Book Review : Mojo in a Mango Tree by Vikram Cotah

Kudos to Vikram, the author, for bringing out a wonderful book based on life lessons. The book is replete with life experiences and ‘interesting’ anecdotes- many where someone has gone an extra mile.  The aspects covered deals with the hospitality industry, but is applicable to all professions and also in everyday life.  The hotel industry, like any other profession, renders many an opportunity to go that extra mile and a good leader/ employee must seek it out.  The leaders and employers have to grant that ‘extra’ to an employee who goes that extra mile to encourage others to follow.  Empowering the employees will go a long way. In most organisations, red tape is the biggest hindrance to achieving the extra mile.   It is all about maturing relationships and enjoying the trust of the customers and subordinates.

The history of hotel industry enunciated in the book is educative and informative.  Consumers evolve and the industry got to be in sync, but the need for a good service culture will remain forever.  Emotions and gastronomy will add value to the guests’ experience.  There is never a second-chance in hospitality as there are no runners-up in a war.

It is all about kindness, compassion and empathy.   Get out of your comfort zone, explore the world and recoup your energy.  A guest is never a room number;  so are your employees and subordinates.  You need a thick skin dealing with complaints and worries and learn to say ‘No’ with a ‘Yes.’  One who manages  crisis  better will always succeed as you are sure to face many.  Feedbacks are more important than compliments.

The author  brings out many life lessons.  Happiness is being positive.  Plan your day well.  Have a dream, set your aims and achieve your goals.  Create a bucket list the earliest and keep ticking them off – Do these consistently – in small measures. Smile is the best weapon in your life.

Success and failures  are integral to life.  Failures provide you opportunities to become  smarter.  Branding is very important today and I have tested and tasted all the elements charted in the book. Life cycle of a hotel from inception applies well to all businesses. Why?  Even true for a soldier.

The reader will appreciate and also identify easily with some well brought out instance like giving out perfumes to the hotel staff – a  novel and a much required need in the Indian context.  Changing the lobby mat with ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Good Evening’ – I never thought of.  Wall panels to make selfies look great – need of the day.

Learning is a lifelong process.  I ran away from studies to join the Army – neither did I stop running nor studying thereafter.

‘Leaders of the future will need to balance technology quotient and emotional quotient.  This will be the Extra Quotient of the future.

Should You Vaccinate Against COVID19???


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why so?” I enquired.

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

 

 

 

Mall Walking


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

What do I do while I walk for 60 minutes?

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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Soldiers’ Pensions and Disability


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over Structured Training in the Indian Army


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween 2020


With the convergence of a full moon, a blue moon, daylight saving time and Saturday celebrations with the pandemic with high transmission rates, Halloween 2020 is bound to be remembered in Canada.

The word ‘Halloween’ means ‘hallowed evening’ or ‘holy evening.’ It is believed to be of Scottish Christian origin, dating back to mid Eighteenth Century. Halloween falls on 31 October, the evening prior to the Christian All Saints Day on 01 November.


Halloween came to North America with the influx of Scottish and Irish settlers by early Nineteenth Century. It was gradually assimilated into mainstream society and by the first decade of the Twentieth Century it was being celebrated all over North America by people of all social, racial and religious backgrounds.


Trick-or-treating is a customary celebration for children on Halloween. Children go out in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as candy or sometimes money, with the question, “Trick or Treat?” The word ‘Trick’” refers to ‘threat’  to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no ‘treat’ is given.

Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario Province recommended against trick or treating door-to-door this Halloween for Toronto, Ottawa and also our city of Mississauga.  Prime Minister Trudeau has declared that his three children will not venture out this Halloween for ‘Trick or Treat.


Most homes put up Halloween decorations as what one sees in the ‘Dracula’  movies with cobwebs, skeletons and various scary models. The most common is the ‘Jack-O-Lanterns’ which originated in Ireland where children carved out potatoes or turnips and lighted them from the inside with candles. In North America, pumpkins were cheaper and more readily available than turnips, thus carving them and making them in to Jack-O-Lanterns lit by a candle inside became a North American Halloween tradition.


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


Whether Halloween is a devil’s holiday or not, the children really have a lot of fun and enjoy the evening going for ‘Trick or Treat’; the adults enjoy accompanying the children and also treating them at their homes.  People of all ages do have a lot of fun ‘dressing up’ in the most grotesque way and they do not ever associate the devil with what they do.


31 October night happens to be a ‘Full-Moon Night’ and also a ‘Blue-Moon.‘  The idiom ‘once in a blue-moon‘ refers to a rare occurrence, but in fact it appears once every 2.7 years, because the lunar month – from new moon to new moon-  is 29.53 days compared to 30 or 31 days of our calendar month.  Hence February (with 28 or 29 days) can never witness a blue-moon.  Last blue-moon occurred on March 31, 2018.


Now comes the Daylight Saving Time (DST) when we turn our clock by an hour on the first Sunday of November. This year, the day falls on 01 November.  It reduces  one hour to standard time with the purpose of making better use of daylight and conserving energy.  Even though the Sun will rise and set as before, the clocks will show the time one hour earlier than the day before.  The first to use DST was Thunder Bay in Ontario, Canada In July, 1908.  Other cities and provinces followed suit by introducing DST bylaws.

DST is now in force in over 70 countries worldwide and affects over a billion people every year. The beginning and end dates vary from one country to another. In 1996, the European Union (EU) standardized an EU-wide DST schedule, beginning  last Sunday in March and ending  last Sunday in October. It is believed that DST showed a decrease in road accidents by ensuring that the  roads are naturally lit during the peak traffic hours.

(Images from Halloween 2019)

The Whisky War


The news is ripe with Indo-China border stand-off these days. How does Canada fare in their border management?

Canada and the United States share the world’s longest undefended border, running along the 49th parallel from the west coast to Lake Superior and following natural boundaries for the remainder.


Denmark and Canada share maritime boundary in the Arctic and it runs in the middle of Nares strait  through which runs Kennedy Channel.  This 35 kilometres wide strait separates Ellesmere Island from northern Greenland.  The strait is home to two islands – Franklin and Crozier – which falls within the territorial waters of Denmanrk


The third and the contested island is within the territorial waters of both Canada and Greenland, an uninhabited barren rock of 1.3 Sq km, named after Hans Hendrik, an Arctic traveller.  A theoretical borderline in the middle of the strait goes through the island.  According to an international treaty, any island which is in 12 miles of mainland comes under the territory of that country which technically allows both Denmark and Canada a claim over the island.

The Permanent Court of International Justice of the League of Nations in a landmark judgement of 1933 ruled the island to be a sovereign part of Denmark.  The League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations after World War II and Canada claims that this decision became irrelevant with the demise of the League of Nations.

The dispute between Canada and Denmark re-emerged in 1973 when Denmark and Canada started demarcating their borders through negotiations. They agreed on all other disputes except Hans Island which was then decided to be resolved later.


The Whisky War commenced in 1984 when Canadians sailed to the island and erected the Red Maple Flag on the island and kept a famous Canadian whiskey as a symbolic expression.

In return, the Danish Minister of Greenland visited the island and replaced the Canadian flag with the Danish flag. He took the Canadian whisky and replaced it with world-famous Danish schnapps.

This Whisky War continued until 2015, with both the armies taking turns in unfurling their national flags and placing their famous whisky for the other.

Canada and Denmark, both NATO allies, both agreed to resolve dispute citing the presence of the Russian Army in the Arctic region during the cold war.  On 04 May 2008, an international group of scientists from Australia, Canada, Denmark, and the UK installed an automated weather station on Hans Island.  On 23rd May 2018, Canada and Denmark announced a Joint Task Force to settle the dispute over Hans Island. A committee of arctic experts was constituted to resolve the dispute peacefully. One of the main resolutions, they are thinking of, is to declare the barren stone island into condominium.

A condominium does not mean that the two countries are going to build a high-rise apartment building on the island, but it means that the island will be co-owned and co-managed by both the countries . Thus the will have both Canadian and Danish flags on it.

A Soldier’s Promise


Marine Master Sgt. William H. Cox and Marine First Sgt. James ‘Hollie’ Hollingsworth first met as Privates, taking cover from rockets and shells raining all around them in a bunker in the Marble Mountains of Vietnam in 1968.

They made a pact: “If we survived this war, we will  contact each other on every New Year’s eve“.

They did that every New Year for the next five decades.

In January 2017, 83-year-old Cox made the trip from his home in South Carolina to say goodbye to his dying friend, Hollingsworth, 80, in Georgia. That day he made a final promise to his Vietnam buddy – to stand guard over his coffin and deliver the eulogy at his funeral.


In October 2017, Hollingsworth passed away and keeping his word, the 83-year-old Cox put on his blue Marines’ uniform and turned up at his buddy’s funeral service on October 20, without the cane that the 83-year-old normally used. He stood without his cane during his vigil at the casket and at the funeral.’

They both were door gunners with a Marine Helicopter Squadron and flew many combat missions together. At the end of each mission, they had a saying, which Cox repeated at the end of Hollingsworth’s eulogy: “Hollie, you keep ‘em flying, and I’ll keep ‘em firing.”

Marina & Motorcycle

 


In 1993, I met with an accident fracturing my right arm, resulting in my right arm being put in a cast for three months.  At that time, I was posted as a Brigade Major at an artillery brigade headquarters.  I owned a Yamaha Rajdoot Motorcycle then.  The accident resulted in the motorcycle resting in a corner of our garage.

A few weeks into this sedentary state of my motorcycle, Marina, very nonchalantly asked me whether she could ride it.  She until then was riding her moped and I never took her question very seriously.  I casually explained to her the gears, clutch, brake, accelerator etc and also the methodology to start and ride the motorcycle.

Little did I realise that she will take off immediately, but she did.  She was the champion athlete in her school days and had represented her district at Kerala State level – no mean achievement.  I did not appreciate that she was still enthralled by speed, now of a different variety.  That was it – like fish to water, she took on to driving the motorcycle and I, on to the pillion with my hand in a cast, fearing the worst for my hand that wasn’t in a cast!

 


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Illustrations by Sherrin Koduvath

Where’s the Creativity?

For the Passing Out Parade of our nephew, I landed at the Officers’ Training Academy, Chennai, two days in advance to be a guest of our regimental officer Major Subash.  That evening, Major Subash’s Company Commander had invited all passing out Gentleman Cadets (GC) for a customary dinner.  Major Subash, a Platoon Commander, forced me to accompany him for the dinner despite my efforts to wriggle out of it.  He wanted me to interact with the soon to be commissioned officers.

During the event, I was fairly reticent and kept to myself as I thought that I had hung up my boots some sixteen years ago and living in Canada ever since, what would I share with these youngsters?  Some of the GCs prodded me for some advice.

The advice I gave was that everyday ensure that you read five pages and write a page.   To this a GC enquired “What should we read?”  “Anything and everything – newspaper, magazine, military pamphlet, user manual – or even porn, but ensure you read every day.”

The GCs it seemed were a bit bewildered by my rather unexpected advice.  One of them asked me “What about saving money?  Many have been advising us about it.”  It must have been advised to them by many senior veterans who are currently employed by banks as ‘Defence Accounts Specialist‘ and why not catch them young! 


When they persisted, I went on to add “On joining your regiments, learn to be part of it and be a soldier first.  Learn about your soldiers, equipment and so on.  Remember to enjoy your life.  Pursue your passions/ hobbies/ interests.  Participate in adventure activities and use your vacations to travel around the country and around the world,” I suggested.

What about savings?” perhaps, some of the guys who joined the service for a few dollars more, persisted.  The financial genius in me said “You do not have to worry much about it for the first three years of your service.  Contribute to your Provident Fund to save you some taxes!

Analysing the conversation that evening, I will state confidently that each and every officer of the Indian Armed Forces can be classified as ‘Gifted.’  Most of us are through Sainik/ Military Schools where for admission we went through a test in grade 4/5 similar to the one in Canada to identify gifted children.  If I recall correctly, it was a bit tougher than the test administered in Canada.

After graduating from School, we all went through a very tough entrance exam for the Academy where the qualifying result was a fraction of a percent.  Then we qualified a much more rigorous Services Selection Board (SSB) interview stretching five days.  If anyone qualified through it, that person is real Super-Gifted.  Training at the Academies is not an easy one, especially the need to qualify in academic subjects along with the strenuous physical activities and tests. 

On commissioning, the problem of diminishing creativity begins.  Officers tend not to learn but to study.  Here let me define both – What you study, you forget soon after the exam; but what you learn, you retain for life.  The study tendency can well be attributed to the grading system in most courses.

While I was in command of our unit, we were tasked to write a paper on tactical employment of modern surveillance devices.  I tasked the junior officers to come up with a draft and one of them said “Sir, you write well.  This paper is for Army Headquarters and why don’t you write it.  Our efforts may not be that good and creative.”

I pointed out to them how they had closed their minds to creativity. “You all have gone through the SSB where in you were shown nine caricature images of which you could not make out head or tail, but you all managed to write nine good and creative stories.  The tenth one was a blank one, but still you wrote a credible story.  One hundred words were flashed to you with an interval of 30 seconds and you all wrote one hundred sensible sentences.  Now you say that you are incapable of writing a creative paper” I explained sternly.

The death of creativity begins when a young officer given any particular task is asked to go through an older file/paper/ Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to understand how it was done previously and then accomplish the task in a similar manner. Many military units have SOPs even for the most mundane activities like organising an Officers’ mess function. These SOPs, while they serve to accomplish a task quickly and without confusion, also serve as creativity killers. 

One of the first documentation tasks for a young officer is usually a Court of Inquiry (C of I) and in most cases it would pertain to a severe injury suffered by a soldier.  The Adjutant would invariably ask the young officer to refer to a previous one and carryout a C of I in a similar manner. If you want the young officer to be creative, you need to make him understand the need for the C of I, and from where he should read up on what evidence is, how to adduce evidence and reach a finding on the investigation based on evidence. The manner in which the proceedings of the C of I are recorded on paper is perhaps the only thing that an old court of inquiry would reveal.   

The trend of ‘ஈ அடிச்சான் கோபி (ee adichan copy)’ or blind copying or ‘Cut & Paste’ begins from here and it continues through service, culling all the creativity one had at the time of the SSB. 

Reading five pages and writing a page everyday are the very first baby steps to professional creativity and competence. As the youngsters anxiously awaited their entry into the mysterious Olive Green world, what better piece of advice could I give them?

Welcome Spring 2020 with Tulips


Every year, the cold winter snow melts away and we welcome spring, a new beginning.  This new beginning is marked in our garden by tulips.


April rains bring in May flowers‘ is a common saying in Canada. Tulips and daffodils do not wait for the rain and by end of April they sprout out marking the beginning of spring.


Tulip flowers last only a fortnight.

 
We have Early-Spring, Mid-Spring and Late-Spring varieties.  Thus we extent the Tulip flower season in our garden.
  
This year around we did not receive many showers in April and it did have a telling effect on the quality and size of tulip plants and flowers. It is said that the tulip’s velvety black center represents a lover’s heart, darkened by the heat of passion.
 
At least we were lucky to have the best flowers in the city as claimed by many visitors.

 
Tulips Originated in Persia and Turkey and were brought to Europe in the 16th century. They got their common name from the Turkish word for gauze (with which turbans were wrapped) – reflecting the turban-like appearance of a tulip in full bloom.
 
Canadian Tulips have a great history.  In 1945, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in gratitude for Canadians having sheltered the future Queen Juliana and her family for the preceding three years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in the Second World War. 
 
he eleventh wedding anniversary flower is also tulip, it conveys forgiveness too.   
Yellow tulips symbolises cheerful thoughts.
  
The Red Tulip became associated with love based on a Turkish legend.

 
Purple symbolizes royalty.

 
We have multi-colored varieties too.

With all of the history, sentiments and meanings of tulips, it’s not surprising that their popularity continues to endure. The wide range of colours and varieties available allows them to be used for many occasions.

CARS Without Scars

Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) test is designed to test comprehension, analytical skill, and reasoning power by comprehension and critical analysis of a given passage. Today, it forms an important part of most competitive entrance examinations for important universities the world over.  To develop this skill, the only mantra is to read more – that too from all disciplines across the board. Some of you may question how and why reading is connected to CARS? After all the answers to the questions are all there in the given passage!

The explanation is pretty simple. The more you read, the more is your ability to quickly comprehend. The more you read, greater is your vocabulary and greater is the speed of comprehension and less the chances of your not comprehending something in the passage. The more you read more will be the chances of your familiarity with the subject matter and with greater familiarity comes greater ease of analysis. So reading is fundamental to development of mental faculty …no escape!

CARS is a skill that needs to be initiated in a child as early as possible.  Parents and primary school teachers play a very important role in developing this skill in children.  Some of the tips for teaching critical thinking to children, as recommended by American Philosophical Association (APA), are as listed below: –

  • Start as Early as Possible. Children can be encouraged to give reasons for their decisions or conclusions rather than teaching them ‘formal’ logic.
  • Avoid Pushing. Whenever we tell our children to do things. it would be pertinent to give them reasons for the same. Some, they may understand; others, they may not.
  • Encourage Kids to Ask Questions. That is the only way to instill and encourage curiosity in children. They should never feel any pressure in asking questions to their parents or teachers.  Many a times, children are hesitant to ask a question due to this pressure from their peers or siblings.
  • Get Kids to Clarify Meaning. Rather than the rote system, encourage children to explain things in their own words.
  • Encourage Children to Consider Alternative Explanations and Solutions. Allow children to experiment or consider multiple solutions rather than always looking for the bookish right answer. This will enhance flexible thinking.
  • Talk About Biases. Children can understand how emotions, motives, cravings, religious leanings, culture, upbringing, etc can influence our judgments.
  • Don’t Confine Critical Thinking to Purely Factual or Academic Matters. Encourage kids to reason about ethical, moral, and public policy issues.
  • Get Kids to Write. Writing helps students clarify their explanations and sharpen their ideas. Only kids who read and analyse develop good writing skills.

When faced with preparing for a CARS test, you are what you are. In  case you have a few months or at best a year before you take the test, can you actually prepare for and improve upon your CARS score? Surely Yes. Let us see some of the aspects of preparation for CARS.

Reading Speed
Speed of reading is very important for any CARS test.  Generally, there are five to six passages and 60 questions to be answered in 90 minutes. Thus you have less than 15 minutes to read each passage, the set of associated questions and answer them.   The only way to increase your speed of is by reading and more reading. There are of course many speed reading techniques that one may try but eventually you must settle down to a particular reading technique.

Most of the modern-day CARS tests are computer based, the examinee needs to develop speed of reading onscreen.  Reading onscreen in a test environment calls for better training of your eyes and mind as it is 20% slower than reading it on paper.  If the test you are taking is onscreen, you must practice more onscreen.

Some tips to speed up your onscreen reading are: –

  • Do not Move Your Head – either up/down or left/right – to see an entire page on most computer screens. Practice shifting your focus between words and lines without moving your head.
  • Avoid ‘Sub Vocalization’ – also known as auditory reassurance. It is a common habit where readers say words in their head while reading, thus slowing down.  Your mind is capable of perceiving and analyzing text much faster than you think – at least double that of your speaking speed.
  • Never Stop in Between and Go Back and Forth. In case you do not fully understand a part of the passage or you lack clarity about what the inputs are, first read the complete passage and then look for what you need to clarify.
  • Practice Reading Phrases or Small Sentences Rather Than Reading Each Word. Remember that you are looking for the overall meaning and not referring to a dictionary. Reading word by word slows you down as you tend to pause between words.

Selective Reading
As part of your reading in preparation for CARS you need to read for pleasure and entertainment as well as concentrate on some dense and difficult prose. In both categories your reading should be only non- fiction and generally related to social sciences and humanities. The CARS passages are hardly ever science based. In the light reading category, a few national and international current affairs magazines would suffice such as Time, Newsweek, India Today, Frontline and so on. It is also important to read the editorials of daily newspapers and a few articles that appear on the editorial page. As for difficult prose try for example Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Reading such as this is essential so that you develop the ability to read and assimilate difficult prose.

Practice
While wide multidisciplinary reading is the best solution in the long run, if your preparation time is limited to a year or less, then the solution lies in relentless practice. Even if you do nothing else by way of preparation, just practice alone may well see you through. Repetitive practice will in the long run build up your stamina and help improve your reading speed and your analytical skills and above all your scores.   Roughly one mock test a day or five to six per week should suffice. After a month or so, if you are on the right track there should be improvement in your scores. If not there is something seriously wrong in your approach and you may need professional help to identify your weakness.

Vocabulary Improvement
A good vocabulary is a basic requirement for proficiency in the CARS test. If you have been a reader of storybooks since your childhood, generally your vocabulary ought to be good. However, if you have been a poor reader, your vocabulary will need to be supplemented in the short term. Some of the books or Audio-visual materials specifically meant for this purpose are readily available in the market. Some research on effectiveness must be done before you home in on what you need.

Adopt A Simple Strategy
During our Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC), the objective tests often contained a section where examinees are required to tick true/false on a series of statements. The questions had negative marking and often bamboozled a lot of us trainees. Eventually some someone came out with a strategy that proved to be effective for at least some of us: –

  • Those questions that you CLEARLY KNOW to be true/false should be first attempted.
  • Then, those that you FEEL are true should be ticked false and vice a versa.

Similarly, there are many strategies in attempting the CARS test. The simplest and the best strategy is to read the entire passage first and then answer questions in the given order. Some may advocate obviously stupid strategies such as reading the first and the last paragraphs and then answer the questions or even reading the questions first (not the answer choices) before you read the passage so that apparently you know where to focus when you read. These stupid options must be shunned. Some other strategies such as devoting a disproportionately longer time for reading and assimilation of the passage and then answering the questions may be useful to some. Yet another strategy may be to devote meaningful time only to say five out of six, or seven out of nine passages and apply pure guesswork on the remaining passage(s) without reading. First skimming through the passages with a view to and identify and attempt the easier passages first may also be another strategy. Early in your preparation time you need to firm in on your strategy and then practice relentlessly on the chosen strategy. If there is no noticeable improvement in scores after a period of time, you may need to think of changing your strategy.

How to Read the CARS Passage
Remember that the CARS test is basically aimed at testing whether you can see the big picture, not the minor detail. By the time you finished reading the passage and applying a few minutes of thought, a central theme should emerge, shouting from roof tops so to say. How do we reach that stage? Central to all prose writing is the point that a paragraph contains a central idea. When we complete each paragraph of the passage, we should ask ourselves what this central idea is and preferably jot this down on a scratch paper in just four or five words. We may call this a paragraph review. We may also jot down as part of the paragraph review, inferences and conclusions that we can draw, comparisons if any and the purpose of anything that is unique

Once you have completed this process for all the paragraphs of the passage, look at your scratch paper and go through the ideas jotted down. Try and link these together and form a central theme, which should also be jotted down on the scratch paper. Now give a thought on the authors tone. Is he light hearted, serious or matter of fact? Is he trying to sell a new idea? Is he emotional about the central idea? A clear understanding of the central idea and the author’s tone are essential to answer the following questions. Once this process is done you may answer the questions and there will rarely be a need to re-read any portion of the passage. If there is any question which cannot be answered now, it is better to guess rather than go back to reading the passage as this will only waste time and rarely find the answer.

Instead of using a scratch paper some may be more comfortable with highlighting a few words/sentence in the passage itself to bring out its central idea. To my mind his is an inferior technique but by all means use it if you are more comfortable with it.

Some Sample Questions

Question 1:  ‘Meter’ is a unit of measure derived from one millionth of the radius of the planet Earth. Based on this which of the following is true:

  • A) The radius of the planet is the perpendicular bisector of all the auxiliary latitudes
  • B) The first geodetic survey of the Meter was(?) done by Willebrord Snell.
  • C) The Nautical Mile is equal to Imperial Mile in meters.
  • D) It is impossible to derive the Meter using land based geodesy techniques and materials as was available in the 18th Century.
  • E) None of the above.

The answer is E as all of the other statements are red-herrings.  Do not get caught up looking for the red-herrings.  It may be prudent to skip such a question and revisit at the end time permitting.

Question 2

  • A) Some days are longer than others during the calendar year
  • B) A few of Da Vinci’s paintings were lost over time.
  • C) It is possible that there were no protests in Washington D.C. in 1946
  • D) All students writing the MCAT do well on the CARS section
  • E) None of the above.

Here there is neither a passage nor a question.  If you analyse, other than for statement D, all other statements are ‘some’, ‘a few’, ‘is possible’.  Statement D is the only specific sentence with ‘all’.  By elimination, the answer got to be D.  Can you now guess the question?

Question 3:  Gautier was indeed a poet and a strongly impressive one- a French poet with limitations as interesting as his gifts. Completeness on his own scale is to our mind the idea he most instantly suggests. Such as his finished task presents him, he is almost the sole of his kind. He has imitators who could not mimic his spontaneity and his temper. Alfred de Musset once remarked about him “at the table of poets his glass was not large, but at least it was his own glass”.

Why does the author quote de Musset in this passage?

  • A) To show that all of Gautier’s contemporaries were his fans.
  • B) To prove that Gautier’s poetry was objectively the best.
  • C) To show how different Gautier and his poetry were.
  • D) To show the weaknesses of the French style of poetry.
  • E) None of the above.

The answer is C.  The quote by Musset ending with ‘it was his own glass’ points to the answer.

CARS is not at all be the nightmare that it is made out to be. In fact, if your vocabulary and ability to see the big picture are okay, then half the battle is won. All that remains is to polish the skills by relentless practice, backed up by record keeping of your scores.

HORN PLEAJ? OK

Mumbai has realised the menace of honking; at least Mumbai Police realised it.  They call Mumbai the ‘Honking Capital of India?‘   Do other cities and towns of India differ in any way??

A few weeks back, I rented a chain-saw from the store to cut a tree. Along with the chain-saw came the ear protection mufflers. On inquiry with the store man, he said that it was mandatory that the ear mufflers be issued with the equipment whose noise levels were higher than the prescribed limit, but it is up to the user to use it or not. My mind raced back to my young officer days in the Indian Army. It was considered not manly enough to wear the ear plugs while firing the heavy caliber guns. As usual, after every firing practice session, one heard a thousand bees buzzing in the ears for the next few days. We all got used to this sound as we got used to the firing, without realising that we were getting into a world of Noise Induced Hearing Loss. The effects of it still continue and I have a hard time listening to whispers or low noises.

horn
Recently I called up an old friend in India and he must have been on the road, I could make out from the ear piercing horn sounds of horns of the vehicles coming through my ears. A sound I missed for the good.

While driving our SUV, this SUV has been with us for the past seven years, our 14 year old son wanted to know where the horn was and how it sounded. I tried to blow the horn and pressed very hard in the middle of the steering wheel and nothing was heard. On reaching home, I pressed real hard applying all the force my body could place and the horn made a feeble noise, when compared to the screeching noises I heard over the phone. I now realised that I had never used the horn in my seven years of Canadian driving and may be that the springs in the center of the steering wheel might have been jammed.

My mind went back to an article which appeared a few years ago in a newspaper here by an old man who had been to Thiruvanathapuram, Kerala, as a medical tourist for a knee replacement surgery. He describes his taxi ride from the airport to the hospital, a 20 km drive which took an hour, with the driver honking twice as many times as what he had done in fifty years of driving in Canada.

Out here in North America, honking is considered indecent. It is done to alert some erring driver who has done some action that might have lead to an accident and you really want to abuse him with all your might. Else its only to attract the other driver’s attention to some thing serious like a not fully closed car door, deflated tyre etc which may lead to a fatality.

While driving in India, one always honked, required on not, or may be that was the only way to get ahead in the confusion that existed on our roads. For some it was a practice set out by the driving instructors in driving schools.

Can you for once imagine the noise pollution being created by the honking of the horn? May be its pretty irritating for me here as I have not been used to hearing this high pitched noise out here.

The rules that lay down the pitch, tone and volume of the horns may be same in India keeping with the world standards, as most car manufacturers provide you with a ‘weak’ horn and the noisy ones are add-ons.   May be in India to drive, the shrillness and volume of the horn may depict the size of your vehicle. That’s why the trucks have their horns sounding like an elephant trumpet.

Air-horns even though illegal is fitted on most of the buses and trucks in India. These shrill horns pose a direct threat to road safety as they embolden drivers to drive more rashly and negligently. Road rage incidents go up as it gives drivers a false self-confidence as they believe they can shove through the traffic and scare away pedestrians. Many bus and truck drivers use it as an effective tool to clear the road.

World Health Organisation in its report has stated that prolonged or excessive exposure to noise, whether in the community or at work, can cause serious permanent medical conditions like hypertension and ischemic heart disease. Noise can adversely affect performance, for instance reading, attentiveness, problem solving and memory. Use of air horn may cause severe physiological and psychological impacts on the pedestrians and can damage the eardrum.

The Indian Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989 specifies that all vehicles can be fitted with an electric horn or other devices, specified by the Bureau of Indian Standards for use by the driver of the vehicle and capable of giving audible and sufficient warning of the approach or position of the vehicle. The rules further specifies that no motor vehicle shall be fitted with any multi-toned horn or with any other sound-producing device giving an unduly harsh, shrill, loud or alarming noise except ambulance or fire-fighting or police vehicles. These rules are often broken and the police merely hear these shrill horns, many not realising the damage it has done to them, that they are welcome into my world of Noise Induced Hearing Loss.

May be that we in India are pretty used to this honking and it may be very difficult to drive on the roads, shared by hawkers, cycles, animals, pedestrians etc with all the potholes and with the density of traffic, without honking. At least you can try and limit the number of honks.

If everyone can reduce one honk a day, may be we will achieve less noise pollution on our roads in India.

To Read or Not to

Recently I saw a video clip of Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Member of Parliament, quite infamous for his idiosyncratic use of English language, wherein, a high school student asked him to give out a difficult word from his vocabulary which she had not heard.  Pausing for a moment, he said “READ”.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body” said Joseph Addison – essayist, poet, playwright and politician.  Who does not want to exercise his or her mind?  Reading is bound to make you smarter; stimulate critical and analytical thinking; assimilate new information; improve problem solving skills; and the list is endless.

One who does not observe cannot paint, one who does not listen cannot sing and one who does not read can never write.  Shashi Tharoor attributes his vast vocabulary and spelling to his extensive reading.  He claimed that he hardly used a dictionary, but made out the meaning of difficult words, contextually, as it occurred in different passages or paragraphs.

Most students appearing for Medical/ Pharmacy College Admission Test (MCAT or PCAT), Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and admission tests for various management and business schools, the world over, inter alia, generally need to take on the Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS) test. To many, this test is a sort of Waterloo.  It is mostly a test of comprehension based on a passage(s) followed by some questions, which needs to be answered in a very short time. The CARS test is a more advanced form of the good old comprehension question that was (and perhaps sill is) a part of the English language examinations at various levels. While the latter tested only one’s language skills, the former tests ones knowledge, critical analysis and power of reasoning also.

Many students struggle with this section because it requires a certain level of intuition, or some previous knowledge of the subject.  One should be familiar with various difficult words in the passage and more or less know their precise meaning in the context in which it is used; else one is sure to take a lot more time in comprehending the passage.  Most students appearing for such admission tests are quite uncomfortable with CARS, as they are more used to formulas, theorems and theories based on scientific subjects.  Indeed, quite a few have managed to cram the subject matter without really understanding the conceptual aspects.  Unfortunately, the CARS section is not something that you can cram for, but you must prepare for it over time.  Armed with a vast array of knowledge (gained through extensive reading) and lots of practice, a student would be well ready to take on the CARS test.

CARS section is designed to test comprehension, analytical skill, and reasoning power by comprehension and critical analysis of a given passage.  To develop this skill, one suggested way is to read through the editorial page of a leading English newspaper and also any economic news paper.  While reading, even if you can assimilate ten percent of what is written, your knowledge base will increase.  Ultimately it is all about reading.

To become a better reader, the only way is to read more.  One needs to develop stamina for reading and it needs to begin at a young age.  It is obvious that the children of parents who read turn out to be better readers – they surely imitate what their parents do and perhaps the habit gets into your genes.  So, put down your mobile phones and put off your television when you are in the company of your children.  That is the time to take up a book and commence reading.  Everything from books to magazines is good material to build up your reading stamina. Remember that the CARS section will generally not contain passages pertaining to the natural sciences, it encompasses everything else.

While practising for CARS, read the passages like you would read normally.  Never try to skim through it, never skip lines – you may think that you are reading the passage fast, but you are sure to miss out on some essential information.  You are sure to ‘miss the woods for the trees.‘  If you practice ‘normal’ and perhaps a bit deliberate reading, you will realise that you are able to pick out relevant information faster.  Previous knowledge about the passage will help you immensely, but should never become a hindrance in your ability to answer the questions.

Let us take an example of the following simple passage: –

  • “While Nelson Mandela is the father of South Africa, Mahatma Gandhi is our grandfather,” Harris Majeke, South Africa’s ambassador to India, said. “Mandela was inspired by the Satyagraha campaign led by Gandhi. It was a compelling act of passive protest against oppression. This would later inspire the formation of the African National Congress and strengthen Mandela’s belief in our shared humanity.”  It is true that there is a direct connection between Gandhi’s campaign against discrimination in South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement there.  “The African National Congress, which in 1952 launched the first mass movement against apartheid under the leadership of Dr. Albert Luthuli, had been founded in 1912 on the model of the Indian National Congress, with which Gandhi had been closely associated,” writes Claude Markovits in “The Un-Gandhian Gandhi: The Life and the Afterlife of the Mahatma.”

A student who is not aware of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Claude Markovits; developments in South Africa; practice of Satyagraha as a passive protest; evils of apartheid and other such concepts will not be able to comprehend the passage well, analyse it and satisfactorily answer the questions that follow.

The best suggested way to practice for CARS is to read for pleasure and entertainment and also to make use of the Dead Time at one’s disposal.  Dead time is the time available at your disposal while you are travelling, waiting for someone or an event to happen, etc.  As Shashi Tharoor brought out, you are bound to pick up on new words and phrases, practice forming opinions, and have the opportunity to reason beyond the text.

As against reading for pleasure and entertainment, when one reads to learn, the ability to grasp the essentials conceptually from what one reads and retain it in memory for ever, is a skill that varies from one individual to another. This skill is a highly developed common denominator amongst all successful people who primarily use their brain for their success. Fortunately, this is a skill that can be acquired, enhanced and fine tuned.

The best seller “Unlimited Memory” by Grandmaster, Kevin Horsley deals with ‘how to use advanced learning strategies to learn faster, remember more and be more productive’. Be that as it may, reading for pleasure and entertainment is primary to all reading; without this habit, ‘reading to learn is nearly impossible’. Reading for pleasure is habitual, a habit that needs to be developed very early in life. Like swimming and cycling, it’s a skill that becomes increasingly more difficult to acquire with advancing years.

Our niece who used to travel by train home (four hours) on weekends from her university in Kerala once complained about ogling and eve teasing by some young male co-travellers, which used to irritate her a lot. Here the victim and the perpetrators, both have no concept of utilising dead time.  I advised her that reading would divert her attention from the ogling Romeos, many of whom, would get intimidated just by the sight of a girl with an English book (for obvious reasons) and she on the other hand, would gain knowledge, improve her vocabulary and enhance language skills.  After a month she reported success.   Now, after five years of my advice, she still continues to carry a book with her during travels and I must say that she has evolved into young woman with good general awareness.

The result of a study by Kingston University, London, showed that book readers were more empathetic than those who mainly watched television.  While watching a movie or a television show based on a book, one perceives it from the angle the director wants the viewer to perceive it, whereas while reading a book one has the liberty to pause when   needed, make assumptions and perceive  it the way  the reader wants.  Television viewers were in fact found to have more anti-social behaviour than others.  It is interesting to note that amongst readers, fiction readers showed the best social skills; comedy readers were the best at relating to people; romance and drama lovers were the most empathetic and most skilled at seeing things through other’s eyes.

Good readers make great leaders.  Abraham Lincoln had only one year of formal education, but his reading made up for the rest.   Roosevelt was believed to have read two books a day. Thomas Jefferson had one of the most exhaustive personal libraries of his time.  Bill Gates reads about 50 books a year and as per him “Reading is absolutely essential to success.” Even in the military profession, I have observed that those who rise to the top rungs of the hierarchy possess varied qualities of the head and heart, but reading invariably is a common denominator.

  • Coming into contact with a good book and possessing it, is indeed an everlasting enrichment.”    Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam
  • “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”  Francis Bacon
  • “Books are uniquely portable magic”    Stephen King
  •  “Time is a river and books are boats”     Dan Brown
  • “Any book that helps a child to form of a habit of reading, make reading one of his deep and continuing needs is good for him”  Maya Angelou
  • “It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it”  Oscar Wilde

A Cruise on the Saint Lawrence


After a sumptuous lunch, we walked down to the Vieux Port (Old Port) of Montreal to embark on our cruise boat – Le Beteau Mouche – meaning ‘The Riverboat.’  This 50 passenger boat is 37meter long and 7meter wide with two decks.  The terrace on top as well as the two decks offer a panoramic view of Montreal.  The Old Port stands at the very spot where the City of Montréal was founded.


The Old Port like most ancient docks around the world fell into decay, but today, thanks to the Old Port of Montréal Corporation, one can stroll, cycle, skate, rollerblade and eat along the waterfront.  Today the port is the starting point for many vessels offering a cruise on the Saint Lawrence River.


Our boat cast off from the Old Port at 3 pm on its journey up North, and under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.  This steel truss cantilever bridge with a five-lane highway is 3,425.6 meter long, across the Saint Lawrence River and allows access to Saint Helena’s Island.  Originally named the Montreal Harbour Bridge (pont du Havre), it was renamed in 1934 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s first voyage up the Saint Lawrence River.


As the boat cruised away from the port, we could see the Old Montreal’s buildings, mainly Notre-Dame Basilica, Aldred Building, etc.


As we steamed out of the port, we came to the Clock Tower, a 45 metres tall structure.  It marks the entrance to the port and is a memorial to the sailors lost at sea in wartime.  The clock is still said to be extremely precise with its legendary accuracy.  The clock’s mechanism was made in England by Gillett and Johnston and is a replica of Big Ben in London.   The Clock Tower was the port’s time keeper in an era when wrist watches were not common.


Past the Clock tower is the Molson Brewery, a relic of the glorious industrial past of Montreal.  In 1782, at the age of 18, John Molson sailed on a leaking ship from England to Canada, with a thirst for a better beer in a new country. In 1786, he founded the Molson Brewery, the oldest brewery in North America, and subsequently, Canada’s second oldest company (the oldest company is Hudson’s Bay Company established in 1670).  Through expansion and rebuilding after Montreal’s Great Fire of 1852, the facility still stands in its original location.  John Molson who also built the first steamship and the first public railway in Canada, was a president of the Bank of Montreal, and he also established a hospital, a hotel, and a theatre in Montreal.


This is the entrance to the 306-kilometer long Saint Lawrence Seaway between Montreal and Lake Ontario, built in the 1950s.  It stands as a symbol of challenging engineering feats in history.  The seaway consists of seven locks – five Canadian and two US – in order to lift vessels 75 meters above sea level as they transit from Montreal to Lake Ontario.  Opening of the seaway diminished the importance of the Montreal Port as ocean going ships could now traverse through the Great Lakes and there was no requirement of offloading Great Lakes going smaller vessels from ocean going larger ones.


As we touched the Northern tip of Saint Helena’s Island, we saw La Ronde (Round)- Quebec’s biggest amusement park with more than 40 rides and attractions.  It was built as the entertainment complex for Expo 67.  (More about Expo 67 in a subsequent post.)


We then sailed to Habitat 67, a much sought after residential complex in Montreal.  It is considered an architectural landmark and one of the most recognisable and spectacular buildings in Montreal.  This housing complex was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie as part of his Master’s thesis in architecture at McGill University and then built as a pavilion for Expo 67.


We then came to Silo Number 5 and the boat took a turn on its return trip.  It was in 1906 that Silo Number 5, formerly known as Elevator B, came into operation.  At that time Montreal Port was known as a hub of the grain trade in North America.  It was built with brick and non-combustible materials to avoid the risk of explosions due to grain dust.  Grain dust which is highly combustible can form explosive clouds.  A fire or an explosion can happen at a large grain-handling facility if accidentally ignited.  The Silo consists of three distinct parts linked together by aerial galleries. Its floating elevators allowed offloading of grain from the holds of smaller lake going ships and the simultaneous loading of trans-Atlantic vessels without ever coming into contact with the quays.  Disused since 1994, the site is today plagued by vandalism and graffiti.


As the boat turned around we could see Bota Bota Spa.  Located on a ship anchored in the Old Port of Montreal, Bota Bota, offers its passengers the healing benefits of a spa while being lulled by the natural movements of the St Lawrence River.  Bota Bota consists of five decks, a floating terrace, restaurant, and a modern garden area which houses the various spa installations.


The Sixty-minute cruise on the Saint Lawrence River was educative and comfortable.  It is surely one of the best ways to learn more about Montreal as an island. Our tour guide gave very many details of all landmarks as we cruised along.  We were amused by many of her fun facts, trivia and anecdotes.


From the church we drove to Saint Helena’s Island, crossing Saint Lawrence River over Jacques-Cartier Bridge.  Our exploration of Saint Helena’s Island is covered in the next post.

 

Exploring Montreal on a Calèche

From the Place d’Armes square, we embarked on a horse drawn chariot (Calèche) ride with our hostess Sue to explore the area of Old Montreal. The city of Montreal has decreed that Calèches will be off the city’s cobblestone paved pathways from the New Year Day of 2020.   There have been cases of horses being mistreated and horses dying while drawing carriages. The lawmakers felt that the resources employed to ensure safe operations of Calèches were causing a heavy drain on its budget.  The city plans to replace Calèches with electric vehicles.

Sue, an incessant chatterbox, kept us engaged throughout the tour with her commentary on the history of Montreal and the significance of each street and building, while simultaneously cursing motorists who blocked our way.  Most of her ‘constant cacophony’ was historically accurate, but every now and then she came out with something outrageous which indeed needed the proverbial pinch of salt to digest


We rode through Notre-Dame street. On either side were shops selling their wares, mostly to attract tourists.  This is a historic street created in 1672 that runs parallel to the Saint Lawrence River.  The shops have large entry gates – these were meant for the horse-drawn carriages to pass through.


We came to the Old Courthouse, built in 1857, which today houses Montreal’s financial services.


Adjacent to it stood the modern Palais de Justice or Court House inaugurated in 1971.


Opposite to the court houses stood the Ernest-Cormier Building of 1926, from where once the Criminal Court operated.  The building features monumental granite, limestone and an imposing portico of 14 columns. The building now houses the Quebec Court of Appeal.


Next we came to the seat of Montreal’s local government, referred to as the Hôtel de Ville de Montréal – an imposing five-story building, constructed between 1872 and 1878.


We then came to Place Jacques-Cartier.  By the early 1800s Montreal was expanding and it had outgrown the old market square. In 1803 a fire destroyed dozens of buildings. This newly freed-up space became a public market square, Place Jacques-Cartier.  The market operated from here up until the 1950s.


At the North end of the Place Jacques-Cartier stands the Nelson’s Column, about a third of the size of the original.  It was erected by Montreal’s Anglophiles to celebrate Lord Nelson’s defeat of the French at Trafalgar in 1805.  It is also the city’s oldest monument and is the oldest war monument in Canada.  The monument caused plenty of angst and the local government proposed moving Nelson to some far off suburb but newer generations of Anglophiles fought tooth and nail to ensure that the idea was dumped.


Opposite the Nelson Monument is the Francophiles answer to the Nelson’s column, the statue of the French Naval Commander Jean Vauquelin.  He fought many battles in the mid 1750s against the British Navy.  The Francophiles honoured him with a square bang opposite the Nelsons.


The next point that we saw was the Place du Marché – or market place.  Prior to building of the Notre-Dame Basilica and the Place d’Armes square, this was the commercial hub of Montreal and also the gathering spot of the community.


Adjacent to the Place du Marché is the Old Customs House, now part of the Pointe-à-Callière museum. It was called Place du Vieux Marché until 1892.  On the 250th anniversary of Montreal’s foundation, it was renamed Place Royale.


As we rode through the cobblestone paved streets, Sue pointed to this building and said that most buildings in Old Montreal had windows of varying shapes that decrease in size and height with each higher storey.  According to her, it was to avoid the ‘Window Tax‘ being levied by the City of Montreal in those days.  I could not find any reference to any ‘Window Tax’ in Canada, however, a system of window tax, based on the number of windows in a house was in vogue in England and France.  In England this tax was first imposed in 1696, and was repealed in 1851 as it was more of a ‘tax on health, light and air’


This is one of the oldest churches in Montreal, the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, also known as the Sailors’ Church, since many sailors prayed here for safe passage.  In 1655, Marguerite Bourgeoys, a teacher, in return for her unpaid work, requested the construction of a new chapel dedicated to Virgin Mary.  The church was completed 13 years later.  This church burned to the ground in 1754 and the present church was built in 1771 over its ruins.


We then rode past one of the first fire stations in Old Montreal, now home to the Museum of Montreal History. The exhibits showcases the history of the building itself and how it transformed from a stable for horse drawn fire equipment to motorised trucks..


Next we came to the Customs House, erected in 1912, is closely associated with the growth of Canadian trade during the first decade of the 20th century. With Its responsibilities enhanced in 1916 with the introduction of direct taxation, this building gained prominence.


This building caught my attention, more for Sue’s commentary.  The inscription ‘Grand Trunk‘ and the accompanying GT monogram on this five-storied building indicates that it belonged to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad Company.   The building was built in 1902 by Charles Hays, the President of the company.  Unfortunately, he was aboard the Titanic that sank on 15 April 1912, with his wife, Clara, daughter Orian and son-in-law Thornton Davidson.   The materials used are grey granite, beige limestone and chamois sandstone from India.

Sue commented that after the Grand Trunk Company closed down its Canadian operations in 1923 after its acquisition by the Canadian Government, the company moved its operations to India.  Again, I could not find any reference to this claim, but possibly the name ‘Grand Trunk’ being a proprietary trade name, could not have been used by the British-Indian Railway, unless the Grand Trunk Company had some association with it. So, Sue may have a point here.  The Grant Trunk Express, the legendary train in India may provide the link if any.


Thanking Sue and tipping her well for her ‘stories’, we alighted from her carriage and walked to Place Jacques-Cartier for lunch.  While waiting for the lunch to be served, I booked tickets for a boat cruise along Saint Lawrence River, for a story that follows.

Montreal : The Canadian Paris


When my eldest brother and sister-in-law came calling, how could we miss a trip to the great city of Montreal – even though it was my third trip to the city.  Montreal, a Canadian city in Quebec province is the third largest French speaking city.  The first would surely be Paris, but the second, you would not guess it in your wildest dreams!  It is Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It seems virtually everyone speaks French in Kinshasa.


In 1603, explorer Champlain made his first of many voyages across the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence and planted the French flag here in 1603. Then the British and French fought over this land with the British victory in the 1760’s, Montreal was under British control. The French and Brits lived together but anger and warring was never far from the surface.

French was declared as  Québec’s only official language in 1974 when Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101 was passed by Canadian Parliament.  The primary purpose of the bill  was to encourage non-French-speaking immigrants to integrate into the francophone community.  For a traveller it gets trickier to read the road signs as they are only in French and most staff at hotels and restaurants tend to speak only French.  These were two handicaps I suffer whenever I travel to Quebec province, but has still not managed to learn French.


We set off from Toronto early morning and after seven hours of drive reached  Montreal’s old town, Vieux-Montreal.  Driving through the narrow cobblestone streets with lot of pedestrians, spotted with Victorian lamp posts, accompanied by horse-drawn carriages transported us into a different world, but driving through these narrow roads was bit uncomfortable for me being used to multi-lane roads of suburban Toronto.. Once Montreal’s financial hub, Vieux-Montreal is now home to hotels, restaurants, pavement cafes and art galleries.


How did these Scottish cobblestones came to be paved on Montreal’s streets?  They came over as ballast in the late 1700s in ships that returned to Montreal after unloading its cargo of fur and blubber.


We parked our car and set off on foot to explore Vieux-Montreal like most tourists.  We headed straight to the Place d’Armes square -said to be the heart of the city, though it mostly consists of office buildings.


The square is always bustling with activity, with musicians playing.   The monument in the center of the square is dedicated to Paul de Chomedey, founder of Montreal


In the Place d’Armes square, two tall bronze sculptors caught my attention.  These sculptors have been inspired by two snobs in the novel ‘Two Solitudes’ by Hugh Mac Lennon.  The two snobs depict the cultural distance between English and Francophone Canadians.  On the left is an Englishman holding his pug, staring at the Notre-Dame Basilica, a symbol of religious influence on Canadians.  On the right, two hundred feet away, stands a French lady with her poodle in her hand, giving an offended look at the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal, symbol of English financial power.


On the Eastern side of the Place d’Armes is the majestic Notre-Dame Basilica – built between 1824 and 1829 with two  towers reminiscent of Notre-Dame-de-Paris.  At that time,  the church was the largest in North America and remained so for over fifty years.


Entry into the church costs $5 – a token to help maintain the Basilica in pristine condition.  You will not repent paying $5 for a glimpse inside.  The interior of the church, based on Gothic Revival architecture. is decorated with golden stars, reds, purples, silver, and gold – all on a blue background.  It is filled with intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues.


The stained glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary do not depict paintings from the religious history of Montreal.


Rear top of the church houses a pipe organ, built in 1891.  The organ comprises four keyboards, 7000 individual pipes and a pedal board.


Adjacent to the Basalica is the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, a U-shaped building.  The building was completed in 1687and the clock added in 1713.


As we walked out of the Basilica, on our front left, across the Place d’Armes square, stood the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal,  Canada’s first bank –  Bank of Montreal  was founded in 1817.  This building was built in 1847, designed by British architect John Wells, resembling the Pantheon. On the bottom left,you can see the French lady with her poodle.  The building is in operation today as BMO’s main Montréal branch.


On to our right stood two classical buildings.  The white building called the Aldred Building built in 1931, designed by Ernest Isbell Barott, with a height of 96 metres or 23 storeys.  The building’s setbacks at the 8th, 13th, and 16th floors to allow more light on the square and create a cathedral-like effect, like the adjacent Notre-Dame Basilica.

The red building with a clock tower is Montreal’s New York Life Insurance Building (also known as the Quebec Bank Building) and was built in 1887. It was the tallest commercial building in Montreal at the time.


We now set out to explore Old Montreal on a horse-drawn carriage ride (calèche).  In recent years calèche has drawn the ire of animal rights activists and lobby groups.  The calèche will not be there with the turn of next year as the city has banned them from 2020.

Lavender: The Flower of Purity


On August 07 we visited Terre Bleu lavender farm in Milton, Ontario with my brother and sister-in-law.  Terre Bleu farm was started by Ian and Isabelle Baird who were enchanted by the spectacular fields of purple and the fragrant air that swirled all around, while vacationing in Quebec.  They moved from downtown Toronto, with their young children William and Madeline, to rural Milton and began farming organic lavender.


In 2011 the Bairds planted their first 10,000 lavender plants. After years of careful planning and cultivation the farm opened to the visiting public in 2014. Today, this is the largest lavender farm in Ontario and is home to over 50,000 lavender plants and many other herbs and flowers spread over 160 acres. Thousands of visitors throng Terre Bleu every summer to share the experience of sustainable organic farming.


Lavender is believed to have originated from the Mediterranean, dating back some 2500 years. It is a flowering plant of the mint family known for its beauty, fragrance and its multiple uses.  Today Lavender is cultivated across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America.

Lavender is amongst the world’s most ancient documented plants. Hieroglyphic texts from Ancient Egypt mentions the use of lavender in embalming and cosmetics.  When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, jars filled with ointments resembling lavender were found.


The ancient Greeks called Lavender Nardus (commonly called Nard), after the Syrian city of Naarda. Nard, or ‘Spikenard,’ its Greek name, is referenced throughout the Bible.

“While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof” (Song of Solomon 1.12)


Lavender derives its name from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. The Romans used lavender to scent their baths, beds, clothes and even hair. They also discovered its medicinal properties.  In ancient times, bundles of dried lavender were given to women in labour for squeezing during contractions as the fragrance released was known to alleviate the pain and facilitate an unencumbered birth.


On reaching the farm we embarked on a farm tour.  Our tour guide was a smart enthusiastic young lady pursuing her university degree in life sciences.  She said she loved working on the lavender farm for the fresh scented air she could breathe as it rejuvenated her and also that she could put into practice what she learned at school.  Obviously, it did provide her monetary benefits, especially during her summer vacation.


Walking through the farm we saw women harvesting lavender flowers.  At Terre Bleu, they harvest the flowers manually.  Here they grow the French and English lavenders. Both are lookalikes with the French lavenders a bit taller than their English counterparts.  English lavender in comparison produces less oil, but is more in demand due to its aroma.  French lavender has more camphor in its oil which has a soapy taste. Hence, English lavender oil is preferred over French lavender oil in cooking.


Enjoying the aroma filled air of the farm as we walked a few minutes, we entered the distillation plant.   Lavender oil is distilled here by steam distillation.  This copper still (pot) distillation plant was imported from Portugal to facilitate distillation through the age old European traditions.  The still is packed with lavender flowers to the top avoiding air pockets between the lavender and water at the bottom.  The top of the still is connected to a condenser.  The still is heated and the water boils to form steam.  The steam rises and passes through the still stuffed with lavender flowers.  As the steam passes through the lavender, the pressure inside the sealed kettle along with the high temperature of steam causes the buds of the lavender to release its oils.  The lavender buds hold most of the oil and not the actual flowers.

In the condenser, the steam gradually cools down and turns to liquid that drips out.  As oil and water do not mix, oil floats on water because water is denser.  Oil is drained out from the top spout of the condenser and lavender hydrosol (mixture of oil and water) is removed from the bottom spout.  Hydrosol is used for removing makeup, and in the manufacture of body sprays, deodorants, linen sprays etc.


We then walked to the Apiary being maintained by the farm. The relationship between flowers and bees is only too well known.  Terre Bleu promotes organic cultivation, free from pesticides that are harmful to the bees.  This ensures many healthy bee colonies in the farm.


Lavender is definitely more than just a pretty purple bloom. It has many health and wellness benefits.  Lavender is a good sleep aid and can calm your stress and anxiety.  It is naturally anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and anti-bacterial and can cure dandruff.  It fights congestion and can relieve sore muscles and headaches.

Our farm tour ended at the farm-store where we enjoyed lavender flavoured ice-cream.

The Fall Equinox

 


This Fall Equinox was very special. We were honoured to host for lunch Air Marshal Manvendra Singh, AVSM, VrC, VSM, his wife Ambika and their elder son Abhijith. The Manvendras, proud grandparents, had come to Toronto to be with their newborn grandchild.


Air Marshal Manvendra is the highest decorated serving officer from our Course (61 NDA). He is presently Senior Air Staff Officer of Southern Air Command, Thiruvananthapuram. He has clocked over 6600 hours of flying and for him the glorious moment was on October 1, 2016 when he flew a MI 17 Helicopter with his younger son Flight Lieutenant Siddharth Singh as a co- pilot – a record of sorts.

After lunch as our esteemed guests left, on the social media I posted a photograph with a caption ‘Honoured to have hosted Ambika, Air Marshal AVSM, VrC, VSM and their son Abhijith for lunch on the last day of Canadian Summer – 22 Sep 2019.’ The response from our course mates was overwhelming. One read ‘The man speaks for himself. Some people need not be named. The whole world knows that.’

It was then that I noticed that I missed Manvendra’s name in my post. How did this blunder creep in? Like a good NDA course mate, I initially wrote ‘Manvendra (F/61)‘, but then some how felt that it was inadequate, as I thought that I got to honour his rank and his well deserved decorations. Finally, when I rewrote it, I missed the obvious – his name. So I was missing the proverbial woods for the trees. In Indian Army terms, my Minor Staff Duties (SD) was correct, but I missed out on the Major SD – a cardinal sin in military values.

You cannot take out the Indian Soldier in me despite 15 years of my Canadian citizenship. The virus lies inconspicuously, deep within, ready to erupt when you least expect.


The Fall (Autumnal) Equinox is when the Sun is exactly above the Equator and day and night are approximately equal all over the globe. It falls on September 22 or 23. The word ‘Equinox’ is Latin meaning ‘Equal Night.’ In reality, it isn’t exactly equal on an Equinox – for Torontonians the Sun rose at 7:04 AM and set at 7:17 PM. The spring Equinox is on March 22. Of course for those in the Southern hemisphere, the Spring/ Autumnal Equinoxes are reversed.

I love my astronomy – so let me elaborate. For most of us the Sun rises in the East and sets in the West. In reality it does so exactly in the East/ West on only two days in the year, on the two Equinoxes. The phenomenon of the apparent Southward/ Northward movement of the Sun is caused by the combined effects of the revolution of the Earth and the tilt of the Earth’s axis (the plane of the ecliptic). Ancient Indians called this apparent Northward/ Southward movement of the Sun as Uttarayanam and Dakhinayanam.

As the days progress to Winter Solstice marking the beginning of Winter on December 22 with the longest night, we lose daylight everyday. From now on every day Torontonians lose about 3½ minutes of daylight. The Sun will rise a tiny bit further South-East everyday until it reaches a maximum South-East position on the day of the Winter Solstice. Then on it will rise a tiny bit Northward everyday, commencing the Uttarayanam.  On March 22 (Spring Equinox), it will again rise exactly due East and we will experience nearly equal day/night. From then on the Sun will move a tiny bit North-West everyday until it reaches its extreme North-West position on the day of the Summer Solstice on June 22, a day when we experience the longest day and shortest night of the year.   Dakshinayanam commences thereafter.

There is a Chinese myth that it is easier to balance an egg vertically on its end on a flat surface on Equinox than on other days of the year. It is believed that the Moon and Earth are in exactly the right alignment on Equinox and the celestial bodies generating the perfect balance of forces needed to make it possible. In reality, it is a myth and the position of the Moon and other celestial bodies will vary from Equinox to Equinox. You can perhaps balance an egg just as well on any day of the year.


This loss/gain of daylight and the change of the seasons is less significant for those living closer to Equator like my kin from the God’s Own Country. In Canada and the extreme latitudes, the changes are very significant and results in daylight saving time setting, changing our clocks twice a year. The Autumnal Equinox marks the beginning of Fall with the leaves turning yellow, later red and falling off. In Canada the maple tree will assume different shades of yellow, orange, red and pink during the autumn as the photo depicts, before they finally fall off. This phenomenon can be experienced in Kashmir as well.

 

Harvest Moon


Today is September 13, 2019, Friday.  You must have read in my earlier blog about ‘Triskaidekaphobia’ the fear of number 13 (from Greek tris (‘three’), kai (‘and’), and deka (‘ten’), and ‘Paraskevidekatriaphobia’ is the term used to describe the fear of ‘Friday the thirteenth’  – (Greek words paraskevi (‘Friday’) and dekatria (‘thirteen’) with –phobia as a suffix to indicate ‘fear’).

There is another astronomical significance for this Friday the 13th  – it coincided with Full Moon.   Last time a full moon appeared on Friday the 13th was in October of 2000.   This Full Moon is also called a ‘micro-moon’  because it is at its farthest point from Earth  – also known as its apogee.  Being at the farthest point, the moon appeared  around 14% smaller than usual and much dimmer than a normal Full Moon.

As this Full Moon fell immediately before Fall Equinox, It is called a Harvest Moon.

The term ‘Equinox’ comes from Latin meaning ‘equality of night and day.’   It occurs twice in a year – one in Spring (22 March) and one in Fall (22 September), that is when the Sun crosses the celestial equator, causing day and night to be of 12 hours each.   In Canada, Fall Equinox marks the beginning of Fall season.

‘Harvest Moon’ is an old European term applied to a full moon that rises closest to the beginning of fall.   In the earlier days when the farmers could not illuminate their farmland, the bright light of the moon facilitated farmers to work a little later into the night to bring in their crops well before Fall set in.

As if to facilitate harvest, the harvest moon rises 10 to 30 minutes after the sun sets, whereas most moons rise approximately 50 minutes after sunset.  In Toronto,  on September 13, the sun did set at 7:31 PM and the moon rose at 7:46 PM. This time gap between sunset and moon-rise was even shorter as one moved closer to the North Pole.

The next Full Moon on a Friday the 13th  will appear in August 2049.

Bathing Nude


Few years ago an Indian Army Officer undergoing a course at Canadian Forces College, Toronto came over for dinner.  During our conversation he said that one evening he walked into the sauna in the gym to find the Commandant, a General, sitting nude, enquiring his welfare.  He said that he felt a bit embarrassed to face a nude General.  I asked “That means you are surely not an ex-NDA (National Defence Academy)?” And I was dead right.

Bathrooms at the NDA are all open ones with neither any cubicles nor any shower curtains.  There are only shower heads, all in a row.  It is mandatory for all cadets to shower before breakfast and in the evening after games.  As time is always at a premium for any military cadet, the ritual had to be as short as possible, with many waiting in queue – hence an elaborate bath was near impossible.  The highlight of the bath was not its brevity, but by tradition implicitly enforced by the seniors, the cadets are not allowed to wear any clothing – it’s all nude and pretty natural. `

I cannot really say with any great emphasis that bathing nude is hygienically a huge plus as compared to bathing with a small brief on. However, it is more than a century old tradition in many military training institutions the world over. The open shower system meant that a large number of cadets could use the facility within the limited duration of time available.

To my mind, bathing nude has two distinct advantages. It helps one to overcome one’s inhibitions about being nude in the presence of others thereby developing a sort of self confidence about one’s own being and physique. When one learns to overcome this pretty strong inhibition, one automatically develops the capability overcome a lot of other inhibitions of less intensity.  The second is that with everyone down to his skin it builds a sort of camaraderie with the fellow trainees.

There is no awkwardness, nobody made any stupid dick jokes and nobody stared. There was just complete utopian nonchalance about the whole thing as cadets from all regions, religions, castes and creeds bathed under the same shower. In everyone’s consciousness he was down to mother earth, a sort of nude common denominator. The act was indeed a great leveler.  The common Indian mentality is that public nudity is obscene and vulgar and therefore should be abhorred. I do hope that as a nation we can learn to tolerate public nudity, no matter what our personal inclinations are in this regard.

Communal bathing and spas have been around for thousands of years, especially in the Indian context. However, the concept of modesty is a relatively recent one and was mostly dictated by the Victorian British norms.  Many indigenous people still  play sports without any covering and athletes in ancient Greece competed naked. In fact, the Greek word gymnasium means ‘a school for naked exercise,’ but in English it means only athletic exercise.


Men and women bathed nude in Roman baths of first century.  Emperor Hardin is believed to have issued many decrees against co-ed bathing.  There were baths of varying levels of luxury and also at varying levels of propriety. At one extreme were the ones for prostitutes and at the other the ones for royalty.  These baths showcased  Roman architectural expertise where new and innovative building styles were tested.


Bathing complex of Friedrichsbad Baths, Baden-Baden, Germany, opened in 1877, catering to European aristocracy.  It is still open to all and visitors who indulge in a 17-step Irish-Roman bathing ritual – a sequence of hot air baths, steam rooms, showers, pools, and massages, soaking in curative mineral waters. Here on some specific days of the week and on holidays, it is co-ed nude bathing and on other days it is gender specific nude bathing.

It was mandatory for students to swim nude in Chicago high school swimming pools till 1970’s.  In those days filtration and chlorination techniques were not as advanced as of today.  Nudity ensured that the swimming costumes they wore, mostly cotton or wool, did not leave any fibres that clogged the pool.

In most gym and swimming pool locker rooms for men in Canada, the baths are all open without cubicles.  Cubicles are provided in family locker rooms used by children and parents.  It is natural for people to have differing standards of modesty, based on their cultural/ religious background and upbringing.  Some are comfortable striding around the locker room naked and some prefer to change their clothes more discreetly. People around are neither stealing glances nor are they being judgmental.  I generally go to swim in the afternoons which is the time designated for adult swimmers.  I surely do not have a body to flaunt and no six-packs to flex.  Everyone around me also passes the same muster with respect to their masculinity.


One has to shower before entering a swimming pool to keep dirt and germs out.  Post a swim-session, it is meant to rinse off salt, chlorine and other harmful chemicals.  You cannot do this well with your swimming costume on.  It is said that the concept of the open bath came to Canada with soldiers returning from World War II when most able bodied Canadian men got enlisted to fight the war in Europe.  The only country where it is a rule to have a nude bath prior to entering a swimming pool is Iceland.  Here the bath may be in public or in a cubicle.

Nudity in public bathroom may offend some people, but most will not react to it though they may avoid it.  The argument that nudity is natural may fall on deaf ears to the puritans who refuse to accept their ties to the natural world.

Sleeping without underwear is another military tradition proven to be good for one’s genitals as per many medical studies.  Underwear tends to trap moisture, creating a breeding ground for bacteria.  For sure, allowing that area to get some air helps to keep it dry and clean.  Royal Marines tend to sleep naked for a similar reason and also to ensure they don’t hold all the juices and skin flakes emitted from their bodies in their clothes.  From this came the expression ‘going commando‘  which means going without wearing any underwear.

In Western militaries where men and women serve together the bathrooms are shared.  Here too there is hardly any awkwardness or sexual discrimination.  In 2011, a woman soldier of the Norwegian Armed Forces complained about being asked to bathe naked with 30 men and in front of other male officers during a field exercise.  The Norwegian Armed Forces initially gave the male officer who ordered the bath a harsh disciplinary warning for his behaviour and a fine of 2,500 Kroner, but cancelled the official reprimand after the officer appealed the decision.  After two separate internal reviews, Norwegian Military ruled not make any changes to its bathing policies, meaning that other female soldiers could find themselves in a similar situation due to Norway’s gender-neutral military conscription policy.

I must here quote from the book ‘Immediate Action’ by Andy Mcnab.    He was a member of 22 SAS Regiment and was involved in both covert and overt special operations worldwide until he retired in 1993.  Teaching young infantry soldiers as an Instructor at the Regimental Training Depot how to bathe, he writes ‘We had to show them how to wash and shave, use a toothbrush…  Then I had to show them how to shower, making sure they pulled their foreskin back and cleaned it.

To be NUDE or not to be – it is your choice – rules permitting. 

Military Ethics and Politics in Canada


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

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

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

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

When the resolution was put to vote, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already left the chamber and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was absent.

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

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

What was the case against Vice Admiral Mark Norman?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Banning Cell Phones in Schools


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the likely drawbacks of students using cell phones?

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

How can cell phones help in enhancing the learning process?

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

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

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

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

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

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