Second Lieutenant – The Extinct Species

We were commissioned as Second Lieutenants from the Academies and joined our Regiments – eager to go- like an unguided and nuclear tipped missile. 

While commanding our unit, our young officers often remarked that when they messed up something, however serious the matter was – I always said “That’s all – Do not worry – I will handle it now on.”  They now wanted an explanation as to why I neither rebuked them nor got involved in a ‘fault finding mission.’

One day on a lighter moment I gave out the answer.  “When I was a Second Lieutenant, I messed up much more than you guys have put together done till now.”

They prodded me for ‘Dil Mange More’ and I obliged.

I joined our Regiment in 1983 at Gurgaon and during a deployment exercise of our battery, traffic was stopped for the 130mm gun towed by Kraz to pass through the Delhi-Jaipur Highway.  In those days the highway was narrow and followed a different alignment. Superintend of Police of Gurgaon wanted to pass through but was refused and it ended in a physical bout.  Whatever it was – I ended up with a criminal case of attempt to murder using lethal weapons and a Court of Inquiry – both I got saved from – Thanks to our then Commanding Officer, Colonel Mahaveer Singh.

On 31 October 1984, Prime Minister of India, Mrs Indira Gandhi, was assassinated, and her mortal remains lay in state at Teen Murthi Bhawan.  By evening that day, our Battery was tasked to take over security of Teen Murthi Bhawan.  Our Battery Commander was residing at Delhi, hence I marched the Battery and reported to General K Balaram, then Adjutant General, who was in command there.  Anyone of that era would better know the qualities of General Balaram. He was the first and perhaps only AG to be granted Vice Chief status.

Late Lieutenant General K Balaram, PVSM

Our Battery Commander then – now Veteran Brigadier CM Nayyar, Sena Medal – was a student when General Balaram, Signals, was the Commandant at Wellington. He warned me by narrating many incidents about his conduct – that he even rode his scooter and never his staff car after office hours. I had some great moments with him as he and I smoked ‘Capstan‘ cigarettes then. All shops selling cigarettes had closed down due to riots in Delhi after the assassination. Naik (Corporal) Paul, my driver kept a good stock of it (Still do not know how he managed it) and supplied me regularly with it. Whenever the work pressure got on to General Balaram, he called me to the Operations Room which we had set up inside Teen Murthi Bhawan. He wanted to inhale a deep smoke and a cup of tea – that too the tea in a steel glass our soldiers made. Thus, whenever General Balaram summoned me, it was when the situation at the gate had gone awry or he wanted a break.

We were responsible for the VIP entrance gate through which all heads of states would pass.  Whenever things would go wrong, General Balaram would shout at the top of his voice “Get that Second Lieutenant – only he can solve this chaos.”

In came Yasser Arafat with his four bodyguards – armed to their teeth – and I refused entry for the bodyguards saying that our boys would take care of Arafat’s security.  He gave me a deep glance and ordered his bodyguards to stay put with me.  Even Yasser Arafat did not want to take a chance with a Second Lieutenant!!!

Next on the receiving end was the Japanese delegation led by their Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. The delegation had over a hundred press people – journalists, reporters, photographers.  I requested their liaison officer that I could only send in five persons with their PM.  The liaison officer pleaded helplessness.  I had to solve the issue.  I assembled all their press crew outside the entrance and when the PM came in, I called out five people and send them inside.  Now there was more chaos with everyone shouting, “My photographer is inside, but I am the reporter” or “My reporter is inside, but I am the photographer.”  I told everyone that whosoever has gone inside will come out with the necessary material and you all can share the same.

Then came a person claiming to be the Commissioner of Police of Delhi. He too was denied entry through the VIP Gate. He shouted at me “Who are you to stop me? What are you doing here?” To this I calmly replied, “If you had done your duty, I need not have been here.”

With Veteran Colonel Mahaveer Singh during Golden Jubilee celebrations of 75 Medium Regiment in 2018

These were few of the highlights that happened at Teen Murthi Bhawan in those three days.

After a few weeks there was another altercation with a senior police officer from Delhi and again it was the same story of a Court of Inquiry – and again our CO managed to save me.

Now that was that when we were Second Lieutenants! Luckily for me – when I was in command (2002-2004,) the species had become extinct. 

Regimental Fund

On taking over command of our Regiment in June 2002, we were deployed in our operational area in Rajasthan, ready to be launched into battle any time.  The mercury tipped many days over 40°C and the Regiment had been there since the dawn of the New Year.

The entire Regiment was living in tents with the Commanding Officer (CO) provided with a much more spacious and larger tent.  The other luxury the CO enjoyed was a desert cooler in the tent and the Second-in-Command (2IC) too had this luxury.  A 5kW generator meant for the workshop powered the lights, fans and desert coolers from 9 AM to 2 PM and then from 7 PM to 10 PM.

My first day in command was spent on familiarisation of the Regiment and the area around.  It ended with my first command order.  Please click here to read https://rejinces.net/2016/04/01/first-comd-order/.

That was when I realised that the dreams and plans I had in mind to be executed on taking over command had to be kept in abeyance as there weren’t adequate funds.  The only money at my disposal was Rs 200000 from a fixed deposit that had matured.  That wasn’t my money and if I used it, I had to make it up.

After working out the power requirement, it was decided to procure three 15kW generators and fifty desert coolers to equip every tent in the Regiment.  Two Young Officers with a team of soldiers were deputed to purchase the same from Jodhpur, the nearest town.  From that evening we had a well lit and well cooled township.  My only worry was that I had spent most of the Regimental Fund.

That evening at the Officers’ Mess, I gave out my command policy.  Anything that does not have a utility value to the Regiment in our operational area or for the families of our officers and soldiers at our permanent location must be disposed offAll funds, Regimental and others must be utilised towards the war efforts.

All Officers and soldiers were asked to propose anything they needed and I found they were too contented with what I gave them the very first day and wanted no more.

We procured two desktop computers to support my automation endeavours. Now I had to conserve all that was left with our Regimental Fund.  The first step was to reduce stationary usage by automation and we succeeded to a great extent.

In November we were ordered to return to our permanent location at Devlali. I ordered that only one of the three generators to be carried along and the rest two and all fifty coolers to be sold off at 60% of their cost with the first priority for our soldiers.  The coolers and generators were of no use to the Regiment at Devlali and would have turned into junk later.  Our soldiers from Rajasthan picked up the entire lot and I recouped half the Regimental Fund I had spent.

The first project we executed was a washroom cleaning device based on the mobile cleaning unit employed by the Indian Railways to clean the toilets of the trains on the platform.  Our soldiers designed and built it.  Now every soldier could carry out janitorial duties and the Safaiwalas (Janitors) were available to accompany radar detachments, survey teams and also operate radio sets.  They turned up smartly in their combat uniforms every morning walking with a swag with the radio set on their back and the operators pad in their hand.

Most of my time in the Regiment was spent at the Computer Cell.  Whenever needed, I relieved at the soldiers’ washroom rather than using the washroom at my office. This ensured that all soldiers kept their washrooms spic and span.

Two weeks after landing at Devlali, Major General RS Jambusarwalla, our Divisional Commander visited us.  I received him at the Regiment and he walked to the rear end of his car and ordered his driver to open the boot.  There it was – a computer, a printer and a multimedia projector.  That was the only time in my military career a visit by a senior officer began with a gift to the Regiment.

Two weeks later was the inspection by Lieutenant General GS Sihota, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VM,   the Army Commander, Southern Command and his proposal for other units to procure the software we had developed for Rs 10000 was a great boon.  Now I had all the money at my disposal to implement all my ‘wild ideas.’

We were a SATA Battery being converted to a SATA Regiment.  We did not have a JCOs’ Club, an important Regimental institution.  Fighting many a battle with the Station Headquarters, we managed to get a near dilapidated building allotted as our JCOs’ Club. I summoned our SM and tasked him to get the building done up, procure furniture, crockery, cutlery, etc.  I gave him a month’s time for executing the task with my final advice “It’s got to be better than our Officers’ Mess.”  After a month our SM invited all officers for a cocktail at the JCOs’ Club for inauguration.  The above image is the testimony to that day.

The next project was to create a high-end barber shop.  Please read https://rejinces.net/2016/04/29/acgo/.

Our soldiers came up with a request for a multi-gym.  SM Thangaswamy was tasked to execute the project with the assistance of other JCOs.  They suggested procuring the equipment  from Ambala as it would a cheaper option.  I advised them to procure it locally from Nashik to ensure installation and warranty services.

Two weeks later SM Thnagswamy asked me about my availability to inaugurate the gym.  I asked him to inaugurate immediately and make it available to our soldiers.

We automated our kitchen with flour kneader, freezers and coolers for storage of milk, meat and vegetables.  We were allotted a ‘Steam Jacketed Cooking System’ for the soldiers’ kitchen procured from special funds under the Army Commander’s Special Financial Power. I did not want it to turn into an elephant’s teeth for show alone.  How we extracted its full value, please read https://rejinces.net/2019/03/31/elephantteeth/.

I was lucky that I had a great lot of officers and soldiers who accepted me, supported my ideas and worked wholeheartedly to ensure fulfilment of all my dreams.  I must sincerely thank all Officers, JCOs, NCOs and soldiers and a special high-five for our Subedar Major (SM) Thangaswamy who kept me in high spirits with his sense of humour.


Did I realise all the dreams I came with to command?  It’s an emphatic Yes and much more; all because of a great Regiment that I was lucky to command.

Z – The Commanding Officer’s Jeep

Commanding Officers (CO) of all Artillery Regiments travel by a Jeep/ Gypsy  which is identified by the alphabet ‘Z‘ painted on all its sides.  Most other arms/ services have ‘COMMANDING OFFICER’ written in the front of the CO’s vehicle. Needless to say that it is the most decked up and mechanically fit vehicle of any unit, driven by the most competent and disciplined driver. It carries with it an air of sacred and infallible exclusivity.

Our unit was a cooperating unit of School of Artillery, Devlali.  We had to provide equipment and soldiers for smooth conduct of training of students of various courses. This was at a time when I was a single parent CO as Marina had migrated to Canada by then. The responsibility of bringing up our children now  rested solely on me.

My residence was about 400 m behind the unit with the Officers’ Mess in between.  Thus I could walk to the unit or Officers’ Mess at any time and hardly ever used the Z.

One day our daughter Nidhi, a grade 6 student, returning from school asked, “Dad, are you a CO?

Yes,” I replied “What ‘s the matter?

Everyone in my class tells me that you cannot be a CO,” she said.

But why?” I queried.

I was taken aback by her reason.  “They say that if I am a CO’s daughter, I would be dropped at school on a Z and not be cycling down to school.” She replied quite innocently.

OK. I am not a CO then.  You continue to cycle to school,” I justified.

One morning I received a call from a senior Staff Officer at the School of Artillery Headquarters.  His concern was that our Regimental officers travelled in jeeps while Colonels of Tactical and Field Wings – many approved as Brigadiers – were travelling on their scooters.  It was not that our officers were travelling on Jeeps, even their ladies used it.  Surely it was an eyesore for those Colonels who had commanded their regiments ‘well’; else they would not have been posted to School of Artillery.

I explained to this Staff Officer “When some of these Colonels were commanding their regiments, they had five Jeeps with them – one for the CO, one for his wife, one for his daughter, one for his son and one for his dog.  I have only one and the rest are shared by other officers.  It is my command and I will decide what to do with my jeeps and henceforth please keep away from my command functions.”

On a Saturday I was informed by our Adjutant  that the in-laws of  Captain Vikrant, who joined us just a week before, are in station.

Then let us have a get together in the evening at the Officers’ Mess.  Please invite them too,” I suggested. The CO’s mild suggestions are invariably directions to be implicitly followed.

During the evening get together I asked Captain Vikrant “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s a Sunday.”

My in-laws want to visit Shirdi,” he replied.

How are you going?” I enquired.

I have booked seats in the School of Artillery bus leaving from the Club tomorrow morning.

When our officer’s parents or in-laws visit Shirdi, they take the Z.  Havildar Suresh, my driver will report to you tomorrow morning.”

Hearing this our Quartermaster, Captain Subhash passed the customary instructions to Havildar Suresh to include carriage of adequate water, soft drinks, sandwiches and a spare jerrycan of petrol.

Sunday morning at five, I was quite rudely awoken by my telephone.  It hardly ever rang unless there was some very very important information to be conveyed to the CO, which was indeed a rarity.

It was Captain Vikrant at the other end. “Good Morning Sir.  Sorry to disturb you at this hour. Your vehicle is standing in front of my residence.”

It’s there to take you all to Shirdi,” I confirmed.

I thought you were not serious when you told  me that,” he said, embarrassed and apologetic.

I shot off a volley of choicest  profanities in my vocabulary ending with, “Now you take the vehicle to Shirdi and on Monday morning see me in my office.”

On Monday morning Major Suresh Babu, our Second-in-Command escorted Captain Vikrant to my office and said “Sir, please don’t get angry with him.  He is only a week old in the unit.  He is yet to know you.”

I looked at Captain Vikrant and he said “This is my second unit.  Before this I served only in a Field Regiment for five years.  There the Z was regarded as something holy, something of an institution. I have never travelled in a Z till now.  That is why I called you early in the morning to reconfirm.

I dismissed both with the words “The Z did not come as a dowry to me when I got married to the Regiment.

Military Special Trains

The story of my romance is never complete without the story of the military special. Indian Railways and the military have a close and intimate bonding. The military refer to the special coaches as ‘rolling stock’ and the engine simply as ‘power’.  The Military has its own ‘Movement Control Organisation’ (MCO) with its personnel closely integrated with the railways and located at important railway stations/ headquarters.

This special relationship goes back to the very formation of Indian Railways. One of the main reasons for establishing the railway network was to provide an effective and trustworthy method of transporting large amount of troops from one part of the country to another. The colonial masters found this as an imperative requirement, which enabled the government of the day to maintain control over the vast lands it governed.

Indian Railways run these Military Special trains all the time. These trains move both in peace and in times war. Some of these trains are freighters only, while others have accommodation for personnel as well. Some military specials carry armed forces personnel for aid to civil authorities, such as earthquake or flood-relief work. Some Military Special trains have rakes formed totally by special ‘Military’ coaches in their own distinctive greens while others have rakes formed by ‘normal’ Indian Railway coaches. Some movements get decided suddenly (such as due to natural or man-made disasters), while other movements are planned well in advance – as per the strategic relocations of operational units of Indian armed forces. The mobilisation plan of military units and formations are made in close coordination with Indian Railways.

I had my first experience of travelling with our Regiment by a military special in 1983, a move from Delhi  by a meter gauge military special for firing practice of 130mm medium guns at Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan.  We had to move to Pokharan as that was the only Field Firing Range with the Indian Army that offered 30 square km of uninhabited area to fire the guns over 27 km.  Railway lines in Rajasthan then were all meter gauge.  Indian Railways today operate mostly on broad gauge.  The gauge of the railway track is the distance between the inner sides of two tracks.   For broad gauge it is 1676 mm (5 ft 6 in) and for meter gauge it is one meter.

A 24 wagon rake for loading of the medium guns – MBFU – (M – Meter Gauge, B – Bogie Wagon, FU – Well Wagon) was placed at the military siding ramp at Delhi Cantonment Railway Station -12 for loading guns and 12 for Russian Kraz towing vehicle. The gun weighs over 8 tonnes and the wheelbase just about narrowly fits on to the meter gauge rake.  Today with broad gauge rakes, the wagons offer sufficient width to maneuver the guns.

The most crucial part of loading is to mount these guns and Krazes on to the MBFU.  I watched in fascination how the most experienced driver, Havildar Kuriakose, drove the leading Kraz towing the gun.   He drove on to the ramp and then straight through, over the wagons to the last-but-one wagon and halted in such a way that the gun was exactly adjusted in the well of the MBFU.  The gun was unhooked and he drove his Kraz in to the well of the last MBFU.  A slight wavering or error in judgement would have caused the unthinkable. It was a critical operation which only best of the specialist drivers can accomplish.

Tank drivers of armoured regiments too face similar predicaments driving onto the MBFU and sometimes end up in mishaps.

By nightfall, the train was formed with 24 MBFU, one first class coach, four sleeper coaches, a military kitchen car and seven wagons for carriage of ammunition and stores.  Now it was an eternal wait at the station for ‘power’- a diesel engine – to tow the train.  They had the crew – loco pilot, his assistant and guard ready, but no ‘power’.  By midnight, an engine was made available after it had towed a passenger train.  There were three halts enroute, each over six hours, all waiting for ‘power’ and after 36 hours, we were at Pokharan railway station.

The last military special train I travelled was while commanding the Regiment in 2002.  Our Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve.  The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan.  The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were mobilised to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days.  The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.

After ten months, the move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite. An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely had no priorities in anyone’s mind.  Our Divisional Headquarters had entrusted me with an important and critical task two days prior to the move back of our Regiment.  I was given a week to complete the task and fly back to Devlali on completion.  I did not want to miss travelling in the Military Special, that too as the Commanding Officer.  I burnt the midnight oil for the next two days, completed the task, handed it over to the Divisional Headquarters.

On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), our soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train.  A diesel engine was connected but now the Railways had the ‘power’, but no crew.  As many Military Special trains were run from Jodhpur taking the army back home, adequately rested crew was at premium.  We waited for 24 hours for the train to commence its journey. Our train stopped at every possible station, even to give way to freight trains.  Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways.  The onward move executed in less than two days now took five days on the return leg.

After my premature retirement and move to Canada, I very much miss my passionate association with the Indian Railways. Now, even when I travel in India, it is mostly by air, due to time pressures. Gone are the days of those never ending train journeys. I can only recollect those days with a sense of loss and nostalgia.

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu – An Ever Smiling Soldier

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, YSM, SM, ADC, Vice Chief of Army Staff, hangs his boots today. Do not get carried away by his smile; he is a rare combination of professional competence, inspiring leadership, humility and chivalry. A quote by John F Kennedy came to my mind As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” There is no better person than General Anbu for whom the above quote applies as he hardly uttered any words, but always lived by them – for over five decades of life in a military uniform.

It began when he was all of ten years old, as a cadet at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in June 1970. As a cadet, two years our senior, he was identifiable by his cheerful smile, his omniscient trademark insignia. He often walked away with a lion’s share of medals in most sporting activities at school – athletics, swimming, boxing, football, hockey and so on. He was adjudged the most technical boxer while at school and his gymnastics skills were invariably on display during our School Day Pageants.

He graduated from school in 1976 to join the 56th Course at the National Defence Academy (NDA). In his final year at school (1976), he was Chera House Captain – Cadets were divided into four houses – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava- named after the great ancient Tamil Kingdoms, which somehow paled into insignificance in the History of India as devised by the British. It may be a coincidence that the present Vice Chief of the Indian Navy, Vice Admiral G Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM from our batch too was the Chera House Captain in 1978.

His smiling, soft spoken demeanour concealed a firm, no nonsense attitude – no wonder he was appointed the Cadet Sergeant Major (CSM) at the NDA as well as at the Indian Military Academy (IMA). He was awarded BLUE in Athletics and Physical Training and Merit Card in Basketball – an envious record for any NDA Cadet. As a young officer he continued to excel in sports and competed with the soldiers at the highest level.

General Anbu was commissioned into 14 Sikh Light Infantry in June 1980. He served in all operational environments – Siachen Glacier; Counter-Insurgency Operations in Kashmir and Manipur; Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, United Nations Peace Keeping in Namibia, etc. He was awarded the Sena Medal for a very daring operation, showing exemplary leadership and gallantry during operations in the Siachen Glacier.

During my visit to Hyderabad in 2001, he organised an impromptu get-together of all our school mates that evening. There I met Mrs Gowry Anbu – a down-to-earth and compassionate lady who mirrors the very same qualities of her husband.

He was in command of his battalion during operational deployment in Rajasthan deserts and that is where I met him in 2002, when I was commanding a Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment in the same Division.

One day I walked into Colonel Anbu’s battalion and was received by Subedar Major Swaraj Singh, a smiling smart confident soldier. The way the Subedar Major interacted with me was indicative of how the character of a Commanding Officer flows down the chain of command to all ranks of the Battalion.

As we waited for Colonel Anbu to get free, I asked the Subedar Major something that had intrigued me about the soldiers in Sikh Light Infantry: How does Colonel Anbu, with his quiet and pleasing manners, command the fierce Sikh Light Infantry soldiers so well?

That was when I got a significant military lesson from Subedar Major Swaraj Singh:

“It is a myth in the Indian Army that Sikh Light Infantry soldiers need tough handling in a language filled with profanity. They are just as sensitive as other soldiers and their sensitivity needs to be respected. Our Commanding Officer from his Lieutenant days (1980) believed in respecting the soldiers under his command and we all respect him immensely for that. The performance of the Battalion under his command amply proves the equation.”

Subedar Major Swaraj Singh also said that his Commanding Officer neither drank alcohol nor smoked in his life – busting another Indian Army myth!

I must relate an interesting story about Brigadier Devraj Anbu when he was posted on deputation as the Commandant of the Assam Rifles Training Centre (ARTC) at Dimapur, Nagaland – a first-hand account narrated by another colleague of mine.

At that time he was on the upward trajectory of a very impressive career graph. This posting was his first exposure to the Assam Rifles and prudence dictated that he swim with the tide. Right from his first day in office, all ranks got a feel of his sincerity of purpose, steely determination, no nonsense attitude and genuine concern for the welfare of his Officers and Soldiers. One soon learnt not to mistake his self effacing modesty and courteous demeanour for weakness.

Like most Indian Army Regiments, the Assam Rifles too has very strong traditions rooted in their rich heritage, the foundations of which were laid by Gorkha Troops who formed the nucleus of the Force. One such tradition was the conduct of animal sacrifice on the Vana Devta Pooja celebrations to propitiate the Gods of the forest.

Over the years, many General Officers, Commanding Officers and Religious Teachers had done their best to sensitize the soldiers about the regressive nature of this tradition, quoting examples from the scriptures, but none issued orders prohibiting this practice as it was felt that such an order would cause deep resentment among the rank and file. As all Army Officers were posted to the Assam Rifles on deputation, most were not keen on risking their careers by ‘rocking the boat’.

He was barely few months in the saddle when it was time for the pooja. A traditional havan (where oblations are offered into the sacred flame) was conducted by the Priest and the principal participants were Brigadier Anbu, his deputy, a nominated officer, the Subedar Major and some selected representatives of the soldiers in the presence of all personnel of the organisation except those on essential duties. The ritual was to conclude with the sacrifice of a goat with a single stroke of the khukri (a Gokha’s machete), wielded by a chosen soldier.

The Priest used the ashes of the havan to anoint the sacrificial goat, the selected soldier, and the sacrificial khukri. The soldier then positioned himself near the head of the sacrificial animal with his khukri ready and formally requested Brigadier Anbu for permission to carry out the sacrifice.

In a steady clear tone, Brigadier Anbu replied “Nahin Hai” (permission denied). For the benefit of those unrelated to the uniform, this needs elaboration. In the army when permission for conduct of a troop related religious act is ceremoniously sought, it is simply expected to be ceremoniously granted. If not, it is deemed to a serious attack on troop sensitivity and could culminate in loads of trouble.

Everyone was stunned and the Priest, assuming that he had heard incorrectly, repeated the formal request only to get the same reply from the Commandant. Jaws dropped in astonishment and emotions could have flared at the perceived sacrilege. However, Brigadier Anbu remained unmoved despite gentle hints from his Deputy (who was his senior at SainikSchool) to reconsider his decision.

Without batting an eyelid, Subedar Major Arjun Thapa, a Gorkha from Nepal where ritual sacrifices are held sacred, supported his Commandant’s decision and ordered that the goat be set free. A lauki (bottle gourd) was produced and ritually chopped in two by the Khukri in its place. Not one dissenting murmur was heard from any quarter!

That’s obviously a classy example of what is meant by courage of conviction. It is a testimony to the immense respect and affection earned by Brigadier Anbu across the organisational spectrum, that too within a few of months.

Brigadier Anbu’s brief tenure at the ARTC is still remembered for the immense progress made in training, administration, and welfare at the premier establishment of the Assam Rifles.

In April 2017, the 79ers, my batchmates from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar had our annual meet in Srinagar, J&K. I reached Srinagar three days ahead to spend time with soldiers who had served with me. I travelled to a remote locality to be with the boys and that evening I called up Lieutenant General Anbu, the Army Commander Northern Command over the military telephone circuit. Typical of the Corps of Signals’ way of doing things, the duty officer at every successive military exchange came on line and fussed around for ever as the call was being directed to the Army Commander. He finally came on line and spoke to me for over thirty minutes, bantering about the good old days and expressing his inability to fly down to meet his school mates at Srinagar as he had to attend the Army Commanders’ Conference at New Delhi next day.

It is said that a soldier has no holiday in life; but retirement makes every day one for him. Knowing General Anbu, I am sure that he will make the rest of his days more rewarding and entertaining as he is a man of great versatility. He is bound to enrich the life of those around him in a meaningful manner.

Great soldiers do not retire, they just fade away – surely he too will fade away and be rarely be in television spotlight, as is the wont of so many retired senior defence officers these days! Perhaps he will pen down his thoughts covering a momentous half century in uniform.

Legendary Lungi

For me, undoubtedly most comfortable evening home wear has always been the down to earth ‘Lungi’.  It is extremely comfortable and is an all season wear.  It is unisex – wearable by both men and women.  It is easy to wear without any hassles of zips, buttons or laces.  One got to  just tie at the waist.  Tying a Lungi at the waist is surely not any rocket science, but to ensure that it remains there is surely an art by itself.  Lungi surely provides free movement for the lower limbs and also air circulation, especially  ideal for the hot and humid climate of Kerala.

A Lungi is a cotton sheet about 2 meter in length and over a meter  in breadth and is characterised  by its plain, checkered, floral or window-curtain patterns.  By design, surely one-size-fits-all, both males and females and surely does not have any caste, creed or religion.  The only variation is that Muslims of Kerala wear it right to left, whereas others wear it  left to right.  It is very difficult for a normal eye to make out this subtle difference.  Lungi is worn in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Thailand. ‘Mundu’ is its white cousin and is worn mostly outdoors  in Kerala- to church, family functions and even to office.

While serving in the Indian Army, I wore a Lungi to bed, even in remote border posts – at altitudes above 10,000 feet when the mercury dipped to nearly 30 degrees below the freezing mark.  I wore it while serving in the North in Kashmir, in the West in the deserts of Rajasthan and in the humid jungles of Eastern India. It surely had no combat or camouflaged design or pattern as it was not an Army ‘issue’ item and surely did not figure in the ‘Dress Regulations for the Army.’

Once on my trip home on vacation from Sikkim, I called on Colonel Baby Mathew who was commanding an Artillery Regiment located near the airport from where I was to board the flight home.  On reaching the main gate of his regiment, the sentry on guard saluted me smartly and said “Our CO (Commanding Officer) is waiting at his residence for your arrival” and he then gave directions to the driver about the route.  On entering Colonel Mathew’s residence I heard his voice saying “Head straight to my bedroom.”  There was Colonel Mathew, sitting on his bed, adorned in his favourite Lungi.  He ordered me to change into my Lungi and join him for a hot lunch of Kappa (Kasava or Tapioca) and fish curry – a Kerala Christian favourite.  While partaking the meal, Colonel Mathew said “I have placed my residence out of bounds for all ranks for the next 24 hours” – meaning no one to come near his house until I was there.  Obviously the Commanding Officer did not want his command to see him and his friend in their Lungi.

In June 2002, I took over command of our Regiment in its operational location on the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan.  The Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve.  The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan.  The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were transported to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days.  The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.

The move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite.  An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely  had no priorities in anyone’s mind.  The Military Special trains stopped at every possible station, even to give way to the goods trains.  Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways.  The onward move executed in less than two days now was sure to take a week.

On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), the soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train.  After accomplishing the task, the Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer) Thangaswamy had a roll-call to ensure everyone was present and also to brief the soldiers about the return journey.  As I looked out of my railway coach’s window, I saw the entire regiment standing.  I had a brain wave – Why carry all the soldiers on the train?  About a hundred of them is all what I require, mainly to ensure the security and safety of the train and the equipment.  Why not the rest of the soldiers be send on leave as many had not met their families for a prolonged time due to the operational commitments?  Also, less of a trouble for the chefs to cook meals on a running train and less of administrative issues.

I stepped out of my coach wearing my Lungi and a shirt and ordered Subedar Major Thangaswamy to only keep about a hundred soldiers and disperse the rest on leave for a week to rejoin at Devlali.  Everyone’s face suddenly brightened up but with that I was christened ‘Lungi CO.’

After moving to Canada, on a warm and sunny summer morning, I was watering the garden wearing my all time favourite Lungi.  There appeared our neighbour, Mr Win of Chinese descent and on seeing me wearing a colourful and comfortable costume enquired “Reji, what skirt are you wearing- looks really colourful.  Sometimes it is a full-skirt, sometimes half-skirt and sometimes mini-skirt.” –That was it! I discarded my favourite Lungi forever.

How Did You Manage It?

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Our father, a primary school headmaster, always believed that it would be better to have the children born in March (Pisceans) as it ensured that the child when joining school did not have to waste a few months. Nowadays it is mandatory that the child must be six years (in our school days it was five) old on the first day of school – 01 June. There had been many instances when the parents wanted the child to begin school early, especially those who missed the age barrier by a few days or a month or two. In the good old days, the parents and the headmaster mutually agreed to enter in records a suitable date of birth to ensure entry into school. This resulted many of our generation (including my wife Marina) ending up with two dates of birth – one the actual day they were born and the other the ‘official’ one. All four of us brothers were born Pisceans and we never had this problem of two dates to remember.

On taking over command of the unit, I went full steam automating the administrative functions in the unit and the priority was to automate the records of the soldiers under command.  This was to ensure that all their necessary documentation were up to date, they receive all their pay and allowances and are fully qualified for promotion to the next rank. The very first step was data capture from the existing manual records. After most data were transferred to the digital media, I called up each individual soldier for an interview to fill in the gaps. As we were deployed in the operational area at that time, these interviews went on till late at night. More than collecting the data, it helped me to a great extent to know the soldiers better as I was totally new to the regiment.

First use of the data captured was to make the weekly Regimental Order look more colourful. Not only that it was printed using a colour printer, the contents were also changed to be colourful. The routine stuff of Duty Officers, punishments etc were all printed in black and the goodies in colour. The goodies included wishes on festivals, compliments for achievements of the men and a special wish from the Commanding Officer (CO) on the soldier’s birthdays. With the data captured, I printed out the list of men celebrating their birthdays the week ahead.

On analysing the data of the unit, I realised that about 20% of the men were born on the first day of the year (01/01) and about 30% born on the first day of the month, especially March, April and May. I concluded that like our father, their school headmasters did the trick.

Case of Marina and her sibling is even better – they all have one ‘official’ birthday – 25 May. The secret was that their grandfather was the headmaster of the primary school and he had taken some liking to that date, like most headmasters of that time.  That is why many in our generation have their official birthdays in and around 25 May – a few days before 01 June. Now in case I got to get them all for our daughter’s wedding in Canada and when I apply for their Visas, the Canadian Immigration will have a lot of questions and lot to analyse.

During my bachelor days, on a vacation home, along with our father, we went to attend a baptism in the family. In those days we had a Bajaj scooter at home and we took off. Being the month of June, the monsoon was in full fury and we had to stop enroute and take shelter in a tea-shop. I ordered two cups of tea and our father said “That is why I always say you should plan your children to be born in March.” I immediately asked him “How did you manage it?” and he gave out his characteristic sly smile.

Years rolled by and in 1997, we were blessed with our son Nikhil on 16 March. At that time, we were located at Pune as I was attending the Technical Staff Officers Course. As customary of the Syrian Orthodox Christians, the baptism had to be done after two months and our son had to take on our father’s name and our father had to be the God Father. During the baptism ceremony, it is the God Father who carries the child to the church and also say the pledges for the child. The entire family congregated at Pune for the occasion. After the ceremony got over, our father asked me “How did you manage it?” and I too passed a sly smile. (Our daughter Nidhi was born on 20 March and I was born on 13 March).

The secret is that both our children were due on 13 March, my birthday, but the gynecologist decided to delay their arrivals.

Who will Play the Butcher?


In 1997 after the Technical Staff Course of 18 months, I was posted back to my parent unit 75 Medium Regiment. In those days the unit had three batteries, each with different class composition of soldiers. Now it has men from all over India, comprising of all classes. A battery is a sub-unit of an Artillery Regiment consisting of six Guns and about 125 soldiers to operate them along with vehicles, radio sets and other technical equipment.

The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery was of Brahmins (other than those from the Southern and Eastern States of India), the second had Jats and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Management of soldiers in all the batteries differed as their reactions to various situations, their needs, their languages etc were different.

In those days, any Young Officer posted to the Regiment would serve with each of the batteries for one or two years in order to make them familiarise with the soldiers. I too went through this rotation until I moved out for the Long Gunnery Course for 13 months. On my return from the course in 1990, I was appointed the Battery Commander (BC) of the Brahmin Battery. After two years I moved on posting to a staff appointment and returned after two years, again I was handed over the reins of the Brahmin Battery until I moved out for the Technical Staff Course.

On my return to the Regiment in 1997 after the Technical Staff Course, the unit was located in the high-altitude area (10,000 feet above Sea Level) of Sikkim, where families were not permitted to live with the soldiers or officers. After the customary ‘Dining-in’ in the evening at the Officers’ Mess, our Commanding Officer (CO) Colonel PK Ramachandran spoke welcoming me back into the fold and ordered me to be the BC of the Brahmin Battery. “Oh! Not again” was my instant reply and the CO was a bit puzzled.  He later spoke to me in person and I requested that I need a change and I wanted to have the experience of commanding another battery. The CO had his own logical reasoning for his decision and I did accept the same without any remorse as I too got convinced. Col Ramachandran had earlier served throughout his army career with a Regiment which had only Brahmin soldiers and I realised the he exactly knew the ‘horse for the course.’

The first week I spent at the Regimental Headquarters, carrying out the acclimatisation drills laid down for any soldier on arrival in high-altitude area. Our Battery was located about three km from the Regimental Headquarters. I luckily had two energetic and hardworking officers – Captain Samya Saurav, the Second-in-Command and Lieutenant Manish Wahi, the Gun Position Officer – both are presently Colonels, who effectively commanded their units. I delegated all my duties to the two and they did an excellent job that I hardly ever visited the battery.  Our CO wanted me to stay with the Regimental Headquarters to assist him, hence I had to delegate most duties to my junior officers.

After the week long acclimatisation, I decided to pay a visit to the Battery in the morning. When I reached the kitchen area, I found five goats there. In high-altitude area live goats are supplied as rations in place of dressed meat. These goats are called ‘Meat on Hoof (MOH)’ but are mostly ‘Meat on Knees’ as the goats are nearly dead after traversing through the difficult mountain roads from the plains.   The soldiers usually feed them well for a week to bring them back to life before they are slaughtered.

On inquiry I realised the problem of the goats – the Brahmins did not want to slaughter the animals, but like good soldiers, wanted to partake the meat. I ordered the Havildar Major (Sergeant Major) Kanti Prasad to assemble the entire battery at 12 Noon in front of the kitchen and the BC would slaughter the animal in their presence. After that I went back to my room in the Regimental Headquarters.

In my youth, our household had fowls and animals and whenever I went on vacation, my brothers would entrust me the task of slaughtering. I think I did a good job of it as Amma, a stickler regarding the way the meat is cut, was pretty happy about my job. That was why I was sure that I would do a smart job of slaughtering the animal – if my mother could not find anything wrong – I was damn sure no one on earth could.

By 11 AM, our Havildar Major knocked at my door and reported that the goat was stewing in the pressure cooker and I need not return to the battery at 12 Noon.

Joe’s Canadian Sojourn – Casa Loma

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Air Vice Marshal TD Joseph (Joe), our course-mate from the National Defence Academy (NDA) and Sophie Joseph visited us during the last week of May 2016.  Joe and I hail from the same village -Ayarkkunnam – in Kerala, India.  Joe was surprised to be invited to many homes of people who had migrated to Canada from the very same village.

Prior to leaving India, everyone wanted to know as to why he was only visiting Canada and not the US.  Most sub-continental travellers presume that Canada has nothing much to offer and a journey to the North American continent essentially was limited to a handful of US destinations.  Joe was however convinced after reading many of my travelogues on my blog that Canada has many fascinating unexplored areas, unknown to even many who have settled here for decades.

The weather was good, adequately warm to undertake long journeys and for trekking.    We travelled well and made use of every minute at our disposal.  The itinerary included Mennonites of St Jacobs, Niagara Gorge, Niagara Falls, Welland Canal, Wine Country, Flower Pot Island, and CN Tower.  (Please click on each one to read about them on my earlier Blog Posts).    We also visited the African Lion Safari and Casa Loma.

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Casa Loma (Spanish for Hill House), was a dream house Major General Sir Henry Pellatt built.  It still stands out as the biggest residential place ever built in Canada.  It was General Pellat’s  dream castle.

Casa Loma took three years and $3.5 million to build (today’s worth about $75 million). General  Pellatt filled Casa Loma with artwork from Canada and around the world. With soaring towers, tunnels and secret passageways, it was a  castle than a private residence.

Casa Loma has 98 rooms, 30 bathrooms, three bowling alleys, an indoor swimming pool, and a rifle range. The original internal telephone system is preserved till date.  Casa Loma had 50 telephones, one in each room, when the whole of Toronto had only 250.  It served as a location for many movies such as X-Men, Strange Brew, Chicago, The Tuxedo,  Love Guru and The Pacifier.

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The main floor opens with the Great Hall which leads into a library and the main dining room.  In the main dining room, the Pellatts hosted many formal dinner parties. The 10,000-book library had the Pellatt family coat of arms carved into the ceiling, with herringbone oak floor pattern creating an optical illusion of different shades from each end of the room.

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Pellatts had a Serving Room which was also used as a breakfast room.  The room was inspired by Roman carvings.  This room was the staging area into which the kitchen staff brought the cooked food for the waiters to carry to the dining room.

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General Pellat’s Study on the main floor had a marble fireplace with carvings of Hercules on the mantle.  The walls had walnut panels which concealed a secret door on either side of the fireplace – the left one leading to the Pellatts’ bed rooms and the right one to the basement.  The room also boasted of a desk that was the exact replica of Napoleon’s writing desk.

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This floor also had a  Smoking Room for a game of chess or cards.  Adjacent to it was the Billiard Room where General Pellatt and EJ  Lennox, the architect of Casa Loma and his neighbour,  often played in the evenings.

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The second floor housed Genral Pellatt’s Suite, separate from Mary’s.  The walls are of mahogany and walnut.  The tiger skin on the floor was imported from India in 1920.  The bathroom has a  shower structured to completely surround the body with spray by using 6 taps that controlled 3 levels of pipes.

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Lady Pellatt’s suite adjacent to her husband’s suit had walls painted in her favourite colour: Wedgwood blue.  Lady Pellatt’s bathroom was smaller than General Pellatt’s.  It had a bidet, a rare feature in Canadian homes at the time.

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General Pellatt had five guest rooms, all suited for the royalty.  He dreamt of having the Royal Family as guests at Casa Loma.  This room was named Windsor Room after the Royal Family in England.  It has a nineteenth century walnut bed with dolphins carved on to the posts representing Venus.

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This suite for guests is decorated in Chinoiserie style with a large red lacquered dresser imported from China.  The walls are covered with Chinese inspired patterns of phoenixes and foo dogs.  It also has a Chinese screen with carvings of flowers and trees and a mother-of-pearl peacock.

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The Third Floor housed the servants’ rooms and the Queen’s Own Rifles Museum.  General Pellatt enlisted as a rifleman with The Queen’s Own Rifles on November 2, 1876.  He rose through the ranks and eventually became the Commanding Officer. In 1905.  In recognition of his services, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor by King Edward VII.

In 1910, Pellatt took the entire 600-men regiment (including its horses) to England for military training at his expense, to mark the Regiment’s fiftieth anniversary from 13 August to 03 October 1910.  General Pellatt later served as the regiment’s Honorary Colonel and was promoted to the rank of Major-General upon retirement.  When Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, General Pellatt went to England with some men and officers of the Queen’s Own Rifles to be part of the honour guard.

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In the basement was a Wine Cellar.  Ammonia and brine-filled pipes chilled the collection of nearly 1800 bottles of exotic wine and champagne.

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The Stables are connected to Casa Loma by an 800-ft tunnel.  The tunnel also housed a coal based heating system to heat the entire building.  Canadian army used the tunnel as a secret base to build a new SONAR system during World War II.

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The tunnel ended at the stables and garage.  The stalls for the horses are constructed of mahogany and the floors covered with Spanish tiles so that the horses did not slip.  Each horse’s name was inscribed on the wall in 18 Carat Gold.

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Major General Sir Henry Pellatt was born to British parents in Kingston, Ontario on January 6, 1859.  General Pellatt left his studies when he was seventeen to pursue a career in commerce in the family business. By the age of 23, he became a full partner in his father’s stock brokerage firm Pellatt and Pellatt.  He married Mary Dodgeson whom he met when he was twenty.

He achieved fame in 1879 for beating the US  amateur champion in one mile.  As a partner in Pellatt and Pellatt, he founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883. By the time he was 30, the Toronto Electric Light Company enjoyed a monopoly on street lighting of the city of Toronto.

In 1892 his father retired, enabling General Pellatt to invest with more risk.  By 1901, he was chairman of 21 companies with interests in mining, insurance, land and electricity. In 1902, he won the rights to build the first Canadian hydro-electric  plant at Niagara Falls.  All these he achieved while serving with the Queen’s Own Rifles.  After retirement, in 1911, he began building his  dream castle – Casa Loma.

Unfortunately, General Pellatt’s fortunes nosedived and he went into debt. The one sure source of income from the monopoly of electrical power vanished when the government took over the company without any compensation.  He then invested into the airline business, to be taken over again by the government towards the war efforts for World War I.

Post World War I economy of Canada slumped.  So did General Pellatt’s fortunes.  He owed the Home Bank of Canada $1.7 million and City of Toronto a heavy tax bill.  He had no choice but to auction off his prized possessions for a fraction of their worth and to abandon his dream home – Casa Loma.  After moving into many smaller homes, he last lived with his trusted chauffeur.

Though he lost a great fortune, General Pellatt never lost his spirit of philanthropy, a character trait for which he was honoured late in life. His service of fifty years with the Queen’s Own Rifles was celebrated on June 27, 1926 with a march past of 500 men complete with the fly-past of three military planes.   A dinner was hosted at the Royal York Hotel, a reunion of the Queen’s Own Rifles, for his 80th birthday, including a telegram of congratulations from King George’s wife Queen Mary.  General Pellat was moved to tears.

He died two months later, in his chauffeur’s arms.  Thousands lined Toronto streets to witness his funeral procession. He was buried with full military honours befitting a soldier who gave so much to his country.

Visit to African Lion Safari follows.

First, Middle and Last Name

Names

My name at school and in the Indian Army read Koduvath Reji as our family is known by the name Koduvath. (Please click here to read more about Koduvath family). Syrian Christians of Kerala generally have three parts in their names. First comes the family name, followed by the father’s name and then the christen name. In my case it was only the family name and my christen name. As a teenager, I asked my father as to how we all siblings had only two names and a very short christen name. Being a Headmaster, I got a typical reply from him that the most common question one gets in primary language classes is “What is your name?” He did not want his children to get confused in answering the very first question and hence to make our lives a bit easier, gave us all easy to write names. Think of my plight had my name been a typical Syrian Christian name like ‘Kuruvilla‘, ‘Philipose‘, ‘Punnoose‘ or ‘Zachariah‘.

In Malayala Manorama newspaper in Kerala, one often finds a few change of name advertisements in the classified columns; mainly for women changing their surnames to match their husband’s. In some cases it is to put the surname after the christen name and a few for astrological and numerological reasons.

Other than the above, there may be a variety of interesting reasons for a name change. Sometimes someone did not take a liking to the name their parents gave; in some cases the couple would go for a ‘double-barrel’ name, hyphenating the surnames of both the partners. Some do it to Anglicise their names as in a few cases the way their names are pronounced in North America may end up as an unpleasant word in their language or else to make it easier for the folks to pronounce one’s name. At times some feel that their name is a liability while seeking a job and at times it is to beat an identity theft.

Our mother, Pallathettu Kurian Sosamma married our father Koduvath Varkey George in 1956. They both were teachers and neither changed their names. Our father believed that everyone must maintain their individuality and identity and marriage is not a sacrificial altar, which demands one to surrender one’s name. Further, the expenses and hassles involved as per him were also not worth the trouble. Hence, none of his daughters-in-law, including my wife, changed their names after marriage. My wife remained Marina Mani, the surname she got from her father’s name.

Many officers in the Indian Army change their wife’s name after marriage at their own will. They had their documentations (Part II Orders) of their marriage done and replaced the surname of their wife with the husband’s surname. It was surprising to many when I insisted that my wife will maintain her maiden name in all her documentations. I realised most officers were unaware of the procedure for a change of name and that a marriage under any law does not authorise a change of name. The soldiers too followed the simple methodology of a marriage Part II Order to change their spouse’s name and the uninformed officers did sign them off!

After marriage Marina was addressed as Mrs Reji as everyone in the army quite reasonably presumed Reji to be my surname. Marina despised it, but settled down to accepting it as time passed. I named our daughter Nidhi and Marina was arguably unhappy as a disyllabic ‘single’ name appeared dreadfully incomplete. I insisted that she would neither take on my first name nor surname with the reasoning that it obviates a ‘change of name’ problem after marriage.

My wife then named her Nidhi Susan, as my mother’s first name ‘Sosamma’ is the vernacularised form of ‘Susan’.  (Now she is Nidhi Parkinson-Watson with a hyphenated last name.) When our son was born, Marina took on the responsibility of naming him and he ended up with a very complete name ‘Nikhil George Koduvath.

When we had to apply for the emigration process to Canada, the first requirement was to obtain a passport. I conveniently swapped my first and the last names to become Reji Koduvath from Koduvath Reji. Thus I ended up with two identities, one Indian and the other Canadian. The last name did pose a bit of an issue for our daughter in Canada. Whenever she went for any documentation and when she gave her last name as Susan, they would reconfirm it as Susan is a common first name in Canada.

On assuming command of the Regiment, I insisted on correct and complete documentation for all soldiers of the unit. There I realised that numerous gaps existed in their documentation, particularly those related to marriage and child birth. In the next Sainik Sammelan (Commanding Officer’s monthly address to soldiers,) I decided to educate everyone about the procedure and need for correct documentation, especially as most soldiers’ families were nuclear and many had moved away from the traditional joint family system.

How to change your name legally in Punjab? - Procedure, Affidavit  Submission, Newspaper Publication, Gazette Notification, Charges,  Application Forms
I explained to them the correct legal procedure for a change of name as applicable in India (as also in many developed countries.) First step is to make an affidavit for the change of name and submit it to a District Court or a Magistrate. The next step is to publish advertisements announcing the name change in two local newspapers. The last step is to get the same published as a notification in the Official Gazette of one’s state.

At the end of it, one soldier from Rajasthan raised an issue that in their area, the second name of every girl was ‘Kumari’ and when they got married, it changed to ‘Devi’. He gave an example that Ritu Kumari after marriage will automatically become Ritu Devi as per their customs. I replied that until change of name is done legally, she would remain Kumari (virgin) for life! I instructed all officers and soldiers who did change their spouse’s name to complete all legal proceedings for change of name.

In Canada, when you visit the family physician or the pharmacy, the search key-field that they use is the last name. I always request them to search with our home telephone number as Nikhil and I have a common last name, Nidhi and Marina have different last names.

Once at our Pharmacy, the technician searched with the home telephone number as the key-field and five names came up. She commented that all the three males of the family have a common last name and both the females have different last names. You must be wondering who the third male member of our family is. It is Maximus Koduvath, our dog, who also gets his medication from the same pharmacy based on the veterinarian’s prescription. Maximus is a Canadian and he has to have a last name.

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Fire! Fire! Fire!

Wedding

Fire! Fire! Fire!” with our exchange operator screaming at the top of his voice; woke me up from deep slumber. Our regiment was located in the higher reaches of Sikkim on 12 December 1997 when this incident occurred. The area was covered with about four feet of frozen solid snow with the temperature touching minus 20 degrees Celsius.

I paid a visit to the dentist in the evening as my wisdom tooth was troubling me and I was under immense pain. The dentist decided that the best way out was extraction and hence administered local anesthesia on my gums and did the extraction. He advised me to take rest for a day or two. I reached my room and I had a splitting headache as a result of the anesthesia. I decided to go to sleep and hit the bed.

At dusk, our Commanding Officer (CO) Colonel PK Ramachandran, wanted to talk to me and called up the Regimental Telephone Exchange to connect the call. The exchange operator had tried the call many times but as I was in deep slumber, I did not answer the call. The exchange operator came to my room and saw me in deep slumber and informed the CO about my status. Our CO being a thorough gentleman, advised the operator to let me enjoy my sleep and to put through the call the moment I woke up.

At about 9 PM, the exchange operator noticed smoke and flames in the building I was sleeping. He came rushing into my room screaming and woke me up. He said that my room was on fire. By that time about five soldiers also came in. I ordered everyone to clear off and not get any burn injuries. The soldiers led by the exchange operator were salvaging my desktop PC, the TV and the VCR.

I stepped out of the room engulfed in flames wearing my sandals. Luckily my Identity Card was safe as it was in my uniform shirt’s pocket as I had slept off without changing my uniform. The fire started because the officer staying in the neighbouring room had forgotten to turn off his kerosene based room heating system – Bukhari. As I stood outside in the biting cold, I could see the entire building up in flames. The soldiers were in the act of salvaging everything from the adjacent buildings.

That was when we realised that the water tankers in the regiment were empty as the orders were to keep the tankers empty to prevent them from freezing. The solid frozen snow was of no use to douse the fire as it could not be lifted off the ground. The order was passed immediately that all water tankers will be kept three-fourth full every night to meet such eventualities.   Our CO came to me and asked as to how I felt and I replied that the only thing I could do was to enjoy the warmth the fire was providing on a freezing night.

Next morning the soldiers scouted through the ashes and Subedar (Warrant Officer) Balakishan came out with all my medals (given by the government in recognition of bravery, honour and sacrifice) and a photograph which was intact despite the raging fire. It was our marriage photograph dated 16 April 1989. I immediately said that “What God has united no raging fire, storm or hail can ever separate.

An Orthodox Syrian Christian wedding follows similar procedures as done by other Orthodox faiths like Greek, Slavic, and Egyptian. It begins with the Betrothal service where the Priest blesses the rings of the Bride and Groom, then places them on the ring fingers of their right hands. In the Bible, the right hand is the preferred hand, indicating good. The Betrothal dramatizses the free decision made by the Bride and Groom, and is symbolized by the giving of rings.

The Marriage Ceremony begins immediately thereafter culminating in the crowning. It begins with the priest placing a crown on the groom’s head while reciting the crown blessing thrice. Then the crowning ceremony of the bride follows in the similar way. The Greek and Slavic Orthodox use crowns made from olive leaves and the Syrian Orthodox use a gold chain as a symbolic crown. The crowning is a sign of victory, just as athletes were crowned in ancient times at their triumphs. In this instance, the Bride and Groom are crowned on account of their growth as mature Christians, prepared for the responsibilities of a Christian marriage.

This is followed by a series of petitions and prayers with special reference to well known couples of the Old Testament, such as Abraham and Sarah. An epistle excerpt of Saint Paul is read, exhorting husband and wife to unconditional love and support of one another. Then an excerpt from the Gospel of Saint John is read, relating to the wedding at Cana when Christ performed the first of His miracles and blessed the institution of marriage.

The differences in the marriage ceremony between other Orthodox faiths and Kerala’s Syrian Orthodox faith begin here. The groom ties the ‘Minnu’ around the bride’s neck – tying the knot. This has been adopted from the Hindu traditions. the ‘Thali’ used in a Kerala Hindu marriage was in the shape of a leaf of the sacred banyan tree and Christians modified the Thali by superimposing a cross on the leaf and called it a ‘Minnu’. The Minnu is suspended on seven threads drawn out of the Manthrakodi. The seven strands represent the bride, the bridegroom, the couple’s parents and the Church.

The groom then places the ‘Manthrakodi’, a sari presented by the bridegroom and his family, which is draped over the bride’s head, symbolizing the groom’s pledge to protect, care for and cherish his wife The Manthrakodi is the adaptation from the earlier Kerala Hindu Nair traditions of ‘Pudavakoda’ where the marriage was a contract and handing over clothes for the bride indicated entry into a contracted marriage. At this point, the bride’s relative, who has been standing behind her, yields her place to a female member of the groom’s family as a sign that the bride is welcomed into her new family.

The ceremony ends with a benediction and prayer. The Priest uses the Bible to uncouple the hands of the Bride and Groom signifying that only God can come between them. It is always the priest who will preside over the actual marriage ceremony that is the tying of the Minnu. If a bishop is present, he will only bless the Minnu. This tradition may have emerged from the old Travancore Christian Marriage Acts wherein only the priest had the magisterial power to conduct a marriage.

Even though our marriage was not conducted in the presence of Fire God (Agni), our wedding photograph lived through an Agni Pareeksha (Trial by Fire).