Annamalai – The Lord of Mountains


Most of our classmates of the 1979 batch of Sainik School Amaravathinagar would remember Mr Kannayiram Ekambaram (KE), the Thamizh teacher as the ‘Goonda (goon) of Annamalai’. That was how he introduced himself when he joined our school in 1973 (we were in Grade 6 then), as a temporary teacher, soon after completing his masters degree in Thamizh. He often used this tag line to wriggle out of difficult situations when he was at the losing side of any argument or confrontation with us. He then went on to complete his degree in education and rejoined as a permanent Thamizh teacher.

Mr Ekambaram, five feet tall, always wore white pants and a white shirt with black goggles. He came to our class, the section with Thamizh as third language, a few times as a relief when our teacher was unavailable. Hence my interaction with him was limited, and was mostly during the drama practises as I was responsible for the audio system under the guidance of Mr. PT Cherian.

In 1978, during the Inter-House English Debate competition, the stage was thrown open to the audience to speak for or against the motion. The time was to be used for compiling the results. During the previous competitions, one of the staff members spoke to cover this interlude. Mr George Joseph (GJ), our English teacher, was the Master of Ceremony. (You can read more about GJ from my earlier article by clicking here.) Immediately, two cadets from Grade 8 walked up to the podium and spoke about their points of view. They were from Mr GJ’s class and by the time the second speaker was speaking, I realised that Mr GJ had set them up well in advance and I felt ‘cheated’.

At that time, I was on cloud nine having cleared the Entrance Examination for the National Defence Academy (NDA) and was all set to proceed for the Services Selection Board (SSB) interview in two days. I was then well known in the school formy notoriety and also for the consequent punishments that came as a reward for them. I summed up all the courage and my thoughts and walked up to Mr GJ on the stage and informed him that I too wanted to speak. He agreed, but on a condition that I would not exceed three minutes.

Now the dilemma for me was that I had not read much about the subject being debated and that most points I knew had already been covered by the speakers in the debate. As I was all set to go for the SSB Interview, I spoke about the preparations we had done for the interview and what all needed to be done to facilitate cadets to clear the interview. I proposed that all cadets who qualify the NDA Entrance Examination be made House Captains and Prefects, to facilitate them develop leadership qualities. Such a step would surely boost the self confidence of these cadets and would facilitate them in clearing the SSB. (Till date I subscribe to this view).

I well exceeded the three minutes limit and Mr GJ kept ringing his bell every 15 seconds for the next minute, until I concluded. The applause I received at the end of the speech, indicated that I had struck the right note with cadets and teachers. Mr GJ then came up and complimented me for my extempore effort and also for the subject I covered. After the results were announced, all the cadets marched off to the Cadets’ Mess for dinner and I stayed back to pack up the audio system.

As I walked all alone to the Cadets’ Mess, from a distance I could recognise the silhouette of Mr. Ekambaram standing outside his residence, dressed up in his usual all white attire. As I came close to him he took me aside and spoke to me in detail about his life, from school days to the university days and also said that he was probably more notorious as a student than I was. By the time we reached the mess, he said that he saw some spark in me and that he was pretty sure that I would clear my SSB. He wished me all the best for the interview and we both left to take our seats for dinner at our tables.

As I was about to take my seat for dinner, Mr M Selvaraj, the Head of Thamizh Department called me. (To read more about Mr Selvaraj please click here). He complimented me for an excellent speech and said that the points I had raised had merit and need consideration. He appreciated me for my confidence to speak on a subject which many students or even teachers would have feared to attempt. He concluded by saying that I had it in me and I had to clear the SSB and he was pretty sure that I would be successful.

At that time I felt as though the Thamizh Department had had a conference after the debate as both of them spoke nearly the same words. It really boosted my self-confidence and from then on I started to believe that I would surely crack the SSB Interview. What triggered my confidence was perhaps the fact that the words of encouragement came from the most unexpected quarters, the Thamizh Department. The rest is all history.

During my Army days and later, many a times I reminisced about this incident and about Mr Ekamabaram’s pep-talk and the effect it had on a naughty cadet, to turn him around. Mr Ekambaram, for me, will always remain a hero and a well-wisher who spurred me on to achievements that I wasn’t sure I was capable of.


Crossing the Highway

On a summer afternoon of 2008, I drove to a town about 250 km away to meet a friend.   I started off on the Expressway and after driving for about an hour at 100 kmph, the eight-lane road narrowed down to a four lane road, two lanes each on either side, uptown and downtown, separated by a 10 meter wide grass covered mound.  The urban concrete jungle I left behind had given way for the cultivated countryside dotted with a few farmhouses, stud farms and dairy farms.

(Illustration by Thomas Graham)

While on a long drive, especially when driving alone, I listen to the news channel on the radio.  It gives me company ensuring that I do not doze off, keeps me informed of what is happening around the world.  The channel updates me every ten minutes with the traffic and weather report.  Suddenly I saw the car 200 m ahead of me and the 70 feet long truck in the right lane, coming to a screeching halt.  I immediately applied the brakes and halted behind the car with the truck on my right.

I looked out in front and saw two geese and about a dozen goslings crossing the road from the grass on the left to the farm on the right, must be in search of food.   Seeing the sizes of the goslings, it became evident that they belonged to two different mothers.  The ganders must have flown out in search of food, leaving the mothers to look after the goslings.

After about two minutes of halting, the radio was reporting the hold-up on the highway caused by the goslings.  The channel was giving a running commentary, giving out every detail of the event.  Looking to my right I saw the news reporter who was responsible for the live broadcast – it was the truck driver on his cell-phone; he must  have called up the news channel.  The news channel as usual must have been hungry for news, especially in a country where there is hardly any political rallies or hartals or bomb-blasts or scams or rail/ road accidents to report.


It took the crossing operation about ten minutes and there was a mile long lineup of vehicles on the highway.  Once the geese and the goslings had crossed the road, the traffic started to roll.

I returned home by about 11 PM and as I steered the car into the driveway of our home, I found our daughter walking in.  She generally is home by 10:30 PM after her classes in the university getting over by 10 PM followed by a 20 minute bus ride.  I inquired about the delayed arrival and she had her story to narrate.

The bus she took from the university, while traveling on the highway, the driver noticed a crack on the windscreen.  He pulled the vehicle off the road to the apron on the right and parked it with the flashers on.  The driver briefed the passengers about the situation and advised everyone to remain calm and remain seated until the replacement bus arrived.


The highways have two aprons on either side.  The one on the left is marked with a continuous yellow line and is meant for the emergency services like police, ambulance or firefighters.  The one on the right is marked with a continuous white line and can be used to stop the vehicles in an emergency like this or may be used by the emergency services.

After about three minutes of halting the bus, two police cruisers pulled up behind the halted bus with their lights flashing.  One parked about 10 meters behind and the other about 400 meters behind the halted bus. The policeman in the second cruiser closed off the right most lane with flares.

After about 15 minutes, the replacement bus arrived which was parked in front of the halted bus.  The police gave an all clear signal after ensuring the safety and the bus driver briefed all passengers to alight from the bus and move into the replacement bus.  That was the time when the driver opened the door.  The two police men were guiding the passengers to the replacement bus.  After everyone boarded the bus, the policemen signaled the bus to go.

One evening I was crossing a busy traffic signal in the city center while walking our dog Maximus. The collar came off the neck of Maximus, who was following me and without realising that Maximus was not there at the other end of the leash. I crossed over. Maximus kept standing in the middle of the road and when I reached the other end of the road and turned back, the signal at the intersection had changed.

No traffic moved and no one honked. I ran to Maximus and held him by his ear and ran to the other end of the road. Lucky for Maximus that no one honked, otherwise he would have ran in panic causing major chaos.

In Canada, the Criminal Code of Canada controls human behavior in relation to animals.  As per the Canadian laws,  animals are considered property. Property rights include the rights of possession, the rights of use, and the enjoyment of property. The original animal cruelty sections of the Criminal Code were enacted in 1892 with only minor amendments made in the mid-1950’s.  It is an offence to wilfully cause or, being the owner, wilfully permits to be cause unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or a bird.

All lives are precious – whether it is of humans, animals or birds.

Beast – The Wild Fire

(Illustration by Thomas Graham)

Enormous flames are no longer consuming the city of Fort McMurray, but the wildfire is still active and classified as ‘out of control’ by the Alberta government.  The wildfire travelled 25 to 30 km East and as of 03 May afternoon, it covered about 2300 square kilometres of boreal coniferous forests.  The wildfire of Fort McMurray was christened ‘Beast’ by the firefighters.

The main reason the fire got bigger is that the main Fort McMurray fire merged with a much smaller, separate fire that had been burning to the North-East.  The fire grew due to the favourable weather conditions of heat, dryness and wind.  The firefighters were in the lookout for less windy days, rain, cooler temperatures and more humidity in the air in order to bring the wildfire under control.


Flames were only visible at the front of the large active wildfire, and he rest was ‘fields of just black ash’ left behind.  That huge burnt area is extremely dangerous and firefighters have months of work ahead of them.  They are carrying out infrared scans from the air to find ‘hot spots’ where smoke continues to smoulder underground.

About 700 firefighters were working on the Fort McMurray wildfire.  Twenty-six helicopters were being used to transport crews and to pick up and drop water.  13 air tanker planes (water bombers) were carrying water or fire retardant.  It is estimated that there is a total of 1,547 firefighters, 121 helicopters and 28 water bombers battling 25 wildfires across Alberta right now.

Most of those fires are classified as ‘under control.’  Only the Fort McMurray wildfire remained ‘out of control.’

Displaced Fort McMurray residents are getting more resources to help ease their predicament. The Canadian government says it will work to speed up employment insurance claims; Canada Post has announced a mail forwarding program free of charge for Fort McMurray and area residents; and Western Union is waiving money-transfer fees so Canadians can send money to Alberta more easily. Many retailers, pharmacists and others are offering services for those in need.

The evacuation of over 80,000 residents was carried out in an orderly manner.  Police officers helped re-fuel vehicles and generous residents offered these families a place to stay for the night.  The bright lights of RCMP cruisers helped the drivers to remain on road, while above, Canadian Forces helicopters searched for any signs of danger to the fleeing traffic.  There was also a massive airlift of more than 16,000 people.  Wildfire evacuees were mainly accommodated at the University of Alberta residences.

The hospital in Fort McMurray was evacuated – 73 acute care patients and 32 continuing care patients – were flown to Edmonton health care facilities to receive care.


Cooler temperatures, higher moisture in the air and lighter winds helped efforts to suppress the fire.   The fire was moving away from Fort McMurray in a South-East direction and unlikely to be a threat as the area is mainly wild land and away from habitation.

An average of 1,200 wildfires are reported in Alberta each year, and half of those fires are caused by humans, according to the National Fire Database.  Lightning is the second-leading cause with 47 per cent.  The fire’s proximity to the city, as well as data that shows that there were no lightning strikes in the area, directly leads to the inference that the cause of the fire was most likely human.

Weather is a crucial enabler of wildfires.  In the days before the wildfire, the weather in Fort McMurray was unseasonably warm, with strong winds and lack of rains.  All combined, it was the ideal scenario for a small fire to grow and spread.  The high temperatures were part of a year-long pattern attributed to El Nino, a periodic warming of waters in the East-Central Pacific Ocean that was at its strongest in recent months since 1997-98.

With summer-like temperatures and continuing tinder-dry conditions, the Alberta Province has banned the use of off-highway vehicles on public lands and provincial parks.  Flying of helicams and drones is banned as it may cause hindrance to the many fire-fighting aircrafts operating in the area.  A province-wide fire ban is in effect.  All open fires, including campfires and charcoal briquettes are prohibited.

In the fight against climate change, forests play a critical role — drawing more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere than they emit.  But when they burn, much of those stored gases are released back into the atmosphere.  For 6,000 years boreal forests have operated on a cycle of growth, fire, and re-growth.  It will take at least a decade before the forests destroyed by the fires in Fort McMurray are storing more carbon than they are releasing.

Such big wildfires affect plant succession and result in rejuvenation of the process of the maturation of plant systems.  Plant succession refers to changes in vegetation in a specific area over a period of time and is dependent on factors like disasters, changing conditions or human activity. While area of wildlife will adjust to these changes over time, the fire would have been catastrophic to most animals in the area.  The bears and the wolves are going to be destroyed in the first instance but it won’t be long for them to be back in the system

Within one to three years, bears are actually likely to benefit from the fires as there will be a good chance of massive berry crops like blueberries emerging, allowing bears to return and do quite well. Wolves’ success would depend on species like moose and deer that are found in the early stages of the evolution of the forest.

Forest fires are a natural phenomenon, and are beneficial ecologically, returning valuable nutrients to the soil that helps a natural rebirth.  Such fires naturally occur in forests every 150 to 250 years.  With changing global weather patterns, the scientist fear that the frequency of wildfires occurring may even reduce to 50 years.

At least nine major oil companies, including Syncrude and Suncor, suspended operations after the wildfire broke out, leaving Alberta’s oil production down by more than a million barrels per day – half of the province’s daily output and one third of Canada’s.  8,000 oilsands workers were evacuated on 16 May as the fire was approaching the oil production facilities.  The fire is not expected to create much havoc as these facilities have some fire treatment in place that will hopefully prevent them seeing too much impact from the fire.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin offered the services of IL-76 water bombers, capable of dumping 42 tons of fire retardant into fire spots.  Canada, however, turned down the offer.  The most difficult part of fighting a forest fire is coordinating smoky skies filled with low-flying helicopters and water bombers.  It is why, over the past few years often the only fatalities in major fires have been due to air crashes.  It would be difficult for the Russian pilots to communicate with the Canadian English speaking firefighters on ground, pilots operating in the area and air effort coordinators.

A pilot died in 2011 when his firefighting helicopter crashed, and another pilot died in 2015 in a water-bomber crash while fighting a wildfires in Alberta. However, there have been no civilian fatalities because of a forest fire since 1938.

Fort McMurray has been sealed off for days, for other than those involved in the firefighting efforts.  Media persons accompanied the Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on her first visit to the area on 09 May; six days after the area was evacuated.  The Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, visited the area to compliment the firefighters for their efforts to combat the fire only on 13 May.  The PM was of the opinion that when firefighters were busy trying to contain a massive raging wildfire, it is not a helpful thing for him to pay a visit.  Such visits would cause a drain on the firefighting resources and would only prove to be a hindrance.  Are other world leaders listening?

There were many rumours taking round about the wildfire.  A post in Facebook claimed “Eco-Terrorism suspected in Fort McMurray fire.”  The next was of an arsonist setting the fire.   This rumour actually attracted RCMP attention and asked firefighters in the area to keep on guard for lone wanderers. The mysterious fires that prompted the rumour were later found to be flaring up hotspots, a common phenomenon in forest fires.  Also, Fort McMurray is a remote city now populated almost exclusively by police, utility workers and firefighters just waiting to get their hands on a suspected arsonist.  The website ran with the recklessly unsourced allegation that a man with purported ISIL connections had taken responsibility for the fire.

While the full extent of the damage isn’t yet known, we certainly do know that, for those who have been affected by this fire, it is absolutely devastating. It is a loss on a scale that is hard for many of us to imagine.  The biggest lesson learned for any community in preparing for disaster, is to have connections and know the people.  There is a need for everyone to be familiar with the disaster plan in their area and have an emergency bag packed.  The stronger the community is beforehand the better they are going to do after in the recovery.

More than 80,000 residents of Fort McMurray, its entire population, are now entering their third week away from home with no word on when they may be able to return.

Moving Into A New Division

While our Regiment was deployed in the operational area, we received an order to move forthwith to be part of a newly raised Artillery Division. Within about six hours of receiving the orders, our unit arrived at the new location, surprising everyone in our new Divisional Headquarters as they never expected such a quick response. The move was executed real smooth as the unit was at its peak of operational preparedness, mainly due to the training and the relaxed time our soldiers had.


The Division was commanded by Major General RS Jambusarwalla and Colonel Azad Sameer (now Veteran Brigadier) was his Colonel General Staff (the main advisor and assistant to the Divisional Commander on operational matters). Both had been handpicked by the Army Headquarters for the new Artillery Division and I had never served under either of them.

Luckily Late Colonel Suresh Babu, our Second-in-Command, had served with both and knew both of them pretty well. Prior to the move, Colonel Babu had briefed me well about both with a closing advice “when you meet themthe swords would clash, but please ensure that the sparks do not fly”.

General Jambusarwalla and Brigadier Sameer –  both great human beings and real soldiers – with a very sharp and logical mind.  Obviously, great teachers and orators. Both accepted any views, however they were in disagreement with, discuss them with an open mind and come to an apt decision. They did not believe in turning the pages back and always encouraged creative thinking and welcomed new ideas.

After the unit settled in its new location, the next day we had to attend a tactical discussion at the Divisional Headquarters, conducted by General Jambusarwalla. Colonel Babu briefed me “Please do not fire on all cylinders on the very first day.  Remember that you are also the junior most commanding officer of the formation.

As the discussions progressed, I could not hold on to my horses and did take off on a few issues. Whenever Colonel Babu thought that the ‘sparks would fly‘, he gestured and I backed off. This parrying continued for the next three days and often became a close circuited discussion between General Jambusarwalla, Brigadier Sameer and self.

During these discussions I used Malyalam too, especially with Brigadier Sameer being a Malayalee, I knew that he would explain the meaning to the General. One such discussion was about engaging targets in depth with the long range guns, rockets and missiles and all the commanding officers were explaining their own theories. I was mostly in disagreement with them as engaging targets in depth without employing any of our surveillance devices to observe where the shells have fallen and the damage caused, would be sheer waste of effort.  Whatever I said was falling on deaf ears I thought. So I rose up and said it was like “പൊട്ടക്കണ്ണന്റെ മാവേൽ ഏർ (pottakkannante mavel er)”. My sudden unexpected outburst in Malayalam took many by surprise and immediately General Jambusarwalla wanted me to explain it to the entire audience. Three words in Malayalam meant three sentences in English, I realised then. I explained “it is like a blind man trying to throw stones at a mango tree, expecting mangoes to fall.”  It killed the discussion then and there.

After we moved back to our peacetime location at Devlali from our operational deployment, General Jambusarwalla paid a visit to our unit. The unit was becoming fully automated in the administrative functioning and I was facing shortage of funds and computer hardware. General Jambusarwalla alighted from his car and ordered his driver to open the boot of the car and there he had a computer and a printer as a gift for the unit. That was General Jambusarwalla, who knew exactly what the unit needed and it was the first time in my entire military career that I saw a visit by a General beginning with a gift rather than……….

After the visit I called up Brigadier Sameer to find out about the opinion the General had about the unit. Brigadier Sameer said that the General was real pleased with everything, but had only one issue. It was that I had misspelled the General’s name on a board outside the guest room with only one “L” in the “WALLA”. I immediately apologised and said “I never realised that General Jambusarwalla’s ‘Vaal (വാൽ/ வால்)‘ had only one ‘eL (എല്ല്/ எல்லு)’”. ‘Vaal‘ in Malayalam/Thamizh means the tail and ‘el‘ means a bone. I am very sure that Brigadier Sameer must have explained it to the General and they both would have had a big laugh.

Once I wrote the above, I wanted the approval of General Jambusarwalla prior to placing these in a public domain. As a typical soldier, old habits die hard; I forwarded it to Brigadier Sameer, to seek the General’s approval. Literally “Fired it from Brigadier Sameer’s shoulders” and Brigadier Sameer did lent his shoulder and as a good old Colonel General Staff, put his initials and forwarded the same to the General.

I was least surprised by the reply I received from the General – “So he can go ahead and write whatever he feels like, especially when it pertains to padding my ego! Not to mention my boneless tail!”. This showed that the General is in good health and his sense of humour is still intact – may be it has sharpened a bit more – post retirement.

During my visit to Pune on 22 December 2015, I was staying with our friend Colonel John.  In the evening General Jambusarwalla with Mrs Hufreez Jambusarwalla came to Colonel John’s place to pick me up for dinner at the Pune Turf Club.  Colonel and Mrs John had to attend a formal event at their Officers’ Mess and we were all ready by 7 PM.  Colonel John’s  house was on the upper floor. There was a knock on the door and General Jambusarwalla was there to escort me to his car.  Colonel & Mrs John were surprised to find the General walking up the stairs to pick up a Colonel.

That is General Jambusarwalla for you, a true soldier, a great General, with all the humility and a heart of gold.

4472 Missing Girls

A study report published on 11 April 2016 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) by a team of doctors lead by Dr Marcelo Urquia, from St Michael’s Hospital, Toronto about variations in male-female infant ratios among births to Canadian and Indian-born mothers, has caught the eye of many and raised a few eye brows.  Dr. Marcelo Urquia is an epidemiologist with a special interest in improving perinatal health, particularly for immigrant mothers and their children.

(Illustration by Thomas Graham)

The study examined birth certificate data of 5.8 million singleton live births to Canadian-born women and 1,77,990 similar births to Indian-born women. The data pertained to births between 1990 and 2011.  The study did not examine the cases of abortions or feticides.  The results of the study are indeed quite alarming.  The study reports that women who emigrated from India and already had two children gave birth to 138 boys for every 100 girls. If they already had three children, they gave birth to 166 males for every 100 females. That ratio rises to 326 boys per 100 girls for those with two daughters who had an abortion preceding her third birth. In some cases, the number of abortions these mothers have undergone would surprise many.  Among Canadian-born mothers, male-female ratios were about 105 males for every 100 females, with negligible fluctuations by birth order, year and province.

The study also noted that children born to an Indian-born fathers skewed the ratio towards more boys per 100 girls at the second and higher birth orders immaterial of whether the mother was  of Indian origin or otherwise.

In Canada, it is a woman’s right to undergo an abortion and is legal and government funded.  No questions are asked regarding the reasons.  It appears that this option has been unduly exploited by the group under study.  Abortion of female fetuses after prenatal ultrasonography, is the most commonly cited explanation in settings where son preference and strong patriarchal cultures are prevalent.  Indians in Canada celebrate the birth of a boy and the celebrations begin from the birthing room.  In contrast, birth of a girl spreads a pall of gloom among family members.

Until 1988, Canada’s Criminal Code required women who wished to have an abortion to satisfy a therapeutic abortion committee, established by a hospital, that the continuation of her pregnancy would be likely to endanger her life or health.  However, in the case of Dr. Henry Morgentaler, Dr. Leslie Frank Smoling and Dr. Robert Scott Vs Her Majesty The Queen, the Supreme Court held that this provision violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  The Charter provides that “everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.”

Since 1988, Canada has not had a law prohibiting any type of abortions including abortions for the purpose of sex selection.  Physicians in Canada normally do not perform abortions after the twenty-fourth week of a pregnancy, unless the health of the woman is in serious jeopardy even though they cannot be prosecuted for doing so.

4472 Missing Girls

As per the study, the skewed sex ratio among Indian immigrants in Canada has resulted in about 4,472 missing girls. The actual number of missing girls may be much higher in case repeated induced abortions of female foetuses by this group are taken into account.  These missing girls translate into a deficit in the number of newborn girls to Indian immigrants in Canada to around 200 per year.

Sex Ratio is a term used to define number of females per 1000 males. In most developed countries, the ratio is about 1001 to 1007.  Europe has the best ratio, mostly among the erstwhile Soviet Bloc countries.  The Asian countries, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bhutan, China and India have more male population compared to females.

A study of the Census of India 2011 would throw some light into this skewed sex ratio which stands at 940.  Among the States, Kerala has the highest sex‐ratio of 1084 and Haryana has the lowest of 877.  Considering various religious groups, Sikhs have the lowest sex ratio (786) followed by Jains.  It is interesting to note that the sex ratio is much higher among the tribal groups (976,) although they have the lowest literacy rate (47%) among all ethnic groups.  On the other hand, Jains have the highest literacy rate (94.1%), yet they have the second lowest sex ratio (870,) next only to Sikhs.

This should be a pointer enough to gauge the reasons for the skewed sex ratio among Indo-Canadian children with the highest single ethnic group being Sikhs followed by Gujaratis.  The Indian ethnic groups that contribute to the skewed ratio are obviously more in Canada when compared to the Indians in USA. Also the abortion laws in many of the states in USA are not as liberal as in Canada.

Let me cite a personnel anecdote in this connection. Sitting outside the operation theatre during the C-Section for Nikhil’s birth, the Gynecologist wanted a final confirmation whether to conduct the tubectomy operation too.  I signed the document to confirm the same and handed it over to the Gynecologist.  My mother who was with me asked me whether I would feel bad in case it is a daughter this time too, to which I replied “Never.”  I asked her as to how she had four sons and she said that my father very much wanted a daughter after two sons and when my mother was pregnant with me, they all thought it would be girl.  After I was born and my mother was pregnant the fourth time, my father still held hope that it would be a girl, but my mother said that she always knew it would be another boy.  After my younger brother’s birth, my mother called it a day and got her tubes tied.

During my service with the Indian Army, I always perceived that the girls in the cantonments always outnumbered the boys.  Among the Gunners (Artillery), the saying was that good Gunners always had a daughter as their first child and the better Gunners had two daughters.    It is obviously the girls who are in the forefront among the Indian Army kids.  Please Click Here to read my earlier blog about their achievements and reasons for the military girls in the forefront.

Doughnut & Coffee

(Illustration by Thomas Graham)

In 2006 my mother expressed her desire to spend a few months with us in Canada.  Nidhi and Nikhil were thrilled about the arrival of Granny, but Marina and I were a bit apprehensive.  My mother is a diabetic patient and also has complications with her heart.  My brothers were also a bit apprehensive, keeping in mind her medical conditions and her age (72 years then).  My mother, a strong lady that she is, was totally determined to undertake the journey across the seven seas and told everyone in the family that she would be back for Christmas.

She had stayed with us for over two months at almost all our stations of posting, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, Assam, Bengal. Delhi, Pune and Devlali (Maharashtra).  While commanding the unit at Devlali, with Marina away in Canada, my mother  effectively and efficiently discharged the duties of the ‘First Lady’ and chief hostess at home.

Come what may, we decided to get Granny across to Canada and we got her Visa formalities completed.  On 30 June 2006, Marina and kids took off to Kerala and stayed there for two weeks and on their return trip, they were accompanied by Granny.  Both the children took extra care of the Granny throughout the 20 hours of the flight to Toronto from Kochi and also during her stay here.  Nidhi, a fifteen year old teen, accompanied her Granny umpteen times to the washroom, held her hand and walked with her in the malls, while visiting places of interest, calling on friends etc.  At night Nidhi had Granny sleeping with her and she got up at the middle of the night or whenever Granny wanted to visit the washroom.

My mother was a middle school  teacher who taught English and Maths.  The school being Malayalam medium, English lessons would commence from Grade 5.  My mother had done two years Teacher Training Course (TTC) after passing Grade 10.  She started teaching when she was seventeen (1949) and she then had many students much elder to her, some married and some even with children.  Most of the teachers belonged to our village and many were distantly related to our family.

A week after her arrival in Canada, we decided to visit Montreal and take a boat cruise through the St Lawrence River to see various places where pitched battles were fought between the English and French and also historic buildings in Old Montreal.  Montreal is about 550 km (about 6 hours by car) from Toronto and is located in Quebec Province with French as the main language.

We set off for Montreal on a Saturday morning and after two hours of drive, we decided to have a break and drove into a restaurant.  I ordered coffee and doughnut and my mother too wanted the same.  I advised her that doughnut is pretty high in sugar and would do no good to her diabetics.  My mother was very adamant (once she becomes adamant, there is no way out) and Nidhi picked up a dozen assorted varieties of doughnuts and coffee for everyone.  Nidhi explained to her Granny as to what each doughnut was and what they contained (I cannot name more than a couple).  Granny had a look, felt her fingers over a few doughnuts and started sipping her black coffee.  I asked her as to why she was not eating the doughnut she replied that she only wanted to see what a doughnut was and then burst out laughing.

The children became curious about Granny’s laughter and immediately wanted to know the reason for such an unexpected outburst.  My mother started off with her narrative.

One day at school, the high school English teachers asked her as to what a doughnut was.  Such queries always came to her being the senior-most in the middle school and also being better read and travelled than most teachers in the school.  That was the first time she heard the word doughnut and she did not have any clue.  She asked for the context where it appeared and she was told that the line in the text book read “He had doughnut with coffee.”  Now she thought for a while and applying her logical mind said that it may be a nut as it was being taken with coffee.  It was now that she realised what an actual doughnut was.

After exploring the area around and visiting Niagara Falls, it was time for her to get back to Kerala as the severe Canadian winter was fast approaching.  By first week of November, I accompanied her on her return journey.  That was when I realised how difficult it would have been for Marina and Nidhi to manage her during the 20 hour flight.

On reaching Kochi airport all the grand children were there to receive their Granny, whom they missed for five months.  One of them remarked “Till date Granny was National, now she has become International”.

Thomas  Thomas Graham is a young artist from Mississauga, Canada.  He after graduating from Grade 12 in June 2015, is selected to join the prestigious Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University, Toronto, to pursue a degree in illustration and is looking to become an illustrator by profession. 

Idli-Vada At Thughlakabad Ranges


The first Field Firing Exercise that I participated in as a Gun Position Officer (GPO) – Second Lieutenant – was on 28 December 1983.  It was a Battery level exercise for 753 Medium Battery.  Our Battery Commander was Major Ashok Sikka, with Captain Firoze Allavalli as his Second-in-Command.  Captain Avinash Chandra was attached to our battery as the Observation Post officer from the Regimental Headquarters.  We had four 130mm Russian Medium Guns and the exercise was to practice engagement of targets and fire planning at the Thughlakabad Field Firing Ranges. 

75 Medium Regiment then had three batteries with fixed class composition.  751 Medium Battery consisted of Brahmins from North India, 752 Medium Battery had Jats and our 753 Medium Battery had South Indians. 

The Thughlakabad Ranges was located South-West of Qutab Minar, North-West of Faridabad and South-East of Gurgaon.  The range was closed down in 1988 as it posed hazards to the aircrafts landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport close by and also because the area around it was being developed into residential colonies.  

On 28 December we carried out tactical manoeuvres of the battery in the area around Gurgaon (then it was hardly developed as one sees it today) and by evening deployed in the Field Firing Ranges.  By dusk, we practiced engagement of targets with live firing up to 8PM.  

At the end of the shooting, I received a message from Major Sikka that a team of about 100 people, mainly press photographers and reporters from various print media houses, and the camera crew from Doordarshan (India’s national TV broadcaster) were scheduled to visit us in the gun area by 10AM on 29 December.  They were to witness the firing of medium guns.  Major Sikka also instructed me to ensure that they were well cared for as per the norms of our battery.


Subedar (Warrant Officer) Chinnappa was in charge of the administration of the gun area and I immediately summoned him.  I asked Subedar Chinnappa as to how he intended to take care of the visitors and without winking an eyelid he said “We will serve them Idli (four to five inches in diameter cake made by steaming a batter of fermented de-husked black lentils and rice), Vada (spicy doughnut shaped deep fried snack made from black grams and Bengal grams), Sambar (spicy a lentil-based vegetable stew ) and Chutney (side dish made using  a combination of coconut, garlic, ginger, tamarind, chili,  cumin and fenugreek.) 

I was surprised with Subedar Chinnappa’s answer as I knew that fermenting the batter for Idli overnight in the cold winter of Delhi was near impossible, but Subedar Chinnappa seemed pretty confident of executing it.  I summoned all the soldiers and explained to them about the impending visit by press reporters next day and instructed all of them to be smartly turned out and answer all the queries with confidence.

Now I summoned my ‘Commando Team’.  This team consisted of the Limber Gunners from the gun detachments – Naik (Corporal) Achuthan (very good at cooking, better than any chef), Naik Sengole, Naik Prasannan and Naik Mathukutty – and the Machine Gun Operator – Naik Gopalakrishna Pillai and driver Naik Venson.  The Limber Gunner of a detachment is generally the Deputy to the Detachment Commander, one skilled in the basics of the Gunners’ trade, more especially in the care and maintenance of the gun and its ammunition.    They all sported terrorising handlebar moustaches (Major Sikka had a liking for it), including Subedar Chinnappa, which would send tremors up the spine of even Veerappan, the forest brigand.  They were ever ready to execute any ‘difficult’ task at any time and used many ingenious methods to achieve excellent results.

The task in hand was explained to them and they held a mini-conference among them to decide on the plan of action.  Around 8:30 PM they drove to the Regimental location to grind the lentils and rice for the barter.  They returned to the gun area by about 2 AM with the batter.

I still was trying to work out in my mind the difficult proposition of fermenting the batter in a cold night.  It requires around 25 degrees Celsius temperature for fermentation and I had only eight hours in hand.  Neither Subedar Chinnappa nor my Commando Team appeared least worried about it.  They asked me to sleep for a few hours as I had to conduct the firing in the morning and also brief the visitors.  They assured me not to worry about the Idli-Vada problem.

The press team consisting of about 100 people arrived at the gun area at stroke of 10 and Subdear Chinnappa with his characteristic smile received them and escorted them to the gun position.  He had ensured that the members of the commando team were by then positioned around my command post. 

I welcomed the visitors and before I could commence the briefing, a senior press reporter remarked that he was impressed with the turnout and smartness of the soldiers, especially their moustaches.  Everyone in the crowd nodded and some added a few words of approval.  Subedar Chinnappa won the first round and I glanced at him with a smile of appreciation.

Firing of guns was demonstrated and everyone took photographs and the camera crew recorded the events.  They interacted with the soldiers at the guns and at the command post and were briefed well by everyone.  By around 11 o’ clock, Subedar Chinnappa invited everyone for a cup of tea.  They were surprised to see Idli-Vada being served in the jungles and were really appreciative of the snacks.  They wanted to know as to how we made it.  Many of them went on to remark that they never had eaten such soft and tasty Idli-Vada in their life.

Before bidding goodbye, the news producer of Doordarshan was really appreciative of the Idli-Vada and said that I must watch the 9 PM newscast as this event would be part of the headlines.  The print media reporters said that the photographs and the news report would find a place on the front pages.  I did not take them that seriously and saw them off.

Now I summoned the Commando Team to appreciate them for their special efforts.  I was curious to know as to how they fermented the batter.  Naik Venson was responsible for this task and he took the Team to the Regiment location in the Gun Tower – the Kraz vehicle.  Kraz being of Russian origin has driver-cabin heating system.  When they returned with the batter to the gun area, the Kraz’s cabin was already at about 25 degrees Celsius.  Naik Venson kept the Kraz in static run mode till next morning.  This ensured that the cabin temperature remained at optimum level for the batter to ferment.  What an idea Sir-ji.

After the firing exercise, I returned to the Officers’ Mess by evening.  I asked for a drink and sat in the TV room.  In those days we had only the Doordarshan channel and the news headlines said “75 Medium Regiment conducted their field firing exercise today” and the visuals of the firing practice were shown.  Next morning all the leading dailies published from Delhi carried the same news item with a photograph in their front page.  The photographs and news reports were placed in the Regimental History Book. 

So, the Idli-Vada did play a vital role in impressing the media persons. The story is a testimony to the versatile ingenuity of the soldiers of the Indian Army.

Idlivada 333
ront page report that appeared on the Indian Express

Volunteer – To Give Back to the Society


“Service to Mankind is service to God” is the proverb highly prevalent all over the world.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others” – Mahatma Gandhi

“One should perform karma for the benefit of humanity.” – Rig Veda

“Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Bible – (Mathew 25: 45)

A friend was admitted in the Intensive Cardiac unit of a hospital in Toronto and I had gone there to give moral support and a few soothing words to the members of the patient’s family. I went there with the pretext that the ICU will be as neat, clean and well looked after like the Military hospitals in India. To my unfathomable surprise what I saw made realize how the Canada government cared for its citizens. In Canada, health-care is all government and there are hardly any private medical services.

The patient had suffered a cardiac arrest and his wife called the Emergency Services, who dispatched an ambulance, a police cruiser and a fire engine. Meanwhile, the person attending the call was giving out instructions to help the wife perform CPR. First to arrive on site was the police cruiser and the police officer immediately took on the task of CPR. The ambulance arrived and the patient was immediately moved to the hospital.

In the ICU, the patient was in a coma and in order to control his metabolic activities, his body temperature was reduced by a degree or two. All modern hi-tech medical instruments were employed to monitor the body parameters – many instruments I had neither seen nor heard of. There was one dedicated nurse manning the station 24 hours, each doing 8 hour shifts. (there were eight other beds in the vicinity and each bed had a dedicated nurse). He briefed me in detail about the patient’s medical condition and the parameters being monitored by him.

While leaving the hospital, I noticed that the person who controlled traffic at the entrance, the old lady on a wheel-chair guiding visitors to various wards, the veteran manning the reception at the ICU – all were volunteers. Then I remembered as to the tough procedure our daughter and son had to undergo to get a volunteer position at the local hospital – medical check-up, police verification and recommendations from two high-school teachers. In Canada 40 hours of community service is mandatory to graduate from high school.  It  is sure to carry you miles when applying for university admissions and also would always look much better on one’s resume.

On my next visit to the hospital, I was greeted by a cheerful man in his late seventies, controlling traffic. I was forced to stop and chat with him as to why he is so cheerful and doing a voluntary service. He said that he had to give back to the society what the society had given him. He further added that he commutes by the subway and bus for an hour each way and does a four hour stint at the gate.These six hours is spent fruitfully by him rather than lying on the bed and cursing the world, the people around him and the God. What a great philosophy?

Many of the volunteers I spoke to had similar explanations for their drive to volunteer. One can see senior citizens volunteering at crossings in front of the schools. They ensure safe passage of children for about an hour in the morning, during lunch-break and when the school session ends. In India such services are available to only political leaders and VIPs, both in civil and the military. The points-men lining up the roads to ensure safe passage of the VIP can effectively be utilized to ensure safety of the children, who are a better investment than the VIP.

These volunteers manning these crossings also had a similar point of view regarding volunteering. One retired police officer manning such a crossing said that the city would have to pay heavily in case the city took up task of manning these crossings and the police force will never be available at the peak hours for ‘real’ policing duties.

During field-trips and outdoor visits by the school children, along with the consent form comes a volunteering sheet, which the parents may fill-up in case they are available to help the teachers in smooth conduct of the event. Visualize one teacher handling 30 children on a field-trip? Generally one found about five to six parents accompanying the kids.

As usual people from our sub-continent are hardly seen volunteering. During one of my hospital visits, I met a senior citizen who had immigrated from India at the coffee shop. I inquired as to why our children and seniors do not engage in such volunteer services. He said that our people also do volunteer services – at religious places of worship where they clean the shoes, sweep the floor, cook food, clean utensils etc. To my surprise and disgust he had his philosophy and justification in place – “there we do service to God directly”.

People volunteer their time to an organization because they want to support their community. As per Statistics Canada, in 2010, almost all (93%) volunteers said that making a contribution to the community was a key motivating factor in their decision. Although most volunteers get involved with a charitable or non-profit organization for altruistic reasons, most also believe that they receive substantial benefits themselves. Many stated that their volunteer activities had given them a chance to develop new skills; for example, about two-thirds said their interpersonal skills had improved. Volunteers also thought their volunteer experience had given them better skills in communications (44%), organizing (39%), fundraising (33%) and technical or office work (27%). One-third (34%) also reported that working as a volunteer had increased their knowledge of such subjects as health, women’s or political issues, criminal justice or the environment.

Now think of the vast pool of human resource available in any community in India, who can contribute back to the society. In India, most people retire from their active employment by the age of 60 unlike in Canada where retirement is generally after 70.

Whether you donate money or time, giving back is beneficial–and not just for the recipients. It’s better to give than to receive. Besides feeling good about yourself for doing something for others, giving back is also good for your physical health. Canadian study found 85% of Ontario volunteers rated their health as “good,” compared to 79% of non-volunteers.

Studies have shown a relationship between volunteering and increased self- esteem, with volunteers reporting both greater personal empowerment and better health. Doing for others may stimulate release of endorphins, which has been linked to improved nervous and immune system functions, too.

Helping others can help take your mind off your own problems and enable you to see the bigger picture. Once you see the difference you can make in another person’s life, your own problems can seem smaller and more manageable.

If you wait until you can do everything for everybody, instead of something for somebody, you’ll end up not doing nothing for nobody.” ~ Malcom Bane

A Shainamol


The image above is of A Shainamol, District Collector of Kollam District, Kerala, holding in arms the infant of Martyr Lance Naik B Sudheesh, who hailed from Kollam.  Martyr Lance Naik Sudheesh made the ultimate sacrifice in Siachen on 03 February 2016.  (Please Click Here to Read More).  From the way Shainamol is dressed, her expression, her body language and the way she is carrying the infant, it is evident that it was not for a photo op. 

My gratitude to Veteran Commander MS Vinod Kumar of Indian Navy for prompting me to write an article on Shainamol.  


The fireworks accident at Puttingal temple in Kollam District on 10 April 2016 was the deadliest in the state’s history, but surely will not be the last. Fireworks and accidents are associated not only with the Hindu Temple festivals, but also Christian Churches, who are not lagging behind; in some places, they would out do the Temples. 

The first major fireworks accident reported was way back in 1952 at Sabarimala in which 68 people died and many were maimed. Rough estimates show that in the last 50 plus years, there have been more than 400 such accidents and they have claimed at least 500 lives.  The famous Trissur Pooram in Central Kerala, sponsored by the State run Kerala Tourism, is known for its multiple rounds of competitive firework displays, has been hit thrice with high casualties and injuries.

In 1987, 27 people who were watching a fireworks display at the Jagannatha Temple at Thalassery got run over by a train.  As the fireworks proceeded, the crowd kept retreating until they reached the nearby railway track.  Due to the high decibel levels, they suffered from a temporary Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) and did not hear the approaching train, even though the engine driver of the train had sounded the siren. 

The next malady is parading elephants during these festivals, ending in accidents, resulting in causalities.  The elephants get disoriented with the high decibel sound from the fireworks and the crowds cheering and jeering.  These elephants run amuck, killing or injuring people and damaging property. In some cases causalities have been caused by stampedes. 

Whom are these devotees trying to please?  Which God wants animals to face hardships?  Even the Gods would tremble at the high decibel levels and fire?  Why do all places of worship, irrespective of religion, blare their prayers and hymns at high volume? Else the Gods may not hear! – The Gods possibly suffer from NIHL by now!

The same story gets repeated over the years.  Neither the religious authorities, nor the political leadership want to take any step to curb the practice.   In Indian democracy who would like to antagonise the Gods, taking into account the imperative needs of the vote bank politics.  The only way out is for the Judiciary to step in. 

The judiciary did step in.  The Kerala High Court on 12 April 2016, banned the display of sound-emitting firecrackers in all places of worship in the state after sunset.  It, however, allowed the use firecrackers, not more than 140 decibel, during daytime.  The very same High Court, on 14 April 2016, ruled permitting fireworks display for Trissur Pooram provided there was no unauthorised chemicals used and the sound level not to exceed 125 decibels.  The reason cited for the ruling was that the Pooram celebrations was part of the social and cultural fabric of Trissur.

The irony is that the High Court is well aware that neither the administration nor the police is equipped with any equipment or instruments to monitor the clauses of high decibel or unauthorised chemicals.  In case of any disaster, the Kerala Police is untrained to deal with it, the Fire Department is ill equipped and the Emergency Ambulance services  inadequate.  To compound the problem further, the exit routes would invariably be clogged by various vendors or vehicles parked illegally.

Here too the Judiciary lost and the Gods won.

The developed world too have fireworks display, at a much grander scale, but they employ advanced pyro-techniques.  They have strict regulations on the decibel levels and the chemicals being used.  The regulators are well equipped and ensure applications of the rules.   The Emergency services – Police, Fire and Ambulance – are all stand-by mode in more than adequate numbers.   The area is cleared of any bottlenecks for exit and entry of people.

It is obvious that any social evil cannot be stopped by rules and regulations, but only by self-restraint.   Kerala state boasts of near 100% literacy, but has failed to make its people aware of the disasters awaiting them.  To add fuel to the fire, the emergence of the ‘Hindutva’ Brigade, duly supported by the political party in power at the centre has set their own propaganda machinery.  These propagandists claim that the rules to curtail the celebration of Hindu festivals are the deliberate works of the political leadership and administration, to belittle the majority population!

In the case of the fireworks accident at Puttingal temple, the state was ruled by a Christian Chief Minister; local Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) is a state minister and also a Christian; District Collector is a Muslim, so also  the Additional District Magistrate.

With the state going to the polls in the following month, can anyone stop the social evil of the fireworks display at a Hindu Temple?

Shainamol, the District Collector and Shanavas, the Additional District Magistrate had denied permission for the fireworks at Puttingal temple.  They were reportedly bullied and threatened by local politicians and Hindu groups, with communal motives attributed to their actions.  The temple authorities managed to get the support of political parties and coerced the Police and went ahead with the fireworks, despite the ban from the collector.  Since it was election time, the temple authorities were confident that no one would stop them.  It left over 100 devotees dead and over 300 injured. 

Kerala Police was quick to transfer the blame for the accident on to the District Administration.  Shainamol courageously stood her ground and went public through the media, explaining her position.  The political masters did not digest this act and the State Cabinet censured Shainamol for airing her views in public.  She did not relent and did not budge from her position.


Shainamol comes from a devout Muslim family in Kerala.   Her father S Abu and mother PK Sulekha are proud parent today, as three of their children qualified the civil services exams.  Her elder sister A Shaila is the Mumbai District Collector and her elder brother A Akbar is the Superintendent in Kerala Police Crime Branch.

Her father Abu, a retired school teacher, is all praise for his three children, crediting their determination, hard work and constant prayers for their success. He is ever thankful to Allah for letting his children reap the benefit of their hard work.  Abu’s advice to parents is that the children should be given ample opportunity for studies, a congenial atmosphere at home, time and basic amenities.

The Muslim community of Kerala are now realising that advancement in social and economic fields can come through education.  Shainamol believes that the future belongs to young people and therefore there is an urgent need for the Muslim community to get rid of its backwardness. She opines that there is a need for an attitudinal change with more emphasis on education and employment generation programmes.

Let us all stand together and support Shainamol in all her future endeavours.