Camaraderie over the mane

Col Avnish Sharma (retd)

Barbers are an affable community. Despite huge technological advancements, no alternative to a physical tryst with a member of this fabulous group has been discovered. The old-timers who launched this profession had a vision par excellence in conceptualising the nuances of a haircut and the dependence that society reposes in them.

Khem Singh, aka Khemu, joined our unit as a barber (they are combatant tradesmen) almost the same time as I joined as a Second Lieutenant. He was confident in his profession, coming from a family of Army barbers belonging to upper Himachal. Amicable, he immediately caught the fancy of officers, including the Commanding Officer (CO). Therefore, he was in demand on Sundays, being a personal grooming day in which a crew-cut was a must. Apart from a non-negotiable convenient time for the CO and the 2IC, the other slots would come to officers based on Khemu’s preference, which we realised soon, depended upon the listening ability of the officer to the unending gossip and display of his knowledge. The prospect of extracting worthwhile news affecting the troops, which he would selectively disseminate as langar gup, was another factor.

To cut down our crew-cut fixation, he would wisen us up on maintaining a cavalry tradition of longer hair than our other arms counterparts. Feeling sheepish on possessing better cavalry spirit, his visits reduced to alternate Sundays, thereby giving him more time to indulge in langar gup.

The setting up of a unit barber shop was a new concept during the nineties, wherein unit personnel could visit it at their convenience. He opposed the concept since it didn’t suit his extracurricular hobby of private gossip. Nevertheless, a barber shop was established, but not without my friend designating himself as a roving barber to attend to officers at their residence. His new role was on popular demand of one and all.

Years went by, the unit won repeated compliments for its well-turned-out soldiers. Though many others contributed to this achievement, it was attributed to Khemu. When I returned from a deputation to command the unit, Khemu, witty as ever, was summoned to give me a crew-cut prior to my first meeting with the GOC. He refused to move his scissors beyond the length of a horse’s mane. ‘Saab, agar hamara CO saab apni pehchaan nahin banayega to laftain saab log ka kya hoga!’ The GOC, next day, was more transfixed with my hair than my professional introduction. Khemu, henceforth, was nominated as the personal barber of the GOC. His availability for a Sunday haircut, thereafter, was subject to availability.

Today, as I sit in a fancy salon for my monthly grooming, I miss my comrade over the mane.

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The plunder and the price

K Govindan Kutty

Crudely rendered, a Malayalam saying suggests that mosquitoes find ‘bloody’ pleasure even in ‘milky’ udder. Such mosquitoes had a field day last week in Kerala when clouds burst and lands slipped away in murderous zeal. Death brought stories of sorrow and survival, acts of heroism. But they were enlivened by scandals of misappropriation, chicanery and pathological fault-finding.

How such misappropriation was attempted is a matter of inquiry. So also who thrust into circulation canards to discredit the government! A BJP busybody made it a point to remind the CM that his minions had not yet used half the money the Centre gave last year. Amid muffled cries and sighs, a political game apportioning blame is well under way.

More than a hundred people have died. Whole chunks of earth have disappeared. Small hills in Wayanad suddenly gave way, leaving behind no trail other than a whispering void. A village with a hoary history, Kavalappara, which was the seat of power of an eponymous feudal overlord and a killer tusker which went into distant folklore, was gobbled up by mother earth. The fear is if it will happen year after year, in an abject enactment of what Nietzsche called eternal recurrence.

Wayanad, which Rahul Gandhi now represents by political chance, has been under exploitation for long. Writing about its aborigines and their sad lot, K Panoor likened it to Kerala’s Africa. Geologically, Wayanad has undergone wanton reclamation for purposes of construction and cultivation. When SK Pottekkat, former MP and literary chronicler of north Kerala, explored in a novel such human ambition and endeavour, it yielded, ironically, a tragic depiction.

Half a century later, Prof Madhav Gadgil was engaged to study the devastation of Wayanad and other vulnerable parts of the Western Ghats. Stretching from Maharashtra to Kanyakumari, the Western Ghats were, to Kalidasa, a captivating damsel. Gadgil’s mission was to examine how that winsome show of nature had been defiled. His team presented the denouement of human vandalism. For the benefit of those who would hear or care, he had sounded two decades ago a warning about the wreck of the Ghats. Earth was not holding itself together. Shorn of poetic melody, the warning had a terrific starkness.

A leftist science body, Sastra Sahitya Parishad, endorsed the report. Politicians were anxious to debunk the theory. A lone politician who championed the cause of the Ghats was Congress’s PT Thomas. The Marxist party was in two or more minds. The parishad made bold to say: ‘Hill today is no hill to us; it is plain mud. Mountain is no mountain; it is plain rock. River is no river; it is water and sand. Forest is no forest; it is mere timber. And this is all for us to loot.’ Parasurama, who reclaimed this part of the subcontinent from the waters in the west, would wonder at the speed with which his inheritors could spell ruin.

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Religion in the eyes of an agnostic

Rakesh Gupta

Before moving on the highly slippery ground, I confess that my knowledge of religion is limited to attending religious ceremonies at weddings and deaths, listening to sermons on television, which I accidentally tune into and reading the Understanding Gita in 45 Minutes, quite like help-books titled ‘Excel or MS office for Dummies’. The closest encounter with religion was during the performance of the last rites of my parents. I failed to listen to mantras during my marriage. I forced the panditji to finish the pheras in 15 minutes as I was feeling very uncomfortable sitting there.

Several questions haunt me. I have posed these questions to my friends who are religiously literate and impromptu quote scriptures. Their replies laced with philosophy are like facing Jeff Thomson’s 160km/hr bowling — the ball is invisible but wickets are uprooted.

One such person was explaining to me the importance of Navratras, why they are celebrated and the dos and don’ts. He becomes a vegetarian and teetotaller and follows brahmacharya during this period. I asked if accepting bribe was allowed. I could see the anger in his eyes, as if he could have eaten me raw but for the Navratras. It was enough to make me understand that refusing bribe was an act of sacrilege: it is a blessing showered by the goddess Laxmi on her devotees.

After going through Understanding Gita in 45 Minutes, I learnt that lust, anger, greed, attachment and arrogance are vices. Equipping myself with this knowledge, I confronted another friend, a laureate on scriptures across religions. He said every religion preached the same, as also harmony and tolerance. God is one, but has different names. I countered, how can Allah and Ram be the same! Daily I observe somebody getting offended in the name of Ram or Allah. I argued that he was a pretender and knew nothing about religion. If all this was true, what was every ‘wise’ man fighting for?

In a secular country like India, which is governed by the Constitution, what is the role of religion? He said the Constitution ensured fundamental rights to all, giving freedom to follow any religion. But this freedom ended where the freedom of the fellow citizen began. He seemed to be quoting from the constitution of some faraway liberal, atheistic country. He was cut off from the ground realities. Religion is the most important for us. We have opened more places of worship than schools and hospitals. We can lynch a person who does not agree to our point of view.

Our politicians take oath in the name of the Constitution, but carry religion on their sleeves. There is religious freedom, but only for the self-appointed custodians. My freedom is sub judice to their whims.

Frustrated, he advised me that it was safer for an atheist like me to keep away from such matters. I should focus on cricket and Netflix.

I am following his advice, except one. I am now agnostic. If God exists, I will have something to fall upon.

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No liberty unless truly free

Latika Sehajpal

Freedom, a seven-letter word which shapes our life from birth to death. In earlier times, it meant the pleasure of the ruler over the ruled. The king, if benevolent, gave certain freedoms to his people. As monarchies crumbled and democracies arose, freedom took the form of human rights. This word brought war to the shores of the seven seas. Freedom to rule against freedom to not be enslaved. Everyone’s desires could not be fulfilled, so by the words of enlightened men, social rules curbing personal freedom were established, giving the shape to constitutions of countries. It takes away the free will of an individual and transforms it into the accepted will of society. Its strong aura makes people kill themselves to attain it. Much like godliness, which is unattainable, yet a human devotes his entire lifetime to possess it. Freedom is a kingdom of free people.

Are we free? Every minute of our existence, we are fighting off labels, groupings, boxing us into divisions. The fight is not against one party or one nation, it is against the idea of division that drives humankind. What freedom do we celebrate on Independence Day? Which country is free of racism, sexism, neocolonialism and the newest scourge of majoritarianism? Are we really free to express what troubles us, what we see happening around us? Will we not be humiliated and trolled by those who sit behind anonymous screens and threaten us for having a contrarian opinion? Death comes screeching in the face of a mob.

Are things headed the right way? Do we have any freedom left to be honest? Can we survive among the muzzled voices of real poverty? What independence have we got from the lies and deceit of those who ruled us — in the name of monarchy and in the name of democracy? Are our political representatives representing the people? Do they walk barefoot to high offices, through the rain and quake, as the common man does? Is their house as small as the average man on the road? The talk of independence and freedom is illusionary. My ranting is a sign of independence, but I am scared for my life, as I would be in a monarchy. So, this is not freedom, not to me.

But freedom thrives on hope. Hope that people will understand what a country means. Hope that they will work towards saving the planet from their own kind. Hope that ambitions of a few will be checked and balanced by collective intellect of sane men and women. Many many wars ago, the world was in a race to end itself. But it was hope, words and actions of brave men and women that saved it from imploding. My hope is that the hard-won freedom from despots is preserved for future generations.

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Common man vs the urban wild

Komal Randhawa

I was pleasantly surprised to find out about PM Modi featuring in ‘Man vs Wild’ on Discovery, with acclaimed adventurer Bear Grylls, scurrying through the length and breadth of the tough terrain and environs of the Jim Corbett National Park, and, of course, surviving to tell the tale.

But go all the way to the national park? They could have paid a visit to any city in the country and face the same life-threatening scenario that would give them that adrenaline rush they desperately crave. We have our own version of the wild in India. In the space of the past 10 days, my family and I have been in two accidents with stray cattle. Once, a poor cow being shooed away by nearby farmers to save their months of toil, banged into our car on a highway. Another time, a cow basking in the moonlight in the middle of a road was cause for a mishap. We, too, did survive to tell the tale, as do thousands of lucky citizens faced with similar peril. Bear Grylls fittingly said survival can be summed up in three words — never give up. A plethora of such incidents are reported and witnessed on a daily basis, and I am proud to say that we, the unsung heroes, who will not feature in any international show, too, never give up in this created wild.

If stray cows come with their share of despair and havoc, our urban wolf packs, aka our not-so-friendly neighbourhood stray dogs, are not far behind. We got ourselves a pet last year, and my daughter wanted to experience the simple joy of taking it for a walk. But this elementary wish is difficult to fulfil, rather it is rather a dangerous desire, all thanks to the mongrels who rule the streets. Despite being ‘armed’, one is sure to fall prey to their sheer numbers. According to the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, India has over 30 million stray dogs and more than 20,000 people die of rabies every year.

How many people are killed in the so-called wild of the Jim Corbett park annually? It may not even be close to the 20,000 mark of the infamous stray dogs.

In one clip, PM Modi is shown riding a dinghy in a river. Why go for an ‘unoriginal’ river row when you can face the real deal in Assam and Odisha floods? Our country has so much excitement to offer day in and day out that we are holding on to patience with our fingernails!

A quote keeps appearing on social media, saying fill your life with adventures, not things and have stories to tell, not stuff to show. I have had my share of adventure on the streets of the urban wild and plenty of anecdotes to narrate, too. However, this soiree of adventure has overstayed its welcome and I yearn that the created wild stays where it can be nurtured and cherished.

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Cane did what words could not!

George N Netto

Way back in the 1950s, none perhaps believed more fervently in the efficacy of caning wayward boys than Father Masters, the prefect of our boarding school in Tiruchi, then run by British Jesuits. An unrelenting martinet, he felt it was the only foolproof way to discipline and rein in mischievous youngsters out to make life miserable for him and others.

Any misconduct — from sneaking out to the neighbouring cinema theatre for a late-night western to being caught smoking or in possession of fags; and from corresponding with a girlfriend in the nearby convent (bribing a day-scholar to be the messenger) to sloshing a chronic snorer with a basinful of water for keeping us awake at night with his guttural groans — brought prompt punishment.

Further, sadists who planted pins in chairs (with the business end up!) and pranksters who thoughtlessly tore out pages from others’ notebooks for use as toilet paper were never spared. Nor were those who perversely deflated the tyres of teachers’ bicycles or set off deafening ‘bombs’ during Diwali, timed to jolt busy classes or the prefect during his afternoon siesta. Depending on the gravity of the offence, one received three or six ‘of the best’ (to use the prefect’s euphemism) on one’s behind. And woe to you if you weren’t well cushioned anatomically!

The caning usually left one with a very sore fundament, which made sitting pure agony for a few days, and a resolve never to go astray again. One irate boarder who pelted the server with half-cooked pieces of beef during lunch got his just deserts.

Some errant recipients even chose to squat bare-bottomed in a basin of water to salve the angry red welts streaking their behinds! For when the prefect worked off his ire and frustration on a wrong-doer, he usually left ‘lasting impressions’.

Three boarders once bunked for a late-night movie with the connivance of their buddies who ingeniously made three dummies on their cots to fool the prefect — using a football for the head, pillows for the torso and hockey sticks with the curved ends up for the legs, covering these with a bedsheet. Imagine the trio’s shock on their return around midnight to find the fuming prefect fondly fingering his cane and waiting for them. Mayhem promptly followed.

Those were the heyday of corporal punishment in schools — a stark contrast, indeed, to today’s virtually punishment-free juvenile world. True, the prospect of a harsh punishment did deter potential mischief-makers then, but high-spirited and resilient youngsters couldn’t really be caned into quietude for long. So, the so-called ‘recidivists’ did rear their heads again. As one incorrigible guy put it unforgettably, ‘I’ve got more marks on my backside than in my report card!’

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Lingering pain of Partition

Anirudh Dhanda

WITH Independence Day approaching, the realisation dawns that the pain and pangs of Partition somehow refuse to quit the Punjabi psyche. Those who actually lived the trauma at a personal level are no more or are in the autumn of their lives. Yet the stories of real life strife narrated are too deep to die with them. It was not just about the division of land, migration and movement of families, but had more to it.

Unfathomable fear gnawed at them. Disbelief with which they viewed others just because of the new-found differences in faith was incomprehensible. The pain was not only because of the loss of lives. It was more because of having been separated from each other. The close bonds that one had forged, irrespective of faith, were lost. There were no differences because of religion, yet they fought and killed for it. There were people driven by barbaric instinct and there were the meek sufferers. Men acted sometimes out of revenge and mostly out of fear of each other. The avengers avenged their own to later burn forever in the fire of guilt.

The history and depth of this tragedy is in the literature. No scholarly work can outweigh the bleeding of the heart. There comes Manto with Toba Tek Singh, the symbol of trauma of a man in limbo. Amrita Pritam’s poem on the riots where she invokes Waris Shah, lamenting the anguish of daughters of Punjab, has been one of her most poignant and oft-quoted writing. Faiz’s Subah-e-Azadi is another example. And then scores of stories including Krishan Chander’s Peshawar Express, Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Gadria by Ashfaq Ahmed. Most literature of the post-Partition era is of lamentation, or genuine grief. Memories of Partition seen through live accounts and sensitive fiction, born out of the same agony, are alive even among the third generation and yet no answers are available to them.

Turning a refugee in your own newfound countries formed a web of human suffering that can find no rationale. Even after seven decades of Partition, it is difficult to comprehend and grasp the trauma in its full essence. ‘May be it is for this reason that the writers are still obsessed with this theme, but hardly any writer has contemplated the reunification of Punjab,’ pondered Amarjit Chandan.

There have been instances of men as participants in the madness and carrying the weight of guilt all their lives and then confessing to somehow breathing freely. To quote Chandan, ‘It took Anwar Shaikh 50 years to write his confession about the murder of a Sikh man and his son he had committed in Lahore. Giani Hari Singh’s account of Muslims in Hoshiarpur district forcibly converted to the Sikh faith and then murdered leaves much more impact than the story Shaheed (The Martyrs) written on the same event by his writer-son Gulzar Singh Sandhu.’

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