not have flourished.  The bridges and buildings would have had longer life as steel used in them would not degrade.

Dr Kulkarni taught us about various types of steels like ferrite, austenite, cementite, pearlite, etc, all based on their molecular structure and carbon content.  Then he came on to the applications of these types of steel and the first one discussed was making of a sword.  He explained that to get a sharp, strong and fine edge, one got to heat it to certain degree (over 500 degrees Celsius) and then cool it under certain pressure and the heat it to a certain degree and then cool it in the absence of oxygen, then heat it and cool it under a certain pressure, then heat it and quench it in water.  Dr Kulakarni went into details of each action describing the temperature to be attained in degrees Celsius and the pressure to be exerted in kilo Pascal, the tools to be used and so on.

At the end of the class, my question to Dr Kulkarni was that how come Shankara Panicken could execute all these tasks, sitting in one position, without using any of the gauges or pressure hammers, but achieve the very same results.  Dr Kulkarni explained that Panicken had done everything exactly as what he had taught.  His eyes could recognise the temperature of the metal with the shades of red and yellow glow the hot iron emitted.  His pressure hammer was his hand as he exactly knew how much pressure should be exerted on to the hot metal.  He would cool a metal in the absence of oxygen by pushing it down into the sand on the foundry floor.  Then Dr Kulkarni asked me whether the Panicken’s sons know the technique, I said “no”.  Then Dr Kulkarni said that the mistake of the Panicken was that he never documented what he knew.

Freezing Rain

Freezing Rain

Spring Equinox – when the Sun shines directly on the equator and the length of  day and night is nearly equal – marks the beginning of Spring in Canada.  This year, Mississauga, our city in Canada, and the entire Greater Toronto Area (GTA) welcomed the Spring Season with freezing rain.  The entire area was paved in a sheet of ice due to an overnight freezing rain with minus ten degrees temperature on the morning of 24 March 2016.  This proved hazardous for the morning commuters, resulting in many accidents on the roads and highways.  The drivers of the cars parked in the open found it difficult to even open their car’s doors as they were either slipping on the glass surfaced floor or the doors had been jammed by the freezing ice.  These drivers first had to scrape off the ice from the doors and windshields and then drive on glass like roads.

The public transport was also affected as the drivers were extra cautious and driving slow on the icy roads.  It was compounded by many non-functioning traffic lights due to power outages.  The street cars were delayed due to ice forming on overhead power lines.  The trains were delayed, mostly due to failure of the signalling systems.  In effect, most people that day reached their offices late.

Over a hundred flights were cancelled and many delayed due to the freezing rain.  The landing and taxiing surfaces had to be cleared of the ice regularly, causing major delays.  The de-icing activity had to be carried out on all aircrafts prior to take-off, contributing to further delay.

The problem of ice forming over the wings and tail of the aircrafts is a major concern as it adversely affects the performance of the aircraft, especially at take-off due to reduced lift. This ice has to be removed and the airports in Canada are equipped with deicers. These are vehicles that spray a mixture of a glycol and water, heated and sprayed under pressure, to remove ice and snow on the aircraft surfaces.

While it removes ice and snow, deicing fluid has a limited ability to prevent further ice from forming. During snow fall or freezing rain, anti-icing fluid is applied after the deicing process is complete. This fluid is of a higher concentration of glycol than deicing fluid. It has a freezing point well below zero degrees Celsius and therefore is able to prevent the precipitation that falls on to it from freezing on the aircraft’s surface. Anti-icing fluid also has an additive that thickens it more than deicing fluid to help it stick to aircraft surfaces as it speeds down the runway during takeoff.

What causes the dreaded freezing rains?


Freezing rain develops as falling snow encounters a layer of warm air deep enough for the snow to completely melt and become rain. As the rain continues to fall, it passes through a thin layer of cold air just above the surface and cools to a temperature below freezing point. However, the drops themselves do not freeze, but remain in liquid state due to a phenomena called supercooling.  When the supercooled drops strike the frozen ground (power lines, or tree branches), they instantly freeze, forming a thin film of ice, resulting in the phenomenon freezing rain.

While beautiful to look at, freezing rain is one of the most hazardous types of winter precipitation. Accumulations of a tenth of an inch of freezing rain may not sound significant, but is more than enough to break a few branches on the trees, bring down power lines (and cause power outages), and cause sleet on road surfaces.

The freezing rain drops on hitting a tree branch or a power line condenses around it as these objects are at a much lower temperature than the supercooled rain drops.  As they accumulate, the weight of the tree branch or the power line keeps increasing.  Once this weight crosses the strength of the material, it snaps and falls on the ground.  Fallen tree branches and downed power lines blocking traffic was reported from many places across Toronto that morning.  In case of a snow fall, the snowflakes even if they accumulate on trees and power lines, tend to slide off them due to their own weight.

The freezing rain left streets under a layer of ice on Thursday morning and prompted the closure of many schools, colleges and universities.  The students were very pleased as they had a real long Easter weekend – holidays for five days – from that Thursday to Easter Monday.

Freezing Rain11111

Over 30,000 customers experienced power outages due to downed power lines or due to tree branches falling on power lines.  The crews of the power companies worked round the clock to ensure speedy restoration of power.

Police services across the Greater Toronto Area warned motorists to slow down due to ice. They also asked drivers to treat all lighted intersections without power as all-way stop signs.  That meant any vehicle approaching a failed signal must come to a halt and the vehicle which halted first leaves first.  The emergency services were working at full efficiency to cater for many road accidents and to assist drivers who had spun off the road.

Environment Canada had warned about the impending freezing rain about a week before it occurred.  Various TV and Radio News channels where covering it in full details and warning the citizens to be careful and take remedial actions where required.  The salter trucks of the city were seen early morning spreading salt on the roads and sidewalks to facilitate melting of the sleet that had formed on the surfaces.  The contractors at the shopping malls were literally dumping salt on the parking lot surfaces, as if with vengeance, because there were only three or four occasions this winter (due to less snow this year) where in they had to salt the parking lots.  What else would they do with the salt they had stocked for the winter?   It would always be cheaper to spread them rather stock them through summer.

How does salt act as an ice melter? All icy surfaces have a thin layer of water. When salt (Sodium Chloride – NaCl) applied to such surfaces, starts to dissolve. This ionises the salt into positively charged sodium and negatively charged chlorine ions. These ions, in turn, react with water molecules and form hydrated ions (charged ions joined to water molecules).

This process gives off heat, because hydrates are more stable than the individual ions. The emitted energy then melts microscopic parts of the ice surface. When an automobile drives over the ice, the pressure helps force the salt into the ice and more of this hydration occurs.

The ice-cream makers of the pre-refrigerator days employed the same principle (freezing point depression). The ice and salt mixture ensured that the temperature was well below the freezing mark (zero degrees C), even though the ice melted.  Dry Ice or solid carbon di oxide was also used as a more sophisticated alternative. That begs the question why is solid carbon-di-oxide (CO2)  called dry ice? This is because the solid carbon di oxide on being heated does not melt into liquid and instead changes directly into the gaseous state by a process called sublimation.

When daffodils begin to peer,
With heigh! the doxy, over the dale,
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge,
With heigh! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
Doth set my pugging tooth on edge;
For a quart of ale is a dish for a king.
(William Shakespeare : The Winter’s Tale)


Self Help – The Best Help


“यात्री अपने सामान केलिये ख़ुद जिम्मेवार है” (Passengers are themselves responsible for their belongings) is the line written on most state transport buses in India, but this was the first sentence spoken to me when I joined the Military Intelligence Directorate at Army Headquarters by our team leader Major Jawahar Lal Malik.  I never fathomed the depth of the advice at that moment, but was always thankful to Major Malik as I carried it with me for the rest of life – during the days when I commanded the regiment and especially after landing in Canada.

In the Army Headquarters, there is only just adequate resources for doing your official job.  Your  clerk will also have to come in and leave with you; else he will miss his bus back home.  All personal and private tasks have to be done by everyone themselves – making various pay & allowances claims, leave certificates, various applications, etc.  Official noting and letters need to be written by the officer at most times.  Neither there will be anyone to receive you in front of the office, nor to see you off in the evening.  If you intend to sit late, you got to switch off all lights, lock the door and deposit the key with the security and then leave.  All these are thrown out of the window the moment the officer steps out of the Army Headquarters and everything is back to normal when they take up command of the units or formations.  The only reason I could attribute to this behaviour is that most are unsure of their status as commanders and need self assurance at all times – in terms of someone receiving in front of the office, someone to carry the brief case, etc.

Each and every officer posted at the Army Headquarters carried a brief case and since I never had one, the first addition to my personal inventory was the brief case.  The only thing I had in it was the lunch box, another never used before addition.  I had never carried a brief case as I never believed in carrying home to office or vice versa, and I never knew what to carry in it.  During one of the courses I really made an effort to carry a brief case (to give the look of a serious student) and I stuffed it with pens of different shades, shapes and purpose and a notebook.  I never found any use for the contents of the brief case and discarded it forever.

Carrying a pad with me as expected by the seniors, to note down anything and everything that was being said, was one I hated most.  I went through all my Army courses like the Technical Staff Course, Long Gunnery Staff Course, etc all without a pad or a notebook.   As a Brigade Major, the Brigade Commander was always peeved at me not carrying a pad to the morning ritual of staff conference.  Once he ticked me off and asked me where my pad was.  I had to politely say that only cricket players and females used pads and in the Artillery we used it for Survey.

On assuming command, I had banned the use of pads in Sainik Sammelans ( I had banned conferences too) – mainly due to the fear that everyone sitting before me would be making my caricatures on their pads – the same way I used to do.  I always believed that what is said must be perceived, understood and acted upon by the men and not to be confined to the pages of a pad.  As a young officer, I realised that long Sainik Sammelans (I have gone through the torture for three hours) resulted in cramped legs and sore bottoms for the men and a few caricatures for the officer.   Could be that some Commanding Officers liked listening to their voices or they thought they could pass down all the wisdom to their men in one go.

Major Malik’s advice came really handy on reaching Canada.  Here everyone does everything themselves –gardening, cleaning the cars, all household chores, plumbing/ masonry/ carpentry maintenance tasks of the house and the list goes on.  In case you want help, you got to pay through your nose.  The material cost of any household project will only be a third of what a contractor would charge you, rest is all labour.

The greatest advantage one enjoys to practice self help here is the benefits of standardisation in everything you put your hands on.  The doors and windows all come in standard sizes and even the hinges are placed to the standard.  In case you need to change a door, you buy a new one of the correct size and the hinges would be so placed that they will always match with the one already drilled on the frame.  The only standardisation I found in India was for the light bulb and holder – even the electric sockets are never to a standard as you realise that you really need to push it in with all your might or modify the distance between its legs to pass into the socket, when you buy any new appliance.

The do-it-yourself videos on YouTube on repairing a leaking flush tank or a tap, building a deck, paving the drive way etc – are a real boon.  Most of them are well made and demonstrates all steps involved in an easy to understand format.  It also gives out the materials required, tools needed and the time required to execute the project.

We buy most of our home hardware from the Home Depot – a North America retail chain.  The staff there are really helpful, especially the experienced ones.   They will happily explain you everything and help you select the required material from the store’s aisles.  There is no fear of ‘over purchase’ as they have a very convenient return policy – anything unused – other than paint and cut lumber – would be taken back without winking an eyelid and full reimbursement is done without a penny being deducted.

The store also has a tool rental section, where in you can rent any tool at nominal rates.  You got to ensure that is clean when you return it (else they will charge you cleaning charges). They rent you a cargo van also in case you got to transport material that cannot fit into your van/car.

My wife suggested that we build a deck at the back of the house to facilitate sitting outside during the summer evenings for barbeque.  There were two options – call in a contractor or remembering Major Malik – do it yourself.  We took the second option – to reduce the cost to a third and also have fun as we took up the project as a family activity.  Children made the plans, duly approved by their mother, the materials  and tools needed list was prepared.  We marked the layout on the ground and dug the holes on the ground for the poles to set in.  Hired a cargo van from the store and purchased the necessary materials and brought them home.  In the next two days was laborious effort by the entire family and we completed the deck, less painting.  That was the time I realised why we were taught carpentry, tin-smithy, turning, milling etc at the National Defence Academy (NDA).

Thank you Major Malik and thank you NDA.

Ayyappan Kovil

(Suspension Bridge in August with the catchment area filled after monsoons)

During my Kerala visit in December 2015, along with my elder brother and sister-in-law, we visited our cousin Raju at Kattappana in Idukki District. He cultivates cardamom and pepper, the main cash crops of the region. Kattappana, the largest town of Idukki District, is the main trading centre for cardamom and pepper. The Spices Board of India has its office here and also a Spices Park. There are many tea-estates too in the area.


The drive from Kottayam (3m above sea level) to Kattappana (1100m above sea level), is about 100 km and the road winds its way through the Western Ghats, revealing an uncanny mystic beauty of the countryside side all around. At the lower levels of the hills is mostly rubber plantations and as you gain altitude, the cultivation turn into pepper, ginger, cardamom, coffee and tea. The natural beauty that the drive offers will surely mesmerise and captivate the beholder and the only colour one gets to see is Green.

During our Sainik School days in the 70s we often trekked to Munnar, Thekkady and Idukki. In those days, the area in and around Kattappana had only jeepable dirt track connecting a few villages and homes were not electrified. The scenario has changed a great deal today with all homes electrified and most villages connected with black-top roads.

At lunch, Raju said that we must see the suspension bridge at Ayyappan Kovil (Temple of Lord Ayyappa) on our way back. After lunch, Raju took on to the wheels and we drove to Thoppippala, a village along the Kottayam-Kattappana road. In the 80s, Raju ran a jeep taxi service in the area with a rickety jeep. The jeep used to carry about two dozen people with the stuff they bought from Kattappana Market to their homes in the remote villages, connected through the dirt tracks. I was once a passenger in his jeep and the way he negotiated the hair-pin bends and near 60 degrees slopes still lingers in my memory.


The car veered off from Thoppippala, to a stone-topped dirt track through the reserve forest, home to teak and rose wood trees. Only the local jeep drivers can drive through such a road and with the expertise of Raju, the ride was very smooth. After driving about 5 km, we reached the suspension bridge, the longest one in Kerala State. The bridge about 200 m in length and about a meter wide, facilitates the locals to cross the Vellilamkandam River which flows under it.

(Suspension Bridge in December when the waters recede)

The need for the suspension bridge arose as the catchment area of the Idukki Dam, constructed in the 70’s with Canadian aid, covered Ayyappan Kovil Village. The area was home to about 500 families then, who were relocated as the entire area got submerged during the next monsoons (June to October).

(View from the Suspension Bridge – North East Side with a bridge on the old road)

The old alignment of the Kottayam-Kattappana road traversed through this submerged area and the old road with a bridge is visible when the waters recede. The suspension bridge provides a stunning view of the mountains of the Western Ghats with its forests and plantations. The beauty of the surrounding region is exquisite and any visitor would be drowned in its pristine glory. I couldn’t help feeling that the tagline for Kerala Tourism, “Gods Own Country” must have been coined by someone who visited this area.

(View from the Suspension Bridge – North West Side)

(View from the Suspension Bridge – South Side)

The area does not attract many tourists, possibly due to its limited accessibility and hence not disturbed and littered. Some locals run a raft boat made of bamboo for tourists, but has not yet been commercialised. The suspension bridge is undoubtedly an attraction that should be visited before it becomes popular amongst tourists. The area surrounding the suspension bridge is undoubtedly a paradise for the romantics, an adventure terrain for the outdoor enthusiasts and a serene land for a nature lover. The best way to reach here would be to hire a jeep at Kanchiyar on the Kottayam-Kattappana road and drive to the suspension bridge through the forest track.


About 5 km from the suspension bridge is located Kovilmala (Temple Hill), the only area in Kerala to be ruled by a ‘King’. The current King, Raja Raman Mannan ascended the throne in 2012. He is an economics graduate from Maharaja’s College, Kochi and worked in the Forest Department before he ascended the throne. The area attracts a lot of visitors, especially with the recent media coverage about the King and the tribe. Mammootty, Malayalam movie star visited the King and the tribe in 2012. The King discussed the current situation of his community with the superstar and sought his support for higher education of the children of his tribe. Mammootty promised that he would do his best to help the tribe.

The Mannan Tribe is a peace loving community which has joined the mainstream. When they were with Travancore Kingdom (pre-independence), they had the sole right over harvesting wild cardamom and other spices and hill produces, which were the key sources of income. Today, the tribe has lost its special rights over cardamom and spices and is generally dependent on collecting forest produce for their livelihood. Some of them have taken to other jobs and agriculture.

The tribe, currently around 50,000 and dwindling, has a rich legacy. Goddess Meenakshi, principal deity of Madurai Meenakshi temple, is their deity. There are many folklores about their association with the Pandya kings who ruled from Madurai during 13th century. Later they are believed to have enjoyed the patronage of Poonjar and later Venad Kingdoms. Annexation of Venad by Travancore brought the Mannans under their control. Travancore kings gave Mannan Kings special titles and the right to wear bangles and carry a cane as mark of their position. As per the Kerala State Government’s policy of allowing the tribe to preserve its customs, the position of king is accepted on certain matters. The Kerala government had built a house for the former Mannan King Ariyan at Kovilmala. The funeral of former king was held with state honours.

The King is respected in public society as the leader of the tribe. He is believed to be the protector, administrator and spiritual leader of the tribe. The King commands a lot of respect and also settles disputes among members.   He has power to ostracise members of the community who fail to obey orders. The king is assisted by nine ministers who help him arrive at decisions and implement them. When it comes to criminal and civil disputes, they follow the Indian laws.

Despite claims of government officials of spending huge amounts of money for the upliftment of the Mannan tribe, locals say a majority of Mannans still continue to lead a primitive life. Large sections of the community are addicted to liquor and there are reports that Ariyan, the king who recently died, had developed liver complications from heavy drinking.

In case you plan for holidays in Munnar or Thekkady, you must take a detour and visit Kattappana and Kovilmala. There are many resorts that have sprung up in the area to cater for tourists. These resorts are pretty comfortable and mostly located adjacent to rivulets or streams. The area, having temperate climate, can be visited all through the year. The monsoons (June to October) brings in a lot of rains and in case you do not enjoy the showers, these months may be avoided.

Hand-Washing : A ‘Do-It-Yourself’ Vaccine


Induction of the 155mm Bofors Guns in the Indian Army in 1987 was seen as a quantum jump in using the computing power in the field of gunnery.  We were till then used to the cumbersome manual procedures involving logarithmic tables, range tables, various graphical instruments and the calculator to calculate various gunnery parameters.

With the Bofors guns came the computers which could in matter of seconds compute various parameters and transmit the data electronically to the guns.  A machine which eliminated the work of about five different soldiers calculating different data and the young subaltern shouting the orders to the guns, and the gunners applying these parameters on the guns.  These computers made life easy at the gun position, drastically reduced response time and surely increased the accuracy.

On return to the unit after the Long Gunnery Course, I took on the responsibility to train the soldiers on the computers.  The soldiers were mostly from rural background in India and had the basic matriculation (Grade 10) as their educational qualification.  As per the old military adage that “it is easier to put in a new idea into a military mind, but next to impossible to take out an old one”; I selected all the young soldiers to train first rather than the experienced and old Havildars and Naiks (Sergeants and Corporals).

The class started with full earnest and we all were eager to learn more about the computers and it’s by then unheard of capabilities and see it being put into real effect.  Sepoy Nem Pal was also in the class, a very intelligent and fast learning soldier with nimble fingers, who always wanted to excel in what all he did; an ideal candidate for learning about the computer system.

After a few days, we went into the procedure for engaging targets.  I demonstrated the procedure to all and each soldier was asked to practice it then after.  At that moment I was summoned by our Commanding Officer and had to leave the class.  On my return to the class after fifteen minutes, I found Sepoy Nem Pal quiet worked up and came to me and said that “it is all good when you do it on the computer, but when we do it, nothing happens.  What is the reason for it?”  I had no logical answer to such a query, but immediately shot back “it is so because you guys do not wash your hands in the morning with soap and water and when you touch the computer with dirty hands, the computer God gets displeased with you and hence you end up unsuccessful.”  Sepoy Nem Pal went out of the class for a few minutes and came back and started trying his hand again on the computers.  After fifteen minutes he came back to me and said “I did wash my hands properly with soap and water, still I do not get the desired results from the computer”.

That was the Indian military side of hand-washing; let us now discuss some serious aspect of hand-washing.  When your hands come in contact with germs, you can unknowingly become infected simply by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.  Once you are infected, it is usually a matter of time before the whole family comes down with the same illness. Good hand-washing is the first line of defence against the spread of many illnesses, from the common cold to more serious illnesses such as meningitis, bronchiolitis, influenza, hepatitis A, and most types of infectious diarrhea.

Hand-washing is like a “do-it-yourself” vaccine—it involves five simple and effective steps (Wet, Lather, Scrub, Rinse, Dry) you can take to reduce the spread of diarrheal and respiratory illness so you can stay healthy. Regular hand-washing, particularly before and after certain activities, is one of the best ways to remove germs, avoid getting sick, and prevent the spread of germs to others.

When should you wash your hands?

  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • Before eating food
  • Before and after caring for someone who is sick
  • Before and after treating a cut or wound
  • After using the toilet
  • After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
  • After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
  • After handling pet food or pet treats
  • After touching garbage

How should you wash your hands?

  • Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold), turn off the tap, and apply soap.
  • Lather your hands by rubbing them together with the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
  • Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the “Happy Birthday” song from beginning to end twice.
  • Rinse your hands well under clean, running water.
  • Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

What should you do if you don’t have soap and clean, running water?

Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to reduce the number of microbes on them in most situations. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs.  Hand sanitizers are not as effective when hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

How do you use hand sanitizers?

  • Apply the product to the palm of one hand (read the label to learn the correct amount).
  • Rub your hands together.
  • Rub the product over all surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry.

Keep in good health in future by constant hand-washing and also by educating others around you about the importance of hand-washing, else, the Computer God will always remain displeased with you.