Lisbon: Lisboa – Meaning a ‘Safe Harbour’


On June 20 we landed at Lisbon Airport and drove off to our hotel.  After lunch we decided to explore various landmarks of Lisbon on foot.  Our first stop was Rossio Square.


On reaching Rossio Square we were greeted by Tuk-Tuk (Auto-Rickshaw) drivers who carry passengers through the cobblestone paved narrow twisting alleys of Lisbon.  From 2017, by law, all Tuk-Tuks had to be electric and could operate only until 9 PM.  Obviously, they are unpopular with the city’s taxi drivers who see them as a threat to their livelihood.


Rossio is the liveliest square in the city, where people stop to sit and relax, or for a drink at the several cafés with outdoor seating.  The Praça dom Pedro IV is the official name of the square after the inauguration of the statue of Dom Pedro IV in 1874 but Lisbon’s residents have never taken to the name and still refer to the square as Rossio meaning ‘common land.’


On either side of the square are two baroque fountains, and in the center is a 27 meters high monument.  It consists of a pedestal with marble allegories of Justice, Wisdom, Strength, and Moderation – qualities attributed to Dom Pedro IV – whose statue stands on top of the monument.   It is widely believed that the statue in the centre of Rossio is of Dom Pedro IV but legend has it that the statue is that of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Maximilian was assassinated soon after completion of the statue and the unwanted statue was sold to Lisbon at a fraction of the cost as both Dom Pedro IV and Maximilian were near lookalikes.


On the North side of the square is the Dona Maria II National Theater, a monumental neoclassical building built in the 1840s. The portico has six Ionic columns (originally from the Church of St. Francis, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake), and crowning the pediment is a statue of playwright Gil Vicente.  The theatre was built in 1846 on the site of the old Palácio dos Estaus palace, initially constructed in 1450 and was used by the Portuguese royal family to host foreign dignitaries.

The wave pattern stone paving was added to Rossio during the 19th century and was designed to resemble the oceans but more often disorientates late night revelers. The two baroque fountains, imported from France, were installed at the same time as the statue of King Pedro IV (1870).


From Rossio we walked to Praça do Comércio, (Commerce Square), Lisbon’s central point. It was built on the site where the old Royal Palace destroyed by the 1755 earthquake stod.  It is said that one of the motivations for the monumental sculpture’s prominent location was to honour King Joseph’s reconstruction efforts after the earthquake of 1755.

The 14-meter-high monument consisting of a bronze equestrian statue that depicts King Joseph I riding his horse, with several snakes at its feet on a large, richly decorated, lime stone pedestal.  The statue is the first cast bronze statue in Portugal and is the oldest public statue of Portugal.


The King’s statue stands on a pediment, flanked by sculptures of Triumph and Fame, which symbolise the submission of four continents to the Portuguese.  On the left is Fame driving an elephant – representing  Asia – over a human figure – representing Africa.  On the right is Triumph, leading a horse – depicting Europe –  over a human figure – depicting America. The depiction is strongly suggestive of Portuguese domination of the world during the middle ages.

The southern end of the plaza is open and looks out onto the Tagus River. The other three sides have yellow-coloured buildings with arcades all along the façade. When the square was first built,  commercial ships would unload their goods directly onto this square, as it was considered the ‘door’ to Lisbon.


Our next destination was Santa Maria Maior or Se Cathedral, a twelfth century Cathedral.  Surprisingly it survived the 1755 earthquake, which left only a part of it in ruins. The solid and imposing Se Cathedral is Lisbon’s most important and iconic religious building. The exterior of the grand old church resembles more that of a military fortress than that of a church, with massive solid walls and two imposing clock towers.

Inside Gothic arches extend to the faulted ceilings and medieval statues and decorative altars fill the alcoves. To the rear  are the ancient cloisters, which were constructed directly on top of a ruined mosque built by Arabs, dating back to the period of the Crusades.


Every year in June, Lisbon honours St. Anthony of Padua, the city’s patron saint.  Lisbon almost entirely shuts down for one month, with locals decorating the street and plazas in bright colours.  In rest of Portugal however, he is considered the ‘matchmaker’ – a patron saint for singles.  Some people also call it the Festival of Sardines.

In the month of June, the smoky scent of grilled sardines fills the Lisbon air and in every corner one will find someone cooking a batch of sardines on a grill.  People also gift pots of basil to their beloveds.

We were lucky to witness the horse parade of over fifty well manicured horses, with men and women riders dressed in traditional Portuguese attire.


Our final destination for the evening was The Miradouro de Santa Luzia (Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint), one of the best places to view the city on a clear day.  We enjoyed the view caressed by a cool breeze from the Tagus River. Shady trellises and bougainvillea  provide protection from the intense sun.


The red-tiled roofs of the old downtown area below us, in the backdrop of the Tagus River meeting the Atlantic Ocean and visiting cruise ships provide a picturesque setting.


Near the viewpoint is the Church of Santa Luzia with blue pictorial tiles depicting the city’s Praça do Comerçio (Commerce Square) dating back to the 1755 earthquake.

From Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint, we walked for about 25 minutes to reach our hotel for a much deserved rest and dinner and also to prepare for a long journey to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 30 km North-West of Lisbon.

The Journey of Port


In this travel episode let me take you into the intricacies of the fascinating world of port wine. Let me submerge you in wine as it were. For the wine buffs amongst you, it would be particularly interesting.

On reaching Pinhão, we drove straight to Croft Winery founded in 1588.  It is the oldest firm still active today as a Port wine producer. The company is renowned for its Vintage Ports as well as for its range of wood aged wines.


We were ushered into one of the ‘Lagares’ where a Croft Associate briefed us about Port and how it is bottled from grapes that grow on their vines. A ‘lagar’ is simply a wine press.

The grapes are harvested by hand in the second half of September.  They are carried to the winery where they are crushed to allow the fermentation to start. Fermentation is the process whereby the sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol by yeast.


Once fermentation is under way, care is taken to ensure that the grape skins are kept in contact with the fermenting juice so that their colour, tannin and flavour are released into the wine.  Traditionally this is achieved by treading the wine by foot in wide granite tanks called ‘Lagares’.  Foot stomping to tread wine is employed nowadays only by some wineries like Croft. In most others, foot treading has been replaced by mechanical methods.


Foot stomping ensures that the grape seeds do not get crushed.  Pressure from human foot is gentle enough so that the seeds do not break, which can adversely affect the taste of the wine.  In the most wineries around the world, foot stomping grapes for wine production is not resorted to as they do not seem to like mixing feet with wine. However, during various festivals, foot stomping of grapes is resorted to, but the end product is not used for wine production.   When about half of the natural sugar in the grape juice has been turned into alcohol, the treading stops and the skins are allowed to float to the surface of the ‘lagar’.

The fermenting wine is then drawn from under the skins into a vat.  As the fermenting wine runs into the vat, grape spirit – a colourless, neutral spirit distilled from wine – is added to it. This raises the strength of the wine and stops fermentation. As a result, much of the natural grape sugar is preserved in the finished Port.   This technique of adding a small amount of grape spirit at some point in the wine making process is called fortification.  Hence, Port is a fortified wine. When you want the wine sweet, the spirit is added earlier and when the desired product is required to be ‘dry’ the spirit is added later so that there is little or no residual sugar.


Port houses own cool dark ageing warehouses called ‘lodges’.  In Pinhão, the temperate climate of the coast ensures that the wines age slowly and harmoniously. One of the unique properties of Port is its ability to gain in richness and flavour over very long periods of ageing in wood. This is partly because it is fortified and partly because it is a wine of extraordinary concentration and aromatic potential.


Broadly, Port falls into two categories: Wood-aged and bottle-aged. The vast majority of Ports are wood-aged, meaning that they are fully matured in oak casks or vats and are ready to drink when bottled. Bottle-aged Ports, are those that spend only a short time in wood and then continue to age in bottle. Vintage Port is by far the most important category of bottle-aged Port, as it represents only the finest wines of the best years and the amount produced is very limited.


Vintage Port is the finest and rarest of all Ports, the most sought after by wine lovers, collectors and investors. It is a selection of the very best wine from a single exceptional year and represents only a very small proportion of the crop. A bottle of Vintage Port must always be stored lying down so that the cork is in contact with the wine and does not dry out.

Port is declared a ‘Vintage’ by the wine regulator Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) when they feel that the wines which were produced in a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Vintage Port.  IVDP ensures that the wine is produced, aged and bottled according to the regulations which define Vintage Port.

Vintage port remains in wood for only two years, usually in a large vat. It is then bottled and continues to age for many years or decades in bottle, gradually developing the aromas which are the hallmark of a great mature Vintage Port.

During the ageing process a sediment or crust will form in the bottle. Before serving a Vintage Port it is often necessary to decant it to separate the wine from the crust. Decanting also brings the wine in contact with the air, allowing the aromas of the wine to open out after the long period during which the wine has been enclosed in the bottle.


The tradition of ‘laying down’, or putting away some bottles of Vintage Port for a child when it is born derives from the fact that a declared Vintage will last for the child’s entire lifetime, reaching maturity when the child is old enough to appreciate and enjoy it.

A bottle of wood aged Port must be stored upright in a dark, cool place, if possible away from direct light.  There is no need to decant a wood aged Port. It will remain in good condition for six weeks or more after the bottle has been uncorked for the first time.


After the briefing, we were ushered outside to the egg shaped concrete vats.  These vats provide temperature consistency for fermentation.  Fermenting grape juice in concrete is a pretty ancient practice.  The minuscule little air pockets across the surface of concrete allows the fermenting juice to breathe much in the same way that oak does, but without borrowing any flavors.


We were then taken to the wine tasting gallery to devour three special Port wines: Croft Pink, Ruby Reserve and a Ten-Year-Old Tawny.  Even though none of us were wine connoisseurs, we learnt a lot about wine and had lots of fun.


We then drove to the jetty on Douro River for a cruise in a small boat.  The boat sailed under Pinhão’s famous bridge, designed by renowned French architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower.  We sailed along admiring the patterns weaved by the vineyards on the terraced hill slopes.

We returned to Porto by late evening, had dinner and retreated to our hotel room to prepare for our early morning flight out of Porto to Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal.

Vineyards of Douro Valley


Day 2 of our Portugal trip, June 19, early morning we set out from Porto to visit Douro Valley, in Northern Portugal,  It is the first demarcated and regulated wine region in the world (1756), known mainly for Port.  The name Port is obviously derived from their homeland Portugal.  Port is a sweet, red, fortified wine most commonly enjoyed as a dessert wine because it is rich and sweet. Wine production in Douro Valley is regulated by Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP).  They control the quality and quantity of Port wines, regulating the production process.  This region also produces some of the best wines in the world, other than Port, and also olives.


On our drive to Douro Valley, we halted at picturesque Amarante town, on the banks of River Tâmega, known for the São Gonçalo  (Saint Gonzalo) Church.  Amar in Portuguese means ‘to love.’

The granite bridge above was built over the Tâmega River in the late 18th Century. The original bridge, believed to have been built in the 13th Century, collapsed in a flood in 1763.  The present one was completed in 1790. A plaque on one of the obelisks (in Greek meaning a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top) guarding the bridge entrance on the left bank commemorates the victorious resistance of General Silveirea, on the 2 May 1809, when he confronted Napoleon’s troops led by General Loison.


This Church, built in 1540 houses the tomb of São Gonçalo who died in 1259.  São Gonçalo, the patron saint of Amarante, is believed to be a wedding facilitator for older women. As per legend, in order to find the love of one’s  life, one must touch the statue of São Gonçalo on New Year’s Eve.


This lady was selling ‘Doces Falicos‘ or ‘phallic sweets’, a sugar  glazed phallus shaped cake, also known as ‘Little Gonzalves.’  This phallus cake originated in from pre-Catholic times, with roots in pagan fertility rituals. The cakes are handed out together with locally-harvested dried figs at ceremonies held each January (on the anniversary of São Gonçalo’s death) to usher in a ‘fertile and favorable’ year.  It is also used in June street parties, by local singletons who believe that it could bring them true love and a happy family.   The cakes are much sought after by old spinsters in search of a husband, where the ‘old spinster’ are often single woman in their late twenties or early thirties, keen to settle down and start a family.

In the 1930s, Portugal’s fascist Second Republic outlawed the cakes as being obscene, but the villagers of Amarante continued to make and exchange them secretly. After the dictatorship fell in 1974, the Bolos de São Gonçalo came back out of the closet.

From Amarante we drove crossing the Marão ranges through a tunnel to Douro Valley.,


The Douro Valley lies about 100 kilometres inland from the coast and is protected from the influence of the Atlantic winds by the Marão mountain ranges.  The oldest vineyards are planted on traditional terraces supported by dry stone walls. These walls were built by hand on the steep hillsides and then filled with soil.  Most of them are narrow, often bearing only one or two rows of vines.  These historic walled terraces rise up the rocky slopes like the steps of the Pyramids.  Today, they form one of the world’s most dramatic and inspiring vineyard landscapes.  A vineyard estate in Portugal is known as a ‘Quinta’.

Vines of Douro Valley are not artificially irrigated.  The vineyard soil is very stony and is rich in nutrients but is free draining.  The roots sink deep down in to the soil in search of water and the grapes produced by such vines is said to be of better quality to produce Port.


The art of creating a terrace has died down due to hard work and costly labour involved and also availability of earth moving equipment.  The cost of terracing has become prohibitive and they are no longer built today. Only the old vines grow on terraces.  These wines are planted in closer rows as no tractors are used.


Patamares
are modern terraces cut into the mountainsides using earth moving equipment.  They are not supported by walls but are separated by tall earth banks.  Near the vines, they grow lavenders and roses.  The health of the flowers of these plants are indicators of the quality of grapes growing on the vines.


Relatively inexpensive and quick to build, Patamares may cause soil erosion.  Many vineyards plant olive trees to bind the soil.  The vines are planted in rows with a wider gap to allow tractors to move between the rows.


In places where the gradient allows, terracing is replaced by vertical rows of vines running perpendicularly up the hillside.  Vertical planting also provides better leaf canopy exposure.


After about thirty minutes, we reached Pinhão, a small sleepy town near Spanish border, the heart of Port wine country on the banks of Douro River.  From here we set out to visit Croft Winery followed by a cruise on Douro River.

Portugal: A Land of Explorers

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

I Quit Smoking


The Beginnings

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

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

The Agony and the Ecstasy

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

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

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

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

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

I wanted to frantically quit smoking when: –

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Way Ahead?

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Subedar Major Paramjit Sidhu


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

A Note Pad


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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