Reasonable Reasons

We attended the Junior Command Course at Mhow, India in 1993 and after the course went to our home at Kottayam, Kerala for a month’s vacation. In those days, we travelled on vacation by train and the journey took over 48 hours and two train changes at the most awkward hours of night.  You can imagine my plight with Marina and our two-year daughter Nidhi in tow, with paraphernalia of assorted baggage – in all sizes and shapes.

We reached home and my next ordeal was to get a return reservation from Kottayam to Delhi and onward to Jammu.  During summers, the seats in the trains from Kerala to anywhere in the country were lapped up the moment the reservation counters opened on the exact 60th day before the date of journey.  The only option for me was to contact our Member of Parliament, Mr Suresh Kurup, who always obliged with his emergency quota.  Mr. Kurup is well known for his soft corner and respect for all soldiers.

Armed with the allotment of Emergency Quota and my Warrant (Military form authorising travel by Indian Railways,) I reached Kottayam railway station.  At the reservation counter the booking clerk refused to book the seats – Why?  Our Regimental clerk had committed a grave sin!! He spelt KoTTayam with one T.

I contacted the Station Master and the Reservation Supervisor.  All expressed both sympathy and empathy a soldier deserved, but the cardinal sin of spelling KoTTayam with only one T, they could not condone.

While at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Tamizh Nadu, our nearest railway station (NRS) was Udumalaipettai – with one P and two Ts. In Thamizh and Hindi, it has two Ps, but in English only one – Any reasonable reasons?

 The town was known amongst the locals as (உடுமலை) Udumalai and all the buses boards read so.  The British called it Udumalpet and that too caught on, but no one ever used Udumalipettai, other than the Indian Railways and some Military clerk sitting in the remote border, preparing a warrant for a soldier from Udumalpet – counting the Ps and Ts.

When we filled our application for the National Defence Academy (NDA,) our teachers insisted that we spelt Udumalaipettai with the correct number of Ps and Ts as the Indian Railways insisted.

To return to the Regiment on time, the only option to me was to buy two tickets and claim the cost later from the Comptroller Defence Accounts (CDA.) I requested the Reservation Supervisor to block the seats until I either got a fresh warrant or bought the tickets by paying cash. He agreed saying that he got to finalise the reservation chart two days before the date of journey.  

I shot off a letter to our Adjutant, narrating my agony.  Major Ranjan Deb (now a Veteran Colonel,) an Aviator with an uncanny sense of humour was in chair and he despatched a soldier to Kottayam with a fresh warrant with two Ts for KoTTayam. Unfortunately, the soldier could reach Kottayam a day prior to my journey and by that time, I had to buy the tickets by paying cash.

On reaching the Regiment stationed in Jammu & Kashmir, I sent the forms for claiming the cost of the tickets to CDA, explaining the reasons as to why I had to buy the railway tickets by paying cash.  The reasons I stated appeared beyond reasonable doubt to the powers at the CDA, but how can they allow such a claim without raising any objection?  It will go against the ethos of the Accounts Department anywhere in India. 

My claim was approved in principle, but the CDA raised a query “How did the Officer and his wife make the onward journey from Jammu Tawi to Kottayam?”

Beyond reasonable doubt, Major Ranjan Deb promptly replied “By walking.”  In a week’s time my bank account was credited with full reimbursement for the cost of tickets.

Now let us fast forward to 2016.  Our family is in Canada – Marina, Nidhi, Nikhil and myself – all Canadian citizens. 

Nikhil decided to travel to Kolkata to serve in Mother Teresa’s Ashram for a month.  I said to him “If you find time, visit Veteran Colonel Ranjan Deb, our Regimental Officer who lives in Barrackpore.”  I had narrated many incidents about Colonel Deb, especially when he was our Battery Commander with 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River.) 

On a Wednesday, when Nikhil had a day off from Mother Theresa’s Ashram, he took a cab to Barrackpore.  Colonel Deb and Nikhil spend a day together and at the end of it Colonel Deb remarked “Reji, I spent a few hours with Nikhil. I was amazed at his all-round development at his age. No Indian student will be able to match up with Nikhil’s thought process. His education in Canada stands out distinctly. I am 63 and he is 19 years of age. I did not get bored for even a second of the six hrs we were together. Healthy engrossing discussion.

This is what is called Regimental spirit.  A kid, not born – why – not even planned while we served together, comes all the way from Canada to meet us – a Veteran Colonel and his wife.  What else can we ask for in life?  What other recognition do we need? He made our day!!”

Pocket Billiards

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The above is an image of our classmates from Sainik School Amaravathinagar, in front of the Cadets’ Mess at the National Defence Academy (NDA) during our reunion in December 2015.  The reunion was hosted by Vice Admiral Ashok Kumar, AVSM, VSM, then Commandant, NDA.  Everyone is standing with their hands off their pockets, a rarity in such images of today.  Most images one receives on the social media have men standing with their hands deep down their pant pockets.

My mind went back to our school days-from 1971 to 1979, to the times when a cadet with his hands in pockets, was taunted supposedly for playing Pocket Billiards.  At times they were queried as to which ball is winning – the Right or the Left one.  Owing to this rigorous discipline instilled during the formative years, even after 37 years since our graduation,   mere thought of putting one’s hands in pockets will never occur to our classmates; even in their wildest of dreams.

A detailed report on the reunion appears on my blog (Please Click here to read).   If you study all the photographs taken both at formal and informal events, you will hardly observe anyone playing ‘Pocket Billiards’.  It could all be courtesy the taunts our classmates received.  We did not even spare our teachers – especially the new entrants- from similar taunts.

Pocket Billiards is mostly a men’s problem.  This is not a sexist view point but a factual one.  Women rarely put their hands in their pockets, except perhaps on a cold, chilly day.  They generally do not enjoy the liberty of putting their hands in pockets mostly because their attire, even while wearing pants. Women’s pants generally come without pockets and even when they do, the pockets are too shallow to accommodate a whole hand.  Women’s pants or jeans are often too tight, thereby making it uncomfortable to shove their hands in.  Thus it remains mostly a masculine issue.

Why do men put their hands in pockets? Body language experts and psychologists have different takes on the issue. Is it that they are obsessed with their family treasures? Some experts opine that that there is a subconscious male urge to perpetually hold on to one’s genitals.   But holding on to one’s genitals in public is surely an indecent social display and the only way to be close to their genitals is by way of putting their hands in their pockets.  It could be that they are scared that their family treasures would fall off or someone would steal them!

‘Pocket Billiards’ by a speaker on a podium is sure to distract and also put off the audience.  Such speakers do not know what to do with their hands and try to find places to hide them and this leads to Pocket Billiards. This body language theory is sometimes contradicted by some world famous orators who can hold the audience spell bound, with one of their hands remaining in the pocket.  It becomes somewhat obscene when Pocket Billiards is accompanied with a posture of legs wide apart and hips thrust forward. Even so, some psychologists opine that this combination is a confident gesture of the dominant male who wants to tell others around who the boss is. Whatever the theory, it is not a pleasant sight to behold!

One of the most evolved part of human anatomy is our hand – with the wrist, palm and the five fingers.  The relationship between our hands and our brain has been well established by scientists.  In fact, our hands have become another communication tool.

We salute when we meet a superior officer in the military and we shake hands when we meet someone.  All these greetings are done with the open palm and has been associated with truth, honesty, allegiance and submission.  Many oaths are still taken with the palm over the heart, or over a holy book.  In the olden days, it was to show that you are unarmed and therefore not a threat and from there evolved various salutes and handshakes.

Most common body language theory is that hiding our hands is an instinctive reaction to nervousness while keeping our hands out in the open indicates confidence and also that we have nothing to hide.  Pocket Billiards tends to encourage slouching and that is why the militaries around the world have strictly forbidden it, even while off-parade.

Many men feel that they project a cool and confident look with their hands in their pockets without realising that the converse is the truth. More often than not, they project a nervous look, without knowing what to do with their hands.  Some psychologists suggest that the habit also demonstrates unwillingness, mistrust and reluctance and is often associated with liars. Be careful, everyone with hands in their pockets need not necessarily be a liar. It may just be a biological need to ward off the cold. Some experts also feel that pocket billiards is merely indicative of a person’s desire to listen rather than speak. Some even differentiate between one hand and both hands in the pocket. Theories abound but the general consensus is that the habit is one of negative body language and needs to be got over.

How to get over the Pocket Billiards syndrome? Like most good habits and bad ones too, they all begin at home.  Children take on to it seeing their parents or other adults doing it.  By putting your hands in the pockets, you are surely setting a bad example for your children.  In case you observe a child putting his hands in pockets, it is best to explain and make him understand that with his hands in the open, he would look smarter and more confident than otherwise.  Teachers at schools also have a similar role to ensure that their students do not end up playing Pocket Billiards. Friends and peers are the best to help you out of this dreadful habit.  Our classmates, both in the military and civil life, are a sure testimony to this.  Another option is to stitch down your front pockets or pin it close.  You can always use the back pockets to store your wallet or cell phone.

One needs to pay attention to one’s hands and ensure that they are clean, hygienic and presentable.  Make sure to rub a cream or lotion and also a sanitizer on your hands prior to meeting anyone or while going to a gathering.  Ensure that you consciously use gestures that will get your message across to those that will help you build alliances and influence people.  With your hands in your pockets, you would mostly end up as an ugly duckling.

Bill of Fare

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Many of our classmates take time off their busy schedule to attend the Alumni meeting at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, held during the last weekend of June.  Many undertake this pilgrimage to their Alma-Mater purely  to relive their childhood and partake of for the tea and food the school mess served.  The menu was based on a weekly ‘Bill of Fare’ which hung on the notice board of the mess.  The only variation during our entire stay at the school (1971-1979) was the date on the top and the name of the vegetable served, mostly based on seasonal availability.

The senior cadets (Grade 8 to 12) were divided into four houses – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava- named after the ancient Tamil Kingdoms.  We along with the teaching staff dined on tables which were also placed house-wise.  The waiters were permanent and they served us with love and affection.  They formed an integral part of each house.  They would be the cheer-leaders for most of the inter-house sports competitions and would slip an extra piece of meat or an egg in case we won a competition.

The Cheras were served by Natarajan who was better known as the local banker.  He also reared cows and sold the milk to enhance his income and his banking operations.  The Cholas were served by Vasu who was more of a neatness freak.  He realised the need for education and got his daughters through graduation who are well settled now.  The Pandyas had Venkatachalam, the most vociferous of all and also the most active.  The Pallavas had Madhavan, who despite his bout with asthma, never allowed his sickness to interfere with his job.

We were served ground pork curry with bread for dinner on the first Friday of every month.  The meat came from the Yorkshire Pigs the school farm reared.  Many cadets on joining the school were reluctant to eat pork due to religious reasons and also because they had never tasted it before.  As the school years went by, many shed their herbivorous status (other than the real hardcore ones) in favour of an omnivorous one.  The very same pork curry, with all its flavours intact, is served to the members of the Alumni and their families during the Alumni meet.  Everyone, including little children of the Alumni look forward to this dinner.

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We were served with tea at 5:30 in the morning, before Physical Training.  During the long recess at 11′ o clock it was again tea with biscuits and in the evening before games it was tea and snacks.  The taste of this tea is beyond words, and could never be replicated.  We tried hard to analyse the secret of this addictive tea – it could be the tea leaves, could be the Amaravathi waters, could be the vessel in which it was brewed, could be the cloth used to filter it – the possibilities were endless.  It remains a mystery to all of us to date, but it attracts most alumni to the school every year and they gleefully indulge in consuming cups of this divine tea.

Breakfast for us was mostly continental with bread, butter, jam and eggs on all weekdays.  On Saturdays it was Idli-Sambar-Chutney and on Sundays it was Dosa.

The Bill of Fare began with Monday and it was the day we were served fish curry and rice for lunch and mutton curry with roti for dinner.  The dessert for dinner used to be fruit custard.

Mysore-Pak which owes its origin to the Royal Palace at Mysore, was served on Tuesdays.  It was rock-hard indeed, but it melted in the mouth sweetly.  It was a concoction of ghee, sugar and gram flour.  The sweet added colour to the drab vegetarian dinner we had on Tuesdays.

We all awaited the fried Tilapia fish served for lunch on Wednesdays.  The fish came from the catch of the day at the Amaravathi Dam, co-located with the school campus. What made it very special? Was it the way it was marinated or crispiness of the fried fish or its unique freshness? Indeed it was the very best of all fried fish – it could any day compete with my mother’s fish fry at home.

When I got married, we established our first home at Devlali, Maharashtra.  During our settling down days, Marina said she intended to make Dosa on the coming Sunday and she inquired as to what I wanted with it.  My most relished combination with Dosa was chicken masala which was served for Thursdays’ dinner at the school mess.  “What an unpalatable combination?” was Marina’s reply.  I told her that the Dosa (3 to 5 mm thick) made on a granite griddle, served with chicken masala was the best combination for Dosa that I had ever had.  She did not believe me until we relished it that Sunday evening.

Dosa, a thin pancake, is made from a batter of ground lentils and rice.  Its origin can be traced back to the Tamil Brahmins, who are strict vegetarians.  The batter is fermented overnight and is poured over an oil-coated hot granite griddle like a crepe and turned over to cook both sides.  The modern version of the crispy, paper-thin variety is rather a deviation from its original.  Some restaurants in South India still serve the original thick Dosa and is called Kallu (Stone) Dosa.

Fish cutlet was the specialty for Friday Lunch.  The main ingredient again was the fresh Tilapia from the Amaravathi Dam.  The secret recipe for this cutlet still remains unsolved – even our classmate Vijaya Bhaskaran, Executive Chef at Le Meridian, Bangalore, has failed to replicate it.   Jalebi was the dessert for the dinner, which owes its origin to Arabia and was brought to India by Persian traders.

Saturday was the movie day and hence we were served dinner early.  It was Biryani – either chicken or mutton – but what every cadet looked forward to was the sweet dish.  It was Khaja – a delicious flaky pastry, shaped out of a layered dough and dipped in sugar syrup.

One can very well imagine the effort taken by the mess staff for ensuring that quality and taste of food served to the cadets is of a high standard and they need to be commended for their care and culinary skills. The fact that one of the key attractions for most Alumni to get back to the Alma Mater is the food being served, says it all.

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Post Script
:  I dedicate this post to Mr Venkatachalam, our waiter of Pandya House, who passed away on  11 August 2016.  He will remain in the hearts of all those who were served by him, with all his love, affection and dedication, in Pandya House.  Our friends from Pandya House will remember him for ever.

Academy Drill Instructors

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Drill is the bedrock of discipline” and the Drill square is often compared to a potter’s yard, wherein clay of various hues and textures are shaped into commendable works of art; each piece unique in itself and yet part of a whole. Passing the Drill Square Test (DST) entitles every cadet to the two ‘Ls’ he craves for; the Lanyard and Liberty. Here the ‘Liberty’ is a pass to go out of the Academy on a Sunday.

Every Defence Service Officer would always remember their Drill Instructors – the Havildar Majors (Sergeant Majors) and Subedars (Warrant Officers) – who taught them the basics of drill. These Drill Instructors have to constantly maintain a high standard of military bearing and a super intense level of performance while they are training Officer Cadets. They are always under the microscopic eye of the Cadets.   They are in a competitive environment against other Drill Instructors of other Squadrons/ Companies to ensure that their Squadron/ Company emerge as champions at drill in the Academy competitions.

Above all, they take on a huge challenge to accomplish, making soldiers out of raw teenagers, coming from different parts of the country, speaking different languages (I could hardly understand Hindi when I joined the Academy), from different family/educational backgrounds.

There is a lot of prestige associated with being a Drill Instructor at the Academy. The training to become a Drill Instructor is tough and the job has long hours and can be extremely demanding. These Instructors, mostly from the Infantry Battalions, are real go-getters and are always looking for opportunities to push themselves. It is one of the highest honours a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO)of the Indian Army can get. Only the most qualified NCOs are chosen to attend Drill Instructor Course and from them the cream is selected to be appointed at the Academies.

The Drill Instructors train the Cadets under the watchful eyes of the Drill Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer) and the Adjutant of the Academy has the overall responsibility for the Drill Training.

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Our course-mates stationed at Mumbai organised a get together on 26 February 2016, to honour our Drill Subedar Major(SM), now Honorary Captain Ghuman Sinh. He was the first Drill SM when we joined the Academy and he was the best Drill SM I have come across in life. As a cadet both at the National Defence Academy (NDA) and at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), I had seen a few more, but he was easily the best. He had a roaring thunderous voice at the Drill-Square, but had the softest tone elsewhere. He had mesmerisingly penetrating blood-shot eyes at the Drill-Square, which metamorphosed into large pools of kindness when outside the square. He was surely a soldier to the hilt, perfect with his drill and above all a great Guru.

SM Ghuman Sinh never believed in punishments. At times we got late for the Drill class by virtue of previous class getting delayed and our drill instructors got into the act of punishing us for being late. SM Ghuman Sinh would reprimand these drill instructors saying “These Cadets do not deserve punishments as they are not responsible for the delay. Treat them like your sons and teach them Drill.”

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One Sunday morning, cycling my way to the Church, (the route was through the Drill Instructors’ Quarters), I met a soft-spoken, humane person, dressed in his civvies, waiting with the NDA cycle near the church. He inquired as to where I was off all alone in a hurry. I said I was off to the church and the mass was to commence in about ten minutes. This person I knew from his bearing and being with the NDA cycle was a Drill Instructor and he spoke to me with a lot of compassion, care and love ( for NDA Cadets, it’s a rare experience). At the end of the conversation, I bid goodbye to him and assuming that he might be a recently posted Drill Instructor, my last question  was – “By the way who are you?” The man said “I am your Drill SM Ghuman Sinh”. I just could not believe my ears and eyes, as the man in the civvies was really humane and I had seen him only in his military uniform until then.

At the NDA, in Echo Squadron, we had Subedar Kalyan Chand from the Dogra Regiment as the chief Drill Instructor with Regimental Havildar Major Karnail Singh Chauhan from the Para Commandos as his deputy. They were really good at their job, thoroughly professional and real hard-task masters.

Two years after my Academy Training, as a Lieutenant, I was leading the Artillery Brigade Athletic team for a competition at Dehradun. On reaching the ground for the march-past, I realised that a button was about to come off my blazer and I needed a needle and thread to fasten it. I looked around and saw SM Kalyan Chand there. He, a roaring salute, me, a bear hug! I then requested him for the much needed needle and thread. The service came in no time, but SM Kalyan Chand insisted on fixing the button himself. He said that it would be a matter of honour for him to do the favours for his cadet. I was pleasantly taken aback by his kind gesture.

In 1990, our Regiment moved to Udhampur and was co-located with a Para Commando Battalion. An officer from the battalion was my neighbour and while conversing with him he said that their SM was Karnail Singh Chauhan. Next day I walked into the SM’s office and he could immediately recognise me. He introduced me to all the Havildar Majors of his battalion who had assembled there as “My Cadet at the NDA, now a Major in the neighbouring Artillery Regiment.” After that the two units developed such a great rapport that they would help each other with troops, vehicles and other resources whenever needed.

Our classmates’ from the 1979 batch of Sainik School Amaravathinagar had a reunion at the NDA on 22 December 2015.  It  commenced with the wreath laying ceremony at the Hut of Remembrance, to pay homage to the martyred officers, who had passed out of NDA. The solemn ceremony was an acknowledgement of the courage, valour and sacrifice of those who served the country. The ceremony had a patriotic impact on everyone present, especially the children.

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The Drill Instructors (Havildar Majors) provided an excellent ceremonial guard for the occasion. At the end of the ceremony, I thanked them and spoke to them to say that the Drill Instructors at the Academies are the most blessed lot of Gurus as they are the only ones to see their wards placed above them on completion of training under them. Hence, they are doing the most divine job and must always strive to impart the best Drill education to the cadets.

 

The Atheist

The first atheist I came across in my life was Mr MV Somasundaram (MVS). He taught us Tamil in Grade 6, Social Studies in Grade 7, English in Grade 8, History in Grade 9 and Civics in Grade 10. He was as versatile as the subjects he taught and had good grasp of all the subjects. He was a very soft spoken man, who hardly ever raised his voice. His son Aravazhi was our classmate.

During our days at Sainik School Amaravathinagar, we always said grace before every meal, to thank God for all what we were to receive and after the meals for what we did receive. While in Grade 7, I noticed that Mr Somasundaram always remained seated when the grace was said. On enquiry, Sunder, my friend said that he was an atheist. I looked up the dictionary to find the meaning of the word as I had never heard it before.

Mr Somasundaram was a rationalist and was against all superstitions that plagued the society. He believed that undue importance was given to religion in our day-to-day lives. He neither forced his viewpoints on to anyone nor did he try to influence his students with his ideals and principles. Needless to say, I did not become an atheist, but the seeds of rationalism were sown by Mr Somasundaram.

Mr Somasundaram subscribed to Viduthalai (Freedom), a Tamil newspaper and the mouth piece of Dravida Kazhagam (DK). (As per his son that he still continues to subscribe to it.) It was delivered to him by the postman and he always brought it to our class. Once in a while he left it half open on the teacher’s table and I had the opportunity to steal a few glances at it. It had a few different letters of the Tamil alphabet, especially in its title, which stood out. I again took the help of Sundar for further details. Sundar explained to me about Viduthalai newspaper and that the great Periyar was Mr Somasundaram’s mentor and the raison d’être for his atheism.

Today Mr Somasundaram is leading a retired life and lives in Chennai with his son Aravazhi. He can be contacted at 944 293 6769. So much for the protégé. Now a bit more about his mentor.

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Erode Venkata Ramasamy (1879 – 1973), affectionately called Periyar by his followers, was a social activist, politician and businessman, who started the Self-Respect Movement in South India. A rationalists who aroused the people to realise that all men are equal and it is the birthright of every individual to enjoy liberty, equality and fraternity. He propagated that the so called men of religion invented myths and superstitions to keep the innocent and ignorant people in darkness. He was an atheist, noted for his anti theistic statement, “He who created God was a fool, he who spreads his name is a scoundrel, and he who worships him is a barbarian.”

Viduthalai was started in 1935 by Periyar as a magazine. It grew into a daily newspaper by 1937. The newspaper aimed to create a rational, secular and democratic society, and also to fight superstition. The script used in the publication was in keeping with the need to cope with the developing printing technology. Periyar thought that it was sensible to change a few letters, reduce the number of letters, and alter a few signs. He further explained that the older and the more divine a language and its letters were said to be, the more they needed reform.

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Soon after MG Ramachandran (MGR) became the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu in 1978, all ideas of Periyar on the changes and modification of Tamil alphabets were accepted. An act was passed in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in 1978, bringing the changes into effect. These modifications have made Tamil as the first Indian language to be adapted for computerisation, obviously, due to the reduced number of alphabets.

After the act was passed and the ‘Viduthalai’ font became the standard Tamil font, we had an open house forum at our school to discuss its implications. The forum was an open discussion, led by Mr Somasundaram and moderated by Squadron Leader Manickavasagam, our then Headmaster. The students in attendance were from Grades 9 to 11. During the discussion, Mr Somasundaram made a scathing attack on Hindu religion. He said that when State Bank of India opened its branch in Amaravathinagar, only our school Principal, Colonel AC Thamburaj and the school band were in attendance for the inauguration, whereas, when a branch of the Ganapathy Temple was inaugurated in the bus-stand, the public were dancing. He cited this as a reason for the country not achieving the desired progress.

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Some teachers in the audience objected to Mr Somasundaram’s statement and wanted him to withdraw it, but he stood firm. Our Headmaster retrieved the situation by saying that everyone in the audience were mature enough to draw their conclusions and there was nothing objectionable in the statement. I thought that Mr Somasundaram was right and the situation and the public’s attitudes have not changed ever since.

Periyar came into national prominence with the Vaikom Sathyagraha, a nonviolent protest movement to secure temple entry rights and access to temple roads for people of all castes in Vaikom, a small principality of the then princely state of Travancore (now in Kerala). Periyar came to Vaikom in April 1924 and was arrested by the Travancore Police, but he was unrelenting and the satyagraha movement gained strength. Mahatma Gandhi, on an invitation from Rajaji, went to Vaikom and began talks with the Queen of Travancore where it was agreed that the police pickets would be removed. The styagraha resulted in Sree Chithira Thirunal, the Travancore ruler, signing the Temple Entry Proclamation in 1936, allowing everyone entry into the temples.

Periyar created Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) in 1944 from the Justice Party. DK became a non-political socio-cultural movement, which it remains till date, though comparatively inactive. The members were asked to give up the posts, positions and titles conferred by the British rulers. They were also required to drop the caste suffix of their names.

Periyar declared that 15 August 1947, when India became politically free, was a day of mourning because the event marked, in his opinion, only a transfer of power from the British to the upper castes. Though he had basic differences with Mahatma Gandhi, Periyar was terribly grieved when Gandhi fell a victim to an assassin’s bullets on January 30, 1948. He even suggested on the occasion that India should be renamed as Gandhi Nadu.

Annadurai, Karunanidhi and MGR, who were with Periyar in the DK movement, had political aspirations and wanted a share in running the government. They were looking for an opportunity to part ways with Periyar. At the ripe old age of 70, in 1948, Periyar married 30 year old Maniammai. Many led by Annadurai quit DK stating that Periyar had set a bad example by marrying a woman much younger to him in his old age. They formed the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949. To my mind, one can hardly fault Periyar for marrying a young woman. Perhaps, at the age of 70 he was still young at heart! He went on to live a quarter century more, continuing his social reform movement.

In 1970, UNESCO in recognition of his efforts cited him as “the Prophet of the New Age, the Socrates of South East Asia, Father of Social Reform Movement, and Arch enemy of ignorance, superstitions, meaningless customs and base manners.”

Cross Country Race

The first cross-country  race (Marathon in North America), I ran was as a Grade 5 student at Sainik (Military) School Amaravathinagar. It was a 5 km run along the base of the Western Ghats on the North side of the school. With every passing year, the distance increased. with it the difficulty. On joining the National Defence Academy (NDA), the cross country race became a ritual in every semester (half-year) and thus I ran six races in three years of about 14 km. During the first 10 years of service in the Army, I ran seven races. On reaching Canada, I ran two such races, in support of charitable causes.

Running a marathon is one of the largest physical challenges you can set, often it is more of a mental challenge – the mental strength to complete the race despite the panting, tiredness and pains. It results in an accomplishment every time, irrespective of your age. It does not matter even if you are the last, you are part of an elite club of people that have completed the race successfully.

At the NDA, the cross country race was more of a team event. The Squadron which won the trophy every semester claimed more bragging rights than the cadet who came first or second. It was a matter of pride for the cadets that their Squadron did well and hence every cadet put their heart, soul and body into doing well at the race.

The practice for the race at NDA began nearly a month prior with all cadets running a full race almost every evening and morning on Sundays and holidays. The final race was on a Sunday morning, starting at the famous Glider Dome and ending there. One witnessed cadets completing the race despite physical injuries – a cadet finished the race after he fractured his leg halfway. There have been many cadets running the race with fever. All to ensure that they do not bring in negative points for their Squadron and let the team down.

In 1987, our Regiment was located in Gurgaon near Delhi and we formed part of the Brigade stationed at Meerut – about 50 km from Delhi. Cross country race was a closely contested competition among the regiments and our unit had the rare distinction of winning it for the previous five years. 1987 was the final year at Gurgaon as the unit had received its move order to the Kashmir Valley.

Our Commanding Officer, Colonel Mahaveer Singh called Late Captain Pratap Singh, Maha Vir Chakra and self to his office in March 1987 and briefed us that we had to win the cross country competition for him. We both were Captains then and by virtue of being the senior, I became the team captain. Among young subalterns, one was away on a training course and the other admitted in the Military Hospital.

The team to be fielded for the competition was to consist of one officer and 15 soldiers. We started practicing for the race – two officers and 20 soldiers. Every morning at 5 we were picked up from our residence and the team used to be dropped off about 20 km from the regimental location. Now everyone had no option but to run back to the regiment. The faster one did it, lesser the agony.

After a month’s practice, we decided to move to Meerut a week before the race to carry out a few practices there. The race was scheduled for 11 April, Saturday to commence at 6 AM. The day we had planned to leave, Pratap’s mother took seriously ill and he had to hospitalise her and take care of her. I told Pratap to reach Meerut by Thursday evening the latest.

As Pratap had not practiced for the last week, I had made up my mind to run the race. Pratap landed up in Meerut on his motorbike on Thursday evening. On Friday I showed him the route and told him to be stand-by.

In the evening we reached the Officers’ Mess for dinner and all the young officers participating in the race were there. Seeing the senior Captains set to run the race, Lieutenant Atul Mishra wanted to know as to who amongst us was running the race. Pratap said that the person who woke up first woke up the other and the latter will run the race. Everyone believed it as the same was narrated by Atul after a decade.

After the race, I received the trophy from the Brigade Commander and after a few minutes there was Pratap with his motorbike asking me to get on to the pillion. We rode off and as I was too tired, I hugged on to him and slept off. I woke up only on reaching our regimental location after over an hour of drive.

We handed over the trophy to Colonel Mahaveer, who appreciated us for the efforts and wanted to know where the rest of the team was. Pratap said “Please do not come out with your clichéd question as to who is commanding the unit, I have ordered them to relax at Meerut for the next two days and also to visit the Nauchandi Mela“, Colonel Mahaveer passed his unique smile as a sign of approval for Pratap’s actions.

Nauchandi Mela is held every year at Meerut in April-May. It is a rare symbol of communal harmony with Hindu and Muslim shrines – Nauchandi temple and the Dargah (shrine) of Muslim saint, Bala Mian. Visitors pay obeisance at both the shrines irrespective of the religion they belong to.  The mela, which originally brought sellers and buyers of utensils and domestic animals together, now includes various kinds of goods, entertainment and food.

Colonel Mahaveer had a knack of delegation and had immense trust in all of us. He always encouraged the young officers to be decisive and whenever we goofed it up, he always held our hands and took the responsibility for our actions.

Linguists

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In 1971, after the anti-Hindi agitation that raged through Tamil Nadu, I joined Sainik School Amaravathinagar in the state then known as Madras.   The school almost resembled any British Military School as all the military words of command were in English like “Attention” and “Stand-at-Ease”. There I started to learn Tamil and also English and Hindi.

Tamil is one of the longest surviving classical languages in the world and the script has only 18 consonants unlike Devnagari script which has about 37 consonants. When Devnagari script has क, ख, ग, घ (ka, kha, ga, gha), Tamil has only க (ka) and similarly for the other corresponding consonants. All the other South Indian languages namely Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu follow their own script similar to the Devnagari script. Further these three languages unlike Tamil, have a lot of Sanskrit vocabulary. Hence learning of Hindi or any Devnagari script based language becomes difficult for a Tamil in comparison to the people from the other states.

After the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, the Official Languages Act was amended in 1967 by the Indian Government to guarantee the indefinite use of Hindi and English as official languages. This effectively ensured the current bilingualism and use of English in education in India. This bilingualism has helped the Indians to a great extent in ensuring acceptance all over the world.

Hindi as a national language was not accepted all over India due to the implementation issues. The Hindi Pundits coined many a difficult terms to replace commonly used English terms. Many of the terms coined were not even accepted by the Hindi speaking population. Lot of money and efforts were pumped in by the government for the enhanced use of Hindi as an official language, but it never had any results other than a few Members of Parliament making a foreign sojourn to study the use of Hindi in some country or the other and the practise still continues.

To further make the matter worse, all forms were printed in both Hindi and English and so also all the government publications. This resulted in higher production costs without serving any purpose. While serving in the Indian Army, I recommended all my subordinates to read and understand the pamphlet ‘Glossary of Military Terms’. The pamphlet was printed in Hindi on the left page and English on the right. I also used to advise them to read the Hindi side whenever they got bored – the Hindi equivalents were hilarious and many a times grossly incorrect.

In our school the English department was headed by Mr KG Warrier and the Tamil department by Mr M Selvaraj. Both of them were strong linguists and always ensured that they spoke the language with purity in that when they spoke, they always used only one language. Both had excellent communication skills and were near perfect in their pronunciations. Both of them never taught me at school, but I had extensively interacted with them during various extra-curricular activities.

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(Mr KG Warrier with our Class-mate AP Sunil Kumar at Kottakkal.  The photo is of 2013 when Mr Warrier turned 90)

Mr KG Warrier hails from the family of world renowned Ayurveda Physicians of Kottakkal in Kerala. He is currently enjoying his retired life at Kottakkal. He is staying with his daughter, Rathi. The Warrier community connected to the Vaidya Sala stay at ‘Kailasa Mandiram’ in the Vaidya Sala premises at Kottakkal, Malappuram District, Kerala.

His specialty was that he dressed in his starched and pressed cotton pants and shirt, wear a felt hat and hold a pipe in his hands. I was always intrigued as to how he managed to maintain the crease of his pants perfect even at the end of the day.

A few days before leaving school to join the National Defence Academy I met Mr KG Warrier and he asked me in Tamil as to when I was joining the academy and how the preparations were progressing. My answer was in the usual ‘mixed language’ of Tamil, Malyalam and English. To this he said “உனக்கு தமிழும் தெரியாது, மலையாளவும் தெரியாது, ஆங்கிலவும் தெரியாது. உனக்கு என்ன தெரியும்? (You do not know Tamil or Malayalam or English. What do you know?)”.

I still recollect a few words of advice Mr KG Warrier had given us.  He said that everyone should always carry and use three books – a Dictionary, an Atlas and a Wren & Martin Grammar book.  At the beginning of each year at the school, these were the first set of three books we were issued with.  Later on during my army service I did carry these three books.  Nowadays with the power of the internet with browsing tools like the Google, most information is at one’s fingertips and these three books have become almost extinct.

Mr M Selvaraj was well known for his voice and his oratory skills which were showcased during all the cultural programmes at the school. His orations in both Tamil and English will be remembered by all his students. I was very curious as to how he managed to handle the two languages independently and so effectively. During my final year in school, I did manage to summon enough courage and asked Mr M Selvaraj about the secret.

Mr M Selvaraj said that when he joined the school he had very little grasp of English having done his Masters degree in Tamil. Major MMR Menon, then Headmaster of the school had advised him that to be a successful teacher in a school like this, mastery over English would go a long way. So with reluctance he approached Mr KG Warrier, but was surprised when Mr KG Warrier accepted to be his Guru and thus he started to learn English. He ended the chat by saying “the English I speak is all what Mr KG Warrier and Ms Sheela Cherian had taught me like any student who graduated under these great teachers.

Mr M Selvaraj left our school in 1987 to be the first Principal of Navodaya Vidyalaya at Mahe. After establishing the school, he moved as the Principal of Navodaya Vidyalaya at Pondichery and now leads a retired life in Trichy.

After leaving the school, I always tried to complete a sentence in one language and many a times I did fail. After joining the army, I picked up Hindi. Luckily for me, I served mostly with the Brahmin soldiers from North India and that helped me improve my Hindi to a great extent. Now with Hindi also joining the bandwagon of languages in my mind, maintaining purity of language became near impossible.

Hats-off to all those Tamil news readers in any television channels, they speak pure Tamil only and would use another language vocabulary only in case it is unavoidable.

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Poor Banian or a Wife Beater

One day our teenaged son came up to me and asked me if he could borrow my ‘Wife Beater.’ I lost all my balance and composure and I told him that I neither ever had beaten their mother nor ever intend to do so. I stopped short of telling him that the idea did sprout in my mind a few times, but good senses always prevailed over my impulse. Our son understood my predicament and explained that he wanted the sleeveless white vest I used to wear while in India. Hardly seen anyone wearing it in Canada; could be something to do with the weather and reduced perspiration level.

Our son explained that in the TV show ‘COPS‘ had a lot do with the creation of this word. Every time they showed a guy getting arrested for beating his wife, he was shown wearing one of those sleeveless vests.

Some say that in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan, when police arrested a local man (James Hartford, Jr.) for beating his wife to death, the local news stations aired the arrest and elements of the case for months after, constantly showing a picture of Hartford, Jr, when he was arrested, wearing a vest and constantly referring to him as ‘the wife beater.

I always marveled the simple in design white sleeveless vest for all the services it rendered. It never even cared where it ended up after its owner threw it out after clinging to his skin and exploiting it to the hilt. They mostly ended up as a shoe-shining cloth, a mop, a duster, etc. Why should someone discard such good quality pure white cotton cloth?

I never understood why any more layers than absolutely necessary are worn in a hot climate, but I always felt that it absorbed the sweat. It absorbed the sweat, got wet, making me feel a bit uncomfortable at times, but it always stopped the passage of the sweat to the outer layer of the Olive Green (OG) Uniform. The white salt left on the shirt after the sweat dried up was rather un-soldierly. My skin never felt comfortable touching the thick clothed OG shirt. The poor banian maintained an impregnable gap between my skin and the thick shirt.

Some of my friends in the Army wore a banian with sleeves. I always preferred the sleeveless version to avoid ‘Sunday is longer than Monday‘ syndrome. This happens when you wear a short sleeved shirt or T shirt, under which you have worn a sleeved banian and the sleeve of the banian creeps out of the shirt sleeve.

On joining Sainik School Amaravathinagar (TN) at the age of nine, my box had a dozen banians. We had to wear the banian for the morning Physical Training (PT). The aim was to observe the physical development of the body and to ensure that there were no skin infections. This practice of wearing the banian for PT continued on to the National Defence Academy (NDA) and the Indian Military Academy (IMA), till I was commissioned as an officer, after which I started wearing the white T-shirt as was the practice for all officers. The men still wore the faithful banian for PT. I still enjoyed the banian clinging to my skin and ensured that I had it on at all times.

My sahayak (helper) in the regiment was Sepoy Hukum Chand, who served me with at most dedication, love and care. He was my accountant, my personnel assistant, my bodyguard, my radio operator, my buddy in all aspects. He ensured everything for me – from when I got up, my morning tea, my cigarettes, my uniform, my room, my wardrobe, my outfit for the evening party etc. This continued for long seven years until seven year itch erupted – I got married and Hukum Chand refused to be dictated to as to what dress I wore for the evening party. My wife did not approve the suit Hukum Chand had chosen for me to wear that evening as it did not match her saree. My wife won and Hukum Chand lost.

Sepoy Hukum Chand had observed my keenness to wear the banian at all times and every six months he bought a dozen of them from the regimental canteen (he paid for it with my money as he was my accountant and I had no clue about the expenses). On enquiring as to why he bought new banians every six months, he told me that they become yellow on washing repeatedly in brackish water used by the waherman. He used to snip off the shoulder straps and cut open the trunk and it became a shining cloth for him to polish the leather boots and the belt and also the brass badges of rank. He said that the yellow shining-cloth available at the regimental canteen left yellow lint on the OG uniform and the black boots and looked awesome and he had to put in extra effort to clean-up after polishing. Used and many-time washed white banian was best suited for it and one did not have to pay to buy the shining-cloth – What a costly saving?  He had the thin cloth for the leather boots and belt and the thicker ones for the brass.

After five years of postings on staff and various long courses, I returned to the regiment at Sikkim as a Battery Commander. Sepoy Sri Chand was this time assigned as my Sahayak and Hukum Chand was by then promoted to the rank of a Havildar. A few days after I rejoined the unit, Havildar Hukum Chand came to my bunker while I was having my afternoon siesta and started admonishing Sepoy Sri Chand as he had not maintained the Saheb’s bunker as per standard. Hukum Chand started advising Sri Chand about my likes and dislikes, my preference of tea, food, clothes, cigarette, etc. At the end he said “Saheb likes wearing a banian at all times, even while he is sleeping.” That was the time I observed that I was sleeping in my favourite lungi-banian. He added that I preferred wearing the thick banian under the uniform and the thin ones under the civil dress. A preference I never had and may have been cultivated by Hukum Chand to ensure that he had a constant supply of thin and thick cloth for polishing the leather and the brass.

Many a times your preferences and habits are not self-developed, but thrust upon you by the environment.