Homecoming

We all love seeing the images and videos of a surprise homecoming on YouTube, especially of US/ Canadian soldiers. Our eyes fill with tears when we watch those videos featuring service members being welcomed home by their loved ones. A picture of a dad in uniform holding his baby for the very first time, how can you not be emotional? Yet only those of us who have actually been on the other side of the camera know that while homecomings are fabulous in their own right, they can also present some unique, and often many surprising challenges.

For all those watching those soldiers’ homecoming videos, it will raise your feeling of patriotism and respect for those in uniform, who sacrifice a lot and how these soldiers and their families miss each other. 

Have you ever tried to fathom the stress of these soldiers and their families?

It was more like a deep-sea divers’ decompression chamber when I suddenly appeared in front of our home’s porch, a journey which had commenced 72 hours earlier from a bunker at 12,000 feet above sea level in Kashmir or Sikkim, ending at Kottayam, merely 10 feet above sea level.  It took me time to accept that I was safely home, to be with my loved ones, breathing that air I breathed in my childhood.

It took some time to accept the new reality, that I was not in an intense and life-threatening combat zone, but in the protective nest of my mother. It did cause its own share of stress, anxiety, and fear – both to my family members and to me.

The extent of my stress was related to the dangers I faced while deployed, the length of time I was away from home, and was worsened if I had lost any soldiers or any of them were injured – both due to enemy action or due to vagaries of weather. The other fear was of being unaware of the changes in family dynamics, the neighbours, close relatives and so on. Being unaware of the increase or decrease of animals and fowls at home too added to the stress.

It was always a sigh of relief for the entire family, especially my mother as she always heaved a long sigh of relief and rushed to thank God for bringing her son home safely.  Her first sentence often was “Why did you write home that you will be home next week?  I always knew you will come before.”  All these while our father kept a stoic silence to break it to say, “Welcome home.”

Above is a statue of homecoming of a sailor to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Navy, and was unveiled on 04 May 2010 at Victoria, capital of British Columbia.

It all commenced when I joined Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar in Thamizh Nadu.  Travel home on vacation was a one day ordeal owing to poor rail/ road connectivity of India in 1970’s.  I wrote a letter home a fortnight before about my impending travel plans and reached home safely as we friends travelled in a group.  While in grade 8, my eldest brother said, “Never write the correct date of your arrival; always give a date a few days or a week later as Amma gets very stressed, thinking that you are on a train, you may miss a connection, you may not get good food and so on.” 

I followed his advice sincerely till my last homecoming from Canada.  I never gave the exact date of my arrival and in many cases never informed anyone about my travel plans.

In 2015, I flew into Kochi Airport and took a taxi home.  While in the taxi, I called my eldest brother and he said, “How far away from home are you?”  “Will be home in 45 minutes,” I replied.

My brother announced “Reji will be home in 45 minutes. Get lunch ready for him.”

My mother totally surprised and thrilled exclaimed “Which Reji? Our Reji, I spoke to him in Canada yesterday.  How can he be home in 45 minutes?”

After lunch, I asked my brother as to how he made out that I have landed at Kochi and was on my way home, even  before I could say anything.  “It was because of the blaring traffic horns.  I know that in Canada you can never hear it. So I guessed  you were in a taxi home.”

Our nephew is a Captain serving with the Corps of Engineers, had returned home after a gruelling six month long Young Officers’ Course at Pune.  On culmination of the course, he with his friends vacationed in Goa for a week.  On reaching home, he rang me up to say “Now I realised why you never disclosed your travel plans.  There were many calls from my mother and she wanted me to come home immediately.

My eldest brother, now the head of the family,  advised his nephew, “Never write the correct date of your arrival; always give a date a few days or a week later.”

It’s Natural, Biological and Not the Stork

In the Netherlands, Germany and eastern Europe the myth is that the storks nesting on the roof of a household were believed to bring good luck — and the possibility of new birth — to the family living below.

Marina broke the news of her pregnancy to our daughter, “There is a little baby growing in my belly and we will have a baby in March.”

How did the baby get into your belly and how old is the baby now?” asked inquisitive five-year-old Nidhi.

The God placed the baby in my belly and is three months old,” replied Marina.

I did not see the God in our home, but Dad came home four months back from his military post in Sikkim.  Whatever it is, I want a sister and not a brother as boys are bullies,” said an innocent Nidhi.

How to break the news of a sibling’s arrival to a child?

Young children are not geared to handle a lot of information about conception and childbirth.  Hence, breaking such a news got to be straight and simple and be ready to answer the questions that may follow.  Never pre-empt the child with your explanations, wait for the child’s questions.  If the child is not asking any questions, then it is not n his/her mind.  If the child asks more questions, then by all means go into more detail.

A good method is to make your explanation into a story on the lines that Mom and Dad make a baby, the baby grows inside Mom’s belly, and the baby comes out when fully developed after ten months.  Always ask a few probing questions to determine your child’s level of understanding of pregnancy is all about.  This will help you to choose your words.  You can begin with the fusion of the sperm and an egg in the way fruit grows from a seed.  You can also explain as to how the child develops, its movements, how it feeds, how it sleeps, etc.  If your child is school going, you can ask a few questions to find out what they already know about where babies come from and then follow their lead.  Ensure that you use accurate anatomical language like womb or uterus instead of belly, etc.

Here comes the importance of using accurate anatomical terms for our body parts, especially the private parts.

Most of us grew up with funny sounding names for our private parts – tuckus, tush, peepee, peekki and so on.  Our parents do it for the sake of propriety and also, they wanted to save themselves from embarrassment.  Imagine a kid screaming in a busy shopping mall “My penis hurts!” or “My vagina is itching!!”

It is neither an embarrassment nor a stigma.  It becomes so only if you visualise it to be so.  The proper names for their genitals – penis, testicles, vagina, vulva are taught in Canada in Grade 1 as per the new sexual health education curriculum.  By giving alternative names for our private body parts, we are doing a lot of disservice to our kids.  It has to begin at home and our kids should not be surprised at school.  A study found that kids who easily understood to the terms were the ones who used the proper names for their body parts at home with their parents.

It helps children develop a healthy, more positive body image, instead of feeling that their genitals are something shameful or bad.  It also facilitates the children to understand their bodies better and will prompt them to ask questions about sexual development.  Teaching kids the proper terms for their body parts enhances their awareness of their body, positive body image, self-esteem and confidence.

Kids who are comfortable talking about their bodies are more likely to be able to disclose when something worrisome or uncomfortable is happening to them. They can explain confidently to the doctors about their problems like itching or pain in their private parts.  They can also inform their parents when someone touched them inappropriately. 

Child-sex predators are less likely to pick confident, informed kids who obviously talk openly with their parents about their bodies, and who are aware that other people touching their private parts must be stopped and any attempt reported to the parents immediately.

A study found that even though kids in pre-school learn the proper names for their body parts, only kids with parents who used the right terms caught on. So, do not leave this important task to the teachers. You can begin using proper terminology when changing diapers, bathing the child, or at any other time that the subject might come up.

Sex education must begin at home, and it has to be age appropriate.  You may seek the assistance of your pediatrician.  Many of us are uncomfortable with the use of anatomically correct terminology; hence it is important to practice before you talk with your kids.  If they sense that you are uncomfortable, it will never sink in.  Every question from your child about his or her body must be answered as appropriate to the child’s age, as accurately and honestly as possible. Never make it a big deal!!!

For me, my first sex education teacher was my Amma and to read more about it, Please Click Here.

These are two well illustrated books I recommend for parents and grandparents.  The books will help you answer young children’s delightful, thoughtful, and often non-stop questions about their own bodies and about how girls’ and boys’ bodies are the same and are different questions that are seemingly simple, but often not easy to answer. 

Legendary Lungi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soldiers’ Gods

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There are many soldier Gods in different border areas where the Indian Army operates. Most of the shrines dedicated to these Gods are situated in inhospitable terrain and mostly placed out of bounds to the civilians. There are no hymns or keertans sang on behalf of these Gods, they do not have ashrams, they do not ride in luxurious sedans, they do not hug devotees, they do not run charitable institutions, and they do not give darshans, and so on. They are soldiers who sacrificed their lives in service of their motherland and now regarded as patron saints guarding the areas where they achieved Martyrdom.


On my first assignment to the Kashmir Valley as a young Captain in 1987, my belief in  God Almighty was rekindled mainly because of the inhospitable terrain, sub-zero temperatures, heavy snow-falls, avalanches, thin air with deficiency of Oxygen, high-altitudes above 10,000 feet, and the drive through the mountain roads where one could slip off the road, down the gorges, and no trace would be left of the vehicle or the passengers.


I was attached to a Punjab Battalion as Artillery Observer. The Battalion had soldiers mainly from Punjab, Himachal and Jammu, consisting of Hindus and Sikhs. As per the norms of the Army, the battalion had a Mandir with a Hindu Pundit and a Gurudwara with a Sikh Granthi. On Sundays or on important religious days we attended both Mandir Parade and Gurudwara Parade. These being Parades, it was mandatory for all officers and soldiers to attend.

On the way to the battalion headquarters, there was a Muslim Peer Baba and every man, irrespective of their rank or position, used to stop and pay their respects to the Peer Baba before proceeding to the battalion. The belief among the soldiers, passed down over many decades of army deployment was that the Peer Baba took care of the soldiers and in case anyone failed to stop and pay respect, he will meet with some tragedy. Being a Christian by birth, I said the Lord’s prayer in the mornings and evenings, a ritual embedded in me by our father.


This was the place I understood the meaning of secularism and realised that all Gods were the same. I was never sure as to who saw me through my first Kashmir tenure, the Gods in the Temple, the Gurudwara, Peer Baba or Jesus. During my later years of field service in Sikkim and in Siachen Glacier, I came across two Soldier Gods.

OP Baba, Siachen Glacier, c/o 56 APO
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Siachen Glacier, a disputed territory between India and Pakistan, highest battlefield of the world, is well known for its inhospitable and treacherous terrain, freezing cold at minus 40 degrees Celsius, crevasses and avalanches and lastly enemy action. Statistics reveal that more lives have been lost to the weather than to the enemy action since 1984, when Indian Army first occupied Siachen glacier. Hypoxia, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (‘high-altitude sickness’ or HAPE), bone-chilling winds, sun burns, chill blains, frost bites, the thin air and sub-zero temperatures inducing acute depression, are  some of the weather factors affecting our soldiers. Most of the soldiers serving in such areas become very religious and the trust in their Gods really multiplies.

There are many a myths and legends about the Siachen Glacier like any other battlefields.  Legend has it that OP (Om Prakash) Baba, deeply revered by troops posted in these glacial heights, was an army soldier who fought valiantly to preserve Indian frontiers from Pakistani intruders in most adverse situations. Belief in the Soldier Saint is so strong that a formal report is given to OP Baba before induction of a soldier party on the glacier and after successful accomplishment of any mission. Any officer moving into the area reports his arrival to the Baba by visiting the shrine and paying his respects.


Faith in the legend of OP Baba is so strong that all troops give up consumption of alcohol and tobacco during their stay on the glacier as the Baba is believed to have been a strict disciplinarian and expects the same from fellow soldiers who come here to guard the frontier. Every battalion or company before taking position begins with a prayer at Baba’s shrine. The company commander gives a detailed briefing to Baba before tying a brass bell in the complex, taking a vow to keep away from cigarettes and intoxicants and fight the enemy till the last breath. Soldiers keep this promise till the last day of their tenure in the glacier and is strongly believed that any deviation is met with instant punishment from the legend himself.

It is believed that a night before any imminent danger, Baba comes in the dreams of soldiers and warns them of such eventuality. Baba has always been with the soldiers and protects every soldier and warns them of any impending danger in the Glacier.

Baba Harbhajan Singh, Sikkim, c/o 99 APO

BabaHarbhajan
Baba Harbhajan Singh has defeated death. Believe it or not but it is true, one of its kind of story in the world- a man from an Indian Army in  Nathula border in Sikkim, is still doing his duty even after his death some three decades ago. 60km from Gangtok towards the Nathula Pass lies the valley of Kupup.  Here is the shrine of Baba Harbhajan popularly known as Baba Mandir. Baba Harbhajan has been guarding the international boundary of the two Asian giants, China and India over the last three decades. But believe me he does it alone. The Baba warns about the dangerous activities on the border through the dreams of fellow soldiers. Legend has it that even the Chinese soldiers confirm sighting a man riding a horse all alone, patrolling the border.

Born in Brondal village of Kapurthala, Punjab, Harbhajan Singh joined the 23rd Punjab Battalion on February 1966 as a Sepoy. On October 4, 1968 Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was escorting a mule caravan from his battalion headquarters and he fell into a fast flowing stream and was drowned. Search for Sepoy Harbhajan was made with no results it was on the fifth day of his missing, his Commanding Officer had a dream of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh informing him of his tragic incident and his personnel weapon being under the heap of snow. Sepoy Harbhajan Singh desired to have a Samadhi (memorial) made after him. The Commanding Officer ignored the dream as an imagination but later when the personnel weapon of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh was found at the spot where he had informed, the Commanding Officer was taken aback and to mark respect and towards his wish a samadhi was constructed there.


Here too, the belief in the soldier saint is so strong that any officer or soldiers moving into the area report their arrival to the Baba by visiting the shrine and paying his respects. On my arrival at Sikkim,  Colonel PK Ramachandran, our Commanding Officer, realising my rational stands on such issues had advised me to visit the Baba Mandir. He said that my visit to the Baba Mandir may mean nothing to me, but will go a long way in upholding the faith of the men under my command. I did as ordered without realising the implications of his words until I read a research paper by a US Army Doctor on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) suffered by operationally deployed US Army troops. I realised that cases of PTSD were the least in the Indian Army despite all the operational commitments and I can attribute it only to the faith in God by our troops and the role played by the myths and legends and patron saints of different areas. This may also be the reason for increased evangelistic activities reported among the US Military personnel deployed in operational zones.

St George and the British Army
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St George is patron of soldiers, cavalry and chivalry and he is the patron saint of England, Georgia, Lithuania, Portugal, Germany and Greece.  He has no biblical significance.  He held the rank of a tribune in the Roman army and was beheaded by Diocletian for protesting against the Emperor’s persecution of Christians. St George was adopted as the patron saint of soldiers after he was said to have appeared to the Crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098.

He is usually represented on horseback in the act of spearing the monster which is vomiting fire.  It is based on a myth that in Sylene, a city of Libya, a lake was infested by a huge dragon, whose poisonous breath would kill anyone.  The citizens could never draw water from the lake and in order to keep the dragon away, every day a virgin was sacrificed to it.  One day the turn came for Sabra, the king’s daughter, to become its victim.  She was tied to the stake, and left to be devoured, when St. George appeared mounted on his charger and is believed to have killed the dragon.  Many similar stories were transmitted to the West by Crusaders who had heard them from Byzantine soldiers.

The banner of St George, the red cross of a martyr on a white background, was adopted for the uniform of English soldiers possibly during the reign of Richard I, and later became the flag of England and the White Ensign of the Royal Navy.

In 1940, when the civilian population of Britain was subjected to mass bombing by the Luftwaffe, King George VI instituted the George Cross for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’.  The award, which is second only to the Victoria Cross, is usually given to civilians.  The award consists of a silver cross.  On one side of the cross is St George slaying the dragon, with the inscription, ‘For Gallantry’; on the other appear the name of the holder and the date of the award.

After setting foot in India, British Army built its first fort in Madras (now Chennai) in 1644 and christened it Fort St George after their patron saint.

 

 

Fire! Fire! Fire!

Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.