You may wonder as to why I have chosen such a title for this little incident. I do not want to let the cat out of the bag and spoil the suspense. I'm sure that by the time you finish reading this piece you will know how the mango tree comes into this story. I mentioned in the beginning that this was a ‘little incident’. But it surely was a watershed in my life.
In 1992, I was happily ensconced in the College of Defence Management at Secunderabad as a member of the Faculty of Organizational Behavior and teaching the student officers of the armed forces and central administrative and police services of Long Defence Management Course. Although initially there were surprised looks from the them when they realized that I was a medical doctor from the Army Medical Corps (AMC) teaching them management subjects, soon I was accepted by these highflying senior officers of the armed forces, administrative services and police services who were the students attending the course. Secunderabad is a beautiful cantonment to live and with my two daughters studying in higher classes and the wife employed as a teacher we, as a family, where pretty comfortable.
It was then that the Director General Medical Services (DGMS) of the Indian Army decided to pay a visit to our institution. I must digress a bit here and speak a few words about this general. He was a strikingly handsome man with an extremely fair complexion. A refugee from Pakistan, he had built up his career by sheer hard work and sharp intelligence, which he was endowed with. He was known for his honesty and uprightness and was a notorious and tough disciplinarian. Having had the privilege of knowing him earlier, I was aware of the caring and loving core that this general had carefully concealed under layers of haughty and imperious behavior. My family and I were fortunate to have experienced the compassion and empathy, which this man and his wife were capable of, on more occasions than one. But those instances will form the nucleus for another write up. Reverting back to this incident, the General was received with all the formality and protocol at the College. Being the only AMC officer in the faculty [there was never such an ‘aberration’ before or after me in the College of Defence Management!] I was called by the Commandant, a rear admiral, to meet the General.
After the routine perfunctory small talk the General said, “I want this chap in the Army Headquarters to help me. Admiral, I hope you don't have any problems in letting him go.”
The commandant answered, “Sir! How can I say no to you? But I will leave it to his discretion whether he wants to move or not.”
Without even looking at my face, leave alone asking me, the General said, “OK! That's settled then. The moment I get back to Delhi I will get the necessary orders issued. This will not be a regular normal move because I want him at the earliest.”
Summoning all the courage I could muster, I asked the General as to what was the appointment that he wanted me to join. The handsome face twitched and the left eyebrow was raised. “Something befitting your qualifications and something which will help you in your future. Does that satisfy you?” Obviously, I had no answer and I said, “Yes Sir!”
And so it was that in October 1992 I found myself in the Army Headquarters as the Director of Medical Services [Personnel] in the Office of the DGMS of the Army. In the pecking order of appointments this was the most sought after appointment and was supposed to be the grooming ground for the future DGs of the AMC. This was because the charter of duties of this appointment entailed planning and controlling the postings, promotions and training of more than 5000 doctors of the Indian Army. It was a glamorous appointment and I, like most of the officers, always wanted to hold this appointment. I was acutely aware that the extraordinary interest the General took in moving me from Secunderabad to take over this appointment made me an object antipathy and envy to most of the senior staff members working under the General. He too cautioned me about this undercurrent but told me not to bother about it.
As a matter of routine the DGMS used to be on tour at least 10 days in a month. This was required because the Army medical units and military hospitals were spread out all over the length and breadth of India. Whenever he used to proceed towards a particular region or place it was our duty as his staff officers to give him enough information about the details of the medical units or military hospitals in that area so that he was able to give decisions to the problems posed to him there. In Army parlance this information was called ‘brief’. The majority of problems told to the DGMS during these visits concerned the medical officers. So it was my duty to ensure that he was fully ‘briefed’ and buttressed with enough details in hard copy pertaining to the manpower situation in the units that he was likely to visit. The DGMS used to schedule his visits in such a way that he could utilize the weekends of Saturdays and Sundays and be back in his office on Monday morning.
During April 1993, the DGMS made a trip to the Eastern Command of the Army and, as usual, he returned back on Monday morning. The arrival of the General in the office was always accompanied by a flurry of activity from the time his limousine reached at the front gate. He had to necessarily pass in front of my office on his way to his office and every time he did that he used to either wave his hands or wink at me in acknowledgment of my formal military greetings. When he came back after this trip to the Eastern Command I, as usual, expected the same reciprocation from him when he passed the door of my office. But he did not even care to look at me and proceeded to his office accompanied by his ADC and other personal staff. Within a few minutes the ADC was with me and he said, “Sir! The ‘Old Man’ is quite upset about the details that you had given to him. It seems the data given was not accurate and he had to cut a sorry figure in front of the senior officers of the units that he visited. He is very angry and is calling for a meeting of all senior officers within half an hour.”
I was quite taken aback by this revelation. I called my staff and went through the ‘brief’ I had given to the DGMS prior to his tour. I checked and rechecked all the data and found them to be accurate. I was just about finishing this check with my staff when the call came from the secretary to the DGMS that the meeting was being convened in five minutes. Formal meetings in the Army follow a set pattern especially if held in the senior most officer's office. The attendees make their entry as per their seniority and rank in descending order; and exit also likewise. As I was the junior- most director it was my lot to enter last and also leave last from the meeting. After we had assembled, the DGMS started the meeting by stating that he was generally unhappy about the situation that he saw in most of the units he visited in the Eastern Command. From his demeanor it was clear that he was angry. Incidentally, this gentleman was also quite infamous for his brittle temper. He launched into a tirade against the way his headquarters and we all were functioning and stated in no uncertain terms that he was displeased with it. Then he said, “I am particularly annoyed about the personnel section. The information given to me in my ‘brief’ by the director was inaccurate and incorrect. I cannot accept such a shoddy work”.
I do not know even now as to what snapped in me. Perhaps my huge ego was the dominant cause. Or perhaps it was caused by my knowledge that all the statistics and figures that I gave him in the ‘brief’ were accurate and correct. Whatever it was, I immediately raised my hand and said that I wanted to clarify this point. Seated as I was in the back row, being the junior most director, the DGMS had to strain his neck to look at me. He said, “I have not finished. And I do not like to be interrupted”. He went on asserting that my department has become next to useless as far as he was concerned because he could not rely on the figures given by me. That statement was the proverbial last straw on my back. I stood up and said, “Sir! I HAVE to clarify this point right now”. The General almost shouted, “Sit down!” I said, “Sir! I'm not going to sit down till the time you hear me”. All other officers present were appalled at this insubordination from me, and that too to the DGMS himself. Most of them were inwardly very happy that, as I was the personal choice of the DGMS and therefore his blue-eyed boy, I was getting into an argument with him.
The DGMS became red in his face and said, “This meeting is over!” All of us stood up, put on our caps, saluted and had to get out of the office one by one in the same order of seniority. Therefore, the senior most amongst us who was a major general, left first followed by other senior officers. My turn was the last. And by the time I gave the obligatory salute before leaving the DGMS ordered, “You stay”. I stood there stiffly at attention. The DGMS came from behind his desk and sat down in the sofa and asked me to sit across him in another sofa. I sat on the edge of it without removing my headgear. He said, “Take off your bloody maroon cap and relax!” I did that and made myself a little more comfortable in the sofa. But I was still bristling with anger and I was prepared to tell them that I had enough and wanted to be posted out from his staff. He asked me, “Tea or coffee?” I said, “Thank you Sir! But I do not want anything”. “Have a bloody cup of tea right now with me. And that's an order!”
Soon his personal, liveried bearer served the tea in his favorite silver tea set. The DGMS sat sipping his tea without a word to me. I too was doing the same and there was an uncomfortable silence between us. Suddenly he asked me, “Prem! You grew up in Kerala didn't you?” Surprised as I was by this question I managed to answer, “Yes Sir”. “There must have been lot of mango trees in your house”. I said, “Yes Sir”. “Did you ever see the mango trees when they had mangoes?” “Yes Sir”. “Have you ever noticed that the branch with the maximum number of mangoes always bends lower than the others?” It took me a few seconds to comprehend his drift. And when the import struck me, I was poleaxed. I sat there with the teacup in hand staring vacantly at him. Realization hit me like a ton of bricks. And suddenly the DGMS said, “Prem! I can see that you have understood what I wanted to convey. You have everything going for you with your qualifications, age, honesty, smartness and hard-working nature. I expect you to sit in my chair as the DGMS of the Indian Army in the years to come. That was the reason that I brought you here from Secunderabad. But don’t be so arrogant. You are like the fruit–laden branch of the mango tree. You have to stoop down lower than others. And if you do that no one can stop you from achieving what you have set out to achieve.” I am not ashamed to admit that tears welled up in my eyes. The General saw this and give me a tissue. He too became a bit emotional and told me that I should forget about what happened but take this lesson home.
This was a turning point in my life. I started making conscious efforts to become more humble than I ever was before this incident. It was not easy; brought up that I was in the Army as a paratrooper who believed that we were ‘Men apart, Everyman an Emperor!”. But, over the years, I have been able to practice this facet and I can tell you that it has always been beneficial to me.
Even now when I am writing this, years after this incident occurred, I remember this mentor of mine with tear filled eyes and pray that in the heaven where he is now he is still mentoring small people like me.