A few months ago, when the issue of OROP (One Rank One Pension) for the Indian soldiers, was still headline-worthy, a leading news channel hosted a discussion with a panel of retired defence personnel and a few family members of military martyrs. The focus was not just on the problems relating to OROP but also about what exactly a soldier feels in the face of such political and bureaucratic manoeuvring. A retired air force man spoke about izzat (honour) and respect.
A word like honour can sound archaic – something more befitting a feudal lifestyle… though in India, we never wander too far from our medieval roots. However, this retired pilot was not talking about honour the way, say, a khap panchayat would interpret it. No. He was talking about something more basic. Something, neither he nor any other soldier, retired or otherwise, should have to beg, ask, protest or fast for. This is something that should have been a given.
He was asking for acknowledgement. Acknowledgement for what they have done… for us. The sacrifices they have made. The price they have paid. For being the kind of men and women who realise that being a soldier entails a very real danger of being torn apart by bullets or bombs, and yet sign up for the job.
Acknowledgement not just from their fellow soldiers and family members but from the government and the people of the nation. And it is not just our soldiers. It is our cops. Our teachers. Our municipality workers. It is our parents. It is our watchman.
The world has always been divided along class and linguistic lines, but a lack of time and even worse, lack of empathy have exacerbated the problem. And, while it’s true that not all of us have the wherewithal to change the world we live in, we can change one small thing by acknowledging the fellow human beings who pepper our lives. There is a story behind every face and a hero, a mentor, and a guide hiding in the most unassuming of people.
Listening to that retired soldier speak, I wondered how many times I have bothered to acknowledge, honour and celebrate the people who have impacted me. The answer did not reflect well on me. So I decided to do something about it. Being a writer, pretty much all my ‘doing’ is done here – so here is my rather sorry attempt at acknowledging three of the people who made the greatest impact on my life.
My Mother – The Survivor
I never had to look outside of my home for positive role models. They had dinner with me every single day of my childhood. My mom got married young. When she was 17. She wanted to study and become a doctor. Her dad, my grandfather, however, felt that it was important that she get married before she became an old maiden. She rebelled by refusing to write her 12th school-leaving exams. She rebelliously declared, “If you are not going to let me study then what is the point of my writing any exam!”
She was 18 when she had me. When I was in my grade 10, my mother decided that she was going to get her college degree before her daughter did. We were in Chennai (then Madras) at that point of time. She appeared for an examination that was the equivalent of her Class 12 exams and passed and went on to graduate in B.A. Literature from Madras University… two years before I completed my degree in commerce. She then went on to do a Diploma in Computers at Loyola College, Chennai. In her 30s, she started working. And she worked till she was nearly 55. She worked right through her cancer and resultant surgery, chemo and radiation. It wasn’t an easy journey and there was resistance from many quarters. However, she hung in there.
If today, I have the luxury of being an independent and fiery thinker, it is because of what she taught me.
My Father – The Soldier
Growing up in Chennai, many often mistook my dad for a cop, because of his moustache and deep voice. Then they would get to know him better, recognize what a softie he really is, and start laughing with him about the misunderstanding. In today’s world by all standards my father is an ordinary man. His identity today is of a retired airforce man in his 70’s who still continues to live life independently with my mom.
However, scratch the surface and ask him about his youth and the stories begin to flow. Like all soldiers, Daddy loves to tell the stories from ‘his war’. But only to those who ask and show interest. Even then, he will not tell the stories that really matter. The stories behind why he a JWO (which means he was the ground support staff and not a pilot) was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (a medal usually reserved for the airborne) for gallantry during the 1971 war. His act of bravery involved stepping out into the airfield when it was being bombarded by enemy aircraft and helping Indian fighter planes land and taxi in. He encouraged others to ignore the danger to their lives and do the same too. The medal is discreetly displayed on a bookshelf at home. For many years, he was happy to keep it locked in a cupboard until my brother and I took it out. The photograph of him receiving the award is proudly displayed in my house.
Sometimes when I see him interact with a shopkeeper, or a waiter, or his own grandchild, I wonder if they know that they are talking to a man who displayed exemplary courage and devotion to duty in the face of extreme danger.
My Teacher – The Task Master
I was in Class 5 and even then English was my favourite subject and Christella Ma’am, my class teacher was my English teacher. Halfway through the year we had, each, to work on a project. I had to do something related to verbs or tenses… I don’t remember. What I do remember is breezing through my work and submitting it the next day. I knew… just knew that mine was the best project work in class. I could see the others struggle.
Christella Ma’am took in all our submissions.
The next day we were told our marks. Another kid in class had got the highest marks. I don’t remember if I came in second or third or fifth. I remember I didn’t come in first. To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. So immense was my feeling of being unjustly treated that I marched up to Ma’am and asked her, ‘Why!? Why am I not the top scorer?’ Ma’am looked at me and said, “Your work may have been the best in the class, but it was not your best.”
In that moment, she taught me one of the biggest lessons of my life. Anything worth doing is worth doing, not just well, but the best that you can make it.
It took me many more years and a tryst with a job in a stock broker’s office (for all of a week) before I realised that I wanted to write. But the seeds were sown by Christella Ma’am.
The Municipality Worker – This man did not impact my life choices, but he did teach me a couple of things about attitude.
There is this guy I met while visiting my brother-in-law’s family in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. He is, what we all collectively call, the kacharawala. An ironic tag for someone who clears the kachara (garbage) created by us. I don’t know his name. But of all the people I met during this last holiday, he had the greatest impact on me. Why? Because of his attitude. He always greeted us with this big, friendly smile and said ‘Hello didi!’ He didn’t grumble. He didn’t whine. He didn’t look like he hated what he did. And if there is a job that is easy to hate, it is his! Maybe he did hate what he did. Maybe he never thinks about it. Or maybe he is the kind of human being who does whatever he has to do with dignity… a throwback to the kind of human being Gandhiji extolled all of us to be.
On India’s Independence Day (August 15), he greeted us with a ‘Hello didi! Aap clubhouse nahi gaye? Janda lehra rahein hai aaj. Achcha hai.” [Translation – Did you not go to the clubhouse today? They are hoisting the flag. It is good.]
Above all, I remember the vibe he spread. He was a happy man and it made me happy to just say ‘hello’ back to him.
There you go – that is my list for now. Do write and tell me about the people who have impacted you. If nothing else, definitely spare them a thought and a prayer.