Monday, 19 September 2011



One doesn't stop learning till the last breath. Unfortunately no one has been able to come back after the last breath to tell what was the learning experience he/she had when taking that breath. Life, to my mind, is a continuous learning experience. The teachers are very many, some elder than you, some your peers, some younger than you, and even your children and grandchildren. It has been my experience that in life sentinel events take place and it is for you to discern and decipher the hidden meanings and implications of these events. Of course, a wise man should assimilate these experiences and modify the behavioral patterns accordingly. If you do not do that, you are bound to get nasty surprises in your day-to-day life.

The incident that I am now going to narrate happened in 2002. My wife and I were visiting our elder daughter and her family in Florida. The visit was also prompted by our daughter having her second baby, the first one being born in 2000. Our son-in-law and daughter were very adamant that we should not be around during delivery. Since I am a physician with a fair amount of experience I was quite keen to be there for the delivery knowing that my daughter had been through a cesarean section for the first baby and that, in all probability, she will have a repeat cesarean section for this baby also. However, we were expressly forbidden to be there for the delivery. Therefore, we landed up there five days after the baby was delivered. Our daughter had returned home by then with the new baby. Being bereft of any help in the house our daughter was finding it extremely difficult to manage her elder daughter and the new baby together. She was also physically very weak. The son-in-law had to rejoin his work within one week. Suffice to say that our arrival made things better. We could take care of the logistical arrangements at home and attend to the needs of our daughter and the elder granddaughter. Slowly but steadily our daughter improved her physical condition and over a period of a few weeks she was up and about and taking care of her chores.

One morning I was sitting in the drawing room reading a book when I heard my daughter talking to the elder granddaughter. Initially it sounded as mild rebuke for some minor mischief the child had done. And, therefore, I did not pay much attention to it. But my daughter carried on and kept upping the ante. Soon the decibel level of her voice also increased. She was berating the little one and threatening her with dire consequences if she ever repeated whatever mistake she had done. It did not stop with that. My daughter kept on at it for quite a few minutes, increasing the tempo every minute. Although I was engrossed in reading the book, I could not help listening to this tirade. When it crossed my tolerance limit I called out to my daughter and said “Buchu! [her pet name] I think you should stop this right now. You’ve shouted at her enough. After all she is only a two-year-old kid”. I stated these words with some vehemence.

“OK Dadda!” acknowledged my daughter. And she promptly stopped berating the little one. I could hear the suppressed sniffling of my granddaughter. I got up and went to her, picked her up, opened the door and went to the backyard all the while consoling her and telling her that everything will be fine. Soon she was back to normal playful mood. Incidentally, I have always wondered at the capacity of young children to put negativity behind them within seconds. How I wish grown-ups like us can do that by leaving behind our unsavory baggage when interacting with people! I brought the child back into the house and she went back to playing with her toys. I too settled down in my armchair with the book I was reading.

I could hear my daughter tinkering around in the exposed kitchen, a typical arrangement in any American house. Suddenly she called out to me and asked me “Dadda! Care for some coffee?” I replied that I would love to have it. After some time, she came to the living room with two mugs of steaming coffee and handed over one to me. She said “Dadda! I want to sit in your lap”. I said “Sure Darling! Come right over”. In a jiffy she was snuggling up with me holding her coffee cup. We talked about some inane matters for a few minutes all the while sipping our coffee. Then my daughter suddenly asked me “Dadda! Do you remember the days we spent in Bhutan when I was a little child?” I replied in the affirmative. “Oh, it used to be so cold there!” she said. I nodded my head. “You know Dadda, I have vivid memories of my childhood there”.

I was desperately trying to figure out her drift and as to why my daughter had suddenly started talking about Bhutan. I did not have to wait long because she carried on “I cannot forget one incident which happened there. I don’t know Dadda whether you remember it or not”. It was then that I started getting an uneasy premonition of what this daughter of mine was getting at. All the same, I asked her what was that specific incident which was etched in her mind even though she was a three-year-old baby at that time.  She said, “You remember Dadda, I used to sleep between you and Mamma along with Kakku [her younger sister]. One night I got up and did not feel like going back to sleep. Mamma tried her level best to put me back to sleep; but I resisted and started crying saying that I did not want to go back to sleep and that I wanted to play. You were fast asleep all the while till I started crying loudly. Then you got up and asked Mamma what was the problem. When Mamma told you that I was being obstinate and not obeying her directions, you told me to stop crying and go back to sleep. After that you turned to the other side to go back to sleep. I stopped crying for a few minutes and then started back again with great vigor. What you did then was quite amazing. You turned and with your huge hand picked me up from the bed as though I was some small toy and put me down on the carpet next to the bed. You promptly went back to sleep. I remember lying there in the semi-darkness and crying for some time more when Mamma got up and put me back in bed. You were fast asleep by then. This incident, Dadda, I have been unable to forget. I used to feel quite upset about it for a few years but now looking back in retrospect I feel that you were quite right in taking this harsh step at that time.”

She said all these things without any rancor and with a smile on her face. But the impact of the whole statement on me was quite heavy indeed. It did not take me much time to realize that in her own sweet way my daughter had told me not to interfere with the way she was bringing up her daughter. The message was quite loud and clear, although couched in a very palatable package. I looked up at my daughter who is still cuddling in my lap and told her “Beta! I have understood precisely what you wanted to convey. I will ensure that you will not get another opportunity to remind me about this issue.” My daughter broke into a huge smile, give me a hug and said “Dada! You're simply the best!”

After this incident, I have studiously and consciously avoided interfering in the way my children and their spouses are bringing up their children. Even when my wife and I spend long vacations with my children we make it a point to keep quiet about the way our children treat their children, even if we do not accept it. The point is that grandparents all over the world tend to be more relaxed and less strict when it comes to disciplining the grandchildren. I am convinced that in the long run this misplaced leniency can cause problems to the growing children. As parents most of us have been quite strict with our children and did not broach any indiscipline. But as grandparents it is altogether a different ballgame. My wife and I have understood it completely. As a result our holidays without children are exceptional because we, in no way, interfere with the disciplinary routine of the households of our daughters.

All of you there who are grandparents please take note!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011



ACR is an acronym for annual confidential report. It is a yearly assessment given by the senior on the performance of his juniors. In a strictly vertical and hierarchical organization like the Army this report was initiated by the immediate superior officer and was reviewed by the next senior man in the hierarchy. The Armed Forces all over the world attach great importance to this report for the purposes of promotions, specialized assignments, selection for training courses etc. etc. The Indian Army is no exception. In fact, there seems to be a near–total reliance on this report as far as selections for promotion and plum assignments are concerned. It is more or less left to the subjective judgment of the superior officer as to what is his assessment of the performance of the junior officer during the course of one year. Although the Armed Forces make, and keep making, concerted and sincere efforts to eliminate the subjectivity as much as possible, these efforts are not always successful. Elaborate forms are made so that all angles and aspects of the officer's character, basic attributes, official performance etc. are factored in and given numeric values. In addition, the superior officer who is initiating this ACR was also expected to write a ‘pen picture’ of the junior officer. Because of the extraordinary importance of the ACR many superior officers did not hesitate to wield it as a weapon to subdue and subjugate the junior officers. The ever-present danger of ‘a bad ACR’ was like the proverbial sword of Damocles hanging over the head of all junior officers, especially those who were career oriented.
Now that I have acquainted you about the overpowering the importance of ACR and the adverse effects of a low marking in the ACR, you will be able to appreciate that most of the career officers in the Armed Forces tend to avoid annoying their immediate superior officer for fear of vindictiveness on his part when initiating the ACR. I have known of more than a handful of excellent officers whose careers were blighted by the spiteful nature of their superior officers who gave them relatively low marks in their ACRs. This subjectivity in assessing the performance of officers is one of the serious flaws affecting the promotion system in the Armed Forces. Continuous efforts are being made to negate this unsavory situation. I too contributed my small measure in this exercise while I was in charge of the personnel section of the Army Medical Corps (AMC) in the Army Headquarters. But still serious mistakes do take place with promising careers ruined based on the whims and fancies and idiosyncrasies of the officers who initiate the ACRs. Of course there are great exceptions to this. And this little piece is about one such gentleman whom I had the privilege of serving under.
This incident happened when I was the Commanding Officer (CO) of 60 Parachute Field Ambulance. This unit, being the only airborne medical unit of the Indian Army, was the integral medical element of the Parachute Brigade. As the CO of 60 PARA, as my unit was universally known, I was the medical advisor to the commander of the Parachute Brigade. Therefore, he was my immediate superior officer to whom I was directly responsible. You can also appreciate that by being my immediate superior officer, the commander was also the initiating officer for my ACR. So it was in the interests of my career that I keep my relationship with this gentleman as best as possible. Although during my tenure as the CO of 60 PARA I had the privilege of having three brigadiers as my commander, this incident pertains to the gentleman who was the second in the list. He was an old colleague from 9 Parachute Commando Battalion where I was the RMO and he was one of the group commanders. Therefore, we were well known to each other. When he took over as the commander of the Parachute Brigade I was, naturally, one of the very happy persons. I must mention here that there are certain special embellishments that the commandos wear in their uniforms as a mark of identification. In the brigade there were only two of us were in that distinguishing emblems. Of course, these emblems were a matter of jealousy for other officers. In his first conference of all the commanding officers he announced that he does not have to interact with me specifically because we both belonged to the Special Forces and knew each other fairly well. Needless to say this kind of mention elevated my stature in the eyes of my peers, by which I mean the other commanding officers. The commander made it a point to show everyone that my wife and I were special people for his wife and himself even in all social occasions. Suffice to say that I had an excellent working as well as social relationship with this thoroughbred soldier.

Things were going on smoothly when one day I got a call from my adjutant who told me that the commander wanted to speak to me. Soon he came on the line and even without any customary pleasantries and launched into a tirade against my unit and me. For the initial few minutes I could not even fathom as to what was the issue because he was pouring it out on me. After a minute or so I could sense his drift and could understand what the problem was. It was only a routine fiasco that happened between my unit and the Parachute Training School (PTS) of the Indian Air Force, which led to the cancellation of the morning training jumps on that day. I had known about it the first thing in the morning in the office. And I was aware that it was caused by the breakdown of the truck that was transporting my troops to the PTS that morning. By the time another truck fetched up in the troops reached the PTS the aircraft had already taken off. I tried to explain the situation to the commander in between his volleys, but was not successful. On the contrary the decibel level of his voice kept increasing till the time he was almost screaming. I too had lost my temper by that time and banged my telephone down. I was fuming with rage and decided to go and meet him in person.

The brigade headquarters where the commander had his office was about 6 km away from my location. I was so angry that I decided to put in my application to be removed immediately from the Parachute Brigade because I was no more a volunteer for airborne duties, and because I did not want to serve under this commander. To those who are not familiar with the ethos of airborne troops in the Indian Army, may I state that this was the ultimate weapon any active paratrooper can use to emphasize his disagreement with the prevailing situation in any airborne unit. It required signing of a specific form in which it was stated that the individual was no more willing for active airborne duties. Since it was imperative that all ranks in an airborne formation had to be active paratroopers any person who was not willing to be an active paratrooper had to be posted out of that formation immediately. I, in my rage, filled up one of these forms called Non-Para Volunteer (NPV) forms, summoned my official vehicle and proceeded to the commander's office.

When I reached his office I told his staff officer that I wanted to meet him immediately. The staff officer went inside the commander's office to announce my request. He came back and told me that the commander was busy and will see me the next day. I was in no mood to hear this kind of officialese. I got up, opened the door to his office and barged in. The commander looked up from the paper that he was perusing and appeared quite surprised to see me. After the mandatory salute I pulled up a chair and sat down. In the strictly hierarchical customs of the Army a junior officer is not supposed to take a seat in the office of a senior officer unless the seat was offered. Before the commander could react to my sitting down without his permission I launched into expressing what I felt about his behavior in the morning on telephone with me. Not letting him speak in between, I told him in no uncertain terms as to what I felt about him, his style of command and his way of speaking on telephone. Being a man with a brittle temper, he too started getting red in the face and commenced interrupting me. Very soon it developed into a shouting match between both of us. The decibel levels also reached quite high. [I was told later on by the staff of the brigade headquarters that we were audible to most officers during the peak of our verbal battle!]

I then produced the signed form that I was carrying in my pocket and gave it to him. He asked me it was my NPV Form as I was no more interested in serving with him and that this was my formal application to be withdrawn from active airborne duties. It was natural that once I am a non-volunteer for airborne duties I had to be posted out immediately. This was especially so because I was the CO of a large unit in the parachute brigade. The commander said, “I'm not accepting this. Take this bloody paper back!” “No, I'm not taking it back. You can do what you want with it but from this instant I’m no more the CO of 60 PARA”, I replied.

I did not wait for his reaction but got up, gave the perfunctory salute to him and stormed out of his office. I was in the same mood even when I reached my unit and my office. A couple of hours went by when my adjutant again told me that the commander wanted to speak to me. I told him to inform the commander that I did not want to speak to him. Nothing happened for another hour. Then I was informed that the commander's vehicle is at my unit gate. By the time I could get out of my office to accord a proper reception to him, the commander had already alighted from this vehicle and was walking towards my office. I greeted him in the appropriate military way and escorted him to my office. He sat down and told me that he had come to take me to the officers' mess for a beer. Still fuming I declined the offer. He then said, “Kenny, it's a bloody order. Be there in the mess within half an hour's time.” He did not wait for my reaction but stood up, put on his cap and walked out of my office with me in tow. He got into his vehicle and zoomed away without a word.

Initially I was in a quandary as to how to react to this invitation. But I decided to take up his invitation and reached the brigade officers' mess in about half an hour's time. I could discern that the commander was already inside the mess because his vehicle was parked in the porch. I went to the bar and found him sitting on a barstool. He ordered beers for both of us. The barman respectfully placed two mugs of beer before us. We said, “Cheers!” and started downing the beer. There was an uneasy silence between both of us. Soon the mugs were empty and were dutifully refilled by the barman. Half way through the second mug of beer the commander said, “Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you come and shout at me in my office? And how dare you sign your NPV form?”
“And who the hell do you think you are?” I asked.
“I am the commander of this bloody brigade and I'm your boss” he said.
“You may be the commander of this brigade but you are no more my boss as I have already signed my NPV form and given to you” I replied.
“This damned piece of paper” he said pulling out my NPV form from his pocket. “I'm going to show you what I am planning to do with this”. He then proceeded to tear it into bits and put it in the ashtray on the bar counter.
“Kenny, you idiot! You and me go a long way back and is this the way to behave with me?” he asked.
“You too should have thought about it when you yelled at me on telephone in the morning”, I countered.
“OK! OK! Let bygones be bygones and let us forget it”, so saying he extended his hand. I took it and we both burst out laughing. He then said, “Let us get our girls!”. We sent our vehicles to get our wives. They soon joined us and our session in the bar went on till 5 PM.

Uneventful and routine days and weeks followed. Soon it was time for the initiation of the ACR. I was acutely aware that some superior officers kept incidents like this in their mind and reflected the effect of these in the ACR when they wrote it. So when the commander called me to see the ACR he has written on me and to sign it, as it was a mandatory requirement, I was more or less reconciled that there will be a blotch in the report. I went to his office. He produced the completed ACR before me. I went to the page where my signature was required, signed it and handed it back to him.
“Don't you want to see what I have written?” he queried.
“No Sir, I am not interested in seeing. It is your prerogative to write whatever you felt like”, I replied.
“I insist that you see it”, he said handing back the ACR to me. I started going through it and found that he had graded me as an ‘exceptionally outstanding officer’, the highest grading which can be given by an initiating officer when writing the ACR. In the ‘pen picture’ he had described to me in glowing terms and had made a categorical statement that he would love to have me by his side as a commanding officer when going into battle. This was the ultimate accolade any commander could give to his commanding officers. I was quite moved by this and I told him, “Sir, I don't think I deserve such a report”.
“It is not for you to decide and this is what I really feel about you”, he retorted. I said thank you and came out of his office.

Years later, when I was in the position to see my entire career dossier I came to know that this ACR by this commander was the best I ever got during my 20–odd years service as a paratrooper in the Indian Army. I remember with great affection and respect this short–statured but large-hearted soldiers' soldier who never carried any grudge in his mind. As he is no more gracing the earth with his presence I pray that his soul is resting in peace and comfort in the heavenly abode.

Sunday, 24 July 2011



This incident happened in 1992. We were located in Delhi at that time and my elder daughter had qualified to be admitted into the engineering college at Hyderabad. She had put in painstaking efforts to achieve this and we, as a family, felt extremely happy and elated. The results came in the middle of March and she was to join the college in June.

After the initial sense of euphoria wore off it became slowly and painfully aware to all of us that she had to be away from us quite soon. To me that was the inevitable beginning of the end; by which I mean the first step in the dispersal of the close family of ours. I took solace in the fact that this was the way of the world and I should not let my personal and selfish interests curtail the career and ambitions of my daughter. I kept reminding myself of a song by Paul Anka, which my daughters and I had made it into some kind of an anthem of our house. The song is called ‘Papa’ and one line in that goes, ‘your children grow through you; their growing needs you too.’

Throughout this period of waiting and preparing for the eventual departure of my daughter, she was her normal exuberant self. At times, even when melancholy descended on the atmosphere at home, it was she who kept the spirits up by her ebullient behavior and positive attitude. There was not even a trace of apprehension or fear in her. To all intents and purposes she appeared extremely keen to join the college and become an engineer.

The days passed insidiously and soon enough the day of the little one leaving us dawned. I was to escort her from Delhi to Hyderabad where she was to be staying with a friend's family till the time the hostel of the college opened. Departure from the house and later parting at the airport was an emotional roller coaster for my wife and my younger daughter. The elder daughter, who was the one going to the college, appeared totally unfazed and cool about this whole process. Never once did her eyes well up nor did she ever show any signs of sadness. I felt quite proud of her and thought that her mother and I had brought her up in a proper way and that some genes of my ancestors’ known, or rather notorious, for their hard- line attitude towards life had percolated down to her.

Soon we boarded the aircraft. Even though her sister broke down at the airport she seemed unaffected. We landed in Hyderabad and I had made some arrangements for our overnight stay in an officer's mess. The next day was spent in buying certain essential items for her use at the hostel. It was towards 4 PM that we decided to go to the place where my daughter was to stay for a few days waiting for the hostel to open. And by the time we reached there, met my friend it was already becoming dusk. I was booked on an evening flight back to Delhi and therefore I had to say bye-bye to my daughter.

She stood up, hugged me tight and told me not to worry and that everything will   right etc. etc. I too told her that she will be taken care of by my friend and his family and they will ensure that she is properly ensconced in her hostel. After kissing her I bid goodbye to my friend and his family and started walking towards my waiting military vehicle. It was then that I had a muted scream, “Dadaaa!” Turning around I saw my daughter running towards me. I stopped and took a few steps towards her. She ran towards me and clung on to me for dear life; and she was crying. All those tears that she, perhaps, held back over the past two months gushed out of her in a torrent. It took all my composure and logic to hold myself from taking this little one along with me back to Delhi. It took me a fair amount of time to console her and calm her down so that she could become a normal self, or at least somewhere near it.

I got into my vehicle and instructed the driver to take me to the airport. It was already dark and the neon signs along the road were all lit up. Gazing casually at them I found that they were all blurred. I was wondering as to why the advertising people do not put up legible signboards rather than smudging and obfuscating them. But soon I realized that all the signboards were appearing the same. I do not know what happened but involuntarily my hands went to my eyes. To my surprise, I became aware that my eyes were full of tears. Realization hit me like a ton of bricks that the signboards were not faulty but they were appearing to be so to me because of the tears in my eyes.

And it was then that I knew what the pain of separation from one's daughter is all about! A pain that refuses to go away even now when both my daughters are living with their spouses and children.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011



Paratroopers and Special Forces personnel all over the world are notorious for their idiosyncratic behavior and extreme unpredictability. This, coupled with extraordinary physical fitness, esprit de corps and a no-nonsense approach to every problem make them stand out from the rest of the Armed Forces. In the Indian Army also this dictum applies. The system encourages this kind of individualistic, and sometimes even aberrant, behavior especially among officers of the airborne and Special Forces units. Perhaps these become the bedrock of the operational efficiency of these elite units because these foster a self-image in the officers that they are something different from the rest of the Armed Forces. Such a feeling of superiority is vital for success in the kind of difficult operations wherein such personnel are employed.

Even amongst these specialized personnel there is a bit of class differentiation between regular paratroopers and Special Forces soldiers who are also fully trained paratroopers in addition to other specific training peculiar to their vocation. So it is but natural that Special Forces troopers consider themselves to be at the top of the food chain. In the rigid hierarchical pecking order of the Army these troopers were at the apex.

It was with great trepidation and apprehension that I joined 9 Parachute Commando Battalion as RMO in the early 1970s. I was not even a paratrooper at that time. It was imperative that I had to successfully complete one month's probation to be accepted in to the battalion. This probation was, and is, a mandatory requirement before anyone who has so volunteered is accepted into the fold of airborne troops. As mentioned earlier the special forces boys considered themselves, and rightly so, to be something more than the regular paratroopers. And here I was who had to first become a paratrooper and then hope to become a commando. So the going was really tough and it was made tougher by the superior attitude displayed by officers in the unit. The rigors and struggles and travails that I had to undergo to pass this probation and later on complete the ‘commando course’ will form the pith of another piece of written work. Therefore, I leave it for that.
Soon, I did complete my probation although I am sure that in many of the physical tests I might have looked quite ridiculous in the eyes of my probation officer who used to be all the time supervising my activities with an eagle eye. Granting of the maroon beret, which is the trademark of paratroopers all over the world, followed this. I was then dispatched to Agra for the initial training and jumps. When I returned back I had to undergo a severe commando course of 40 days duration. By this time I was physically quite hardened and was as good or as bad as any other young officer in the unit. I was also legitimately quite proud and excited that I have passed the rigorous tests and have now become a qualified Special Forces commando. It was only much later that I realized that I was the first doctor to be so trained in the Indian Army.

I was officially accepted into the unit in a small ceremony held in the office of the commanding officer. And I was told that my formal dining in in the officers' mess would soon be conducted. Sure enough I was given the official invitation to attend my dining in party in the officers' mess along with my wife. It was early March and the hilly cantonment of Bakloh where we were located was quite nippy in the evenings. Being a formal officers' mess function we had to don our winter mess dress, which is called in the army as ‘the blue patrols’ because of the navy blue color of the tunic. By the time my wife and I arrived at the mess as the guests of honor for that evening all other officers and ladies including the commanding officer and his wife were already present in the officers' mess. We were received with due courtesy and escorted to the anteroom. The commanding officer was all grace personified. I was asked as to what I would prefer to drink. In those days, rum was not served in officers' mess. And even though Scotch whiskey was becoming more and more difficult to obtain, that was the drink of choice during dining in of officers. Therefore, when I was asked my preference of a drink I said that I would have a scotch and soda. This was promptly brought to me and the commanding officer led the toast to felicitate me on my successful induction into the Special Forces.

The peculiar traditions of the Indian Army, most of which have been taken from the British Army, entailed that the officer who is being dined in was a guest in his own mess for that evening. Hence it was mandatory that the other officers should look after him and his wife during that evening. Since I was the guest of honor for that evening I expected that once I had finished my first drink it would be refilled expeditiously. But even after a few minutes of my finishing the first Scotch and soda, which was offered to me I found no one taking any initiative to refill my glass. After waiting for a few more minutes I sauntered across to the bar where most of my fellow junior officers had congregated. They were all enjoying themselves and none of them cared to ask me whether I needed another drink. And I was not supposed to ask the barman to refill my glass because, as mentioned earlier, I was the guest of honor that evening and not a member of the mess. I was getting quite perplexed and a bit angry when the second-in-command and the commanding officer also joined us in the bar. I then told the commanding officer,

“Sir, why am I not being offered a second drink?”

“But Kenny, you've not finished your drink. How can we pour another one when you are not finished.”

I looked at my glass once again and found that it was empty and bone dry. I held it up to the commanding officer and said,

“Sir, this glass is empty.”

He had a look, took the glass away from me and showed it to the second-in-command. The second-in-command then told me that the glass was not empty. I was getting more confused and was starting to doubt whether even the first drink given to me was spiked and that I was seeing things. I did not have to ponder about it much because the second-in-command said,

“Yes Kenny, I agree there is no drink in the glass but there is the glass. You have to do justice to that!”
I was about to ask him what he meant by that when without much ado he promptly broke the rim of the glass he was holding in his hand and started chewing the broken piece of glass. I was aghast and my jaw dropped. As if on cue all other officers but the commanding officer started doing the same. They seemed to be apparently enjoying this. I cannot fully describe what my feelings were at that time. I was petrified with the prospect of chewing the glass because, as a doctor, I was fully aware of the dangerous consequences of even a small spicule of glass piercing through the intestines which could lead onto dangerous if not fatal peritonitis. I decided not to do this and told the second-in-command,

“I'm sorry Sir, but this is madness. You guys don't know the complications that can happen if even one small piece of glass gets through to your intestines. I don't think I'll be able to do this.”

“Well Kenny, you cannot be dined in unless you follow our example. So, go ahead. Nothing will happen to you. After all don't you know that glass is essentially made of sand? Don't bother. Break a piece of the glass in your hand, chew it and swallow it down with some whiskey.”

I do not know what became of me at that time because I decided that having come thus far and having endured nearly unimaginable physical stress over the previous five months, I was not going to be denied the final formal entry into the special forces just because I was afraid to eat glass. So, with grim resolve I bit down on the rim of the glass I was holding in my hand. To my unpleasant surprise I found that it was extremely difficult to break the rim of the glass. So I used more force and finally the glass broke. But unfortunately the sharp broken edge did not show any mercy to my upper lip. It was cut at two places fairly deep and blood started flowing out of the cuts. By now I was far too gone into the exercise for me to worry about anything. I had the broken piece of glass in my mouth and started chewing it for all I was worth. The mess waiter and some officers thrust a few napkins into my face while I was chewing.

All the time vividly remembering the complications of a piece of glass entering my intestines, I chewed and chewed till the time my jaw muscles started aching. By that time the piece of glass in my mouth was pulverized into sand that was giving a tingling sensation to my teeth. The glass I was holding in my hand and from which I had taken this bite was removed and a new glass full of scotch and soda was thrust into my hand. Gratefully I took a deep swallow and unmindful of the severe pain caused by the alcohol touching the raw areas of my cut upper lip, twirled the liquid in my mouth and gulped it down. To be honest it basically tasted of my blood mixed with the sandy residue of the glass piece. The moment I did this there was a big shout from the officers and each one started congratulating me beginning with the commanding officer. I was then escorted back to the anteroom where all ladies were sitting. I can never forget the look of utter disbelief and consternation of my wife seeing my dripping blood from the lips yet laughing away along with the other officers. Later on many times she told me that it was a horrifying scene for her. I was then asked to perform the mandatory six ‘Para Rolls' that were taught to us at the Parachute Training School. Once I did this on the large carpet of the anteroom in front of all the ladies and officers, my induction to the Special Forces was full and complete.

I never indulged in this horrifying activity of glass eating ever again in my life. But surprises never stop. Years later, I was witness to another such glass eating episode in another special forces battalion in which some ladies also participated. I do not know whether such customs are still extant in the Special Forces battalions. Maybe this was caused by the extreme desire to be someone totally different than others. I for one have to only close my eyes to experience the taste of blood, sand, and whiskey, which was a mixture I swallowed on a cold evening in Bakloh. Of course, now I reminisce about this incident with a bit of pride. Perhaps, that pride is well deserved!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011



Amongst all animals it is only the Homo sapiens who have the predilection to assign names for every individual. One is not aware whether the great apes, which are so close to, us in intellect and appearance also have some such method in the various calls that they use to communicate with each other. Be it as it is, this piece is not about animals. It is about the most intelligent animal of all human being.

In all societies a newborn child has got no say in the name that it is given, whether male or female. Usually it is left to the choice of the parents or grandparents. These worthies indulge in their unexpressed fantasies in naming the new arrival in the family. The results are sometimes quite ludicrous, sometimes painful for the bearer of the name, sometimes thought provoking, sometimes philosophical etc. At time of the naming of the child hardly any thought is given to the situation that he or she is likely to face later on in life. 

In certain parts of India it is an accepted practice to add the name of the father plus the name of the family and in some cases even the name of the village to the name of the child. Therefore there can be a first name, there can be a second name, there can be a third name and a fourth name for the same person.

I think that the Srilankans are the unquestioned champions in this. Look at the names of their cricketers. In abbreviated form it is common to find W.D.H.P.X.A. SENANAYAKA. If anyone takes the trouble of finding out what this stand for it comes out that the father, the grandfather, the family and the village are represented in this name.

I have been a sufferer of the flights of fantasies of my father when naming me. Being very proud, and naturally so, of our lineage he insisted that the family name should be attached to the first names of all of us three brothers. Of course his name had to be also there. The end result was my name as ‘Premnath G Kainikkara’. Little did I realize the implications of this name till the time was commissioned into the Indian Army. One of the first forms that I had to fill instructed implicitly that the full name should be entered with expanded initials. So there I was from ‘Premnath G.Kainikkara’  to ‘Premnath Govinda Pillai Kainikkara’, ‘Govinda Pillai’ being my father’s name. The Armed Forces bureaucracy in India is in a different class by itself. There are no comparable systems anywhere else in the world to the best of my knowledge. That system, in its own wisdom, decided to name me as ‘PGP Kainikkara’. The word ‘Kainikkara’ is difficult to pronounce even in Kerala, where I come from. It was virtually impossible for my colleagues from all other parts of India to pronounce and spell this name. But there was no choice and I was ‘Lt. PGP Kainikkara’ in Military Hospital, Ambala in the autumn of 1969.

Things were going on in a routine way when suddenly the information came that the General Officer Commanding In Chief of Western Army Command was to inspect the Military Hospital. The army dictum of salute if it moves and paint it if it is stationary was applied in full force in the hospital to prepare for the visit. Soon the day arrived and we officers were all lined up to be introduced to the visiting general. Introductions on such occasions are choreographed to perfection in the army wherein the commanding officer of the unit moves down the line of the officers standing as per their ranks and telling the names of each one to the visiting dignitary. The visiting dignitary is then given a salute by the officer followed by a perfunctory handshake and some inane questions by the dignitary and monosyllable answers by the officers. Being the junior most officer at that time in the Military Hospital, Ambala, I was standing the last. My commanding officer, tall, handsome, Sikh belonging to the Royal family of Kapoorthala Punjab was introducing the officers to the General.

I had seen the pictures of this general and I definitely knew his name. He was Lt. General K.P. Candeth. He was a short stocky man with huge moustache and a booming voice. He was known for a no-nonsense approach and notorious for his sticky attitude as far as military etiquettes and discipline was concerned. History hails him as the victor of Goa because he was the general who led the troops into Goa during the short campaign to oust the Portuguese from there. Later on in 1971 Indo Pak war, General Candeth exhibited his brilliance on the western front.

Let us revert back to my predicament. After standing in line for almost fifteen minutes, finally my turn came to salute the general. I did that with as much as smartness I could master at that time and looking straight ahead I suddenly realized that because of the disparities in our height I was looking well over the gold-braided cap of the General. By that time my commanding officer was trying to introduce me to the general. The words went something like this, “Sir! This is my new officer” “His name is Katakada!” By that time the general had his hand extended and I was grasping it. The general tilted his head looked up to my commanding officer and asked him “Jasbir! What did you say the name is?”  “Sir! Kinnikkara”! Still holding my hand the general turned to my commanding officer and asked “Jasbir what is my name?” “Sir! Candeth Sir!” “Like hell! It is not bloody Candeth” “It is Kunjiraman Palaat Candoth! Can you ever pronounce that Jasbir!” and coming further closer to me he said, “Don’t worry son! Do so well in this army that people will be forced to spell and pronounce your name correctly”. His words were of great motivation for me to excel in whatever I did later on to ensure that what he prophesied in 1969 became true in the later years.

It is not only in the defense bureaucracy that mutilations of names occur. Some do it on their own and change the names to fairly unrecognizable ones. Let me give a few instances that I have personal knowledge. Long years back while working in the main street of Trivandrum (now Thiruvananthapuram) holding the hand of my father I read a board hanging that said “GO Pal”. I read it out loudly as any young boy who has learned recently to read well. My father then told me how this name came. This worthy doctor had his given name as “Gopalan”. When he went abroad for studies he modernized it as ‘GO Pal’.                 

Years later while attending college I opted for French language as the second language to be studied. The lecturer who taught me was ‘Mr. Madhavin’. That sure was an unusual name. Soon I was made to understand that this gentleman has his original name as ‘Madhavan Nair’. When he went to Paris to learn French, off went the tail of ‘Nair’ and from ‘Madhavan’ he became ‘Madhavin’.

After graduating from the Medical College and having served in the Indian army for more than 20 years I took voluntary premature retirement and went to the United States for Post-Graduate studies. Knowing that more than twenty of my erstwhile classmates were settled in US, I made earnest efforts to locate as many of them as possible. With a fair amount of difficulty I was able to obtain the contact numbers of most of them. The majority still answered to the name that they were christened, but two individuals were dramatically different. There was one classmate of mine whose name was ‘MK Kumar’. He was fairly a close buddy of mine and I was therefore, quite keen to meet him after almost about 25 years. I got his number and rang up. The lady who picked up said “Good morning! Dr. Madom’s office! Can I help you?” I was taken aback and thought that perhaps I have dialed the wrong number. I rechecked the number and dialed again, with the same result. I then contacted another classmate of mine and verified the correctness of the number that I was dialing. He assured me that the number is the correct one. This put me in a quandery. I thought about it and suddenly it dawned on me that I have reached my friend Kumar’s office only. Let me tell you how. The ‘M’ in the name ‘MK Kumar’ stood for his house name, which was ‘Mecherimadom’. When he went to US married a Norwegian lady he decided that he should thenceforth be known as ‘Dr. M.K. Madom’. He was very sheepish when I confronted him; but there it was.

Yet another classmate could not be located by the name he was known while he was my classmate and that was ‘RP Venugopalan Nair’. I knew the hospital and the department where he was working. Try as I might I was stonewalled by the sweet talking lady in the department who finally told me that there was only one doctor of Indian origin working in the department and that he was the head of the department. I asked the name of this gentlemen and I was told that he is ‘Dr. Rama P Venu’. It took me sometime to realize that from ‘Ramachandran Pillai Venugopalan Nair’ he converted himself to ‘Rama P Venu’. Of course I did meet him and he said that he had to change the name because this name made easier for his friends and colleagues in the hospital to call him!!
So, after all, what’s in a name?

Monday, 18 July 2011



This incident that I am going to narrate is a bit strange and may not agree well with many people. However, I thought that I must not hold back telling this story just because it may not get the aesthetic approval of some people. I'm also sure that some others may find this quite interesting and out of the ordinary.

This happened while I was the RMO of 9 Parachute Commando battalion. We were located in the quaint cantonment of Bakloh nestling in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. It was an old cantonment, which was literally perched on a fairly steep hill facing the plains of Punjab. The scenic beauty of the areas surrounding this cantonment defied description. The hills were heavily wooded and had a pristine character about them. There was an omnipresent delicate aroma of pine oil all over the place because of the abundance of pine trees in the area. As part of the rigorous training of a commando battalion it was an imperative for all officers and men to be proficient in the use of firearms. Actually, it was not only proficiency but we were expected to be sharpshooters with our personal weapons.  Being a doctor did not give me any leeway to get any exemption from attaining this level of expertise with a firearm because the doctrine of commandos did not differentiate whether one was a doctor, specialized engineer or any other such professional when compared to a regular fighting soldier. So it was necessary for me also to spend time in the firing range so that my skills in using my firearm were honed to perfection.

Being surrounded by unpopulated hills it was fairly easy to create firing ranges for various kinds of weapons in the cantonment of Bakloh. It was mandatory that at least once, if not twice in a week, for all officers to utilize the firing range. The standard routine was that we reached the range by about 7:30 AM and kept on firing and maintaining our weapons till about noontime. Of course, there were breaks in between. By noontime the whole practice used to be over and the arrangements in the firing range where wound up. Since there was nothing more to be done in the office it was more or less a regular affair that after the practice was over we used to laze around in the firing range for some time while demolishing a few bottles of beer and relaxing. After an hour or so we used to troop back to the unit.

On one such day of practice we finished firing just before noon. The arrangements were wound up and the troops returned to the unit. We were four officers including me and we decided to have a few beers before getting back to the unit. I distinctly remember that it was in the month of August and the weather was really salubrious. We were sitting on a small hillock sipping a beer and indulging in the usual banter of young officers, which normally centered on the ‘villainous and negative attitude’ of the commanding officer and the other senior officers. Then one of us noticed a few vultures circling around in the sky fairly close to the hillock on which we were sitting. It was very obvious that they had seen and/or smelled carrion rotting somewhere in the vicinity and that sooner or later they will descend for their lunch. Since this was not an extraordinary spectacle we never paid more attention to this.

But as they say, alcohol can cause personality changes in people. It seems to have been the case with one of our colleagues who suddenly came up with an idea of shooting down one of these vultures circling high overhead. Although initially the remaining three of us dismissed this, this officer pricked our vanity by challenging us for a game as to who will be the first one to drop one of the circling vultures using our weapons. Suddenly the idea became quite appealing to all of us and we picked up our weapons. All four of us fired aiming at the circling vultures. Even though we did not know whose shot it was but, all of a sudden, one of the birds dropped to the ground. It was an eerie and peculiar sight to see this happening and one had to see it to understand. The bird which was soaring in the thermals with its huge wingspan suddenly folded its a huge wings and started plummeting to the ground. We heard the sound of the bird's body hitting the ground somewhere nearby. Each one of us claimed that it was his shot that dropped the bird. We toasted to the good shot with our beers and soon forgot about the whole matter.

After about 30 minutes or so the guy who had initiated this issue suggested that we go and see where the bird has fallen and also as to what was that animal that was lying dead nearby which attracted these birds of carrion. We trooped in the general line of direction where the bird had fallen. As we neared the place we could smell the stench of rotting carcass that we soon found to be that of a donkey. The bird that one of us had shot was also lying a few meters away from the carcass. We were about to turn away and walk back when the same bright friend of ours asked us to wait. He suggested that we skin the bird and see how it looks like. In the commandos all of us were used to carrying our commando knives every time we went out for various activities. These knives were razor sharp on one side and on the other side had a serrated edge. This gentleman went near the dead bird and, apparently unmindful of the putrid odor, started skinning it using his commando knife. I must hasten to mention here that this gentleman was an expert hunter and was quite used to skinning birds and animals that were his victims. Therefore, he accomplished this task without much of fuss. After taking out the entrails and internal organs and cutting off the feet and the neck what remained looked very similar to a big chicken. The areas around Bakloh had an abundance of jungle fowl and it was not an uncommon practice for many of us to try and bag a few of them for the pot whenever we could. Seeing the skinned version of the vulture, which looked very similar to a large jungle fowl, we decided to take this to the officers' mess. It was more or less a combined decision by all four of us. I was the only one who was married at that time and therefore, was not dining in the officers' mess.

The other three officers dutifully delivered the skinned carcass of the vulture to the cook in the officers' mess. They told him that this was a jungle fowl shot while they were on the firing range for weapons practice. The cook had no reason to disbelieve the statement because as mentioned earlier, it used to be a frequent practice for officers to bring in game birds. He was asked to cook it and serve the dining in officers in the evening. The cook made a curry of this meat and it was served during dinner that day. The three officers who knew what the bird was did not partake of the food giving some excuse or the other. While eating this curry some of the officers mentioned that the meat was very tough and stringy. One or two even mentioned that there was a bit of foul odor coming out of the meat but they discounted it stating that it could have been due to some delay in cooking this bird.

Everything went off well for a couple of days more when it was weekend and as was the custom all officers and ladies assembled on the Sunday morning for breakfast-cum-lunch, fancifully termed “brunch” in the Army. During the conversation one of the officers mentioned that a jungle fowl curry was served a couple of days back for dinner. The three officers who were dining in the mess and who knew the truth about this ‘jungle fowl’ kept silent with a straight face. The commanding officer, who was also present along with his wife, then casually asked me as to who shot this jungle fowl. I could have, perhaps, made up a story and told a lie that it was one of us.  Somehow I did not feel like doing so and told him and others present about what really happened. Most of the ladies present were appalled and started making appropriate noises of disgust accompanied by supporting facial expressions. The commanding officer and the other senior officers were quite tickled by this and started laughing loud. One of the officers who ate this curry at dinner a couple of days before came to me and asked me, “Doc! Tell me what you just know said is not true.” He appeared quite upset about the whole issue. I said that unfortunately all what I told was true and that he had the 'privilege' of eating a vulture made in a curry form. His expression changed for the worse and he excused himself and went to another room in the mess.

We did not notice anything untoward for some time when one of the waiters came running to me to tell me that the officer who had excused himself was vomiting in the bathroom. I, along with a couple of other officers, rushed to the bathroom to find this officer retching and puking his entrails out. He started swearing at all of us in between his vomiting bouts stating that it was grossly unfair and incorrect that he, who belonged to a noble family from Gujarat, was made to eat the flesh of a bird which eats putrefying flesh of dead animals. Our efforts at consoling him and calming him down were not very successful. He continued vomiting to such an extent that I, as the doctor in charge of the unit, had to finally sedate him with tranquilizers to stop his vomiting. He recovered in a couple of days and no one spoke about this issue ever again in the mess. This officer subsequently rose to the rank of Major General and retired after an illustrious career. I met him on a couple of occasions when he came for parachute refresher training at Agra when I was commanding officer of 60 parachute Field Ambulance and he was commanding a parachute battalion. During one of those visits, I invited him for dinner at my place. While the dinner was being served he asked my wife, “Bhabhijee! I hope this time it is proper chicken and mutton being served not what I was duped to eat by this husband of yours in Bakloh years back.” My wife told him that he need not be apprehensive at all about this matter. All three of us had a good laugh at this.

Well, I believe that it is a matter of aesthetics; religious beliefs and perceptions that make us eat, or do not eat, certain types of food, particularly non-vegetarian food. In this officer's case he vomited after a couple of days when he came to know that he had ingested the meat of an abhorrent variety. It was purely a psychological effect because after 48 hours nothing could have been left in his body of whatever was consumed. It also proves that ‘one meat is as good or as bad as another’!