Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Army Man

The village schooling didn’t benefit me anywhere near as much as to make it worth a mention.
But one incident in particular is worth mentioning.

Whilst we were at Nerur, my uncle, an army man serving in Egypt during WWI, got disbanded and came back to the village with a severe malarial attack.
He was tall, stout and was possessed of a forbidding personality; add to this his reputation as an ex-service man, returned from the front!
It was no wonder everyone in the village treated him with a marked respect and certain reservation. Amongst the busy-bodies (aren’t there a few in any place on the surface of the earth?) there were rumors of guns, shots in the dark and at extremes day-light shootings!

We still have this cartridge at home!

At school then, one day, a teacher was endeavoring to ‘cane’ a student who was doing his best to squirm out of the way. The boy won the battle, jumped out of the way, and the lash fell on my unsuspecting lap.
This resulted in a painful welt, but I suppressed the affair without bringing it to the notice of my parents; I wasn’t the intended recipient of the caning after all.

The next morning, my uncle and I were taking our routine bath in the channel which ran right through the middle of the ‘Agraharam’. My uncle as was the norm was rubbing me down with the soap-bar. When he got to the welt on my leg, I shouted out in pain.
When he learnt what had happened, he sent word to the teacher; a call-out as it were. I tried my best to pacify my uncle, but to no effect.

The teacher came to our house, trembling, babbling a stream of excuses. A single stare from my uncle was his undoing.  I begged my uncle to proceed no further as the ‘incident’ has occurred by accident and finally, the poor teacher was allowed to escape physically unscathed but mentally bruised, with the greatest of difficulty!

Needless to say, he was thereafter extremely conscious of the banes of caning!

Kauveri Over Bounds

I remember my stay in the village for quite another reason.
The year 1924 witnessed one of the worst floods in the Kauveri resulting in large scale damage – to man, animal, property and most importantly, crop.
 Thousands of acres of land were flooded and silted causing immense economic damage.
It was this flooding of the Kauveri that prompted the building of the ‘Stanley Dam’ across the river at Mettur.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Spelling, that difficult thing!

I spent a year in the village of Nerur, a fertile little place on the banks of ‘Aganda-Kaveri’. The year: 1923 - 1924.

This tiny hamlet contained one little school, run by the village Panchayath.

My father, learned man that he was, wanted to initiate me into the world of formal schooling. I was to be inserted into the 3rd class directly.
My admission though was rather funny, as always, at my expense.

The teacher there wanted to test my language skills prior admission.

He dictated then, those two Tamil words, ‘naaku’ and ‘mooku’ ('tongue' and 'nose'). I promptly wrote down, ‘nakku’ and ‘mukku’ ('lick' & 'pant').
This somehow seemed to satisfy him. I had after all shortened those words effectively and the new words weren’t entirely alien!
He graciously placed me into the 3rd class, trusting that I would learn, since I was already over aged!!

Looking back, maybe it does not matter at all how a child studies that young. We all learn, eventually.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Why would you notice a wall?

The years have stretched before me, I'm at that age now, when physical movements are restricted and the mind is ever busy!

I sit ruminating often, upon my easy-chair, and my mind drifts ever inwards and sends me flashes of the past, clearer still in my mind's eye than what I see before my eyes today.

Sometime in the 1940's, a good 72 years ago now, I was a young man on the hunt for a  job.
By some luck, I landed into a newly organized department of civil defence, the ARP, headed by a senior police officer.

This cockney gentleman, a shell-shocked veteran of WWI, by the name of Charles, was designated as the ARP controller. His character, in a few words, was a mixture of arrogance and self-deceit, and I, had the dubious honor to be his stenographer.

I was allowed to take his notes, run his errands, type his letters and handle his affairs. What I was not allowed, was the luxury to sit in front of him.
I was expected to stand by his side, do what best I could to take notes, dictated in a thick accent and unacceptable English!

One day, we were engaged in business as usual, him dictating and me taking note of it, when suddenly he started showing symptoms of what could very well have been an epileptic fit! His hands wrapped tight around a paper weight, his face flooded, red with blood, teeth clenched and lips trembled!

He burst out then, "You Indian Bastards!!". Startled, I realized that that was certainly not part of the note he was dictating. I followed his gaze glaring out the window and noticed a small group of Congress volunteers parading the streets, shouting slogans, for freedom and swaraj!

It was that which had provoked the gentleman's bitter remark.

I remember wondering then, as I do now, how an English man would have reacted had his country and honor been insulted thus.
This shining example, as he sat in front of me, took no notice that an Indian stood before him, nor that what he had yelled out was an insult.
The consensus then, amongst the British, with few exceptions, was a sense of entitlement, a feeling that they were those who were born to rule, and the common Indian was unworthy of his notice.

As a wall and machine we stood before them, to be utilized, but with no emotions to injure!

Do you know how I reacted to it then? Did my seething feelings flow out?

I did nothing.
I pocketed that insult and stood before him, staring blindly at his face. An outward calm over an inner riot.
The 'British-Raj', threatened though they were under the assault of an awakening India was still a force to be reckoned with.

The officer recovered his senses, resumed his dictation, and I? I continued to do what was then my job.

On my way to Hell, or not!

A Hindu by birth, a believer in the teachings of the Upanishads by long practice and thought.
All of them, in one voice proclaim: Good deeds and intentions never fail to reward.

"Accordingly as one behaves so does he become. The doer of good becomes good, the doer of evil becomes evil. One becomes virtuous by virtuous actions. Others become evil by evil actions."

- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Brahmana 4, Verse 5

"As is his desire, so is his will. As is his will so is the deed he does. Whatever deed he does that it is which he attains."

- Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Brahmana 4, Verse 5, in continuation

But also, there is the proverb, "The way to hell is paved with good intentions."

This set me thinking. How can good intentions take you to hell? Is it for lack of actions based on intentions, or is it because there are always unintended consequences?

My experiences over the years, on the surface, seem to prove the proverb right!

Working as a professor in college, I was entrusted with the organization of a camp for the students.
I had to take the students out, to a camping site, remain there for a few days, organize activities involving self-help, first-aid etc.

I embraced the task whole-heartedly. Working on it day and night for the period involved.

The principal, a communal frenetic, prejudiced as he was against me, unbelievably sponsored petitions, alleging misuse of funds on poor organization of the camp! The bureaucracy being what it is and my higher authorities knowing the character and caliber of those involved, dismissed the charges. What an escape it was!

A fitting reward for good intentions, indeed it was very nearly not so!

But faith, that wonderful thing, allows me consolation; That which happens in this world is immaterial to what awaits me in the one to which I go!

The Roaring Twenties And The Glorious Thirties

That was a  period of great excitement and patriotic fervour. 
Happily, I was at the midst of all this excitement at Madurai.

Those were days when communication facilities were primitive and instant reporting was unimagined.
We depended upon National dailies like The Hindu and The Swadesamithran for news. They did full justice to the National Movement by reporting in full, page after page of speeches by great leaders like the Mahatma and Nehru.

We waited, often impatiently for the arrival of the papers and went through the speeches from beginning to end with religious zeal. 
Fired by the spirit of the day, we spoke all day of Satyagraha and boycott.
We made it a point to spin on the takli and wear only kathir.

At Gandhigram, when I was much older

Dreams of freedom, spun on the wheel

We were young boys in the fourth form and the year was 1929. The Simon Commission was deployed and there was a national hue and cry for it's boycott. On the day the Commission visited Madurai, we planned secretly, to participate in the boycott with high hopes to be arrested, what a badge of honor it would be!

We skipped school without notice, stood in one of the thoroughfares through which the commission was to drive past, hoisting black flags in our hands, ready with the slogan "Simon Commission go back!". 

Oh! But what a flop!
The Commission had taken a different route, anticipating protests.
And us young boys, it was no wonder we returned home with sheepish faces!


Thursday, 19 April 2012

A teacher at work.. Learning lessons of his own

At my own expense, a funny experience that I would like to share with you.

It was the year 1937, I had just graduated from college, unleashed into the world with a degree in hand!
And I, like many people around me, was faced with the monster problem of employment, or rather, the lack thereof.
The world was still writhing in the grip of the great depression.

At this pressing juncture, I chanced to meet the Head-Master of the school in which I had studied. He asked me in what capacity I was occupied, I told him that I was occupied in the search of it.
He offered me a temporary post, for a period of three months, of School-Master at my old school.
I jumped at this fortuitous offer and arrived at school promptly to take up my duties.

The Head-Master assigned to me the task of educating the Fourth-Form in the intricacies of the English language.
All the other teachers at school were seasoned-veterans, my old masters and even in their hallowed company, I felt confident.

I entered the class, at a brisk walk, to face my students for the very first time. I felt no discomfort, no apprehension.
I started teaching and found the students receptive. Feeling justified in my untested confidence, I sat on the arm of the teachers chair.

And lo! I continued my descent to the floor!
There I was on the floor, lying spreadeagled in a daze, the class was risen in an uproar!
The masters from the adjacent class-rooms rushed in to find me still on the ground and all else confusion!

That old chair, in my old school, with it's it's old rusted bolts, had tested a confident new teacher and found him wanting!

Not much damage was done, but a lesson was learnt.

Overconfidence was aptly rewarded.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

An assessment of Indian character - The Measure of a Nation

Thoughts from my continued perusal of the book "Forty-one Years In India, From Subaltern To Commander-in-chief " (Previously mentioned in another post):

The Commander-in-Chief has lived through a period of great excitement and action in Indian history involving the Sepoy Revolution and the Afghan wars.

Having lead the troops against the Afghans in the Second Afghan War, in a description of events, he states:

"It is comparatively easy for a small body of well-trained act on the offensive against Asiatics, however powerful they may be in point of numbers. There is something in the determined advance of a compact, disciplined body of troops which they can seldom resist. But a retirement is a different matter. They become full of confidence and valour the moment they see any signs of their opponents being unable to resist them, and if there is the smallest symptom of unsteadiness, wavering, or confusion, a disaster is certain to occur. "

These words made me reflect upon many events that comprise matters of import in Indian History.
Porus may have been a man of valor, backed by the huge hordes of the traditional four-fold army (The Chathurangabala : Ratha-Gajha-Thuraga-Pathadi, chariots-elephants-horsemen-infantry), but he could not withstand the small, compact army of a determined invader!

Link : King Porus

Link : Caturangabala (hence the game Chaturanga, the father of Chess)

Again, we read of Nader Shah, galloping into the plains of Northern India, looting and pillaging, carrying everything by the might of his sword.

Link : Nader Shah

The British occupation and rule over India is but the continuation of a sad story; Of a vast population unable to defend against the attack of a determined compact enemy force.

How else can we explain the multitudes of Muslim soldiers flying before a few white British soldiers under the control of Clive in the Battle of Plassey.

Link : Robert Clive

Link : Battle of Plassey

It is true that the invaders invariably brought new techniques and advanced weaponry into warfare. The Moguls brought in the use of gunpowder and canons, mechanized bows and arrows, against which our tradition bound Chaturangabala could do nothing!
And Clive? He put to maximum use the British principle of divide and rule, playing one section of the population against another, in securing his victory.

What a misfortune, that the Indians in-spite of individual valor, lacked a sense of coheision and failed to present a determined-united frontage!

Image Source :

Will India wake up, realise the lack of togetherness through play of forces like religion, cast, language and demography?
Will India achieve a sense of Oneness?

That day will perhaps be the dawn of the one true Indian Dream!

Caught Between Scylla and Charybdis

A short description of a funny incident in my life, deeply etched in my mind;
World War II saw me serving in a quasi-Military organization, put in charge of the ARP setup (Air Raid Precaution) in Madurai.

Link : Air Raid Precaution - Another view

We, the men in blue (MIB perhaps) were a special target of attack, as the police officer in-charge had dropped his blue, put on kakhi and joined the police force for the emergency.

No, not them....
Not Them either...

This is who I'm talking about (Blue in black and white!)
That provoked the people and anyone in blue was open game.

On a dark night, with a black-out in force, I received a message from the control room, reporting the assembly of a large crowd, covered in a dark aura and in a violent threatening mood!

The voice of the officer incharge of the room (shivering in palpable fear) moved me so much that I decided that I must join him; at least to give him moral support.

I started walking up the street in mufti to save myself from the crowd.

Suddenly, I found that a part of the crowd was moving up behind me, armed with sticks and stones. In front there was a column of police officers ready with guns and lathis. Vehicles in the service, head light acting as search beacons, were put to use to pick out demonstrators hiding in nooks and corners so that they could be properly dealt with.

Side Note : This brings to mind, The charge of the Light Brigade, only nowhere as dramatic to the rest of the world, but my skin was valuable enough to me!

Link : The Charge of the Light Brigade : The poem

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley'd and thunder'd;

Caught between the Devil and the Deep sea, I suddenly walked into what I thought was a by-lane, only to find myself facing a closed door.

The people in the house were in no mood to help me out, but the tone of my voice (and the frenetic knocking!) must have ultimately stirred their hearts to sympathy and the doors ware suddenly thrust open, I was pulled in and immediately they were shut behind me.

A few minutes, the clash of lathis and sticks, the crash of stones and guns fired into the air, and then the streets were deserted. I proceeded, with caution, to the control room only to find everything normal and under control, the crowd having already dispersed. Much ado and effort over naught!

I wondered then, is not discretion the better part of valor!!

For those not well versed in Greek lore : Between Scylla and Charybdis

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Patriotism and Recollections

I read recently a study of the mémoires of a British soldier who participated in the Revolution of 1857 (or rebellion as they would have it) glorifying the courage, the presence of mind and patriotism of the British troops . He did not acknowledge the help given, by a sizable section of  troops, consisting of the Sikhs, the frontier men and the Gurkhas, who came to the aid of the British soldiers at a critical moment.

The perusal of this book brought back to my mind a scene during the Quit India movement, to which I was a witness. In Madurai a large crowd had gathered in the square near Meenakshi Amman Temple to demonstrate and to protest against the arrest of Congress Leaders. As I stood in the crowd, I witnessed the police men, all Indians, open fire against their own brothers.

It is sad to recall that some of our men seemed to lack that same sense of patriotism which this English man boasted of.

Revolution if 1857
Image Source :

Links to the Book I read :
Free Digital Read at Project Gutenberg

Kindle Version at Amazon

Paper Back : Forty-one Years In India, From Subaltern To Commander-in-chief

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The theory and the practice : A compromise

Life, I've figured, is a continuous process of weighing and matching theory and practice.
The gap between the ideal and the norm is large and reducing that distance is the work of a life time!
Each time I enter a temple, I go with the pious resolution that I should pray to God, ask for his Grace only and not make any demands.
But the minute I'm in front of the Deity, my resolutions are forgotten and my idealistic theories are lost.
That which is uppermost in my mind is a prayer; for success, for health and for happiness. For that which is mine and for those that are mine.
After all this time, I still wonder, where exactly does theory meet practice?

A stickler faced with change at age 95!

I see the world around me change so much faster than I can change to adjust; so irretrievably and sometimes intolerably, but tolerate it I must, because change is inevitable.
When the changes become revolutionary, men like me, sticklers for tradition, find themselves at sea, adrift, and placed in situations where we need to either accommodate or get out!
I reflect on the traditions of the past and the ever changing face of modern India.