The call from Eminabad

Vijay Sabharwal

The other day I received a call on my mobile phone. It was an unknown number from the US. I took the call, wondering who it might be. However, hearing no one on the line for a while, I disconnected it, thinking it was probably one of those phishing calls that banks often warn against.

After a while, I received another call from a different international number. I found myself getting a tad anxious when the caller identified himself as Mohamad Akram. Why would an unknown person with that name be calling me from a foreign land, and how would our nation view this matter? Those were my thoughts as I enquired — disapprovingly — of the reason for the call, ready to disconnect at a moment’s notice.

After a short pause, the caller raised his voice and enquired thrice, ‘Tussi Sabharwal ho, ji?’ ‘Yes,’ I responded, ‘and who are you?’ ‘Main Eminabad, Pakistan, da Mohamad Akram.’

Now, the mere mention of Pakistan was enough to put me on high alert. However, Eminabad — being my birthplace — piqued my curiosity, so I asked for the reason for the call. Akram started listing names of many family elders, asking me to confirm their relation with me, and then, enquired about my age. He said he had been trying to get a contact number for one of my family members for several years, and that it was with great difficulty that he had found mine.

He explained that his father, Abdul Rehman, had overseen the construction of our haveli there. Akbar reminisced how, whenever he accompanied his father to the haveli, my father and his elder brother used to offer him sweets, which he still recalled with great affection to this day, at the age of 80. ‘I was hoping,’ he continued, ‘that after all these years, someone of your family may come back to visit Eminabad, with Sikh worshippers paying obeisance at Bhai Lalo Di Khooi and Rori Sahib gurdwaras.

Now fully engaged, I enquired about Akram’s own life. He told me that he had retired from Pakistan railways some 20 years back, and had since settled in New Jersey, as his sons had emigrated there.

I asked him if he might be able to send me a photograph of my family haveli, which he enthusiastically assured that he would have done through one of his relatives still living there. However, he warned me that its beauty had been regrettably diminished by the many shops that had sprouted in front of it.

When we had bid our goodbyes, the call left me with bittersweet feelings. What was it that had me so emotionally excited after a call from a complete stranger, so much so that I had requested for a photograph of my familial home in a country against which many in our own spout animosity all the time? Could the bonds of humanity transcend those of man-made boundaries, I wondered sadly.

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IMA was home to leopards once!

Lt Gen Raj Sujlana (retd)

The campus of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) is surrounded by many reserve forests. Over the years, increased intrusion of human footprint into the forests has led to an exodus of wildlife towards civilisation. The campus has received its share of wildlife ingress, especially of leopards. Dana-pani took me there as a gentleman cadet (GC) in 1970, an instructor a decade later, a senior staff officer in the mid-90s and later as a Commandant. Earlier, a leopard around the campus was a rarity, but in the mid-90s, and later, it was almost a routine. Close encounters were numerous and, at times, dangerous.

Early one morning, a GC with a bursting bladder rushed out to visit the toilet. Ahead in the corridor, he tried to shoo off what he thought was a dog who didn’t budge. Reality dawned, a quick rearward sprint got him to the safety of his cabin. Another was faced by a JCB driver who, in the process of clearing some bushes, had a leopard pounce out snarling at him. Danger begets the best thought — in reverse gear he sped off. Another panthera pardus, a regular visitor to the golf course, loved the fourth green. Close to dusk, many a four-ball had to retrace their steps without recovering their approach shots, as parked on the green was the feline guest!

Hunting or trapping was a big no, the byword being, ‘Preserve environment, save wildlife’. But countermeasures were necessary, the option lay only in prophylactic ones. Col Charlie Thapa, a keen environmentalist posted there, volunteered to take on this task. A quick study of pugmarks, disturbed foliage and a cage trap was positioned near the trail of the ‘golf addict’. His expertise unfolded next morning. The feline beauty was trapped. Inquisitiveness saw me facing a leopard from close quarters. His sudden roar sent quivers down the spine. He was taken away by the WWF and released in a jungle.

By the time I reached the IMA in the first decade of the 21st century, leopard visits were almost a routine. The south campus was bounded by a 10-ft wall, but it was kid’s play for the leopards—a casual spring was enough to get across. Varied training activities were conducted, including laying and unsnarling of jungle traps among clumps of trees and patches of shrubbery. All traps were recovered, but an odd trap skipped the eye. Reality dawned when angry roars resonated from the undergrowth. To our horror, a leopard lay stuck. Once again, the WWF came to our rescue.

The north campus was wide open. Here, leopards loved an almost daily visit to the residences of the Commandant and Deputy Commandant, as if to counter their authority at the academy. Intrigued, house guests looked out to see one live and free; some were lucky, some not. For those who got a glimpse, it was an unforgettable experience. One not so lucky was the chief guest on the Passing-out Parade. Despite it being a ‘Presidential Order’, the leopard was in no mood to please. The chief guest was the President!

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Never been better for ‘cattle class’

Sanjeev Trikha

Two cows, after feasting on the lush-green crop, headed towards the national highway for rumination and to enjoy the rendezvous with some already seated there. “The ambience of these highways and the gush of wind generated by speeding traffic has been my weakness,” one of them remarked. The ecstasy of enjoying the luxury of sitting in the centre of the well lit, wide and clean road near the toll plaza was writ large on their faces. As they joined the group, the first one justifying their separation from the herd roaming in the fields said, “They belong to ‘cattle class’. They don’t realise that their movement damages crops.”

“You know, the government, thinking of our wellbeing and security, has initiated cow cess on the income of humans?” One of them set the ball rolling. “Is it? But are you sure the revenue generated in our name would be spent on us only?” The other one raised doubts. “Nevertheless someone has finally thought of us. Look nobody can now dare to remove us from this busy road. All vehicles slow down as a mark of respect towards us and make way for our comfort. Even farmers whose crops get damaged treat us with dignity.” Achhe din are here. “In some states we are provided with security cover by commandos named gaurakshaks,” the first one continued. “They should be called gaummandos!” a witty mind interjected.

“I smell a political rat in all such developments, but still, we should welcome it. When politicians with negative contribution can enjoy security cover, why shouldn’t we?” remarked a rational one. “The government is opening gaushalas. I applied for one, but my name did not figure in the NRC of that state,” a sulking one remarked. “But our contribution to the nation’s development needs analysis in the scenario where people no longer vie for our milk, where farmers are wisely shifting to new techniques, where consumption of beef is a heinous crime,” stated one who had spent years with a professor of economics. “In this country all that glitters on paper is gold, so no need to worry. Thanks to Lord Krishna and his stories where we continue to glitter,” another viewpoint was endorsed by the one who spent years in a mandir. “The government is seriously working on our USP and highlighting the medicinal value of our urine,” a knowledgeable one emphatically commented. “Oh is it? That is why I feel guilty whenever I pass urine as I waste it and dent the GDP!” the witty cow took a jibe at the scholarly figure.

“We should not underestimate ourselves. We now have the status of ‘mother’,” a self-obsessed cow suggested. “Are humans trustworthy? We are only their sworn mothers. When they don’t care for their real mother when they are of no use, expecting anything from them would be living in a fool’s paradise,” an emotional one intervened.

The talk was suddenly halted by the sound of screeching tyres of a vehicle which had to brake as a mark of respect to this elite class.

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Jalandhar’s pride that ends in prejudice

Vinod Kumar

Taking pride in one’s birthplace is neither hubris nor arrogance. It also does not amount to embarking upon an ego-trip; rather it is a natural and lovely feeling. A place acquires uniqueness by virtue of giving birth to those who made their mark in enriching mankind, one way or the other.

Whenever I hear Malika Pukhraj sing ‘Abhi tau main jawan hun’ my pride in my city, Jalandhar, starts swelling in my chest because it was poet Hafeez Jalandhari who wrote this immortal poem. Born in 1901, he started writing at the age of 11. He was a poet of love and longing who wrote, ‘Agar yeh mere bas ki baat hoti, Hamesha wasal hi ki raat hoti (Had it been within my powers, every night would have been night of celebrating togetherness)’. Yet, he was a staunch nationalist who took part in the freedom struggle too. After Partition, he migrated to Pakistan and there also he earned respect by writing the national song of that country.

My pride raises its head again when I remember, how during the ‘80s, Radio Ceylon used to play daily a song sung by Kundan Lal Saigal at 8am at which time my car entered the factory gate and the security guard used to salute and smile at the same time, knowing fully well my craze for the singer. Saigal was a legend and used to live in an adjoining locality in the heart of the city, albeit in a different time zone. It was a great feeling to know that my class fellow Vinay was closely related to him and he still lived in their ancestral home.

Though I didn’t know the house in Gobindgarh Mohalla where the family of film-makers BR Chopra and Yash Chopra lived, yet it was the area which gave me shelter after I ran away from home to marry the girl of my choice. The gurdwara of that area helped us tie the knot in true filmy style. The unfortunate part is that whereas in the West places connected with such legends are preserved as museums, we can’t even locate their exact origins.

The acme of pride issues from the fact that Swami Hariballabh, the legendary musician, also belonged to Jalandhar. The annual Hariballabh music festival is the oldest such event being held for the past 143 years in his memory at the same venue in December. People keep sitting in biting cold, wrapped in blankets and quilts, listening to the artists, night after night. It has always been the dream of upcoming vocalists and instrumentalists to perform in this musical soiree to give a fillip to their careers.

The pride in the city does not pale here. When you think of literature, how can you forget the names of bigwigs such as Hindi novelist Upender Nath Ashq and playwright Mohan Rakesh? Rakesh, though born in Amritsar, lived in Jalandhar for most part of his life.

Talking of politics, at least one Prime Minister, IK Gujral, made Jalandhar proud.

Having waxed eloquent so far let me be honest and not hide the flip side. After all, everything cannot be hunky-dory when it comes to an old city like Jalandhar. The name of the city itself springs from the mythological demon named Jalandhar, the emperor of Asuras (demons). I’m also not forgetting here that Pakistan’s ex-dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, who hanged the democratically elected prime minister ZA Bhutto. The general was born in Jalandhar.

My father used to tell that his haveli was just outside our street, from where we passed daily while going to the market.

However, despite the flip side, I love my city.

The writer is a Chandigarh-based freelance contributor

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A conflict too painful for words

Shiv Sethi

When intellectuals contemplate theories of genesis, many of them discuss the issue whether it is man who appeared first on Earth or I. Though there are divergent opinions about the creation of both of us in this world, one truth cannot be negated that man and I are intertwined. Such is the intensity of our relation that we dwell in each other. As a true lover cannot live without his beloved, or a real devotee cannot even imagine his existence without God, similarly, we, segregated from each other, will simply wither away. And if history does not find any evidence of my presence before man, I am certainly as old as mankind itself. I am born with a child in the form of his cries and grow up in strength and size in the advancing years of his life.

History is witness that men of intelligence have ruled the world with my support, but several of them have suffered loss on account of being indiscreet with me. If the ‘service to society’ award is to be kept reserved for the single greatest and the biggest servant of humanity with absolute exclusiveness, I will be the genuine, and the only claimant. What greater satisfaction can be there than the fact that men eulogise me by equating me with their mother. Whereas mystic saints of various communities have spread the message of truth, beauty and goodness through me; poets have sung of the bewitching beauty of their lover’s eyes by taking recourse to me. In their expression of love, I am bejewelled like a bride. Much to my pleasure, I have also been the medium of uniting the world into one unified whole, but my real beauty lies in my diversity.

I have multiple manifestations. My sounds and structural patterns are diverse and distinctly different as I change my garments according to the change of place, and assume an altogether different facelift. I am conversant with the proverb ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans’, but the essence within me does not alter. As a trustworthy emotional prop of man, I have laughed with him in his joys and sighed in his sorrows. I am not only the carrier of the truths of sages, but also have conveyed a person’s happiness or anguish to the other.

After God, I can be rightly called the prime mover of society. My devotees make sincere endeavours to understand my roots and branches. Many of them resort to hard penance to master my multiple manifestations and assimilate them. I had heard that all disputes in the world have three predominant causes — wealth, land and woman, but unfortunately, today, that list has expanded. Much to my pain, I am also included in that trio. People are fighting over my superiority, whereas I have never suffered from any superiority complex. I turn quiet with a heavy heart though quietness has never been my attribute. I am language — languishing amid crisis and conflict.

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Wisdom or artificial intelligence?

IP Anand

It was Teachers’ Day. Greetings were pouring in. In a self-congratulatory mood, I announced, “You know, I have a dinner date today with Mr Kaushal… my student.” My better half replied, “Yes, we know. He honours you, this day, every year.”

My grandson, studying in class IX, said sarcastically, “Enjoy your dinner, grandpa. Teachers’ Day dinners are not going to last long.” Indignant and a little annoyed, I asked, “What do you mean?” “Sorry, grandpa. I read in my book that human teachers will be replaced by mechanical teachers in future. So, Teachers’ Day will hardly be celebrated anymore,” he explained apologetically.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s story, The fun they had, which I had taught in my class, immediately flashed in my mind. Set in the year 2157, the story depicts a society where children learn individually at home, sans school, sans human teachers. I pondered over the scenario. The way information technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are influencing society, everything seems possible. Otherwise too, as Robert H Schuller observed, “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”

The teacher-incarnate robot, I tried to visualise, will teach right in the room of each learner. The whole library of books, dictionaries and encyclopedias built in, he will act omniscient. Blessed with an unfailing memory, he will never fumble or falter and will always be composed and consistent, calm and cool. He will never fume or frown, rebuke or reprimand, punish or penalise.

If learning was to be only about acquiring information, a robot or tele-teacher would be the right choice. But I wondered if to educate a person meant only to stuff him or her with facts and figures. I was reminded of WB Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Will a mere machine be able to light a fire in the young hearts, I asked myself.

Devoid of human warmth and emotion, will the electronic educator ever be able to build an emotional bond with students? Also, will an apparatus be competent enough to judge whether the learner has grasped the concept or not just by reading the face? Will it be capable of conveying and communicating through expressions and gestures, modulation and intonation, references and anecdotes from daily life? Can we expect the same commitment from a robotic device? The list was unending.

Perhaps Asimov also struggled with such concerns. Hence, the subversion of the notion of ‘A home school, independent of human teacher’, for the story ends with the character Margie ‘thinking about the fun school-going kids had in the old days.’ As American educationist George Couros observed, “Technology will not replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational.”

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Eat, pray and love

NJ Ravi Chander

IN the good old days, living in a joint family was an experience in itself. The kitchen would come alive even before sunrise. The clatter of utensils, chit-chat of women and the grinding noise of stone would wake up the entire household. There was never a need for an alarm clock!

The neighbourhood milkman arrived with his pail and battery of cows and proceeded to milk them in front of our gate, supplying fresh, unadulterated produce to us. After the milk was boiled and cooled in a cauldron, the little ones would scoop out the layer of cream that formed at the top and finger-lick them. Fruits and vegetables procured from the local market on bicycles were free of pesticides. Everybody dined, sitting on rugs spread across the floor, with the womenfolk serving food on plantain leaves. The meal would be rounded off with a tall glass of buttermilk.

A wood-fired mud-and-brick stove in the corner of the kitchen served the purpose of cooking. The ration depot supplied firewood and every cardholder was entitled to a fixed kilo of logs. If a family ran out of wood, they could procure them from the depot at a premium. Usually, the quantity allotted for the family sufficed and rarely extra stocks were purchased. The women of the house ensured that the embers kept smouldering, huffing and puffing into them with metal blowers and refuelling them from time to time. The dense smoke emanating from the fireplace moistened the eyes and the children were, therefore, asked to keep a safe distance.

The ooru habba or the village fair in celebration of Ramnavami that took place in the tiny hamlet of Bannergatta on the outskirts of Bengaluru way back in 1940 was an annual ritual. The joint family would make a beeline to the village to join in the festivities.

My octogenarian maternal uncle recounts that a group of women and children would set off in a covered bullock cart with provisions and water. The men would follow them on bicycles. The humble vehicle had a broad platform on very high wheels, and the three-hour journey made for a rough ride. The tour party would take a break to enjoy a snack or to lead the tiring bullocks to water for a much-needed drink and a refreshing feed.

On reaching the destination, the group would visit the temple on the hill, go round the village and finally settle down to cook in the open fields. The villagers were glad to welcome the guests and provided free living space to spend the night. Pits dug up behind the bushes served as toilets, but one had to be wary of reptiles.

Living in a joint family had its merits. You received an extra dose of unconditional love from the elders, including your parents. Chores got divided, and things got done more efficiently. Vacations were fun time as children sat in a group outdoors under a starry sky and listened to stories by family elders, some of them made up. Haunted by the fear of ghosts, the kids felt secure sleeping in groups. That was another era, indeed!

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