Becoming Worldly Wise

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My stay in Kolkata with 12(Bengal) NCC Air Squadron was a short one.   I joined the unit in November 1959 and got posted out from the unit by September 1960; it was a couple of months less than a year.    Indeed it was a rather small footnote in my long and wonderfully varied career.   Yet, when I now look back at those ten months, I am amazed by the amount of learning for me that was encapsulated in that short period.

I had got married to Leena just over six months before I got posted to Kolkata.   I did not know her before we got married.   I had not met her nor had I even spoken to her on a phone before we met for the Var-Mala.    Sounds strange to-day perhaps, but such marriages were not unknown fifty years ago.   And it was only after we got married that I discovered that she was actually just about seventeen years old rather than being about nineteen that I had been led to believe.   Creating a bond with a teenage bride who I had never met and who also happened to the first woman in my life surely called for a lot of emotional education.   Both of us had enrolled into a journey of discovery that was wonderful and exciting, but that was not the learning I was talking about.

My father passed away on 22nd December 1959, just about six weeks after I came to Kolkata on posting.    He had been ailing for a long time.   As a matter of fact, even ten years earlier in 1949 when I had decided to join the Indian Air Force through the NDA (then called AFA), my father was in ill-health.   Actually from the time of our migration from Pakistan to India in April 1948 my father had been in indifferent health.    The total loss of his lifetime investments in the form of house, landed property, books, social standing, in fact every tangible and intangible things in his life had been a bit too much for him to bear.    On my father’s demise I was faced with two sets of new experiences that I had never faced before.     The first related to my mother.   Through out my life, Ma had been a tower of strength for every one in the family.   A cool head that could take a problem head on, find a reasonable solution and see its execution through.    I personally drew a lot of my strength from her.    With the death of my father, she changed beyond recognition.    Instead of being decisive she seemed subdued.   Instead of being positive and hopeful she seemed hesitant and submissive.    It was a new Ma for me, and I had to discover anew how to deal with this situation and support and uphold her.   The second challenge concerned my day to day life.   I had never run a household.    At best, I had arranged for the amount of finance that mother thought would be required.   With mother retiring from an active role, I had to run the household.    I still brought in my salary and handed it over to her, but she no longer planned or controlled the running of the house.    Leena and I had to learn how to run the house on our own keeping Ma in the loop as the figurehead.   This was a new and tough experience.    But no, even this was not the learning that I was talking about.

What I was talking about is my rude awakening to the fact that the world contains many people with value system very different from mine.   Sounds like a very nice and vague statement, does it not?    Then let me get into some of the nittygritties that made me write that sentence.    I think I had a wonderful education in my childhood.   It equipped me to live my life within the boundaries of what I thought was right.    But I admit that in one aspect, my education was woefully inadequate.   My parents did not make me aware of the fact that corruption, falsehood and untrustworthiness was prevalent rather widely and to remain true to myself I would have to battle against these relentlessly.    This inadequacy of my education had remained uncorrected during my training in the Services.    A man is uniform is a protected species.   You are made to live by a book of rules that is universally applied within the Fauj and we are protected by a wall that isolates us from the civilian population in our day to day interactions.   The truth is that an average officer of the army/navy/air force is a babe in wood in the world outside.    In the NCC however, a service officer is required to survive in the civilian bureaucratic jungle.    Many fail to survive this transition.

My first shock came while handling the case of a clerk who was absent without leave.   When the absence prolonged enough to affect working of the unit, I wanted to initiate disciplinary action against the individual only to find that it was almost impossible to take any meaningful action.   Had this clerk been a man in uniform, it would have been possible for me to declare him as an absconder, to send a posse of military police to apprehend him and produce him for legal action.   It would have been possible and legal to assemble a court-martial and mete out exemplary punishment in a few weeks’ time.    In the NCC environment, the maximum I was able to achieve was to have the man transferred out without a replacement.   I learnt that the civil bureaucracy and the administration function at the mercy of a unionized staff.

Logistic support for NCC units came from mixed sources.   Some items were provided only through Service sources such as drill-purpose rifles and useable weapons and ammunition for firing practice.   Some other items such as boots, webbing, caps, uniform etc. were supposed to be supplied through the service channel but were often released for local purchase.    Consumable training material such as perspex sheets, crayon, chalk, black boards, model aircraft kits and the like and also fuel oil lubricants for the vehicles we used were funded by the state government and were all purchased locally, some times through dealers nominated by the Directorate General of NCC.   The units therefore were required to carryout some logistic functions and had to handle some finances for the purpose.   These transactions at the unit level had to be handled by the officers of the unit without any help from specialist officers of the Army Service Corps or the Logistic Branch of the Air Force (then known as the Equipment Branch).   In my service of seven years in the Air Force till my posting to an NCC unit, I had never been exposed to such tasks.   I had to learn how to handle logistic funds to buy goods for the Services.  What I found in the process was a huge education for me.

A few days after I was posted into the unit, I had planned a visit to Barrackpore to familiarise myself with the flying facilities available to the cadets of the unit.  I set out from the unit HQ located inside the University campus at Jadavpore in the units’ Jeep.   The vehicle was low on fuel when we started the journey and needed to be topped up.   All the vehicles of the unit were serviced by a particular service station on the Chowrangee.   We went there and the vehicle was topped up.   The attendant brought out a register where I found the record of all refuelling done by the unit.   I expected to find the current refuelling entered there and was ready to put my signature there to confirm the transaction.    I was surprised to find a blank line with the attendant asking me how many litres was to be entered for the day.   I looked at the meter, put the number down and closed the entry, but the incident rankled a bit.   Next morning I discussed the matter with Bob Rattan.   He was not surprised.   The service station permits you to trade fuel for other goods if the need arises, he said.   But is that not illegal?   ‘Perhaps’, he said.   ‘It will also be immoral if you put the value of the fuel misused into your pocket.   But if the system is bent and funding for essential training becomes irregular, then availability of a little money in lieu of a little bit of fuel is a bit of flexibility that allows you to run the unit better’.    I was very uncomfortable with the situation.   Minor training grant and allocation for fuel/oil/lubricant was from very distinctly different budget heads.   If allocation on one head was inadequate, there were laid down procedures about how one was expected to tackle that.    Taking a shortcut and misusing one head to supplement the other did not seem correct.   From the looks of things however, the shortcut route was well established.

Days rolled by.  In August 1960 I needed to order a fresh batch of aircraft model kits for my cadets to make model aircrafts out of.   I visited one of the shops on the Park Street and was received by the manager.   The shop was well stocked with all sorts of kits as well as attractive toys.    I placed an order for a list of kits.   While the order was being packed, I looked around the shop admiring the toys and gifts that it held.  One particular toy took my fancy.   It was a colourful plastic bird that emitted a nice tune, danced and pecked.  My eldest daughter Sutapa was then a two month old baby.   I was tempted to pick that toy for her bedside.   I inquired about the price of that toy and quietly put it back on the shelf. At rupees one hundred seventy five, it was way beyond my possible budget for the month.    When my order was packed and loaded on to my Jeep, I was surprised to find the toy that had taken my fancy to be also packed and put into the vehicle.   The manager was standing right next to me to see me off.   I pointed out the packet and told him that there must have been a mistake as I had not paid for that toy.    He gave me a very condescending smile and said that it was not a mistake; the toy was a gift for me from the shop.   After all, he said, I had just purchased goods over five thousand rupees.   I leaned into the car, picked out the toy and shoved it into his hands, asking him to please not take liberties with me in future.  The manager was clearly surprised as I drove away.

These little incidents taught me that in financial dealings of logistic kind using public funds, one did not have to look for opportunities to pick up a corrupt rupee;   opportunities came to you unasked and in great abundance.    It also taught me that corrupt rupee cannot enter your pocket without your clear and direct acceptance.   It taught me that it was easy to remain corruption-free.  One just had to identify the corrupt act and say no firmly.  As I progressed through life, this knowledge gave me great strength in staying within the value system I was brought up with.   The profile of temptation albeit changed from the odd litres of petrol or toys valued at low hundreds to possibilities worth crores of rupees, but the process of staying clear remained just as easy as shoving the toy back in the hands of that manager was.   I was thankful to my parents for the value system I had received and to the Lord above for the chance to practice saying no when I was so young.

Enhancement of wisdom was not limited to matters on corruption or money.   Even in day to day life, wisdom was showered on me in abundance.   Let me narrate just one such incident.   It was a rainy day that is so common in Kolkata.   I was returning home from Jadavpur University.   My head clerk requested me for a lift up to Gariahat road.   That was a bit out-of-the-way for me and I wanted to know why he needed a lift.   I was informed that the buses had gone off-road for some reason.  I asked him to hop on.   As we came out of the university gate, there was chaos on the road.  It was overflowing with stranded commuters and every one was trying to get on to any transport available.   Now I must admit that there is a good Samaritan actively resident within me.   I had five empty seats in my Jeep; why should I not oblige five guys who are stranded?   I asked my clerk to let five guys in.   ‘No Sir No Sir Please do not stop’ was the loud plea from clerk babu.   He also asked the MTD in Bengali to drive on.    I was a little confused.    However, I let the MTD carry on without stopping.   I was somewhat annoyed at being interfered with.  As I stopped at Gariahat to let the clerk out, I called him and asked him why he had behaved in that manner.   The babu thought for a little while.   Then he said ‘Sir, you do not know about crowd behaviour in Kolkata.   If you asked five guys to get in there, ten would try to get in.  If you then tried to force anyone off the vehicle there would be a scene that you would not like.   More over, if four or five guys then complained against you to the police stating that you were taking advantage of the bus strike and were offering a ride in your official jeep for a fare of two rupees per head, how will you defend yourself?’    There was substance in what he said.   I thanked him and carried on.   Next morning I narrated the incident to Bob Rattan and remarked how worldly wise our clerk Babu was.   Bob listened to me quietly.   Then after a short pause he asked me a counter question: ‘Have you spotted the root weakness in your decision to offer that lift?’  I nodded in the negative and looked at him expectantly.    ‘You were trying to be a good guy and there was no harm in that.   Unfortunately, the service you were offering was beyond your jurisdiction.    If you had offered a lift to a crowd in your own car, there would be no problem.    However, the moment you offer a ride in a service vehicle to a non-entitled person you are on the wrong side of the law and can get into trouble.    You must always remember that in the eyes of the law, your actions are more important than your intentions.’   It was a sound advice that I carried with me for the rest of my life.    Indeed it is easy to allow some one under you to misuse service facilities or property.   It is however a form of corruption because you tend to earn social credit at the cost of the service through such misuse.

I had come to Kolkata unhappily because of family problems and I had lost my father during that tenure.    However, I cannot ever tally the benefits that accrued to me later in my life because of the education that I had received during that short tenure of mine.

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  1. Some years ago, Suchitra Bhattacharya, the popular Bengali novelist, wrote a short story that was published in the Puja number of a leading Bengali magazine. It was about a corrupt government officer, his wife and their teenage son who was about to appear for his Higher Secondary Examination. One day a colleague of the man was caught red-handed while accepting bribe from a supplier and was suspended from work as proceedings against him were initiated. Interrogation of the man revealed cash & jewellery in his home, many bank accounts with large balance, investment certificates and so on. Now, this naturally created a panic among his other corrupt colleagues including the officer in the story. He wanted to remove all the illegal cash, jewellery and other expensive stuff from his home and keep them in a private vault as neither he nor his wife trusted even their relatives and friends to keep such “unaccounted” stuff “safely” in their custody. While emptying the locker of their almirah in the bedroom, the man found Rs. 5000/- missing. He accused his wife of having spent it on some shopping that she swore she did not. Instead, she accused her husband that he must have blown it on some immoral fun and forgotten all about it. In the middle of a heated altercation between the man and his wife, their son appeared at the bedroom door to ask what the shouting was about? Reluctantly his father admitted that some money was missing from the almirah. “Is it a bundle of 50 rupee notes?” the son queried. “Yes”, both his parents answered rather surprised. “I took it” said the son. His parents were even more confused. “What did you need 5000 rupees for?” they queried, “and why didn’t you tell us of it sooner?” The son replied, “I didn’t tell you because I suspected you might not give it to me what I needed it for.” His parents had to ask what he needed Rs. 5000/- for. With a sly smile their son replied, “I bought photocopies of the Physics and Maths question papers at Rs. 2500/- apiece that’s been smuggled out of the press by someone working there. I shall now surely score at least 90% in both the papers that you were so worried about that I might not to well in.”
    Values are intangible things. It’s philosophy-in-practice. And it almost always travels down generations. Earlier, in Bengal schools, there used to be taught a subject called Moral Science. I believe that’s no longer included in the curriculum.
    Many, if not most people in today’s India, equate such values with stupidity. Only a handful still live by such principles ignoring whatever-the-devil people may infer. The overall scenario, I must admit in all candour, is rather too gloomy. Only some occasional streak of light come to our notice that break through the overly dark clouds that have covered our skies for too long.
    Thank you for the post. It’s both enriching and enlightening. More importantly, it’s a reminder of the importance of values in one’s life.

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