In our daily life we take a million decisions without much special thought. Lets have a cup of tea. Let’s take in a movie this afternoon. I do not like spicy food. I love to read Harold Robins. In our day to day life such decisions do not cause any ripples around us in most cases. However, even such mundane decisions sometimes cause dissent. What if your companion has an appointment with a hairdresser for the afternoon that cannot be sacrificed for a movie? What if she really loves that spicy curry that must be cooked to day? Well… Life is not easy. I realized this simple truth when I joined the Tigers in October 1953 after I completed my conversion training on the Spitfire Mk XVIII at the Operational Conversion Unit, Air Force Station Hakimpet.
I had taken a decision to not to drink alcohol on the day I had turned 19. That day had a triple occasion for a celebration. I had turned 19, I had flown solo in a Spitfire Mark XVIII for the first time, and I had escaped from a nasty accident in the process by the proverbial skin of my teeth. On that occasion, when every one was flashing a glass of foaming beer in my face and shouting ‘cheers’, I had suddenly come to a decision that I did not want to drink. Not Now and Not Ever. Even I did not know how I came about to form that decision at that particular moment, but it was done and announced in public. It became cast in stone. From my childhood I had this thing of never going back on my word.
Luckily / Strangely / Conveniently, I do not know which adjective I should use, no one made any song and dance about my decision not to drink. The top brass at the CTU (Conversion Training Unit) starting from the Chief Instructor (Wing Commander CG Deveshar), the Chief Flying Instructor (Squadron Leader ‘Chico’ Bose), the Chief Ground Instructor (Flight Lieutenant Suhas Biswas) were all fond of their drinks. They were well supported at the bar by younger instructors like Flying Officer JN (Bhaiya) Jatar. Enough number of trainee pilots were willing to be their apprentices. My absence from the Bar did not matter. I felt relieved and carried on being a diligent pupil officer at Hakimpet.
Every thing changed when I came from Hakimpet to join the Tigers at Palam. Tigers – the oldest fighter squadron of the air force was a tight knit unit. It was young. The CO, Squadron Leader TS (Timki) Brar had only 10 years of service at that time. There were three or four flight lieutenants. The rest were all brand new pilots holding a Flying Officer or a Pilot Officer rank. The Unit flew together, ate together and drank together. In that grouping, very quickly I became the odd man out who would not drink. I was launched in a Vampire single seater one day after my arrival. I have already described my arrival in Number One in another story. After my first solo flight in a Vampire there was a celebratory visit to the bar for a round of beer. On my refusal to drink, there was consternation all around. The gang chased me around and wanted to bathe me in beer if I refused to drink up the stuff. There was a physical jostle and I won my point. That however was only the beginning of a strange drift of my social identity. Progressively, I found it hard to become one of the gang. I found it boring to sit in the bar wile others drank. I found it difficult to join in the small talk while I was the only one not holding a glass. It pained me to be in such a social situation.
Over the next one year a number of newer pilots joined the unit. Some of the newer boys drifted into my point of view and avoided serious drinking; I found a small social foothold, albeit with a strong undercurrent trying to pull me off balance. It so happened that my stay with the Tigers was a short one. By January 1955 I went off to FIS to become a Qualified Flying Instructor. For the period of training at the FIS no one troubled me about my (non)drinking. However, the problem of social segregation that I had felt in the Operational Squadron re-emerged even at the Academy (now renamed as 1AFC or Number 1 Air Force College) at Begumpet. As the days went by, my struggle with loneliness increased.
Looking back on to those days well over half a century ago, I now have the time and the intellectual wherewithal to examine whether my struggle then was with my ethics or was it just my process of learning how to cope with the environment around me. At that time I had no conscious thought about ethics. I can now see quite clearly that in my set of ethics there was a high load of negative feeling about consumption of alcohol. Of course my parents never advised me directly for or against consumption of alcohol, but they had sent a very clear message to my subconscious mind by their total abstention from alcohol and their unhesitant disapproval of anyone inebriated. To reinforce this message in my mind, my Guru, Thakur Anukul Chandra, had very directly listed alcohol amongst the things to be avoided. Whether I admitted it or not, this ethical value had been planted deep in my subconscious mind. My public declaration of becoming a TT therefore might not have been so random after all. As I grew in the Service and witnessed the behavior of people under the influence of alcohol, my deep-seated negation of alcohol was only strengthened. That however did not solve my problem on hand; my inability to grow empathy with my colleagues who drank regularly, and that caused me pain.
At times, relief from pain arrives from an unexpected direction. For me, the ‘aha’ moment was precipitated by a person named Chitta Ranjan Bose. CR Bose was a colleague. He was a Flight Lieutenant posted to 1 Air Force College as an instructor. For some obscure reason, in the Air Force his name had been shortened to just Ranjan. I had not met him before I was posted to 1 AFC as a young instructor. Very soon however I came very close to him socially. A few moths before my arrival as an instructor, he had married a girl named Sheela from Hyderabad and Sheela was a person I knew very well from the days when I was a young cadet in the academy there. She was somewhat elder to me and she treated me like her younger brother. I addressed her as Sheeladi. Thus, Ranjan came into my life not just as a new senior colleague but as a brand new brother in law, a Jamaibabu in a Bong connection. Naturally, Sheeladi and Ranjanda’s house became my most visited haunt in Begumpet.
One evening, when I was in the process of devouring some snacks that Sheeladi had piled on a plate for me, Ranjanda turned to me and asked me in all seriousness why I had no circle of friends. By then Ranjanda was on his third Rum for the evening or was it the fourth? He had descended into a pensive mood. Ranjanda was fond of his drink; some thing I disliked but had no control on. Ranjanda had obviously developed a fondness for me. In his pensive semi-inebriated moment was he trying to help me overcome something that he saw as a weakness of my character? It might have been so, but in the process he had trod on one of the soft spots of my psyche.
I screamed out a denial. That is not true, I said. I actually have no enemies. Ranjan kept his eyes on his glass of Rum and slowly shook his head. That may be true, he said, but it means nothing. You have no friends. His pronouncement was slow and deliberate, and the essential truth of his statement pierced me. Like a cornered animal in a mortal combat I screamed back at him. You are wrong Ranjanda! I have many friends; all the friends I want. What about Dadachanji? I asked. He is my friend! By now Sheeladi was getting concerned. Heavy with her impending first child, she slowly made her way from the kitchen to the living room with a heaped plate of potato wedges. Stop it you two, she said. stop this nonsensical debate.
Ranjanda however was far gone; he would not be dissuaded. He shook his head again causing desperation in my mind. He mumbled doggedly. No. It Does Not count. Dadachanji is your room mate. No, No. It does not count. He paused for a while. Perhaps he was composing the essence of his arguments in his mind? After a while he looked into my eyes and held my gaze. If you two are such good friends, he asked me in a very gentle tone, why don’t I ever see you two taking in a movie together? He was of course right. Our tastes for movies were quite different apart from the fact that neither of us were movie buffs. I ignored his question. Apparently, Ranjanda was not even expecting an answer. He looked down into his glass and shook his head again. Moments passed. Ranjanda started again. I do not see you two together in the bar either. I now had a ready answer. Yes. We do not go and sit in the bar is because Dada is also not fond of drinking. Even when he does go to the bar with the boys, he just holds a glass and pretends to sip.
There was a faint smile playing on Ranjanda’s lips. I was a bit puzzled. Had I not explained why Dadachanji and I did not visit the bar together? My friend was just as disinclined to drink as I was! The smile on Ranjanda’s face seemed painted on. In addition, his eyes started twinkling as if he was enjoying a huge joke of some sort. I stared back at him in my puzzlement. The smile under his trimmed mustache broadened into a grin and his eyes continued to sparkle. He was obviously enjoying the argument now. Well then, he asked me in a deliberate tone, what prevents you from doing what your friend does? Why cant you join him at the bar holding a tankard of beer and pretend to sip just as he does?
By now I was getting hot under the collar. Truth to tell, I was really irritated with Dadachanji’s meaningless waste of time at the bar when he did not enjoy drinking and and had no intentions of drinking anyway. Now to get that irritating behaviour thrown at my face as an example that I should emulate was indeed too much. I tried to think of a reply without precipitating an ugly spat. Ranjanda was however on an expansive trip already. Readjusting his posture on the sofa he began the next bit of his philosophical discourse.
Ranjanda waved his half empty glass in the air, in my face as it were. Here, he said. I like my bit of alcohol and I do not make any bones about it. I know you do not like it. Normally, you would not be spending your time with me while I am in my drinking mood.
He stopped a while, perhaps to collect his thoughts. After a while, he resumed his monologue. ‘Why do you tolerate me? I know. I know very well. I am married to your sister. Therefore you compromise. Will you be here in my house but for that fact? I think not.’ The discourse was veering onto dangerous grounds. My problem was that Ranjanda was basically correct in his analysis. I however was becoming extremely uncomfortable at the open dissection of my inner feelings. I did not understand what he was trying to express by saying all these openly. Ranjanda was however totally uninhibited. He went on expanding on his theme. You value your relationship with your sister highly enough to tolerate me and my drinking habit. I was decidedly uncomfortable and wanted to terminate the discourse. There was however no way to stop Ranjanda. ‘Just imagine’, he said in all earnestness. He shook his head but then he lost his chain of thought. After a long and awkward pause Ranjanda started again. ‘Is it possible for you to be socially as concerned for your colleagues as you are for your sister? Is it possible for you to be friendly without being judgmental? Can you see what your room mate is doing for his social space? He has not taken up to drinking, has he. No. He has not. He just has not rejected his friends because they like to enjoy a little alcohol. He is willing to offer space to his friends. In return, he receives space in their universe.’
It was a long spiel from Ranjanda already and he showed no signs of stopping. ‘In the Services isn’t forming a group identity an essential requirement? Do you have a priority for that requirement? Or, do you think it is enough to be skillful and good in your job as an individual?’. It was quite clear that Ranjanda was in his cups. Under normal circumstances I would certainly have switched off from his burble and would have walked away. On that day however I was unable to do so. There seemed to be an element of truth in his ramble that forced me to pay attention.
I do not know how long his ramble took to penetrate my subconscious, but all of a sudden lights flickered on. This man, this semi-inebriated man was talking sense! No, he was actually spouting high philosophy of life! My attention was forcibly drawn to his natter and I found myself examining what Ranjanda was pouring out. ‘You do not want to drink? That is fine. You have the right to choose your actions’. Words were now gushing out of him. ‘That is your ethics. You do what is good, what should be done, what you think is ethical. But why are you unwilling to allow similar freedom to those who want to drink? Who enjoy drinking? Does your ethics teach you to look down upon those who do not think as you do?’ . Undoubtedly he had a point to make. ‘Do you know that you come across to your colleagues as a snob? As a snooty guy? Are you? Are you a snob? Do you think you are superior to the others just because you do not drink?’ I was taken quite aback. Of course I did not wish to appear as a snooty snob. I had no idea that to others I might appear to be one. In my own eyes I certainly did not see my self as a snob. I just held myself aloof from those whose style of life was some what different from mine. Was that a social sin? Producing an impression that did not tally with my own self image was disconcerting. ‘I am not a snob,Ranjanda, what can I do if some one misinterprets my behavior? I do not lecture others about not drinking! I just do not hang around with them, that is all’. My plea in defence sounded weak even to my own ears. Ranjanda, now quite mellow with rum, smiled. With a wave of his hand he said ‘Its easy. Here, Let me show you. ‘ He picked up my empty glass of soft drinks and poured water into it from his bottle. then he reached down and picked up an empty bottle of coke that was lying forlorn near his leg. The bottle contained a teaspoon or so worth of coke as it’s dregs. He poured it into the glass of water. He now held it up in front of his eyes and inspected it. I had to admit that it looked remarkably as a glass of rum. He proffered the glass back at me. I took it from his hands not knowing what to do with it. ‘It tastes awful’, Ranjanda said. ‘But you do not have to drink it. Just hold it in your hand when every one else is drinking rum. You can also try lime cordial and soda to fake a glass of whiskey. Just sit around at the bar and listen to the guys talk. You will learn a lot about their lives and thoughts as they talk’. Ranjanda leaned back in his chair and took a long sip from his own glass. Then he closed his eyes. It seemed that his planned lecture for the day was now over.
My mind was in turmoil. The essential truth in Ranjanda’s outpouring had gone home and was causing me acute discomfort. I did not wish to recognize the thought that other people might find me to be vain and arrogant or snooty and snobbish with justification. That was not my self picture in my eyes and I found my caricature grotesque to behold as I viewed it through a strange pair of lenses. The evening was ruined for me. In any case Ranjandanda did not seem to be in the mood for any further discourse. I took leave of Sheeladi and returned to the mess.
Back in my own room, the happenings of the evening kept running through my mind. Ranjanda had clearly donned the robe of a mentor for me that evening, something that He had never done before. I also had to admit that the had performed his role well. He had made me think without making me angry or adversarial. Now, away from his presence, I had to deal with my own thoughts and feelings. I was ready to accept his assessment that my appearance to others might not match my self perception. I was determined to rectify that. I just had to identify the behavioral changes needed in my day to day life to achieve that. I decided to give his suggestions a try. I was sure I would be able to endure inanities spouted at the bar for an hour or two every day if I thought it was necessary and gave my mind to it. But deep in my mind, there was a feeling that something would still be amiss. My mind remained unsettled. I had my dinner and went to bed, but unlike my daily routine I did not fall asleep in seconds. I tossed and turned while thoughts raced around creating complicated patterns. Then, wisdom and the sun dawned together. I realized that as long as I considered the bar talk of my friends as just inanities, I would be looking down at them from a different plane, never making a soul contact. It would be an effort to futility. I not only had to be present at the bar physically, I had to participate in the social intercourse as an equal partner, even if it was propped with a fake glass of drink. Peace came about and I could then sleep for an hour.
I followed my new pattern of engagement from the next day. Many were amused. I was satisfied because very soon I found cognigible results coming from my efforts. A few months down the line there was an election for a new mess committee. To every one’s surprise I volunteered and was chosen for the duty of the bar member. I thus managed to reconcile my social needs with my personal preferences with my ethic undamaged in the process. No conflict was needed.