The Pleasant Land of Counterpane

I was the giant great and still,
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane

From the Poem – The Land of Counterpane – by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894.)

It was during the year 1971, when we, as nine-year-old kids, joined the fifth grade at Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (located in Tamil Nadu, India), that I first heard the word ‘Counterpane.’ For some of you too, it must be a Baader-Meinhof.

I have often been Baader-Meinhofed by Sashi Tharoor with his eloquent English vocabulary, many a times forcing my fingers to caress my cellphone to search for the meaning of the word.

Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one stumbles upon some obscure piece of information⁠ – often an unfamiliar word or name⁠ – and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly.

On the day that we joined the school, late Mrs Mercy Mathai, our Matron, ushered us into our dormitory. We were allotted a hall with 12 beds laid out with military precision. Every bed was covered with a thick cotton sheet with our school colours – a steel grey background with four blood red lines running near its four borders in such a manner that the inner lines fell along the border of the mattress. These lines caught my attention and I presumed that the four lines represented the four houses for cadets named after the four famous Tamil Kingdoms – Chera, Chola, Pandya and Pallava. I was assigned to the Pandya House.

Addressing her new wards, Mrs Mathai said “This is your bed and it is covered with a counterpane. Before you go to bed, each of you will fold it neatly and place it at the foot-board. You will not use it to cover yourself at night. For that there is a blanket near the foot-board.”

Was I Baader-Meinhofed?  I did not understand a word as I knew only Malayalam. 

I was introduced to the term ‘Counterpane‘ in Sainik School. I presumed that counterpane was of British origin, but, oddly, never came across the term later at the military academies, in India. I was therefore, pleasantly surprised when my colleague Major Rajib Basu in 1989 at Devlali, Baader-Meinhofed me when he referred to his bed cover as a “counterpane!” He had graduated from the residential Lawrence School, Lovedale. The term was very common with many ‘public-schools’ in and around Ooty.

Counterpane is a modification of the word Counterpoint, from Old French word Contrepointe, meaning a quilted mattress.

The humid warm sultry days all through the year at Aamaravathi Nagar was a bit tough, especially without air conditioning. Why?  There were no fans even.  Windows were thrown open in our dorm to bring in whatever breeze we could catch. The breeze brought with it fine dust particles and there was the counterpane, discharging its duty to protect my bed from this dust. 

We carried our counterpanes to our senior dorms in grade 9, where we had a cabin allotted for each cadet.

The counterpane protected the mattress and the blankets.  How often do we clean or wash our mattress and blankets?  Today the counterpane has been relegated to be an unnecessary addition that just ends up tangled at the bed’s foot-board.

Try using a counterpane to cover your bed during day and you will end up with a clean bed in the evening.  You may find yourself having the best sleep of your life!

In those days many military stations were not authorised fans.  Most military stations were established by the British and were at cooler and greener hill stations. Blame it on climate change or global warming, most military stations now are authorised air conditioners.  I have seen it all.

We had to fold our counterpane every evening prior to retreating to our bed. It was a sin to use it to cover our body at night with it – all because it may lead to skin rashes due to aberration with the dust particles it carried.

Next morning, we had to neatly spread the counterpane on our beds, tuck it in at the rear end, ensuring that the four red lines ran all along the mattress border and leave our dorms for the Physical Training (PT.)  Our mornings commenced with making our bed, spreading the counterpane and the last action before going to bed was folding the counterpane.

Veteran Colonel T Ravi (Roll No 556, 1974/Chera) reminisces:- In the late sixties and early seventies, counterpanes in school dorms came in varying colour combinations, but the patterns were pleasant and same.

Some of the nine- and ten-year-old 5th and 6th grade boys, still wetted their beds. The counterpanes were a great cover up, though sometimes the smell gave them away.  As they grew older, the counterpanes again covered the sins of some of the adolescent kids, who had adolescent dreams or indulged in porn.

Lieutenant Colonel AC Thamburaj, Principal, introduced the system of inspections. Every alternate Mondays, the dorms and cabins were inspected by the Principal, Headmaster, and the dorm staff. Dusting of closets and bookshelves, sweeping out the dirt, hanging all dresses rolled and thrown under the beds and the over mosquito nets, tight hanging of the mosquito net, washing the socks that smelt like dead rats, blancoing the canvas shoes that were white two weeks ago, changing the pillow case and bed sheet and hiding away unauthorised toys, bugs, pets that lived in the closet…the list was endless; but always ended up with the neat spreading of counterpanes over the well-made bed without any wrinkles.

There were some good wardens like Krishnaswami, Narayanaswami and Govindarajan. There was one scoundrel we feared the most: ‘Karunakaran.’ In 1967, he was with Chola House, and in 1968 became a shared one between Chera and Chola Junior houses. He always found out the exact one item we tried to hide under the mattress or at the bottom shelf of closet. In later years at the military academy, Karunakaran’s training kept me safe from the Divisional Officers during cabin cupboard inspections.

The Counterpanes in School had a tag showing it was manufactured by ‘ChenTex‘ – a cooperative at Chennimalai near Tiruppur and Kangeyam. Chentex, a Weavers Cooperative Society was established in 1941 and is leading on manufacturer of bed covers, bed sheets, bed spreads, cotton bath towels etc. The Society sells within India and also exports to European countries.

We got so used to counterpanes, that a beds without them, always looked incomplete.

Veteran General PM Hariz (Roll No 579, 1974/Pallava) writes: – The legacy of counterpane continued right through our lives I would say … just that over the years it got transformed into a bed cover with greater elegance than the one we had at School …the purpose was the same!!

To me a more important lesson was that of making the bed as one got up early morn each day – at school as Reji said we had to make our bed and cover it with the ‘Counterpane’ before even we got to get going with the morning routine. Some of us left hastily, only to return from PT to find our matron frowning upon the ‘les miserable’ who had left his bed in the same state of rest!!!!

Soon the habit of making one’s bed kicked in and it became second nature to me … and have carried it till today … my wife Zarina and kids fail to understand why I remain paranoid with an unmade bed – and why I hurry to make the bed even as the sun is only just rising!!

That is a habit with a lesson!! In that, one commenced the day with a small doable task … it made it then mentally possible to continue doing small/big tasks through the day. Also importantly, when one returned late at night from work etc – one came back to a clean and made bed – which by itself was a blessing to crawl into after a long day at work!!

It has become so ingrained that I would make the bed even in a guest room or hotel room – at least set the bed in order and place all items at its designated place…. Believe me ..even as I got up this morn at 5.30 ..I first made my bed – my side of the bed !!!

For many of us even today – Amaravathi Nagar remains The Pleasant Land of Counterpane.

Images courtesy M Balaajhi, (Roll Number 4574, 2010/Pandya) and Ashok Prabhu, (Roll Number3499, 2002/Pandya.)

Corrupted Dosa

Recently read a post ‘Online delivery of Masala Dosas is a food ‘hate-crime’. North India must apologise. Its indeed a hate crime!!!  Even the paper thin Dosa is a hate crime the North Indians must tender an apology for!!!

A Dosa is a thin pancake like a crepe originating from South India, made from a fermented batter of lentils and rice.

The paper-thin Dosa is the corrupted form of Dosa.  In my childhood Amma made Dosa on a ten-inch dia stone girdle.  It was thick – the least it was five times thicker lighter and spongier than its paper-thin cousin. These Dosas were characterised by the holes left by the steam evaporating on cooking from the batter.

I joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in 1971 at the age of nine where Dosa was served twice a week – Sunday breakfast and Thursday diner.  The Sunday Dosa was with Sambar and Chutney, but the Thursday Dinner was the best – rarest of rarest combination – Dosa with Chicken Masala Curry – one of the best combinations I have had in my life.  Here too it was the thick and fluffy Dosa which combined well with the gravy.

My introduction to the paper-thin Dosa was at the National Defence Academy.  It never tasted anywhere near what I had at home or at school.  It was too crispy for my liking.  I called it the ‘Corrupt version of the poor Dosa.’  Though corrupt, it was lapped up by the North Indians and the South Indians too followed suit and the thick and original Dosa disappeared from most South Indian restaurants and homes.  Some restaurants now serve it as ‘Set Dosa.’

I recall an incident narrated by Veteran Colonel MA Mathai.  After marriage, on settling in their first military abode in 1985, he and his wife Sainu decided to invite all officers of their Regiment for a Dosa Brunch.  In the morning Sainu made Dosas the way her mother made them – thick and stout.  Neither Captain Mathai nor the officers were too happy about it.

After our marriage, we established our first home at Devlali, Maharashtra in 1989.  During our settling down days, Marina said she intended to make Dosa on the following Sunday and she inquired as to what I wanted with it.  I asked for my most relished combination with Dosa – chicken masala curry.  “What an unpalatable combination?” was Marina’s reply.  I told her that the thick Dosa made on a granite griddle, served with chicken masala curry was the best combination for Dosa that I had ever had.  She did not believe me until we relished it that Sunday evening.

During our Pan-India tour as part of the Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1990, at Jabalpur Railway Station, our coach was stationed adjacent to the main platform.  After the industrial visits, while I was strolling on the railway platform in the evening, I came across tow young men from Kerala selling Dosas. They narrated their story as to how they came to Jabalpur and established their business. 

The two unemployed high-school graduate lads landed at Jabalpur on the recommendation of a close relative who was employed with the Ordnance Factory.  They searched for a job and joined the restaurant on the railway platform as dishwashers.  Few months into their work, the restaurant owner was impressed with their dedication and asked them “Can you make Dosas?  There is a lot of demand for it.  There are no good Dosa vends in town.” They took the bait. 

The two men travelled to Kerala to return with a heavy grinder, girdles and other utensils needed to make Dosa.  They commenced their Dosa selling in the restaurant and soon the place became a favourite haunt of the powerful, wealthy and influential people of Jabalpur.  The restaurant owner now came out with a new business model for them.  “You sell your Dosas here and all the money is yours?”

Too tempting an offer to reject!!  They again took the bait.  They sold hundreds of Dosas every evening, collected the cash, went back to their home to soak the rice and lentil overnight.  Next morning, they ground the rice and lentil and fermented it till evening.  In the evening, they established their girdle on the platform, in front of the restaurant.  People came in droves to buy Dosas.  Many sent their tiffin carriers for home delivery. 

The biggest question in their minds was “Why did the owner allow us to sell Dosas and take all the money?”

A month into the new venture, they gathered enough courage to ask the question to the restaurant owner.  “Customers who buy Dosas from you buy coffee too.  I sell over a hundred coffee every evening and I make a Rupee on every coffee. “

The restaurant owner did not kill the geese that laid golden eggs for him, he nurtured them!!!!

Running Away From Studies

We were about 30 of us who landed at Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu from Kerala in July 1971, armed with little communication skill in our mother tongue Malayalam.  English, Hindi and Tamil 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 Tamil or Hindi as our second and third languages.

Tamil as a second language was out of question as it required us to cram the Thirukkurals onward.  Tamil 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.

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

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 Tamil 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.

Homecoming

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.

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.”

It all commenced when I joined Sainik (Military) School, Amaravathi Nagar in Tamil 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.”

Reading Music

Veteran Lieutenant General PM Hariz, PVSM, AVSM, SM, VSM, during an online musical show regretted that he could not read musical notes, though he plays the Saxophone.  We both graduated from Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu – he in 1974 and I in 1979.

(Courtesy Mr Steve Rosson (1969))

We were taught musical notation by our Band Master, the late Mr Goodu Sahab, who led the school’s pipe band.  He joined our school in 1966 and retired in 1987.  Pipe band players do not refer to any music sheet while playing unlike the brass band.  Many of our friends in the band thus were not into reading music, just like General Hariz.

Mr Goodu Sahab was a Veteran Havildar (Sergeant) who joined the Indian Army in 1950 and retired from  the Madras Regimental Centre as a Pipe Major in 1966.  His education level was not beyond middle school level, but was an excellent Band Master.  He was instrumental in adding six bag pipes to our school band when he joined our school in 1968.  The performance of the school band during various events and parades at school stood testimony to his ability – both as a Band Master and as a Guru.

(Courtesy Mr Somasunadara Kumar (1974))

He conducted music reading lessons while we were in Grade 5 and it was all Greek and Latin for most of us.  Minim, Crotchet, Quaver, Semiquaver, Demisemiquaver, Hemidemisemiquaver – all flew over my head., some danced in front of my eyes.  I just could not make any sense of them.

Our classmate Somasunadra Kumar, who played in the school band, reminisces: “Though Mr Goodu Sahab looked simple, rather Chaplinesque, for the band guys, he was a hard task master when it came to the practice and the  performance.  He made us practice with metronome, so that our beats were as per the requirement of a particular tune for slow/ normal/ double march.

On the ceremonial parade days (Mondays) we had to reach the band room early, check all the instruments  practice for a while and then carry all the instruments from band room to the Oval Parade Ground, almost a kilometer away, over an undulating terrain.

Other than teaching us how to play the instruments,  he also taught us how to maintain/ repair them. He taught us how to change the drum head membrane (those days it was animal hide and it had to be handled carefully;)  how to maintain the bag of the bagpipes (the bag is also made of animal hide) using bore oil (a blend of pharmaceutical grade, all natural, organic oils;) and to clean and service the copper/ brass bugles.”

(Courtesy Veteran Commander N Vijayasarathy (2019))

Whatever it was, all those who played in the school band carried music with them.  During the alumni meets, there is a beeline to play the musical instruments while the alumni marched from the Cadets’ Mess to the Academic Block.

Playing in the school band was encouraged with an additional glass of milk and a piece of Mysore-Pak post dinner (better known as Band Milk,) to compensate for the extra hours they spent on practice and the physical effort needed for it.  Mysore-Pak, a concoction of ghee, sugar and gram flour, owes its origin to the Royal Palace at Mysore.  It was rock-hard indeed, but it melted in the mouth sweetly.

Playing in the band was a way to work out and it improved the  muscle memory and coordination of the cadets.  Those who played the wind instruments – bag pipe and the bugle – it increased the strength of their respiratory system.

Our children went through music lessons as part of Canadian school curriculum in Grade 7.  They were taught to read music and perform.  Those students who excelled joined the school band and received an additional credit for music in their high school.

Not all can read music though many enjoy it.  Many musically talented people never picked up a musical instrument in their lives. There are many musicians  who memorise musical tunes on hearing them and play an instrument without knowing how to read the music.  Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Ronnie Milsap, George Shearing – they were all well known musicians who were blind.

Why should you learn to read music?

Being able to read music facilitates to understand the structure of the piece and the entire composition.  It helps you to remember the music you are playing.  With the music sheet handy, you are less likely to goof up.

It is sure to boost your self-esteem and acts as a confidence-booster.  Practicing and performing music – instrumental or vocal – by reading the notation is immensely satisfying.  The act of practicing  and performing are great stress relievers. It is truly exhausting and also good for channeling your mind.

Once you learn to read music, you will find it much easier to learn an instrument and an array of musical styles.  It will help you play in a band or with your friends as a group.  You can create your own musical compositions too.

It’s never too late to learn anything.  So I too am trying to learn to read music, though I am not a musician.

A Stitching Lesson

At Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu, we had an MI Room (Medical Inspection Room) – the refuge for the tired souls – both physical and mental.  The boss out there was Mr KP Damodaran who  can well be described as a Nursing Assistant by profession, whom everyone called a Compounder, but always acted as a Doctor.

Forever for any medical condition, worth it or not, he prescribed a combination of APC with sodium-bicarbonate, a pink coloured magic potion, an awful tasting mixture, compounded by our Compounder Mr Damodaran, a Veteran from the Royal Indian Navy who saw action during World War II.

I was admitted for mumps in the isolation ward for 21 days while in grade 7. During one of his daily rounds, Mr Damodaran saw me reading the history book. As he turned the pages, it was about the Viceroys and Governor Generals of British India – Lord Wavell and Mountbatten. Mr Damodaran said “I’ve met both Lord Wavell and Lord Mountbatten during World War II.  Lord Wavell’s sketch in this book least resembles his personality.” 

What was the magic tablet APC? It was a combination tablet containing aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine. In those days (early 70’s), it was perceived to be a magic drug – a solution for most diseases and medical conditions. It disappeared in 1983 because of harmful side effects of phenacetin.

Sodium-bicarbonate is a mixture of  Sodium-bicarbonate with sugar and salt.  It was used as an antacid to treat heartburn, indigestion and upset stomach as Sodium-bicarbonate is a very quick-acting antacid.

When we were in grade 11 in 1978, we were the senior-most in school. During a movie show on a Saturday night, a bench we were seated broke and a piece cut through the thigh of Palanivel, our classmate. Everyone else were engrossed in watching the movie, but I saw Palani bleeding and writhing in pain. I helped him walk to the MI Room and there was Mr Damodaran.

Palani was immediately administered a dose of Tetanus Toxoid (TT) and the next step was to suture his six inch long gash. Mr Damodaran switched on the steriliser and after five minutes asked me “put on the gloves and take out the suturing thread and a needle with a tong.” I did as ordered.

Then came a surprise ordeal for me.  Mr Damodaran had a failing eyesight and he asked me “Please thread the needle.”  Unfortunately for us, Mr Damodaran’s spectacles broke a few days before and to get a new one he had to travel to Udumalpet, the closest town, about 24 km away.  That could be feasible only the next day being a Sunday.

His next command was a bigger surprise – “now start stitching.”  He instructed each step and I put six sutures through Palani’s skin.  Palani must still be carrying the scar on his thigh today.

How could I execute such a mission?

When we were in Grade 2 & 3, we had stitching classes by Annamma Teacher, who also taught us Malayalam.  On a piece of cloth we began with hemming, then running stitch, cross stitch and then stitch English Alphabets, a flower and a leaf.  It came in handy that day.

Annamma Teacher remains etched in my memory as she was very compassionate to the young kids and was an epitome of dedication.  She was always dressed in her spotlessly white ‘Chatta, Mundu and Kavani,‘ the traditional Syrian Christian women’s attire.  Chatta is more like a jacket, while the mundu (dhoti), unlike the one worn by a man, is elegance personified, especially at the back, where it is neatly pleated and folded into a fan-like ‘njori‘.  Both Chatta and Mundu are pure cotton, Kavani, generally off-white with hand sewn embroidery is made of a thinner material and is draped across the body.

During our younger days, Chatta, Mundu and Kavani was the most common wear for the ladies, especially while attending the Sunday Mass and also during social and religious occasions. Chatta consists of two pieces of cloth cut into T shape and hand stitched prior to the arrival of sewing machines.  My grandmother said that they used to cut the cloth into two Ts with a kitchen knife as the scissors were not in vogue then and hand sew them.

Muslim women of Kerala in those days wore a white Mundu called ‘Kachimundu’ with blue and purple borders. The Muslim women’s Mundu do not have the fan-like Njori at the back. The head covering ‘Thattam‘ is better known as ‘Patturumala.’ The torso is covered by a long blouse with full sleeves. This type of dress is known as Kachi and Thattam.


Difficulty in maintaining the white outfit spotlessly white and availability of cheaper, easy to wear and maintain sarees resulted in the saree becoming the common wear for the Syrian Christian ladies.  Modern day wedding planners have revived the Chatta, Mundu and Kavani by showcasing it by asking a few relatives of their client to dress up so.


Annamma Teacher’s son, Veteran Colonel OM Kuriakose and her grandson Lieutenant Colonel Anish Kuriakose – both father and son are from The Parachute Regiment of the Indian Army.

Lieutenant General Devraj Anbu – An Ever Smiling Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To Sir Without Love

‘Sir’ is a term for addressing males who have been given certain honours or titles (such as knights and baronets) in Commonwealth Countries and is strictly governed by law and custom. The term is also commonly used as a respectful way to address a commissioned military officer – surely not civilians. Equivalent term in the feminine gender would be ‘madam’ and a young woman, girl, or unmarried woman may be addressed ‘miss’. A knighted woman or baronetess is a ‘Dame’ and a ‘Lady’ would be the wife of a knight or baronet.

In Kottayam, Kerala, there is a girls’ school called Baker Memorial Girls High School. The school was established by Amelia Dorothea Baker (1820-1904) of the Church Missionary Society (CMS). Miss Baker married John Johnson, another CMS missionary, who passed away in 1846. Miss Baker remained in-charge of the school in Kottayam till 1855. Her two sisters married CMS missionaries and three daughters of her brother Henry Baker Jr became teachers at the very same school. (Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, edited by Gerald H Anderson, Page 336)

The school today stands as a memorial to celebrate the efforts of the three generations of missionaries who dedicated their lives for the empowerment of the women of Kottayam through education.  Common folk of Kottayam until my student days called it as Miss Baker School. Remember, it was during the British Raj and everyone addressed the founder headmistress of the school, very respectfully, as ‘Miss Baker’. Today, could any student in the very same school address their teacher ‘Miss Anita?’ I have often heard them addressing their teacher as Anita Miss (I could never make out as to what Miss Anita ‘missed’!)

On joining Sainik School, Amaravathi Nagar, Tamil Nadu in Grade 5 in 1971, our first Class-Master was Mr MJ Raman, our Mathematics teacher. We were about 25 of us from Kerala and only one could understand English and the rest 24 of us knew only Malayalam. In our first class Mr Raman issued us all the books, stationary, etc and briefed us in English and surely I did not get any of what he said.

We then had English class by Mr KG Warrier. He asked us something like “Who asked you to do it?” in his Oxford accent and the Cadet who knew a bit of English promptly replied “Raman Sir told us to do it.” Mr Warrier now said “I know that Dr CV Raman was knighted, but did not know that Mr MJ Raman was also knighted. You all will address your teachers as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’ followed by their surnames.” Those words were imprinted on our young minds and through all these decades until now, we have always revered our teachers but invariably addressed them as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’, orally and in writing. Culturally, in Kerala as well as the rest of India, these modes of address have undergone a ‘mutation.’ Today, it is sacrilege for a college/ university student to address his professor as ‘Mister Singh.’

Please Click Here to read Blog-Posts about our teachers at Sainik School Amatavathi Nagar https://rejinces.net/category/sainik-school/

In Canadian high schools, students mostly address their teachers as ‘Mister’ or ‘Miss’ followed by their surnames. In universities, some professors during their introduction class would specify their requirement. Some want to be addressed in the traditional manner and many with their first names or even shortened first names.

While interacting with an Indian immigrant teacher in Canada, he said he felt uncomfortable when the students addressed him as ‘Mr George.’ He had taught in a college in India for over two decades and everyone addressed his as ‘Sir’ and he felt that the Canadian students are disrespecting their teachers by not addressing them as ‘Sir.’

Addressing male teachers as ‘Sir’ and all females irrespective of marital status as ‘Miss’ shows a massive status disparity and sexism of previous years. According to Times Educational Supplement, ‘Sir’ was first used in Sixteenth Century classrooms when male teachers of a lower social standing were attempting to reinforce their authority among largely upper-class boys. ‘Miss’ (surely not anywhere near the status of ‘Sir’) is largely a Victorian era creation when women were pressurised to give up work after they married, with a number of schools only hiring single female teachers.

In the Dutch education system, children address teachers by their first name, using ‘Juf’ or ‘Juffrouw’ as a title for a female and ‘Meester’ for a male teacher. Australians address their teachers as Mr/Mrs/Ms and surname. Sometimes if a teacher has a long or difficult-to-pronounce name, it is shortened to Mr PK, etc.

In Finland, it’s first names or even nick-names with teachers, no titles or surnames. The whole society there is very informal. French kids use the terms ‘Maîtresse’ and ‘Maître’ for female and male teachers respectively, meaning simply ‘teacher’. German students address teachers by using ‘Herr/Frau’ and surname, using ‘Sie’ as the polite form (Herr Schmidt, Koennen Sie…).

How do you wish to address your teachers? How do you wish your children addressed their teachers?

Psalm 23 and Dreams

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It was a ritual in our home that everyone recited the Twenty-third Psalm at the end of the evening prayer and the same was recited at our church at the end of the Holy Mass. This Psalm is applicable to one and all, irrespective of one’s religion and it reaffirms one’s faith in their God. The Twenty-third Psalm begins with “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. In the Malayalam version which we recited as children, the “I shall not want” part was translated as “എനിക്കു മുട്ടുണ്ടാകുകയില്ല” (enikku muttundakukayilla), and I always looked at my knees after reciting it, as it literarily translated in any child’s mind as “I will not have my knees”.

God will open the door only if one knocks and hence the aspect of “I shall not want” in Psalm 23 is debatable. Without the ‘wants’ humanity would have never progressed and developed to its current stature. The modern version of the Psalm has put it more aptly as “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing”. These ‘wants’ always tempted me to dream, about anything and everything I came across as a child, mostly to be rebuked by elders saying that I was wasting my time dreaming – even the act of dreaming was rationed in our childhood—‘Who can dream what and how much’ was somewhat a pre-decided issue!

As I grew up and came under the stewardship of Late Mr PT Cherian, our House Master at Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, who always encouraged us to dream –to dream big – that too King Size. As I grew older I read the Wings of Fire by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam wherein he says that “Dream is not that which you see while sleeping it is something that does not let you sleep.” This was the predicament I always faced while dreaming that it delayed my falling asleep and the same continues to date.

Veteran Commander D Reginald was my companion to operate the public address system in the school under the guidance of Mr PT Cherian while studying in Grade 9 (1974). All the amplifiers, speakers, cables, etc were kept in Mr Cherian’s Physics Lab and on Sundays after lunch we both would go there to carry out regular maintenance. Once we were accompanied by our friend S Harikrishnan (currently Manager, State Bank of India), who was an accomplished singer. The idea was to fulfill Hari’s dream of listening to his voice duly recorded on the audio cassette recorder. Being Sunday afternoon, we knew that Mr Cherian will never be around as he always enjoyed his afternoon siesta and never ever wanted to be disturbed at that time and there would be no one to stop us from (mis)using the precious cassette recorder. We recorded Hari’s song and played back the recording. That was the first time he ever heard his own singing. Hari had the brightest and the biggest eyes amongst us and he was so excited that his eyes bulged out like search lights.

After accomplishing the mission Hari left and we were on to our maintenance tasks. Reginald was always a better dreamer than I was and continues to be so till date. Our discussion was about the possibility that one day we would be able to record what we see with the same ease like we recorded Hari’s voice. That dream has come true today and we have even gone much ahead that we are able to transmit the same across the globe in real-time. Remember that ‘What you dream today will in all likelihood become a reality tomorrow.’

We have encouraged our children to dream and the effect of it is mostly heard from the washroom. I always hear their monologues, dialogues, role-playing, singing, etc while they spend their time in the washroom – the most private time one ever gets. I was really scared of doing this while growing up on the fear of what others will think about me (mad?) and so I could never give expression to my dreams.

One must dream, that too dream unlimited. That is when one gets into a creative mood and comes out with ‘out of the box’ ideas. Imagine if Newton or Shakespeare or Ved Vyasa did not dream; the world would have been surely poorer. Some of our dreams may fructify in our life time like the video recording dream we had as children; some we would be able to implement ourselves as we grow up.

One such dream I always carried was that of the ‘Bara Khana’ (Party for the soldiers) in the regiment. One always saw the chefs overworked in the kitchen, many soldiers toiling it out for erecting the tents, making seating arrangements, organizing entertainment, serving food and drinks, etc. Many soldiers took it as a ‘punishment’ and not as a time to make merry. My dream was that all soldiers in the regiment should be free from all chores and commitments and be free to enjoy the party with their families and friends.

On return to our permanent location in Devlali after an year long operational deployment, Late Col Suresh Babu approached me with the idea of party for the entire unit with the families. That was when I gave my directions based on my dreams – everything should be contracted out – from tent pitching, decorations, entertainment, food preparation and service – each and everything and no soldier would toil for it. The only hitch which Col Babu projected was that the waiters of the contractors will not be familiar with the military protocols and hence may not serve the Commanding Officer first and so on. I was fine with it as I never had any ‘doubt’ that I was commanding the unit.

On the day of the party, there were round tables laid out with chairs for all officers, soldiers and their families to sit and the contracted entertainment troupe started off with their performances. Snacks and drinks were being served by the contractor’s waiters and each and everyone enjoyed the proceedings. At this time our chef came to me and said that it was the first party he attended. that too wearing his best clothes and thanked me immensely for arranging this. All the soldiers were unanimous that it was the first time they wholeheartedly enjoyed an evening, otherwise they would be running around and also closing down everything after the party. After the success of the first outsourced party, we decided that we would hold only two parties a year and would always be outsourced.

As one grows up, it would be feasible to implement one’s dreams, but many find it convenient to forget them then.

Left Foot First

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On joining Sainik School in 1971 at the age of nine, I underwent my first run of drill classes.  The Drill Sergeant with his order for Tez Chal (Quick March) always followed it up with “Shoot your Left foot.”  This Left foot first continued through the training at the Academies and during my military service. 

While travelling on a train during my vacation from school in 1978, my co-passenger was a Veteran Sergeant who had seen action with the Royal Air Force during World War II in Burma.  He spoke of a Black & White English movie, ‘The Tie.’  He described a scene where a detective and a constable are tracking a fugitive through the city roads on a foggy winter night.  Only the silhouette of the fugitive is seen and suddenly it stops walking and then walks ahead.  The detective says that it is a woman. The question of the Veteran was as to how the detective made out that it was a woman. 

I had no clue and he explained that women generally commence walking with their Right foot first and men with their Left.  That is why when we march, we are drilled to shoot our Left foot first.  After this meeting, I started observing men and women and the first Right foot applied to women in about 80% cases.  Perhaps the remaining 20% were taught drill by some Sergeant Majors.
Shooting the Left foot first in the military was mainly because the soldiers were mostly right-handed and they carried their weapons the right side.  So when a soldier stepped forward with a Left foot, they were in a better balanced fighting posture, with Right foot planted and weapon up, ready for action.  It was also to keep everyone on the same foot for advancing in a line. In the olden day battles, soldiers advanced together ahead in formation, so that the enemy could not break the lines. In order to do this they used drums to keep everyone in line and together and commenced the march on the Left foot.  Every time the drum struck, their Left foot hit the ground.  Modern Armies across the globe follow this to keep everyone in step while marching, more to instill discipline and team work and for a ‘Soldierly‘ look while moving in a group.

In the military, one always walked on the left side of a superior officer.  In other words, one always kept his superior on his ‘Right’ side.  This was to facilitate him to return a salute with his Right arm without poking his arm into someone on his Right. leftright364
We are all familiar with the famous first words of Neil Armstrong as he stepped foot onto the moon in 1969, ‘That is one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.’  No one would have been there to photograph this one small step.  The second human to set foot on the moon was Buzz Aldrin and the instant was captured by Neil Armstrong.  In this image (courtesy NASA),  Aldrin is seen landing on the lunar surface with his Left foot, that too in rearward motion.  Perhaps,  a mere coincidence or the sheer logic of the number of rungs in the ladder!

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In this connection, a bit of mythology may interest the reader. Nataraja, the Hindu God Shiva as a cosmic dancer, is depicted in idol form in most temples of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, balancing on his Right foot with his Left foot up.  The only exception being the Nataraja idol at Meenakshi temple, Madurai.  It is believed that the Pandya King who commissioned the temple wanted to give some relief to Natarajan’s Right leg, at least in the temple constructed by him.LeftRight225
God Shiva with his consort Parvathi is mostly depicted sitting and in most cases, Shiva has his Left foot folded up and Parvathi her Right.  As per Hindu mythology, Shiva represents the Purusha (male) and Parvathi the Prakrithi (nature or female.)  Some Hindu mythological art portrays gods with both feet on together on the ground and this may be the depiction of combination of Purusha and Pakrithi.

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When an Indian Bride enters a home, she is advised by her mother-in-law to enter with her Right foot first, but no such instruction is ever passed to the groom.  During many Hindu marriages, the groom ritually places the Right foot of the Bride on a grinding stone.  The mantras recited during this time advise the bride to lead a firm life like the grinding stone, to be as firm as a rock, so that the family can depend on her.

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Most Hindu Goddesses are often depicted with their Right leg folded up, depicting Prakrithi.

This may explain as to why women commence their walk with their Right foot.

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 (Tamil 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 Tamil 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.

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.”

Hindu-Arabic Numerals

Indian Numerals

The numerals in various languages interested me a lot. During our childhood, the Bible at home had chapters numbered with the Malayalam numerals and the verses with Indo-Arabic numerals. During our cadet days at the National Defence Academy, we travelled to Pune city by the municipal transit bus. The tickets were printed with the price shown with Devnagiri numerals and I had no clue of it. Once in the bus, the conductor gave me the ticket and I asked him as to what the cost was. He shot back saying that you dress in a suit and how come you cannot read. I came back and learnt the Devnagiri numerals immediately.

Our son Nikhil while in Grade 2, came home from school and asked me as to what has Hinduism to do with numerals. Taken aback, I asked him to narrate the context and he said the he was taught in the Math class that the common numerals are called Hindu-Arabic Numerals. In North America anything to deal with the country/sub-continent India is referred to as ‘Hindu’ (Hindustan) so as not to confuse with the American Aboriginals, commonly referred to as ‘Red-Indians’ or ‘Indians’.

My mind raced back to 1974, while in Grade 8 at Sainink School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, India, our math teacher, Mr Venkatesha Murthy had explained to us that the numerals we use every day would be known as Indo-Arabic Numerals and not as Arabic Numerals. These numerals were invented by mathematicians in India. They were later called ‘Arabic’ numerals by Europeans, because they were introduced in Europe by Arab merchants. The Europeans were intrigued by the speed at which these Arab merchants calculated mentally when the Europeans were struggling with their Roman numerals and their Abacus.

Mr Murthy also spoke to us in detail about important contributions made by mathematicians like Aryabhata, Bhaskara and Ramanujam. He also spoke to us about contributions of Indian mathematicians to the study of the concept of zero as a number, negative numbers, arithmetic, and algebra.  Mathematicians from Kerala (India) had developed trigonometric functions like sine, cosine, and tangent in the 15th century. They even had developed calculus two centuries before its invention in Europe. As usual, India being a timeless and record-less civilisation, no one formulated a systematic theory of differentiation and integration and there is no evidence of their findings being transmitted outside Kerala.

The Indian Science Conference of Jan 2015 had lectures about ancient knives so sharp they could slit a hair in two, 24-carat gold extracted from cow dung and even 7,000-year-old planes that could travel to other planets. Among other technologies, introduced at the congress there were polymers to build houses made of cactus juice, egg shells and cow dung; a cow bacteria that turns anything eaten by an animal into pure gold, and the curious procedure of an autopsy, conducted by leaving a dead body floating in water for three days. The surprising discoveries were said to be based on ancient Hindu texts, such as the Vedas and the Puranas, and were presented at a session on ‘Ancient Indian Sciences through Sanskrit’. There were some who claimed that Indians had travelled to other planets, and the helmet-shaped object found on the surface of Mars was the hair worn on the head by space travellers. These stories would not even have found a place in children’s comics. Surprisingly there were not one lecture about the mathematical contributions made by the Indians.

Providing a scientific platform in a prestigious science conference for a pseudo-science is appalling. It for the first time such a session is held in Indian Science Congress. Indian Prime Minister by saying to an audience of doctors and scientists that plastic surgery and genetic science existed and were in use thousands of years ago in ancient India and how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body. The Gujarat State school science books on various myths are now well known. These alarming developments happened after the change of government in Delhi. The scientific community should be seriously concerned about the infiltration of pseudoscience in science curricula with backing of the government. The accelerated pace with which it is being promoted will seriously undermine nation’s science and it will have a disastrous effect on the future generation.

With this at the back of my mind, while in India in Jan 2015, I decided to interact with my nephews and nieces, mostly engineering students. To my surprise none knew that the numerals were called Indo-Arabic and they had no clue of the achievements of Indian mathematicians. It appeared that the textbooks in Canada have been amended, but the Indian books still carried Arabic numerals.

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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