Naanii, the mom’s mom, has always enjoyed a special place in the fraternity of grandparents. The child’s naanii, figures in innumerable poems, songs and fables across cultures and time. Every kid of India would recall having learnt the seemingly silly rhyme ‘Naanii ke ghar jaoonga, main doodh malai khaoonga …’ or singing the all time antaaqshari favourite, “Naanii teri morni koh mor leh gayeh …’ When Jagjit Singh decided to lament the loss of childhood in ‘Kaagaz ki Kashti’ it’s the naanii, her kahaaniyan, that he recalls. The Little Red Riding Hood was surely heading for her naanii’s house when she encountered the big bad wolf. Central to this fixation with naanii, has been the special attachment with the idea of ‘Naanii-Ka-Ghar’. A very special, home-away-from-home. A place where one is supposed to have the ultimate chill-out. My naanii’s house was no exception. Or ‘21C’ (Ikis Si) as everyone in mom’s clan called it.

‘Ikis Si’ seems a weird name for a naanii’s house or any house for that matter. But that’s what it was nevertheless. It was located in Block C of Sector 21 of Chandigarh. Come summer vacation and mom’s entire clan would descend upon 21C. Naana-naanii had seven children and fourteen grand children! Any joke about the number of aunts and uncles would draw a fiery reprimand from my maasi who considered such references inauspicious. Both my parents were college teachers who had the luxury of sharing the summer vacation with their children and no budget to go to any place other than the naani’s house! The bags would be packed even before the vacation had started. At the first instance we would be off to Chandigarh. The enthusiasm of the start of a holiday would not be dampened by the three hour journey in the hot and humid weather in the State Transport’s overcrowded bus. We would be occasionally accompanied by my maasi (mom’s younger sis) and her children and we would chuckle with delight when she would hurl colourful invectives at the ubiquitous ill-mannered loafers that populate the Indian buses. Her famous temper inspired much awe and laughter in the family. Awe when you got caught in her line of fire. Laughter when somebody else bore the brunt. A warm and affectionate aunt, who was always game for travel and partying. The bus journeys ended after she bought a cute white fiat car with a red roof that would be airborne from the word ‘go’!

On alighting from the bus at the Chandigarh Bus Stand one would be greeted by a boisterous horde of rickshaw pullers who would descend upon the hapless passengers and compete with one another to forcibly grab the baggage of the protesting passenger in order to deny him the opportunity to cross check the fares or bargain. We were, however, regular visitors to the City Beautiful and pros of sorts. We would make our way patiently through the sea of crooks to the rickshaw pullers waiting with their rickshaws parked at a distance as these guys knew that there was no point in trying to cheat the old timers. We would then start haggling with the rickshaw puller over the fare. ‘Ikis si chalnah hai bhaiyah? Scooter market ke ekdum pichhe.’ ‘Market peh utro geh- ke sector keh andar jaanah hai?’ he would want us to clarify. ‘Market ke saath hi hai’ we would lie glibly. The house was close to the scooter repair market located on the road dividing blocks B and C but in the summer heat even the extra few hundred yards were unwelcome. The guy would discover that the house was not ‘ekdum pichhe’ as he anyway suspected and would grumble loudly to register his protest at having to pedal that extra distance. A distance too short to pick up a quarrel about, yet long enough to want to protest about out of irritation. We would congratulate ourselves for having struck a hard bargain and having cheated the poor bugger of his legitimate extra 25 paisa or whatever it was. Strange things one does in one’s life.

The rickshaw would roll to a stop in front of a 1000 yard house with a green lawn and trees, a driveway and an annexe, a garage and a white Ambassador. My naana had retired as a district judge. An honest man with a huge reputation and no money. His own dad, a money lending farmer, had bought the ‘Judge Saheb’ the house and the car. The car was stately but rarely saw the road. It was usually a minor event in the household when the Ambassador was to be rolled out of the garage. The car battery in those days of obsolete technology would be invariably discharged- largely because of disuse. Naana would try the self starter expecting a miracle every time and then finally give up and grumble as he went to fetch the mechanic from the filthy scooter market. The market had repair shops and spares shops for all kinds of vehicles but for reasons not understood was called scooter market. The head mechanic would detail some loutish oil soaked apprentice who would waste the mandatory half hour trying his hand at finding a solution and eventually shrug and inform us that the battery was discharged. The housing would be unscrewed and the battery would be removed with much ceremony and carried by him on the under-repair noisy scooter that he would be unashamedly using without the knowledge of its owner. Hours later a semi-charged battery would be returned. Once it was reinstalled we would wait patiently until Naana tried the self start. The old lady would eventually oblige. And a bus load would happily clamber aboard!

On occasions, the radiator or some other part would give way and the car would get stalled on some busy road with its tightly packed load of passengers (aunts and kids of all sizes and hues) creating a fuss because of the sweltering heat. Naana would be clueless. But he would make up for his lack of knowledge of auto mechanics by summoning all the authority that his long years as a judge had given him. He would hail his would-be-saviour with an ‘O bhi nalayak, zarah idhar aao!’ He would feel free to requisition help from any unsuspecting prey. It could be the rickshaw-puller lounging in the shade of the tree. Or the taxi driver waiting for a passenger. Or any bystander who committed the folly of having accidentally cast an inquisitive look in the direction of the stalled car. Anybody who had the misfortune of catching naana’s eye would have to answer to the call of ‘Nalayak’ and be expected to fetch water for the overheated radiator or help in push-starting the relic or at least offer directions to the nearest road-side mechanic. Somehow nobody ever protested. It was either the respect for naana’s white head or his natural air of authority or the association of Ambassador car with authority or just the goodness of the days. He got away with it every time.

We would invariably land unannounced in the middle of the afternoon and ring the front doorbell. Naanii would appear at the wire mesh door. A small statured, slightly built lady, with a kind heart and the energy to smile and greet her large band of guests. The kids would race into the long narrow gallery that ran through the centre of the house to the rear verandah and the annexe beyond, where my youngest maama’s room was located. He was a hot favourite with the children, a friendly, cheerful maama, twenty years younger to my mom. In fact he was more an elder sibling for the older kids than an uncle. His room was full of knick knacks to fascinate any kid. Enough to make even Tom Sawyer jealous! A magnet. A mouth organ. A stapler (it was a novelty in those days). Glass paperweights. A transistor and later a stereo system. Imported Colognes. All kinds of fancy stationery items. He did not seem to mind the ruckus we created but would shoo us off all the same to save his valued possessions. We would then rush back to the front lawn at top speed banging the verandah doors on the way out of sheer excitement at the start of the holiday.

Naanii was called ‘Mummy’ by all and she violently objected to being addressed as mataji or beeji, that was common for her ‘tasteless’ and ‘rustic’ peers. She liked clothes with bright cheerful colours and disliked the fawns and greys as they were meant for the ‘elderly’! Naanii’s family had migrated from Lahore. She would tell us about the family’s mango orchards. The channelized irrigation system, the horses and the bagih (horse-carriage), the attendants, the distribution of baskets of mangoes to the servant families. The horror of the creeping nags (cobras) that the men folk would shoot down. The acid tongue of her bhabhi, whom she blamed for her lack of formal education. Her name was tattooed on her forearm and this fascinated the kids. She would sigh as she remembered the days of lost glory. We only half believed her tales until she shocked us years later when she effortlessly rode a pony on way to the Vaishno Devi shrine despite her frail health. She had been indignant at our surprise and had reminded us of the days when she rode horses. She would rue the setbacks on account of partition and eventually get up with resignation to return to the endless chores that any mother of a large family has to handle.

Her taste for gardening set her apart from her generation of women. She had a huge collection of beautiful potted plants. The front lawn was lush green with a well grown hedge and lovely roses. There were four mor-pankhi shrubs at the corners of the lawn. These strategically placed ‘arsenals’ bore a green, fleshy fruit with small spikes, the size of a marble which would serve as a readymade projectile. The kids would mercilessly pluck these fruits which would be rained on the ‘enemy’ during the pitched battles fought on the 21C lawn. The garden hose was invariably pressed into service to turn the tide and this invariably got us a helling for wetting our clothes and wasting water. She would be managing her plants with virtually no help apart from the gardener who would be engaged to the mow the grass.

Naanii’s passion for her garden and her exotic potted plants was matched by naana’s dedication to his kitchen garden. He would be tending to his vegetables and fruit trees with patience and attachment. The house had lemon trees, litchi, mango, guava and papita. We were told that he had always grown vegetables for his family and had always a kept cow in the backyard of the large official residence. That he would himself tend to the cow despite the busy court routine. He believed that kids who ate too many rotis and drank buffalo’s milk grew up to be dull. But we rarely talked to him and generally steered clear of him, overawed by the aura that surrounded him.


Good Wood

My father loved the hills. He could feel the romance of a hill station. He would have loved to own a little ivy-covered stone cottage on a pine hill. To have walked down its cobbled pathway through the morning mist, sporting a masculine overcoat, the broad brim of his stylish felt hat pulled low over the brow and the gloved hand tight on the polished wooden staff. Headed for work, that afforded meaning and dignity. To have retired in the evenings with a book, to a wooden study, by the fireplace. To have shared his scotch with gentlemen. To have debated on the issues of the world with men of substance. A modest ambition by certain standards, but it was a far cry for the gentle village boy of Daad.
My father was brought up by his grandfather, a devout Sikh, who had settled down to farming after having retired as a Subedar-Major from the Indian-British army. He would sit on his lap learning the hymns and the prayers, which were a part of the old man’s daily routine. The grandfather was well regarded by the entire village. He had donated land for the village school. He would make occasional donations to the Gurdwara. He had had the guts to go against the tide and had afforded protection and shelter to the hapless Muslim families of Daad and had saved them from being butchered in the genocide that accompanied the Partition. My dad loved his Grandfather and was by his side till his last breath. He learnt the value of quiet dignity and grace from the man. Though he spent his entire childhood and early youth in the village, yet the village life never really caught his imagination. The typical concerns of his rustic peers, their love for the daily fracas, the highs of ‘santra’ (cheap country liquor) or the peasant’s pride in getting a good harvest, were completely lost on him. He would be ridiculed for ironing his pajamas, for his pretentions at being more cultured than the rest and for the framed picture of Kennedy that was a part of his permanent possessions. He yearned to be away from it all. To a place and a life that had grace and style.
He got himself an education. He studied literature and got a job as a college lecturer. He rued missing out on a more dignified and manly profession but there was optimism in the heart. He successfully wooed a city-bred colleague, beating better placed suitors by his innocent charm and gentle style, got married and settled down at Amritsar. He lived beyond his means as he was convinced that a gentleman must have his dignity and he had no fear of the future. His children had to study in the best of public schools, wear the best of clothes. The couple’s twin salaries could barely meet the lavish lifestyle. But it was a happy family. The colleagues found the couple cheerful company, their parties warm and their manner endearing. My dad had settled down to the simple yet tasteful life of a middle class householder.
But the hills were calling him all the time. He studied for a course as a company secretary and landed himself a job in Shimla. The colleagues advised against the career move as the new job would not pay enough to offset the loss of my mother’s salary and the benefit of free Government accommodation. But nothing would dissuade him. He felt it was his destiny to live a life of quiet dignity inspired by all the literature that he had read. He landed in Shimla and scouted around for a good house befitting a gentleman’s family. Shimla has always been an expensive town. But he was not going to be deterred by rentals. What was the fun of living in a hill station if you did not have an open terrace overlooking a wooded valley? So he settled for a pretty little house which was a part of Good Wood Estate, a mere half hour walk from the ridge. While he was running around getting things ready for his family, we kids were going crazy with anticipation. We would imagine the snow covered slopes and the snowmen. The housemaid, who was a constant companion for the kids, was equally excited at the prospect of living in a fairyland, called Shimla. Finally the D-day dawned and we were all off to Shimla. The maid was to be left behind as we would not be able to afford the luxury of a full time help any longer. It acted as a spoiler and the poor girl was heart-broken, but our excitement made every other thing pale into the background.
It was probably my first train journey and we switched trains at Kalka. The sight of the small blue compartments of the hill train took our breath away. The quaint compartments swayed gently behind the chugging steam engine as we began the ascent. I looked out at the mesmerizing hill views, feeling the pine scented hill breeze. The goats, grazing idyllically, on the slopes along the rail-track. I was six and I fell in love with the hills. On reaching Shimla the porters carried our luggage piled high on the back and we walked through Shimla to our new home.
The scenically located Good Wood Estate consisted of a huge building with separate portions built on terraced slopes that were rented out to different families. It was a small community with lots of kids. We shared a huge open terrace with another family and it overlooked a fascinating valley. A white haired lady lived alone in a tin roofed house down a slope and we kids used to throw pebbles on her roof and scamper for safety before the lady emerged. Her lonely existence and cranky temperament fed our fertile imagination and we half expected her to come after us flying on a broom. Shimla of the mid-70s was everything that a child could wish for. The ponies on the ridge. The toy shops on the mall that fascinated me. The ‘Ashiana’ restaurant with songs of Kabhi-Kabhi. The book stores that my brother could not resist. The long walks. The snuggling against my Dad to stave off the evening chill as he carried me home from the Mall, while my older siblings trudged along. The picnics under the pines. The view from the fence of the Auckland School. The monkeys. The chanas in paper cones. The skating rink and its loud music. The first raincoats and the duckback shoes. The torrential rains. The sunny afternoons on our terrace. The 25-paisa apples I had as tiffin. The ‘Triple Taste’ toffee wrappers that we collected and exchanged for albums that were used for pasting the new wrappers! The thorns of bichhu buti. All this and more. Shimla was a fairyland. I was decided that we would never ever leave Shimla and would live there happily ever after. But our luck ran out. My dad’s romance with life ended. He realized that being a middle order functionary in a large bureaucratic organization afforded even lesser dignity than being a college professor. And we could no longer afford living at Good Wood on a single salary. The family was under debt and hard economics put an abrupt end to my dad’s dreams. We left Shimla without having seen the snow. My dad returned to his earlier job only to realize that he had lost his posting in a decent city and had to join in a rural college. The Government accommodation was lost. The style withered away and so did the optimism and the dreams. He never recovered fully from the shock. I cried for days when we came back from Shimla. I hated my new school. The new town. I never forgot the hill station.
Later, whenever I would visit the hill station with my wife and kids, I would try to recall the first train journey to Shimla, the sounds and sights of childhood, but they were buried far too deep in time. I tried remembering where our house had been. The path we took to the cloud-covered ridge. But it was all too vague in memory. Then a couple of years back, I was deputed to attend a conference at Radisson, a newly built swanky five-star hotel. The Radisson Hotel is a beautiful wooden structure built on several levels. As we broke for tea and came out on the terrace I looked out into the open valley. And the hills beyond. I suddenly had the uncanny feel of having been there before. It was weird as I can count the number of occasions I have visited a Star Five hotel. But the deja vu feel would not go and I asked the manager what area it was. ‘It’s the Good Wood Estate and it belonged to some lady. There used to be houses here earlier,’ informed the manager cheerfully. Here I was 32 years later standing unwittingly at the same spot where I had spent the happiest days of my childhood. I wanted to hug my father and tell him that he may not have had the money but he always had taste. Our Good Wood Estate now housed a 5 Star Hotel. But he’s gone long back. He went when I had just about begun to understand him and his romantic view to life. Quietly, without a fuss, like the gentleman he was. Leaving his dreams for a house on the hills buried deep in my heart and soul.

In Defence of Shahrukh Khan

I have always disliked Shahrukh Khan. His films are okay but I just can’t stand his interviews and his tongue-in-cheek replies. He is a wee bit too witty, too smart for my liking. And the undisguised adoration with which my wife and daughters watch all his films and TV interviews does not make it any better for him! But he is entitled to have his say, just as all the rest of the 1.25 billion that comprise our nation.
The other day a friend compared Shahrukh’s current dilemma with that of the character played by Dev Anand in the film ‘Guide’. Where greatness is thrust on a man who gets caught in his own statement. Where his sense of conviction goes on increasing with worsening of odds. Until he meets a grim end and achieves greatness. The reference got me thinking about the famous dialogue towards the end of the same movie, where Dev Anand is refusing to be dissuaded to continue his fast in light of his deteriorating health. On being asked whether he really believes that he can make rainfall happen by his fast-unto-death, he states, “Ab sawaal yeh nahin ki baarish hoti hai ya nahin, ab sawaal yeh hai ki bhagwaan hai yeh nahin” Shahrukh Khan’s situation is somewhat similar. “Ab sawaal yeh nahin ki Pakistani players India mein khelte hain ya nahin, ab sawaal yeh hai ki hamare desh mein Rule of Law hai ya nahin?” Can anybody deny him his right of stating his mind? Whether he is right in his opinion or not is beside the point. ‘What kept him from bidding for one of the Pakistani players himself if he was indeed so concerned about the entire issue,’ was my initial reaction to the situation. My wife promptly jumped to his defence. We love arguing on Shahrukh Khan! But I now realize that had the guy really bid for the players, he would have been labelled a traitor by a wider section of our citizens. Jis desh mein Gandhiji ko koi bewakoof goli maar gaya, wahan Shahrukh Khan kya cheez hai! While opinions are sharply divided on the issue of Pakistan (the apparent blog support to Shahrukh notwithstanding) yet as free thinking citizens of India we must not loose track of our basic ethos. India does not stand for intolerance. No nation of the world became great out of inward thought. If we have to grow and stick together as one, we have to learn to tolerate dissent. Our Constitution allows it. We are all equal in eyes of law and nobody can be denied his freedom of speech. We, the people of India, have to stop the bullies and their fascist agenda.
I recount an episode at the time of the 1992 Assembly Elections in Punjab. The writ of the Sikh militants ran large. The Government was attempting to restore the democratic process in Punjab and the radicals were hell-bent on opposing it. There would be shootouts and killings everyday. Not a soul could be seen on the roads after sunset. There was little hope of peace returning to the troubled State. The police patrols and army convoys were seen with equal distrust and trepidation as the gun-totting militants by the Sikh peasantry. The elections seemed to be doomed to fail. Posters had been put up in Punjab villages warning the villagers against venturing out for voting on the election day. Nobody doubted the ruthlessness of the militants and not a single voter turned up in many of the rural polling booths. I was twenty two and had never voted. My dad had been put on election duty by the Government and we were worried to death about his safety. My family had settled down at my ancestral village about a decade back. My dad had constructed a new house on the outskirts of the village and it was a lonely existence in those terrible times. Not a soul resided within kilometres of our home. The dreadful tales of massacre of innocent people by the militants and the ‘disappearances’ after police action would keep us awake at nights. The dog’s bark at night or the sound of a vehicle stopping by our gate would send a chill down the spine. We were a family of clean-shaven Sikhs and ‘they’ could come for us any day.
It was afternoon on the polling day. Not a single voter had cast his vote in our village. I stood with my mother on our terrace looking at the army convoys and the police patrols move menacingly up and down on the road going to the city. I remarked that the Government was really trying hard to make the Elections successful. ‘What’s the use if not a single voter has the himmat (guts) to vote?’ was her reply. Now, I am a timid man. I have never played cricket as I am scared of the cricket ball. I rarely got into fist fights as a child. I have been afraid of dogs and rats all my life. But I have always hated being bullied. And at that moment the painful truth struck home that I was not refraining from voting because I was convinced of the radical Sikh viewpoint. I was not voting because I was scared of the bullies and what they could do to me if they found out that I had dared to defy their diktat. So in that moment of truth I decided ‘to be a man’ and go ahead and vote. My mother was horrified to learn what she had inadvertently done and pleaded with me to reconsider. But the die had been cast and I started for the Government school where the polling booth was located. It was a two kilometer walk from the house and the mean looking Punjab Policemen in plain clothes, the so-called ‘Cats’ moving in unmarked vehicles crossed me twice, scaring the shit out of me. As I neared the village I could feel the inquisitive eyes of the village folk sitting on the terraces looking at me with disbelief. I was sweating with fear for I felt that I was being marked for the inevitable retribution that would follow later in the evening. The polling duty staff were even more shocked than the villagers to see me appear at the school gate. They had not been expecting anybody to turn up so they had not bothered to get their polling material ready. It meant an extra half hour at the booth and it did not help my queasy stomach. I finally cast my vote and could not help feeling triumphant as I headed back home. I had defied the bullies and nothing would undo that. My mother refused to speak to me or even register my act of bravado! That evening the militants shot some of the hapless voters at night in an adjoining district. My dad returned home safely from his election duty and we waited for that deathly call by the militants. The terror in those days was complete and our lonesome house on the village outskirts was an easy target. But they never came. The Sikh peasantry had had enough of being bullied by the militants and the police alike and the 1992 elections proved to be a turning point.
I feel that its a day of reckoning for the Mumbaikars. Are they going to allow themselves to be bullied by a handful of thugs or are they made up of stronger stuff? ‘Ab sawaal ye nahin ki Shahrukh ki picture chalti hai ya nahin, ab sawal ye hai ki mumbaikars darteh hai ya nahin?’

Daad Diary

I feel that the memories of the bygone days are largely defined in one’s mind by episodes having special emotive significance. When one reflects on one’s past the everyday and the mundane generally pale into the background. One can remember only the emotive milestones. The ugliness of the times gradually fades away in the bottomless depths of mind and only the sweet and the fragrant remains.
I had turned eleven when we landed, bag and baggage, at our ancestral house in Daad, my parental village. The family had moved from Chandigarh on exhausting its stamina and finances after a series of abortive attempts by my Dad for finding a vocation true to his heart. He had finally given up and had decided to be discontented with his job for the rest of his years. The grandfather felt cramped by our urban lifestyle and our exaggerated sensibilities on issues of hygiene and he made no attempt to disguise his discomfort. The house had been built by my great grandfather around the time of the First World War. The front gate was an unpretentious iron sheet that swiveled on hinges fixed into the outer wall. It opened by the side of the foul and stagnant waters of an apology for a village pond. It was a virtual cesspool, into which the dirty water from the adjoining houses got drained. A narrow pathway ran alongside the pond that was later lined with Eucalyptus trees planted by my father to make the entrance slightly more cheerful and to screen off the ugly site and the smell. A much bigger haveli style wooden gate opened on one side into a congested and squalid village street into which opened the houses of our not so distantly related clansmen. Their abysmal levels of hygiene and profane language made that side of the house out-of-bounds for us. Papa would be horrified at any attempt on our part to socialize with the ill-bred village louts! The house itself consisted of a series of rooms arranged unimaginatively in a single column like railway compartments. The rooms had been added at different times over a period of 50 years and had little commonality by way of design or build quality. Towards the end of the serially arranged bedrooms was a small courtyard with a kitchen and a storeroom at the far end. An open to sky staircase led to the terrace and a solitary room on the first floor. The dank storeroom dated back to the early 20th century, was sans any windows and had a dark, melancholy, stale, decaying feel to it. It was probably the earliest part of the construction and it housed the junk collected over three generations besides the huge iron drums used for storing the wheat kept aside for domestic consumption. My great-grand father had offered refuge to some Muslim families at the time of Partition and they had hidden in this room while their brethren got massacred in the madness. As a child, I always had an irrational fear that the room was haunted.My grandmother suffered from a mood disorder and her manic swings scared the wits out of me. I somehow connected them to the dark brooding room that I dared not to venture into. The wheat drums attracted an abundance of rats and this did not help the situation. The rats would invade the adjoining kitchen at night and my mom would get the entire kitchen utensils washed in the morning undeterred by the glare of my Grandfather and the loud protests by my granny. I was afraid of the rats like any eleven year old city-bred kid. My sister who was four years older to me would get hysterical on spotting one!
I have always believed in burning the midnight oil. Even as a kid I was a master at procrastination and invariably would be saddled with the entire syllabus on the examination eve. I would try to achieve the impossible and study in a day what actually needed a month. My frantic efforts to cover the lost ground would time and again prove inadequate and it would be midnight before I had finished even half the quota of syllabus. I would then demand to be woken up at four in the morning as I could not hear the sound of the alarm clock ring over my exhausted sleep. As it was a regular feature, and as I apparently refused to learn, my mom eventually refused to undertake the task of waking me up with a glass of tea at unearthly hours. All her earlier advice to me for studying on time had been ignored by me term after term. My Dad slept even more soundly than I and he had enough on his plate without him being asked to take on such ridiculous responsibilities. I was after all a student of class four. My brother was three years elder to me and the idea of studying for any kind of exam was completely incomprehensible to him! That left only my sister. She was, however, the soundest sleeper of us all. I would not let her take the chance with the alarm clock, so she would be coerced into reading a novel till four-in-the-morning, forcing herself to keep awake until it was time to wake up her spoilt kid brother! But that was not the end of the ordeal. I just could not wake up without my cup of bed tea. Now ‘Didi’ was an imaginative teenager who imagined supernatural spirits prowling around in the dark court yard and inside the menacing storeroom. Even more petrifying was the sight of the well fed rats that she would have to confront in that ghostly kitchen in the dead of night. She would invoke the benevolence of all the Gods and the holy spirits that she actually did not believe in and would somehow brace herself and enter the kitchen. And she would emerge triumphant from her silent, lonely battle with the cup of tea for her brother. All this for a not-so-grateful brother who would promptly forget the good turn once the exams were over!
But I never did forget. These are those happy moments that are etched in my consciousness forever. Moments that define my childhood for me.

Leadership in Crisis Situations

The leader is especially needed by the organisation in times of crisis, when the laid down, time tested drills fail to deliver or become irrelevant. The organisation is groping in the dark for alternative solutions and strategies. All eyes are on the leader. What is it that an organisation wants from its leader in such times of crisis?

Responsibility: the leader has to step-in and own up to complete responsibility . Responsibility for the current problem as well as the potential problems posed by the uncertain future. In times of crisis, decision making becomes a problem.Somebody has to take the call, to decide upon a strategy and own up to the possibility of failure. The leader has to inspire the feel good sentiment, ‘ab yeh aa gaya hai, sabh sambhaal lega’. You have to just do what he says!

Confidence: crisis situations require optimism. Stop the panic. Just about everything, the worst of disasters have a precedent. It has happened before to somebody, and it shall surely happen again. Most often the aftermath is anyway not as bad as one initially fears.

No fault finding, save it for another day if at all. The subordinate who has caused the crisis is often only too painfully aware of his culpability, and shall never forget the boss who gets him out of it
without rubbing it in. A positive solution oriented approach lifts up the morale immediately.

Ask for solutions. You ll be surprised as to how often the crisis ridden subordinates already have the solution but are too afraid to propose the same for fear of failure. They just need someone to cover their risk for them.

Be true to your word, if your attempt at crisis resolution flops don’t back track. Own up to the failure as you had promised. You may have failed today but you will live to fight another day.

Goodbye to Formula based Policing

When I joined the police service I was required to call-on the police top brass and introduce myself to the organisation that was to be my bread and butter in the decades to follow. The ceremonial call-on included a five-minute chit chat over the ritualistic cup of tea. The senior colleagues would invariably give some words of advice as to how one could become a successful police officer. Each officer, especially the stalwarts, had his own ‘pet formula’ for tackling policing issues and problems. The formula was supposed to see you through most if not all ticklish issues and keep you out of harms’ way.

‘Crack-down on petty crimes to scare away the bigger criminals’, was one such formula. Thus one was advised to crack the whip on bootlegers, gamblers and pimps so as to create a general scare in the ranks of criminals who were then expected to flee the area of the ‘tough police chief’.
‘Kick Ass – the district can afford only one badmash, and I am it. ‘ Let all and sundry live in your terror- kuchh galat kiya nahin aur yeh humein kha jayega. People are so afraid of being chewed up by the goonda-in-uniform that they forget all notions of committing crime. Thrashing of the goons in public view, use of maximum force at the time of arrest including shootouts, occasional lathi charge are all included in the formula. Rules and procedures are for the babus and the timid and have no use in this man’s job.
‘Manage the Media’ and everything shall be fine. Nobody shall read your crime reports or your crime statistics. The police top brass anyway administers through media reports. The media should portray you as the saviour of peace and the founder of ‘Ram-Rajya’. Have frequent press conferences followed by high tea. Give stories with colourful pictures to media like chit-chat sessions with Resident Welfare Associations, launch functions of ‘Senior Citizen Schemes’, ‘Neighbourhood Watch Schemes’ and what have you, flagging off ceremony of ‘Run against Drugs’ etc etc.
‘Manage your Boss’. In police only your boss matters. Do as he says and you shall be fine. Others would advise- Manage your Super Boss. The political masters should be pleased and nothing else matters.
‘Follow-the-Law by the Letter if not the Spirit’. Don’t take unnecessary risks under mistaken notions of being a dispenser of justice. Follow the rules. If it leads to increased crime rate, don’t bother. Let the law makers change the law and empower you further if they are bothered about curbing crime. If you exceed your laid down powers in combatting crime and there is trouble, nobody shall bail you out. So remember that you are a simple cog-in-the-wheel cop and no super cop, whatever that may be.
Unfortunately, the increasing complexity of the society and the resultant challenges for policing no longer afford one the luxury of sticking to any one formula/ secret-of-success. Thus, the cop creating terror in the badmash element is caught publicly thrashing goondas on tape in a so-called sting-operation. He spends the rest of his career filing replies to the myriad commissions and the Courts. The Stickler for rules is transferred out for non-performance and is ridiculed for being a sissy. The media manager’s peace is suddenly rocked by some hard-core sensational crime and he gets his goose-cooked by the top brass and his media friends alike. One blindly follows one’s boss only to realize that when trouble starts he is going to be the first one to pull you up for not showing sufficient initiative. Thus, no formula works across situations. Today, one has to be a little of everything, as per situation. Sometimes tough, taking risks. Sometimes cautious and even downright timid in tricky situations. Following orders but always covering your back. Media friendly, to a point. In fact, most hapless field officers seeking directions in crisis situations are routinely instructed by their seniors to take action ‘as per situation’!!

Rationale for Direct Recruitment

In the Indian Police setup there are a whole set of expectations regarding professional conduct and capabilities from officers joining the Indian Police Service through direct recruitment. Thus the direct recruits are subjected to much more exacting standards while being judged by their senior colleagues and by society in general. The direct recruits enter the police organization at a relatively higher level in the hierarchy with little professional knowledge or experience as compared to their counterparts who have risen from the ranks. Yet, a directly recruited officer is expected to offset this lack of experience by 4 other key attributes:
1) An unfailing commitment to truth. An unassailable reputation for professional honesty.
2) Greater enthusiasm and drive to achieve organizational goals. A young direct recruit is typically expected to be ‘all fired-up’ for action.
3) The direct recruit is expected to take the organisation away from the beaten path by introducing new systems and technologies. He is expected to be open to change and fresh ideas that hold the promise of imparting a quantum jump to the level of performance of the organization.
4) A greater commitment to national goals and freedom from the prejudices of caste, community and region.

The Devta Theory

As a kid I used to love reading ‘Commando’ Comics that had World War II stories about brave men and cowards. About soldiers and Generals. I remember a quote in one of the stories on fighter pilots. It went something like this,“ There are good fighter pilots and old fighter pilots. There are no good old fighter pilots.” Today, as the working environment within the police department grows grim and chances of a smooth (read, non-catastrophic) career graph grow bleak, I’m often reminded of this million dollar quote. The police officer’s job is today one of the most complex and stressful ones imaginable, where the best of intentions and back breaking labour may not be sufficient for keep oneself out of trouble. Often serious trouble.
The modern day Indian citizens, at least those belonging to its burgeoning middle-class, are extremely conscious of their rights. They seem to have taken the ‘The Great Indian Success Story,’ sold to it so successfully by the media, for real. They feel that we Indians have achieved the standards of the western world as we carry the same mobile phones or drive the same cars or watch the same soap opera. The blinkered vision does not see the dirty underbelly with which the police has to cope to keep the social order from collapsing. A country on the boil, torn by caste and religion like never before. The millions of unemployed, restive youth. The ugly slums depicted in the film, ‘The Slumdog Millionaire’, sans the happy endings. The highway robbers, the merciless kidnappers, the petty thieves, the thugs, the murderers and all the other brands of law breakers who lurk around every corner. All the elements that periodically rock the peace and quiet of our civic society.
The vociferous citizen today demands quick and complete solution to all his problems, completely unmindful of the ground realities. The better educated and well aware amongst them even seek to educate you on the contemporary policing practices of the developed world! The self-respecting police officers struggle to deliver in the face of constraints imposed by the system. The inertia of a poorly educated and poorly recruited force . The constraints imposed by adoption of liberal detention practices aping the developments in the West. The constant glare of media that seeks to sensationalize each minor development. Often, reputations carefully nurtured and cherished by honest, hardworking men are mindlessly destroyed at the hands of teenaged reporters in a hurry to make the ‘Burkha Dutt Grade’. The Courts and the myriad commissions and self-proclaimed social activists are there to conduct the postmortem of each professional decision and investigation, often drawing wisdom imparted by hindsight. The police officer unfortunately, does not usually have the luxury of time. Decisions have to be taken even when complete information is not available as even a bad decision is better than no decision.
The new entrants to the department, the young blood, are today, facing a crisis of confidence. The confidence to take a call whenever a situation demands to the best of one’s intentions and abilities. The apprehension of problems that can possibly arise from each course of action is causing a paralysis in decision making. Nobody seems to want to command anymore, lest he be blamed for the problems that may arise from the decisions that he took. And what are the kind of decisions that a police officer has to take? The decision to open fire on a violent mob. The decision to aggressively stop a suspicious vehicle and risk an accident. The decision to withstand adverse media publicity and take a principled stand to reject trial by media and to be ruled by evidence. The decision to tread into the dangerous gray areas of law and procedures in the interest of justice.
So what does one do? Quit? As a plain speaking boss put it somewhat crudely, ‘You are not obliged to continue in this job if its so tough!’ But I subscribe to a happier view. One need not quit or be fearful. One should enjoy every moment of this wonderful and God sent opportunity to do good and dispense justice. One should take each decision inspired by the confidence of bona fide intentions. Its not that things won’t go wrong. For a while, at least. Or may be for a wee bit longer than that. But things will be okay in the end. For somewhere in this big bad world is a man who is watching you and your work. He may have made different choices in his own life and career but he still respects those made by a clear and honest heart. He may be a senior colleague, a judge, a politician, a media man or an activist. But when you have your back to the wall he will appear as sure as the Devtas of Hindu mythology and bail you out. Sometimes quite literally! Believe it or not, this is a well established and widely endorsed belief in the department and has been aptly christened as the ‘Devta Theory’.

Me and my religion

I was born in a liberal Sikh family of clean shaven Sardars. My earliest associations of my religion all date back to the childhood memories of having sat by the side of my father in the Gurdwara. I used to be on the look out for cues as to when to bow and when to fold hands for the ardaas. I would, however, pitch in with unabashed gusto when the congregation would vociferously affirm their faith with ‘Wahe Guru Ji Ka Khalsa, Wahe Guru Ji Ki Fateh’. Another distinct memory is that of studying at the eleventh hour for the school exams with the octogenarian village Granthi’s soporific, early morning drone, from the distant Gurdwara mike, for company. These childhood memories apart, I would have consciously and sub-consciously picked up values from my community but I never gave the issue any thought.
Today, when I am the father of two inquisitive daughters I am forced to give it some serious thought. What does being a Sikh mean to me? What are the core values that I would like my children to imbibe? After much thought, I have reached a tentative list.
A Sikh is a lover of freedom. Freedom to pursue happiness. The Gurus struggled all their lives for the freedom to pursue a religion of their own choice. They struggled essentially on behalf of the larger community of different faiths.
A lover of freedom has to be a liberal man. Freedom for oneself and freedom for everybody else. Sikhism is thus the very anti-thesis of Fascism. Sikhs are egalitarian in thought.
A Sikh is a lover of justice and truth. In his pursuit of justice he is never daunted by the odds. A Sikh thrives in situations where the odds are pitted against him. He is the champion of the weak and the powerless and is always ready to take up a public cause in the interest of justice.

The ‘Iron Frame’ redefined

What is a nation? The physical boundaries and the people living within them? or is it an idea? I feel its a philosophy, a way of life. A consensus on what life is all about and what is it that we live and collectively strive for? The ‘Independent India’s’ philosophy or way of life is enshrined in its Constitution. In its essence the Indian philosophy states that its citizens are all born equal. Each of us deserves happiness in life. There should be justice for all. A few good men were given the leadership position by history and they gave this conglomeration of sub-cultures and this ancient civilization it’s modern new philosophy. A philosophy which was futuristic and inspired by optimism about the destiny of his young nation. Initially the multitude followed its leaders as it was driven by the freshness of an independent nation that was experimenting with new ideas. But the new order of things failed to deliver at a pace that could satisfy the impatient millions. The people then decided to blame the underlying philosophy of the new order. The age old attitudes, prejudices and way of life now staged a comeback. But even this resurgence was limited as the new liberal philosophy had gained root to a certain extent and had its own set adherents. The battle is raging on. It has seen the centuries old bureaucratic ‘iron-frame’ crumble under pressure from the democratic polity. But the Constitution and its philosophy have found new champions. The young soldiers who have had the benefit of a liberal education and today seek to replace some of the attitudes that are thousands of years old.The shining new India that wants to make its place in the league of modern nations where all their citizens are free to pursue happiness. The battle is being fought in the hearts and minds of the people. The liberal versus the fascist. The tolerant versus the brute. All the believers of the new faith must display patience and perseverance in this struggle. They must remember to lead by example and have faith in the philosophy they expect others to follow. These champions of the Constitution are the new ‘Iron Frame’ of Independent India that holds it multitude together.