What Would I Have Done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now I laid my plan bare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Away From Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guru Dakshina

Wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PTC

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.