What Would I Have Done?

After a couple of years of my retirement from the Indian Army in 2004,  my friend Colonel Josey Joseph, wanted to know what I would have done post-retirement had I been in India. I laid out my plans and he wanted to know why I did not implement a much smarter and better plan than immigrating to Canada.

My post retirement plan in case I had stayed in India was to become a Priest at our Church and start with many meditation sittings – all to impress the people.

In all mock seriousness, I replied “To begin with, there must be a few fair-skinned followers, especially good-looking blonde girls,  in low cut blouses , and a few white guys. Whenever I paused during my sermons, they would  chorus ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!‘ Now watch the fun as to how my coffers fill up.”

Why did you not work towards your plan?” Colonel Josey asked.

The plan was great, but I just cannot sing!  For such a plan to succeed, one has to be good at singing.  Look at any of the ‘successful’ pastors or swamis – They are great singers and dancers too!  A requirement to impress (fool) the poor masses and bhakthas,” I replied.

Colonel Josey said “Thank God! Your Dad did not put you through singing and dancing lessons, else you would have ended up selling your Dad first and then your God! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!

Now I laid my plan bare.

Syrian Orthodox Priests can marry, only those who aspire to be promoted as a bishop remain a bachelor. Fluent in  English, Malayalam, Thamizh, Hindi, Punjabi, indeed a rare combination for a Mallu Priest, I will be invited to all the International and Pan-Indian (NRI/NRK) weddings and showered in moolah. With my vast military experience and having travelled all over India, I will be invited as a speaker, a motivational speaker, as I specialise in impressing people. 

A Syrian Orthodox priest is often allotted a Parish and he may be the Vicar or the Assistant Vicar. A Parish means a small administrative district or village, including all religions, typically having its own church and a priest or pastor.  Vicar is derived from the English prefix ‘vice,’ similarly meaning ‘deputy‘ and here he is the deputy to the Bishop.

The Parish will be benefited in that every need of the Parishioners would be presented effectively to the District Collector or the Superintendent of Police. Naturally,  they  would be compelled by courtesy and etiquette to never refuse an audience to the Reverend Father-Veteran Colonel Reji Koduvath. The least I could do is to draft various complaints and applications for the Parish members.

There are various projects by the Central and State Governments for the benefit of the citizens. Many of them do not reach the public as people are unaware of the paperwork involved. Having written many Statements of Case while in service, and following it up to the Defence Ministry level, who else can do it better?

Employment opportunities for the youth, military, police (both central & state), bank, railways, state transport, UPSC, state PSC… I could have provided effective guidance and mentorship to youth aspiring to enroll into all these. I would have conducted orientation training for each specific job at the church, conduct mock tests, interviews, group discussions, public speaking, etc as well.  With more of the youth employed, obviously more money for the church (and me.)

I would also organise leadership training and adventure activities for the children and youth of the Parish. This would facilitate them to do better at the interviews.  

I would motivate the children of the Parish to read by initiating little ones to the habit of reading, the biggest bugbear for the Indian youth. I would publish a Church magazine with children contributing their stories, poems and articles.

Upon hearing my narration, Colonel Josey remarked “I think your idea is not only novel, but simply brilliant. And in these times when most of the clergy across the board propagate hate; a message of love, an effort to help the helpless and instill self-confidence in children : that’s the core of what our nation and the world really needs.  And, knowing you so well, I am quite certain that personal gain would hardly be your motivation. Also, more importantly,  although every parish priest is not a Colonel Reji Koduvath, I am sure most of them can undertake some of the activities you suggested.  Someone needs to take the lead.”

Running Away From Studies

We were about 30 of us who landed at Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar, Thamizh Nadu from Kerala in July 1971, armed with little communication skill in our mother tongue Malayalam.  English, Hindi and Thamizh were alien to us.  First language and medium of education at our school was English.  We started with the English Alphabets under Ms Sheila Cherian and graduated to Wren & Martin and English Today by Ridout. We had to study Thamizh or Hindi as our second and third languages.

Thamizh as a second language was out of question as it required us to cram the Thirukkurals onward.  Thamizh poems, and ancient literature are not easy to understand. Hence we were given Hindi as a second language.  As expected we all fared badly and was the nightmare for us during the Grade 10 public exam.  Only the God Almighty and the examiner who evaluated our answer sheets know as to how we managed to pass.  It was all about cramming to the last alphabet and reproducing them on paper. Luckily we did not have to study a second language in our grade 11 and 12.

Thamizh was our third language, taught to us by Mr MV Somasundaram and Mr K Ekambaram.  We commenced with grade 1 Thamizh textbook in grade 5.  The only saving grace was that they put an end to our agony in grade 8 with a grade 4 Thamizh textbook.

We from the 1979 Batch were the very first batch to face the brunt of 10+2 education by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) India – an extra year of studies.  Our previous batch graduated from school in 1977 on completion of grade 11.

Grade 12 was a bugbear for my likes who were pathetic with academics and who never achieved any academic glory while at school.

Why did I join the National Defence Academy (NDA) and later serve the Indian Army for over two decades?

The truth is that I ran away from studies.  The bonus of getting through the NDA entrance examination was that we joined the NDA after our grade 11.  We did not have to go through grade 12 and the culminating public exam.  What a relief!!!.

We were made to believe at school that the training at NDA was more about outdoor activities – Physical Training (PT,) games, drill, weapon training, equitation training, military tactics, etc – and that the academic component was very minimal.  On joining the Academy, reality dawned on us.  We had to graduate in a Bachelors’ Degree programme, covering over 30 subjects ranging from Engineering Drawing to International Relations to be awarded a degree from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU.)  This is the only Bachelor’s Degree JNU confers as JNU is India’s premier research university.

Gods had to settle the scores with my academic pursuits, especially linguistics.  How could they spare me from the rigours of Hindi and Thamizh?

I was commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery of the Indian Army – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.) The Regiment then had an interesting class composition. One battery (consisting of six Bofors Guns, and about 150 soldiers) was of North Indian Brahmins; the second had Jats mostly from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh; and the third was manned by the soldiers from the four Southern States. Now I had to master Hindi the way the Brahmins and Jats spoke and also Thamizh as it was the medium of communication for the South Indian Soldiers.

At the end of it, commanding a Regiment and retiring after two decades of military service which I joined primarily to run away from studies – the reality was that neither did I stop studying nor did I stop running!!

Even while commanding the Regiment, I continued studying as we received  modern high-tech radars, survey equipment, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones), etc which I had never heard of until then.  In order to command the Regiment, I had to master all the modern military gadgets and the only way out was to learn about them and operate them.  This meant I had to pore over volumes of operational and maintenance manuals.

My studies did not end with my hanging my military boots.  It continued and will continue for ever. 

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young – Henry Ford.

The Unseen Granny

Nithin Lukose with his Grandmother Mariakutty

Unseen characters have been used since the beginning of theatre with the ancient Greek tragedians, such as Laius in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and Jason’s bride in Euripides’ Medea.  Rosaline in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another classical example of an unseen character.

In the Malayalam movie Paka which was showcased in the recently concluded Toronto Film Festival, there is a Granny whose disgruntled  mutterings are pivotal to the movie all through.  Only her toes are shown, with her lying on her bed.  Her two grandsons live with her until one of her sons, uncle of the two grandsons, returns from jail. 

In the Thamizh movie ‘Ethir Neechal,’ directed by K Balachander, the Coughing Grandfather only his cough is heard all through the movie. The Grandfather is never shown. The other movie I watched where a body part of a main character is shown is in Inspector Gadget, a 1983 animated film where the villain Dr Claw’s right hand is shown all through the film. 

Like the Dr Claw, the Granny of Paka is arrogant, malicious, ruthless, sinister, short-tempered and sadistic.  The Granny is the one injecting venom of revenge into her grandsons.  She does not want to change and does not even want any light or fresh air entering her room.  She chastises her grandson who tries to open the window of her room.  After her death, the grandson opens the very same window to let in light and fresh air into the room.

The other movie I remember where a main character’s legs were shown was in Charlie’s Angels, where the villain and the master mind’s legs are shown at the very end.  In Paka, the Granny’s toes are only shown all through.

I wanted to meet Nithin Lukose, the director and script writer of the movie after the premier show, but Nithin couldn’t make it to Toronto due to the pandemic protocols.

Mariakutty, aged 83 years.  who enacted the role of the Granny mesmerised the  viewers with her voice alone.  She happens to the Grandmother of the Director Nithin.  The story is loosely based on the stories the Granny narrated to a young Nithin.  In fact Mariakutty relived her life in the movie, through her voice.

Iron Box (തേപ്പു പെട്ടി) Theppu Petti

During our young days, we had an iron box – Theppu Petti – heated by burning coconut shells to embers.  The iron box was not made of iron, but brass, weighing over five kilograms.  It had a cover over a hollow cavity with holes on either side, looking more like our eyes.  These eye-lets acted as air-vents to keep the embers glowing.

A metallic flap attached at the back covered the cavity. On top of the cover was a teak handle, hand-carved  to fit the operator’s hand.  The ‘Delta’ shaped base, called the sole, facilitated easy gliding of the Theppu Petti over the cloth under it.  The sole was heated to about 200°C by the burning embers. 

Theppu Petti is the predecessor to the modern electric steam iron.  The electric iron was invented in 1882 by New Yorker Henry W Seely. His iron weighed almost seven kilograms and took a long time to warm up.  Irons gradually became smaller until they resembled the type we have in our homes today.

The iron box did its job of pressing a piece of cloth to remove creases using a combination of a hard surface, and heat and pressure that pressed on the fibres of the clothes, stretching and flattening them.

Using a Theppu Petti to iron a piece of cloth, the operation commenced with placing the monstrous looking object on a metallic ring on the table.  The metallic ring protected the table from getting burnt.  The ironing table back then was nowhere akin to the modern ironing boards, but was a multi-purpose large table (mostly the dining or study table) covered with an old blanket and a bed sheet. 

Four or five coconut shell-halves were placed in the hollow cavity of the Theppu Petti and burnt to embers, which took about 15 minutes.  These embers emitted constant heat for a long time and maintained a near constant temperature.  Kerala households had a large stock of coconut shells and burning them in the iron box were their primary use.  Some used charcoal in place of the coconut shells.

When we were young, our father ironed our clothes until our eldest brother turned ten.  Then he took over the operation and did the job with panache.  When our youngest brother turned ten, the mantle was passed on to him and he became such an expert that he would put any professional cleaner to shame.  Now it is a ritual for him on Sundays to collect the white shirts and black pants of my elder brother, an advocate, and press the entire stock for a week.  He presses all my clothes while I was home and also for the entire household.

തേപ്പ്  – Theppu is a modern Malayalam word which means ‘ironed’. As slang, it refers to a girl  who dumps their lover when they see a better prospect.  The word, though sexist, finds its way into modern Malayalam movies and social-media trolls. 

While serving with the Indian Army in Maharashtra, a Priest from our  Syrian Orthodox church visited me.  His wife hailed from our village and her family was well known to ours.  I invited him for lunch and after that took him to the shopping centre at the Cantonment as he wanted a heavy electric iron box to press his long white cassock.  He couldn’t find a heavy iron box in the market as the modern one’s were light.  He presumed that the Cantonment’s shopping centre would have it as the soldiers always had to press their thick uniforms.

During my next visit home, I narrated the incident to Amma and she passed her characteristic sly smile, which meant there was more to it.  I prodded her and she reminisced the days of 1957 when she was just married and they moved into a small rented one-room house next to the school where Amma was teaching. 

They hardly had any utensils, leave alone an iron box, which was the last priority.  My Dad taught at the school in town and had to bus about 12 kilometer either way, thus had to leave early.  The first Sunday, he ironed the clothes required for my mother and him using an iron box which he borrowed from the home of a senior revenue official who lived across the street.  The next Sunday his request for the iron box was turned down claiming that it was under repair.  Next evening my father walked in with an iron box and that today lies in the attic of our ancestral house.

What is the connection with this old iron box and the Priest,” I asked.

Amma took a long deep breath and said “This Priest is married to the daughter of that revenue official.

That Little Thorthu (തോർത്ത്)

Malayalis are people hailing from Kerala – The God’s Own Country -often called Mallus because the word Malayali is quite a tongue-twister and difficult to pronounce for many across the globe.  They speak Malayalam, a language spoken by more than 38 million people who live in the state of Kerala and Lakshadweep. Many in India refer to Mallus as Madrasis or even Malabaris, which any Mallu worth his name will despise.  You call him a ‘Thampi’ and he is sure to spit fire at you!

Malayalam, the eighth most spoken language in India, is believed to have originated from Thamizh, with a heavy influence of Sanskrit.  It became an independent language with its own script by AD 9th century.  

There is a little known item of cloth that a Malayali is identified with.  It is not the Mundu or the Lungi; but a 5’x3′ white piece of cloth called Thorthu; a light bath towel,  which you will find in  every Malayali’s wardrobe.  We have a dozen of them in our Canadian home too.  It is universal – one size fits all; used by people of all ages, sex and religion.

Thorthu has a one-centimeter-thick border at both ends called Kara, which is generally black, blue or red.  This handy Indian cotton towel is known in North India as Gamcha, and in Thamizh Nadu as  Thundu.

The white coloured Thorthu has been around for generations. The warp and weft of this cloth is made of very fine cotton fibre.  These hand-woven towels are super absorbent, light weight, soft on skin, and quick drying.  In Kerala the relative humidity is around 70% through the year and any thick towel will take its own time to dry out.  Then there is the fear of fungus or mildew developing on a wet cloth.

A Mallu uses the Thorthu for rituals, journeys, pilgrimages, functions, traditional events, political rallies, etc.  It is all because the Thorthu takes up less space, can be washed easily with hands, and dries quickly.

In every Kerala household, the Thorthu has an important place, so did in our home too.  Our father always got the new Thorthu and dare not – no one could ever even touch it.  The next one was Amma’s and for all four sons, we had the older ones, but was always on first-come-first-served basis.  If one got late for the morning bath, he ended up with a wet Thorthu.  

Though the primary use of a Thorthu is to dry one’s self after one’s bath, it has many uses left to the imagination of the user.

To bathe in the pond or river, use it to cover your family treasures and after the bath, hand squeeze the Thorthu and dry yourself.
You will find many children enjoying catching those little fish using a Thorthu.

On your way home, if you intent to climb a coconut tree to bring down some tender coconuts, it comes handy. Tie the two ends and it helps you grip the trunk while you make your way to the treetop.
You will come across four men enjoying their cards game, sitting under a coconut tree. The card table is a Thorthu spread on the ground.

You will see ladies- young or old – draping a Thorthu over their blouse, covering their chest.
In the kitchen, the Thorthu comes handy as a napkin, a hand towel and also as a mitten while handling hot cooking utensils. The Thorthu also serves as a sieve and also is used to cover the cooked food.
Women after a bath will tie their hair in a Thorthu to facilitate faster drying in the humid Kerala weather.
Thorthu has its use in the traditional medicine of Kerala – Ayurveda – especially as the cover for a Kizhi – a fomentation therapy done using a warm poultice containing herbs, herbal powders, rice or sand and massaged on the whole body to enhance, purify or rejuvenate the body.
You will see men and women working in the fields and they use the Thorthu as a headgear to beat the hot sun.
You will most likely meet a fish monger, who will proudly have a white Thorthu around his/her shoulder. It is used as a hand towel and how they manage to keep it white everyday is still a secret.
You will find a Malayali using his Thorthu in many ways. Only you got to look for it.

Movie Review : Joji : Malayalam


JOJI – Malayalam  Movie set in Covid time – inspired by Macbeth, is a simple story set in a Syrian Orthodox Christian family of Kottayam, told without any frills.  Dileesh the director has done an excellent work, so are all the characters.  Technically also the movie is brilliant. Justin Varghese’s music is apt for each occasion and every time a new symphony plays, it is a reminder about the Shakespearean tragedy lurking around.

The family background and the name of the protagonist are same as my novel ‘Son of a Gunner,’ and there end  the commonalities.  The movie tells the story of a hardworking father who made a fortune through his dedication and business acumen in rubber plantation and harnessed his riches.  His adamant nature and his treatment of  his three sons are typical of such people.  The natures of his three sons follow a typical Syrian Christian lineage of the day.

The eldest son is the one most attached to his father, who toiled  hard with his father for the well being of the family.  He is the least educated – could be that the father could not afford to send his to college during his time.  He is a ‘ruffian’ with coarse language, speaks his mind out and the least greedy while dividing the family riches.  He is physically tough – the result of his hard work in his youth and dresses in simple mundu and shirt.  These qualities must have resulted in a broken marriage  and he is depicted as a divorcee, living with his son in the ancestral home.

The second son is better educated, and runs the rubber procurement business.  He is less attached to his father and is also greedy.  His scheming wife proves  an ideal companion.  His dress sense is better than his elder brother’s, so is his language, but physically he is no match.  He is very diplomatic and flows well with the requirement of the society.

In a Syrian Orthodox family, the youngest son inherits the ancestral house, based on the premise that he is most likely to outlive his parents.  He is responsible to take care of the parents in their old-age and also organise family events and get-togethers.

The youngest son grew up when the family’s fortunes were good.  He neither witnessed any hardships nor he worked towards enhancing the family’s riches.  He had the best of times and the best education  his  father could afford.  Richness of the family ensured that he developed  many vices and turned lazy.  He is depicted as an engineering degree dropout.  He does not even pick up a bottle from the fridge to drink, he wants his sister-in-law to serve him.  He is up-to-date with technology and also his dress sense.

Though physically the weakest, he is the most intelligent among the three sons and is also the most scheming.  His attitude is that the ancestral house belongs to him and the rest are parasites.  He also wants to inherit all the riches the earliest and wants his father dead.   He aptly called the ‘useless’ by his father and the oppressive nature of the father turns him into a beast.

The eldest son is the least greedy, the second  is greedier and the youngest greediest.  The level of greediness is inversely proportional  to their efforts towards the family riches.  This is a reality and is very evident with many court cases – both civil and criminal – in Indian courts – all for wealth inherited from the parents.

It is all about ‘Dad’s Money‘ ‘തന്തേടെ കാശ്’  ‘बाप का पैसा’ – one of the root cause of most evils in Indian society. 

The movie is worth a watch and is available on Amazon Prime.

My Romance with the Indian Railways

My journey with the Indian Railway commenced with my first travel way back in 1966 when I was in Grade 1. 

In the Malayalam text book there was a small verse on the ‘Steam Engine’ – (കൂ കൂ കൂകും തീവണ്ടി, കൂകി പായും തീവണ്ടി) Koo koo kookum theevandi, kooki payum theevandi.  I was fascinated by the poem and insisted on travelling on a train.   My dad took me on my first train journey – an eight kilometer one from Kottayam to Chingavanam on a steam engine powered passenger.  Little did I realise as a toddler then that I will serve in the Indian Army and travel the length and breadth of the country on trains. It was the beginning of a long and cherished association with the Indian Railways.

My father first took me to the steam engine as the poem was more about the steam throwing coal eating monster.  He showed me three persons working on the engine.  The Engine Driver (Pilot or Engineer) was the overall commander of the engine.  He was responsible for ensuring punctuality, watch the signals, the track ahead and the train behind, see that the locomotive is running safely and efficiently, blow the whistle when required and plan ahead for stops.

The engineer was assisted by two Firemen who stoked the fire, maintained steam pressure in the boiler, watched the track and signals ahead, and relayed signals from Guard.  They took turns with one stoking the fire and the other watching the signal and blowing the whistle. Firemen were also apprentice engine drivers, allowed to run the train under the engine driver’s supervision and expected to learn enough to be ready for eventual promotion.  Even today, the Indian Railways recruit only Assistant Loco Pilots for their Diesel and Electric Engines, who over a period of service are promoted to be Loco Pilots. I am told that the Assistant Loco Pilots of today earn a salary more than that of the average software engineer!

Steam engines of yesteryear may have been slower and ‘dirtier‘ than diesel/ electric ones, but they were much safer.   As per records, out of every 100 accidents on Indian Railways, only two involved steam engines as the steam engine staff had to be on their feet, busy stoking the fire, adjusting gauges, tightening gears and releasing excessive steam pressure, polish gleaming brass fittings and gauges, filling the water tender and so on.

The train was controlled by a Guard who impressed me with his well starched and ironed cotton white trousers and coat as white as snow.  I could never figure out as to how these Guards on the trains pulled by steam engines, maintained their white uniform so well.  A short journey on such a train always invariably resulted in my dress and hair getting covered with coaldust.

I might add here an interesting aside. The Indian Railways currently runs a luxury heritage train from Delhi to Alwar, renamed The Palace On Wheels, (earlier Fairy Queen, since 1855) powered by a 70-year-old renovated steam engine, named ‘Azad‘- engine number WP 7200, built in 1947 in USA.

Indian Railways is still maintaining its oldest working steam locomotive named Fairy Queen at New Delhi. I wonder whether the Railways still have the drivers to operate it.

When I joined Fifth Grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Thamizh Nadu) in June 1971, travelling from Kerala to the School was the longest train journey one undertook until then.  It commenced by boarding a Meter-Gauge train at Kottayam, hauled by a steam engine to Ernakulum.  From there in the afternoon, it was on to famous No 20 Madras Mail – a Broad-Gauge train – which ran between Cochin and Madras to alight at Coimbatore.  The only reprieve was that the train was hauled by a diesel engine, and therefore no coaldust.

The advantage in a diesel or electric engine is that it can run at same speed whether forward or backward. Steam engines were to run at lesser speed when running with its water tank in the front side. To avoid this there were engine turn tables at major loco sheds for turning the engine to keep engine side in the front.

We got off at Coimbatore by 9 PM and at 10 PM there was a train to Rameshwaram, again a steam engine train on Meter Gauge.  This train dropped us at a tiny station called Udumalaipettai at 2 AM.  Then there was the agonising wait in the small waiting room at the railway station for it to dawn so that the restaurants in town opened their shutters. Early in the morning it was a walk of about a km to the bus-stand, lugging our bags.  Near the bus-stand there was a restaurant which served vegetarian breakfast and we enjoyed the last civilian meal of the semester before joining the Military School. From then on it was going to be the much loved ‘bill of fare.’

After breakfast it was a bus ride of 24 km on the No 10 Bus which plied between Udumalaipettai and Amaravathinagar – about an hour of a bumpy ride, but it ensured that the heavy breakfast we had consumed was well truly digested without any hiccups.

By the time I was commissioned in the Indian Army in 1982 the railways had evolved a great deal; the steam engines had given way to diesel ones which were much faster and did not deposit coal dust in our hair and clothes. With the army life came some really long and memorable train journeys. For a Mallu posted to most military stations in North India, 72 hours was par for the course.  If your unit was in the North East, it was 96 hours and beyond. A colleague of mine used to travel from Trivandrum, then the southernmost station of the Indian railways to Ledo, in Assam, almost on the then Burma border, where his unit was located. It was small matter of some 4000km, 3970km to be precise, taking seven days.  It involved travel by five different trains, with changes at Ernakulum, Madras Central, Howrah Junction, and Tinsukia. The journey from Trivandrum began with a meter-gauge train and ended at Ledo on a meter gauge train. But the bulk of the journey in the middle was by broad gauge. In some ways, the experience of a journey such as this is as exhilarating as that of a mountaineering expedition

Once or twice a year it was a journey homeward to avail the much-awaited leave. Also, the initial years in the army one had to undergo a lot of training courses at various institutions widely dispersed all over the country. This resulted in at least one more long train journey. Very often one had to travel at short notice and therefore without reservation. It was nothing short of high adventure.

As the trains rumbled across the length and breadth of the country, I was able to directly imbibe the diversity of our ancient land. As they crossed the many rivers flowing West to East, East to West and North to South (Only the Son River in India flows from south to North), and climbed the many hill ranges and plateaus, I came face to face with school geography. The vastness of the Indo-Gangetic plains, the stunning beauty of the Konkan tract, tenuous criticality of Siliguri Corridor, mesmerising  beauty of the plains of Punjab engulfed in endless fields of wheat, mustard and sunflower, and the endless barren expanse of the Thar desert all lay bare before me.   I couldn’t help but notice the gradual change in climate, topography, flora, demography, culture, architecture and so on. It was an ever-changing landscape of every facet of human existence. There is no better way to learn about this vast country than to simply travel by train. No wonder, the Mahatma, loved to travel by train.

When I am at Kottayam the Pole Star is not visible as it is always hidden behind coconut trees. As the train takes me northward from Kottayam, on the first night I begin to see it quite high above the horizon. On the second night it is much higher in the sky than the previous night. It was much later, during a training course that I theoretically learned that the latitude of a place is the vertical angle between the horizon and the pole star (altitude of the Polaris.) But the railways had made me understand the phenomenon much earlier. Latitude until then was just a line on a map.

Over the many years of train travel I also realised that the Indian railways is a truly humongous organisation any which way you look at it. It is one of the largest rail networks in the world with over 68500 km of track network and nearly 7200 railway stations. It is one of the world’s largest employers, employing some 1.4 million people. Every day it transports 25 million people. It is simply mind-boggling to think in terms of the likes of the entire population of a country like Australia or Taiwan being transported by the Indian railways on a daily basis. Of the worlds 230 odd nations only 55 odd have a population more than 25 million.  The railways also move some 1200 million tons of freight every year.

One got to fully subscribe to Michael Portillo, British journalist, broadcaster, and former Conservative politician- “The two biggest legacies of the Raj are the unification of India and the English language. Moreover, without the railways, India would not have been connected and could not have become one country.” 

Next : Military Special Trains

Psalm 91 : The Soldiers’ Psalm

SoldiersPsalm91jpg

During our childhood, we recited Psalm 91 as part of the evening Family Prayer (Click Here to Read More about it).  In those days I never realised the meaning of the words we recited and did not visualise that it will impact my life. During my first stint at the Kashmir Border, sleeping alone in my bunker, the very same words rang in my ears.  These words I realised helped me tide over the difficulties and uncertainties that lie ahead for any soldier in  high-altitude terrain, mostly snow covered icy heights, prone to avalanches and blizzards and  bone chilling cold.  I recited Psalm 91 every evening, (in Malayalam, the language in which our father taught us the Psalm,) before I retired to bed.  Psalm 91 has for ever been one of my inspirations and a prayer.

There is a story in circulation by the modern evangelists that during World War I, 91 Infantry Brigade of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was preparing to enter combat in Europe. Because their commander was a devout Christian, he assembled his men and gave each of them a little card on which was printed the Psalm 91, the same number Psalm as their brigade. They agreed to recite that Psalm daily. After they had begun praying the Psalm, 91 Brigade was engaged in three of the bloodiest battles of World War I – Chateau Thierry, Belle Wood and the Argonne. Other American units that fought in the same battles had up to 90 percent casualties, but 91 Brigade did not suffer a single combat-related casualty.

The truth about this story of 91 Infantry Brigade and the Psalm 91 has been cleared By Mary Jane Holt in an article ‘The truth about the 91st Psalm.‘  The article refers to a communication the author received from Mike Hanlon, Research Editor of Relevance, the Quarterly Journal of The Great War Society: “There was no 91 Brigade with the AEF in World War I. The Brigades’ highest number was 84.”  This story appears to have been churned out by an evangelist with a view to cash in on the sympathy the soldiers world over enjoy.

The Bible historians believe that Psalm 91 might have been written by Moses, even though most Psalms are authored by King David.  Moses might have written it to inspire the enslaved Israelite soldiers to fight against their Egyptian masters.  Hence, Psalm 91 is known as the Soldiers’ Psalm and is also referred to as the Psalm of Protection.

There are many testimonies of NATO soldiers keeping a card size print of Psalm 91 in their pockets and also reciting it during their deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Psalm as is, will be applicable to all soldiers irrespective of their faith or religion.

The Psalm begins by stating that there is no need to fear because of who He is. Then is a more personal relationship to God as the Almighty is referred to as ‘My refuge, My fortress, My God in whom I trust.’  Thus the personal relationship we have with our God enables us not to fear at all.  It follows with an affirmation that He will come to your rescue in case of any difficulties and that He will protect you as He will cover you under His wings like a mother bird.

Then is the declaration of guarantee by  God that He will protect you from all that a soldier may confront in a battlefield like ‘the terror of night’,  ‘arrow that flies by day,’ ‘the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,’ and ‘the plague that destroys at midday.’  He also provides you the protection while you rest that no disaster would come near your tent.  The God vows to protect the soldier even though thousands may fall on either side.  God has commanded the angels to guard you so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.

The Psalm further says that you will tread upon the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.  This act can only be done by a soldier in a battlefield and the soldier has to move ahead facing the enemy’s bullets and nothing can stop him from carrying out his divine duty.  For God’s sake, don’t even let the thought about these actions come to anyone else’s mind or even in the mind of a soldier in peacetime, as the wild life protection laws of no nation will ever spare you and please do not expect God to come to your rescue!!

The Psalm concludes with a God’s promise to a soldier ‘He will call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him, and honour him.  With a long life I will satisfy him, and let him behold My salvation.’

In Bhagawad Gita, Lord Krishna exhorts Arjuna to fight by saying “O son of Kuntī, either you will be killed on the battlefield and attain the heavenly planets, or you will conquer and enjoy the earthly kingdom. Therefore get up and fight with determination.”  Here again the Lord guarantees a soldier the grand honour of the right to heaven.

Guru Dakshina

Wedding

On 16 Apr 1989, the day I married Marina, still lingers in my mind, as would be for any of us on this auspicious day.  I decided to invite all those teachers who taught me Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathinagar (Thamizh Nadu) for the wedding.  I had requested Mr PT Cherian (PTC), my mentor, house master and physics teacher, to accept the Guru Dakshina (Offering to a Teacher), prior to leaving the home for marriage as per the Syrian Orthodox Christian custom.  Mr Cherian accepted the request and I explained him the route to our home.  Mr Cherian was married to Ms Shiela Cherian, who taught everyone English in their Grade 5, expressed inability to attend owing to her bad health.

Sainik Schools were the brain child of then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon, established in 1962 each of the major States of India, manned by senior officers of the armed forces with the objective of turning boys into men who can take on the responsibilities of the armed forces.  Ms Sheila Murphy, an Anglo-Indian lady, was among the first group of teachers to join the school at the time of inception.  Mr PT Cherian joined our school a year later in 1963.  After a few years, fell in love and got married, while we were in our eighth grade.  On the evening of their wedding, we were treated to a never ever seen sumptuous dinner at the Cadets’ Mess.  Thus Ms Sheila Murphy became Mrs Sheila Cherian.

Mrs Sheila Cherian is the first teacher anyone who joins Sainik School, Amaravathinagar encountered.  Most of us were from Malayalam or Thamizh medium schools having very little knowledge of English.  The way she taught us English, especially how to write (her handwriting was exceptional,) everyone of us will carry it to our graves.  She taught us table manners, how to sit at a table, use of cutlery and crockery, how to spread butter and jam with the knife, how to drink soup, how to eat boiled egg and most importantly, how to eat with our mouth closed.

Mr PT Cherian was our House Master, Physics teacher, Photography Club in-charge, Basket ball and Volley ball coach, mentor, etc etc, all rolled into one.  More than teaching physics, he dedicated all his time and energy to turn us into brave and confident young men.  We could discuss anything and everything under the sun with him.  He was behind every activity that happened in the school and was a great organiser.  Standing six feet tall, he had an impressive personality that will give run for the money to MGR and Sivaji Ganesan.

The marriage was scheduled for 4 PM and I was scheduled to leave home for the church by 3:30 PM.  All the friends and relatives gathered at our home for the occasion.  Mr AKR Varma – from the Cochin Royalty and our Arts teacher;  Mr George Joseph – English teacher, then Principal of Navodaya Vidyalaya, Neriamangalam; Kerala, Mr AD George –Botany teacher, Principal of Navodaya Vidyalaya, Kottayam; and Mr KS Krishnan Kutty our crafts master, all were there at home to shower their blessings.  There was no trace of Mr Cherian and we waited till 3:40 PM and then it was decided that Mr AKR Varma, being the senior most among our teachers present would accept the Guru Dakshina.

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Dakshina is a betel nut and a rupee coin wrapped in a betel leaf.  I handed over the Dakshina to Mr Varma, touched his feet, accepted his blessings and left for the church.  Mr Cherian was standing at the entrance of the church to receive us.

A few months later, we were on vacation in Kerala and attended Mr Varma’s daughter Vanaja’s wedding.  Mr Varma said that the Guru Dakshina came as a surprise to him and he was very much moved and that tears had rolled down his eyes, as it was the first time ever he had received such a gift.  He said he was unaware of the tradition that the Syrian Christians followed, and it is an ideal Dakshina any Guru could ever ask for.

After five years of marriage, we went to Sainik School Amaravathinagar with our daughter, to attend the Old Boys Association (OBA) meeting.  By then Cherians had retired and had settled in the farm they purchased, adjacent to the school.  We decided to call on the Cherians in the evening and reached the farm house.  The house had about 50 old students, some with their families already there.  The Cherians, known for their love for their students, whom they adored as children, as God had been unkind to the couple and had forgotten to bless them with any kids.  They were playing excellent hosts to each and everyone, including little children.

We paid our respects to the couple and I handed over a package containing a few bottles of whisky as Mr Cherian enjoyed his drinks in the evenings.  Accepting the gift, very well knowing what the contents would be said “Is this the Guru Dakshina I missed in 1989?”  I did not understand what he intended by that line.  I brooded over it and got no clue.  By about nine in the evening, most guests had left and my wife and daughter were closeted with Mrs Cherian with our daughter providing the entertainment with her songs.  I was sitting with Mr Cherian enjoying a drink in the coconut grove and suddenly Mr Cherian said “Do you know why I did not come to your home to accept the Guru Dakshina?  It is not that I did not love you or adore you, but because my marriage has not been complete as the God has not blessed us with any children and that was the reason why Sheila had declined to come for the marriage.  Mr Varma being elder to me in age and having a complete family was the most suitable person to receive the Guru Dakshina”.  I just could not speak and our eyes became wet.  We both remained silent for the next five minutes and completed the drink.

Mr Cherian fetched another set of drinks and continued “I Married Sheila very well knowing that she would not bear any children for me, due to her gynecological condition. I wanted to set an example for my students by marrying the person I loved.  I never wanted my students to tell me that I ditched their teacher”. Tears rolled down my cheeks….

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Mr PT Cherian and Mrs Sheila Cherian on the extreme right.  Photo taken in 1969, courtesy  Mr Steve Rosson (in the middle), who taught at our school in 1969 as a Voluntary Service Overseas teacher from England.  Extreme Left is Mrs Mercy Mathai – our Matron when we joined school in 1971 – with Late Mr Mathai.  The children in the pic are Mathais – Robin and Reena.

Malabar and Tellicherry Pepper

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Grocery stores in Canada carry Malabar and Tellichery black pepper. Malabar, one can easily associate with pepper, but how come a small town Tellicherry in Kerala, India, has been associated with this spice.

Tellicherry is the name given by the British to Thalassery. The name originates from the Malayalam word Thala (Head) and Kacheri (Office), thus Thalassery or ‘head of offices’. The Europeans nicknamed the town Paris of Kerala, as it was in close proximity to the sole French military base in Kerala in that era. Later the French abandoned Thalassery and shifted their base to Mahé.

Thalassery had a unique geographical advantage as a trading center being the nearest point from the coast to the spice growing area of Wayanad. The trading center developed mainly after the 16th century when the British got permission to set up a factory in Thalassery from the local ruler. Various conflicts with the local chieftains prompted the British to build a fort in Thalassery. The local king gave the fort and adjoining land to the British in 1708. The fort was later modified and extended by the British East India Company. The king also gave permission to the British to trade pepper in Thalassery without paying duty. After the construction of the fort, Thalassery grew into a prominent trading center and a port in British Malabar. The British won absolute administrative authority over Malabar region after annexation of the entire Malabar region from Tipu Sultan in the Battle of Sree Rangapatnam. Thalassery thus became the capital of British North Malabar.

In 1797 The British East India Company established a spice plantation in Anjarakandy near Thalassery. In 1799 it was handed over to Lord Murdoch Brown with a 99-year lease. Coffee, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg were cultivated there. Anjarakandy cinnamon plantation was the world’s largest at that time. Construction of the Tellicherry Lighthouse in 1835 evidences the importance the British attached to the area.  The British East India Company built a new spice warehouse in 1863 and also established the first registrar office in South India at Anjarakandy in 1865, only to register the cinnamon plantation of Murdoch Brown.

Thalassery municipality was formed on 1 November 1866 according to the Madras Act of 1865 of the British Indian Empire, making it the second oldest municipality in the state. At that time the municipality was known as Thalassery Commission.

The Arab traders had monopolised pepper trade from the Malabar region from about 1500 BC. They sailed in boats through the Arabian Sea, hugging the coastline and reached Malabar and Travancore regions. From there they used the backwaters and the rivers to move inland. The Arabs sold the pepper procured from these regions in Egypt and Europe. Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BC.

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In order to dissuade the Europeans from sailing into the Malabar coast, the Arabs successfully spun many a stories and myths about black pepper. The most common story was that large many-headed serpents guarded the forests where pepper grew and the local people would set the forest on fire once the pepper ripened. The fire would drive away the serpents and people would gather the peppercorns before the serpents could return. The black colour of the pepper was due to burning.

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Trade interactions between the Arabs and the local Hindus from Malabar resulted in many marital alliances. Some Arab traders settled in the Malabar region and Islam flourished there as a result. Today the region is dominated by Muslims. In Kottayam, south of Malabar, spice trade was based on the backwaters and rivers with Thazhathangady (Lower Market) and Puthenangady (New Market) as trading posts established by the Arab traders. Wherever the Arabs established trading posts, Islam also flourished there.

The Cheramaan Juma Masjid at Methala,  near Kodungallur, Thrissur District of Kerala is said to have been built in 629 AD, which makes it the oldest mosque in the Indian subcontinent which is still in use.

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The Christians in the region believe that they were converted to Christianity from Hindus by St Thomas, one of Christ’s disciples in the first century, who might have traveled in one such ship.

Many Christians and Jews persecuted in Persia fled to Kerala in the Arab ships and settled along the coast. They were welcomed by the local Hindus with open arms. Fort Kochi area was known for its Jewish settlement and these Jews were called Malabar Jews and are the oldest group of Jews in India and settled there by the 12th century.  

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They built synagogues in the 12th century and are known to have developed Judeo-Malayalam, a dialect of Malayalam language.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam came to Kerala through trade. but these religions elsewhere in India mostly through the sword.

Peppercorns were a much-prized trade good, often referred to as ‘black gold‘ in Europe and used as a form of commodity money. The legacy of this trade remains in some Western legal systems which recognize the term ‘peppercorn rent‘ as a form of a token payment made for something that is in fact being given. Pepper was so valuable that it was often used as collateral or even currency. In the Dutch language, ‘pepper expensive‘ is an expression for something very expensive.

Its exorbitant price during the Middle Ages was one of the inducements which led the Portuguese to seek a sea route to India. In 1498, Vasco da Gama became the first person to sail to India by circumventing Africa. Gama returned in greater numbers soon after and Portuguese by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas gained exclusive rights to trade in black pepper in Malabar.

Pepper’s popularity quickly spread through world cuisines once more trade routes were established. At one time it accounted for a whopping 70 percent of the international spice trade. As it became more readily available, the prices dropped, and ordinary people were able to enjoy it. Regional cuisines began incorporating pepper into their foods alongside native spices and herbs.

Whatever may be the history of black pepper. it is still sold as Malabar or Tellichery pepper even though currently Vietnam is the world’s largest producer and exporter of pepper, producing 34% of the world’s requirements.