Till Life Do Us Part

A close friend, rather scholarly, a man of letters, once gave me a bit of ‘literary’ advice which I have since mulled over and only now decided to act upon. With more than a little trepidation, though. He said if I wanted to gain traction, resonance or begin to establish myself as a serious writer on contemporary social matters, I should write on issues deemed controversial . “Your blogs so far”, he added as consolation, “have too much ‘feel good’ and/or canned humour. They therefore go thus far and no more”. Much as this hurt my intellectual pride, I decided to take his counsel and try my hand on something that I feel is polemical, or contentious in the least.

Having discussed with my house-editor, my wife, I homed on, after some discussion, hold your breath – to Marriage. (We surprisingly agreed!). What about Marriage, that to all social, moral and historical beliefs is as non controversial as it gets – so, after some thought, I developed a hypothesis : Marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution. That is surely controversial. I can see the red flag going up already. Let me put myself to test and see how I can carry forward and ‘treat’ this so called hypothesis of mine.

Well, where does one start – to begin where it all begins would be a good bet. I must however posit two disclaimers here : a) I am no sociologist, social scientist, marriage counselor or expert. My views are based purely on my observations and readings. b) I have had the best marriage for 30 years now…. going strong and good, if only thanks to the wife, an extremely amiable and nice person. It has thrived in spite of me!

So, to begin…boy meets girl, or in the context of most Indian households, parents of the boy and girl meet…will skip a number of intermediate steps… marriage happens. There is bliss, mostly, for the first one to two years…the couple discover each other, dislike a few things, but the novelty of marriage and the idea of marriage, with which they are possibly more in love than with each other, are potent forces – you don’t want to shatter the euphoric dreamworld you had built. So initially the kinks are overlooked. And of course the carnal pleasures of marriage, which you are only just discovering, are the proverbial glue that binds the couple.

As must come to pass with time, the novelty begins to wear off. The sex starts getting stale…the hidden, suppressed demons start rearing their ugly heads. Small irritants, say, the loud blowing of the nose or a peculiar sound you make while chewing, which were always there but not spoken of, start getting big on you. You don’t know yet, but the journey south has just begun. Again, from the Indian standpoint, families and extended families get in the equation, try to ‘help’, but only make things worse. Welcome on board the downhill ride.

Children enter the scene, priorities change, professions start demanding more, parents get old, responsibilities increase…and so on. Marriage takes another hit. This happens because in the first place itself the foundation of marriage was possibly never strong enough to support the edifice, or sustain the rigors and vicissitudes of life. Marriage was more a rite of passage which had to be gone through, its success and sustenance guaranteed in a social system which attaches the greatest importance to the value of marriage, but little to its outcome….too much is taken for granted.

Sooner than one would like to accept or believe, marriage turns into a chore, a routine with little spice… something that merely has to be gone or lived through. Marriage starts appearing as such a lot of work, and is sadly allowed to drift, not unlike flotsam. Aimless and occasioned by necessity and pressure to maintain a facade, rather than more enduring emotions like love. Couples drift apart emotionally, but stick together physically.

My wife gave the analogy of icecream to explain how most of us treat marriage post the aforesaid period of nuptial bliss.To make good ice cream, you need milk and sugar with several ingredients which have to be mixed and treated in the right proportion, blended, whipped and frozen carefully till set. What most couples and their parents do, my wife added, is to just put the milk and sugar, aka boy and girl, together and expect perfect ice cream to be made. No other ingredients. No process. In other words, I infer, no real effort is made to make the marriage work…it’s just supposed to work. Compromises are made at each step, and I dare add that bulk of these are on the part of the wife. Men seldom even notice this, and if they do, tend to ignore it.

Without debating the merits of the ice cream metaphor, I would say that if despite this the odd marriage does work, it is a tribute and testimony to the endearing human resilience and spirit. The thought of getting out of the marriage is an anathema. Things often drag on, year after sordid year. The breaking point is often reached…well meaning and concerned parents and elders step in with their counsel and ask the couple to go on enduring the misery…form is important after all, substance less so. And then of course there are the children and their ‘fate’ to think of…an argument which is often clinching and conclusive, and at the altar of which countless marriages have ‘perished’ .

Above everything else is the stigma that a broken marriage or divorce invites…for the couple and parents. It is because such hallowed sanctity and virtuousness has been attached to the institution of marriage, that it’s dissolution is deemed nothing short of sacrilege, a defilement as it were…social, cultural and religious. Little wonder that marriage counseling has become a small scale industry lately. Placebos like second honeymoon, romantic vacations thrive… they work to rekindle the fire sometimes, but more often, do not.

One substantive argument going in favour of marriage is mutual support and emotional sustenance for each other in the sunset years, when children have flown the coop. This makes you pause for thought. While you spend your sunshine years barely able to stand each other, you are basically investing for later years. Sounds unconvincing, trite, not to mention that it may turn out a dud investment. I would go as far as to say that 20 years or more together ‘habituate’ you to each other, inure you to the others’ multiple follies and essentially reduce you to emotional survival tools for each other. A resignation and surrender to inevitability. Can this symbiotic relationship be an argument in favour of marriage? I wonder.

The almost final argument put forth is stability, calm, peace and ‘filling a vacuum’, whatever that may mean. But given the bitterness, lack of adjustment, disquiet and even frustration that many, if not all marriages bring in their wake, these higher attributes are often neutralised. Marriage is reduced to a chore, a dull co-existence and discharging multiple responsibilities and obligations, in the din and cacophony of which the noble mores of marriage are subsumed, at times irrevocably.

The general waywardness of the male of the human species, a proclivity to be insensitive towards needs and sensibilities of the fairer sex and a ‘taking for granted’ attitude does not help matters. There is promiscuity too in a few cases…in thought, if not in deed, most men are promiscuous. These are indeed slow but sure recipes for further erosion of marriage. The dice, as I averred earlier, is loaded against women.

I am most likely to be labelled a cynic, and worse… not least, because attacking the sanctity of something as pristine as marriage appears socially incorrect, almost devilish. Most couples would not like to believe or accept that their marriage really hasn’t worked. The purist in us would tend to instinctively reject the hypothesis and the arguments put forth. Accusations of personal bias and possibly personal experience, are likely to fly at me thick and fast. But scratch the surface and each one will find varying degrees and element of truth in these arguments.

It is entirely understandable that each reader will view this reasoning in the backdrop of the course their own marriage has taken. I have no quarrel with that. But a more objective, neutral, impartial approach would perhaps give you food for thought, as it did me. The burden of expectation from marriage on the part of both spouses and families, in India particularly, is so high, that it can invariably never be met. A cloak of ‘normality’ is thus worn by couples who go on, as it were, for the sake of society, children, parents, reputation,… several things which sadly do not include themselves.

So if marriage is not a perfect institution, what are the alternatives? Would the naysayers recommend procreation without the legitimacy of marriage? Live-in relationships as a substitute? Contract marriages? Trial marriages? Perpetual bachelor/spinster hood? These are obviously not great or even acceptable solutions… socially, emotionally, culturally, economically. Their pros & cons, more cons actually, are not being debated. That would lengthen this piece inordinately and also alter it’s scope.

Do we therefore come to a pallid and rather stale inference that marriage survives as an institution only for want of better, stronger alternatives? This is not, by any reckoning the same as saying, marriage is a firm, good-as-it-gets, rock-solid edifice and warrants a thumbs up. On the other hand, cynics may argue that other alternatives have not been tested substantially enough to declare marriage as the numero uno arrangement. The universal acceptability and time ‘testedness’ of marriage would seem to make light of alternatives. That said, I would still tend to veer towards the view that marriage has too many imperfections and is excessively subject to human nature, emotions, sensibilities, character and characteristics to have a true success rate of more than 25 percent. While 25 are complete disasters, the balance 50 percent are the trudging-along, make-do marriages… not successful, but dragging along. The figures are ball point estimates – you may arrive at your own numbers.

I would finally conclude that the hypothesis with which I began stands true for most part… except it needs to be modified to read : marriage is a faulty institution, but is our best bet. As a concept it is noble and pristine…in practice and implementation, less so. So all ye newly married, long married, much married and even unmarried people…stick it out, make it work – if not till death do you part, at least till life keeps you together. Given the high rate of marriages going bust, would it be too long before the the holyman pronounces during the vows: “till life do us part?” Amen.


*********

© Sharabh Pachory, 2019. All rights reserved.

The views expressed are the author’s own
Cartoons and pictures from sources as indicated against each.

The Hector Years

What would you say about a dog who lives the most vivacious life, gives joy wherever he goes, loves everyone unconditionally, never sulks, knows no dog tricks and then dies on you? That was Hector, our pet Labrador who was part of our lives for 8 years. Happy years, growing up years, tumultuous years – the Hector years…a term which later came to be associated with a short era and all that happened in and around the family in that period.

Like our children who perhaps a bit pompously, are known as Army brats, Hector was an Army Dog… except, he was not trained to sniff out bombs or hidden arms caches as Army dogs are. In fact Hector was pretty dumb… except for loving everybody, he could do nothing right. 

But I digress. So, as an Army dog, Hector moved from place to place in the truck with our baggage. He earned friends, human and animal, with ease in the new places, quite like Army children do. In one of our big, old colonial style houses, Hector, after some early showdowns, got friendly with a turkey, which was part of the animal entourage of the house we ‘inherited’. It was a bizarre sight to see the turkey chasing Hector all over the place and later, after the peace accord, strut along in the garden with Hector in tow. There was never any doubt who the boss was…the tag of acolyte clung to Hector like his skin.

Hector was spoiled silly by my daughter Nimisha, who incidentally had brought him, a month old, in a shoe box from Delhi in a train…ticketless. Not only would she be indulgent to a fault, but would not allow anyone in the house, including me, the purported disciplinarian, to chide or rebuke him. Hector therefore got away with much. It was only when Nimisha left home for higher studies, that Hector could be admonished for anything. But his grooming years were behind him by then.

The Hector years saw happy and heavy moments in the immediate and extended family – wedding, reunions, promotion, success, sickness, failure …he was an inalienable part of it all. Though he would only get in the way and be shooed away, he would sense the moment and do his best to be a part of it. He was happy with people around him and the feeling appeared mutual. In fact the only forlorn part of his short life seemed to be the phase when he lived with me alone in a remote corner of Kashmir, where I was actively involved in intense military duties and would be away for long periods. But there too he made the best of his time by befriending a whole lot of soldiers around my ‘basha’ and generally doing what he did best – being silly.

One of his several endearing attributes was the manner in which he would dash, at lightning speed, to meet & greet  unsuspecting visitors at the gate. His ‘charge’ would often unsettle the uninitiated visitor who would freeze, before realising that it was a welcome routine, peculiar to Hector. He would then escort the visitor inside and, embarrassingly for us, be present throughout the proceedings. 

Hector was greedy. Food meant the world to him. No matter how well fed he was, he would never miss a chance to eat or grab more. He was a permanent fixture at the dining table… despite admonishments from Anju, my wife, the children and I would feed him crumbs. He would lap them up like a starved cretin. He would then go scrounging around the kitchen for more. I have often thought in the years that Hector has been gone, if overeating did him in. 

There was only one dog trick Hector ever learnt…to not touch a food offering till he was told. A greedy fellow like him would stare at the offering, eyes popping out, drooling from both corners of the mouth, but not devour it till the okay was given. We tested his resolve once too often , I thought, throwing things like chicken bones at him and saying “Hector, no!” We rather selfishly and meanly teased him with this stratagem often….drew some wicked ‘hooman’ pleasure out of a loved creature’s discomfort. I now wonder why.

The Hector years went by before you could say, well, Hector. My daughter would come home on holidays and Hector would unlearn all that he had painstakingly learnt in the interregnum between Nimisha’s visits home. As I said, she had proprietary rights, both material and emotional, over Hector. You didn’t want to mess with that. I suspect Hector remained amongst the dumbest creatures because of Nimisha’s excessive protection and indulgence… together the two ruled the roost and we could only wring our hands in affectionate despair.

Fun Hector and Serious Hector!

We once hired a trainer for Hector. In a month, Hector learnt nothing…the trainer however, as per his own admission, became a more loving human being…. that was Hector : stupid, stubborn, silly, but with his heart where it should be. Long after he had gone, Anju and I (both children had flown the coop to pursue their own careers by then) would often try to think of someone who did not like Hector. We finally zeroed on to a  ‘safaiwala’ (cleaning man), who would actually try to hit Hector with his broomstick because he would be all over him, day after day, despite his rebukes. He could, it seemed, never understand Hector’s love. But Hector had the last laugh, or more appropriately the last cry…. when we were burying Hector, Shyam Lal, the safaiwala, on his day off, was at the grave with a bunch of fresh bush flowers. He was actually crying!

The Hector saga is endless. He was so much like, and yet so much different from pet labradors…for one, he probably had a genetic, congenital defect, we thought, wherein his tail would never be still. My nephew Shubbu, who was often with us, and in Nimisha’s absence, was the leader of the ‘Spoil Hector’ gang (with close competition from my son Rishabh), said his constantly and vigorously wagging tail could produce enough electricity to run a small turbine. On more occasions than we care to remember, we have seen him wag his tail in his sleep. Don’t know if dogs dream, but he apparently did. Happy dreams… of probably food and Nimisha.

Hector’s Diwali

On Diwali, when most dogs hide under furniture, scared to death due to the firecrackers and the din, Hector would be super excited. He would whirl around with the chakri and leap high every time a ‘rocket’ was fired from a bottle. Would also run to fetch the extinguished remains when they hit the ground, sometimes smouldering. There were some ‘retriever’ genes in him, after all. He played Holi with equal fervour – would take my wife weeks to get the colour off him. As I said, there are endless Hector stories…

Hector is long gone from our lives but, clichéd as it sounds, he lives not only in our hearts, but in the hearts of hundreds of people whose lives he touched. This includes a few non-dog lovers in our acquaintance, whom he unwittingly ‘converted’. Anju often asks what his thoughts could have been, as he gasped for his last breaths. I would imagine he didn’t even know about death, so, while in agony, would have only thought of the love of his life – food, and/or possibly Nimisha, who was then literally across seven seas in USA. He could also have shed a dog tear for his family…us. Who knows – none of us have souls noble enough to imagine how Hector’s worked.

Hector’s funeral was grand. Many of my colleagues, their wives, house helps and neighbors were present. As he was tenderly laid to rest in the backyard on a warm March day, many felt that by the time the ‘service’ ended, Hector would already be furtively scratching at the pearly gates of Dog Heaven. Having been let in, he would have made friends with the angels and could have become St Peters’ ‘pet’, even as he was being mourned in the world he just left behind.

Hector- Long gone but never forgotten

When I decided to write an ode to Hector and discussed the same with Nimisha over phone, she had only one advice: do not sentimentalize the write up. I said I wouldn’t… don’t know if I have been able to keep my promise. However, in closing, we would like to remember Hector by the epitaph which Rishabh, my son, placed on his grave:

On the uptake, was often found slow
Never did he put up a very good show,
But for him there was no one high or low
Didn’t matter whether you said yes or no,
Lively, loyal, loving and always on the go
Hector was certainly a nice dog to know!


*******
© Sharabh Pachory, 2019. All rights reserved.
Photographs from personal archives and albums

18 Till I Live ⛳

Those of you who were drawn to this blog by the title and hoped for an analysis of pop genre or an insight into the wonderful Bryan Adams song of 1996 (18 Till I Die), are in for a disappointment. This is not about eternal youth or the prolific Canadian  songwriter and singer. It is about something much more esoteric, arcane, life sapping and on the whole exacting. Ladies and gentlemen I am going to talk Golf…my golf, more precisely.

Far too many good golfers and good writers have written good stuff about golf for a bad writer and a bad golfer to add to the available stockpile. So what can be my contribution? Simply put, misery. I start with my plaintive lament which revolves around the figure 18. In 18 years of playing golf, often 18 holes on an outing, I have not been able to break 18. That is a lament which many of my golfer friends would agree, can be cause for considerable anguish.

So let me begin where it all began. When I first held a driver, 1 Wood for some, in my hand, I felt like an old age cave-man with a hunting club must have. Out for the kill – Golf, here I come! Except I never did come and have metamorphosed in 18 years at best into a spear-man with only slightly better hunting skills. As far as the kill goes, it was I who died a thousand deaths each time I was out on the fairways.

My first golf coach was a wrestler. His claim to fame as a golfer lay in his vast experience as caddy for a senior Army honcho. For him the fundamental tenets of golf and freestyle wrestling varied only in minor detail. He understandably imparted lessons in force – strength, if you will, in use of the big clubs. Lessons which I could only just unlearn in years of subsequent coaching and playing. I bludgeoned the ball mercilessly, revelling in the applause that the occasional long drive, one in probably 100 (with the law of averages at work), brought my way. I was naive enough to believe that I would improve with time.

My golf saga is a story of woes, failures, humiliation and torment. You have some idea by now, I am sure. When my wrestler coach failed to improve my game, I took recourse to watching golf videos and CDs – there was no YouTube then – I would otherwise have had a more credible source to blame for my game. After every 30 min video, from the fundamentals of grip, swing, driving, chipping, bunker play to putting, I would go out on the links with renewed fervour and the proverbial spring in my steps. Only to play worse than I did the other day. The oft quoted quip, “no matter how bad you play today, it will probably be worse tomorrow” seemed to ring true. On an odd day when l managed to hit anything straight and beyond 50 yards, I beamed at my caddy and asked what he thought of my game. His reply, “Personally I prefer golf, Sir” (another well known quip), did little to boost the spirit or my golfing fortunes. 

And so it progressed, or rather regressed, year after year. Made of stern stuff, I was not one to give up. Took professional coaching, tried to learn from senior golfers, watched YouTube videos, (it had surfaced by the time I reached a 36 handicap), took paid online coaching and so on. Changed my golf gear from gloves to clubs several times, but only improved to about one bogey in a month and a par in about 3. I would slice, I wood hook, I wood pull, I would draw, I would create craters in the fairway, miss the ball altogether and came up with shots which were in no golf manual. On occasions, I thought I almost heard the ants & critters say (as the joke goes), that with me loose on the greens, their best chance of survival  was to get on the ball.

My gloves tore, clubs broke, balls lost in dozens, back and shoulders hurt like hell,  wrists swelled up, but the passion only grew. The spirit was unbroken. The wife, never a fan of the game (or me), was only pleased for the fact that golf  kept me out of her hair for long periods. She was however quick to notice my awkward gait, general irritability and snapping around the house. Said I was getting on in years and had generally been good for nothing all along, so what made me think I would excel at golf. Give it up, she added as encouragement, while your body juices still flow. This galvanized me and I took the gauntlet – here lay my one chance of proving her wrong. I was not about to throw in the towel.

Into my ninth or tenth year of golf, it began to dawn on me that I could never be good at the game. A measure of my commitment and unflagging spirit can be gauged from this – what should have been evident in three months took me ten years. I cheated, moved the ball when no one was looking, cut my strokes on the card, but never could break into the respectable 18 or lower bracket. I changed  four-balls to save myself from embarrassment, got down to two-balls and when even that didn’t work (for the partner, more than me), I started playing alone. I could now lie and brag about a great game to buddies – it was never less than one birdie and two pars at least in nine holes ; my caddie knew better, but he was not telling! I paid him a little over the caddy fee each time.

Tournaments and monthly medal rounds posed a fresh challenge every time. I could not  any longer get away by saying I was a beginner, even as a new golf course did provide me immunity for a while. After discrediting myself in a few tournaments (I did however, never fail to collect the complimentary cap, T shirt, ball sleeve or whatever goodies were on offer), with my felicity for words, I took to compering at golf championships. This provided me a graceful exit and saved me the blushes so often. As is customary, I would need to start and finish the ceremony with ‘golf jokes’. I often said that I was the biggest golf joke going around – after years of playing was nowhere near 18. This drew only polite titters… but several pitying looks. So the jokes didn’t work either.

And so it goes. From playing golf (or what most would call golf), to talking about it and now to writing on it. With liberal outings, comprising long sessions at the driving range and the fairways thrown in. I plod (ploughed?!) on in the hope that my relationship with the game and with the Golf Gods would take a turn for the better and someday I would actually break 18 without cheating or devising my own rules and heckling my partners.

Hasn’t happened. My dust laden golf books, magazines, videos, CDs seem to mock at me from their shelves. Golfers on the course, on seeing my lone figure trudging along, or searching his ball in the woods and bushes, give me a wide berth. While I imagine it is respect for a senior golfer, something tells me that they steer clear because my golf balls can fly in any direction. On the odd occasion when kind golfers agree to play with me, it is probably only because I have promised champagne for all the day I break 18. They  know and I know that’s not likely ever…at best I will be 18 till I die.

Make no mistake however. Despite being at odds with me through my playing career, golf has given me unmitigated joy, great moments, wonderful friends,unforgettable times (for more reasons than one) on lush green, open fairways, under a balmy sun on innumerable clear blue sky days. As I approach old age, I take hope and succour in the fact that I will be able to use the veterans’ tee…a good 20 yard advantage. That might  help a fellow who has been struggling for his yards for so many years. If that doesn’t work either, have told the wife to pack my golf gear with me when I leave for the netherworld – I am not going to stop playing till I break 18. I am hoping the angels would be kinder and look the other way when I move the ball. So if it could never be 18 here, it could well be 18 in the hereafter. Amen!

**********

© Sharabh Pachory, 2019. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction.
Cartoons from sources as indicated against each.

Low Fliers 🚉

Most Indians who fly today rode Indian Railways back in the 70s, 80s and up until the late 90s. While the railways remain unquestionably the most widely used means for getting from one place to another in India, so many people who have taken to flying don’t travel trains any more. Apart from the obvious time saving factor (that’s a no-brainer), ever wonder why?

Many reasons. The expansion of the domestic air industry and resultant proliferation of airlines and airports, better economy, so much more money in the pocket, reasonably affordable air tickets, a more jet-setting (pun intended) life, to posit only a few.

So who travels trains? Well, all of India, it would seem, as I key in this aboard a long distance train. Despite a confirmed berth in a reserved compartment, I sit cramped, at the mercy of the encroachers. A walk down the length of the train during a halt to get some fresh air revealed the train, full beyond capacity. Some other trains chugging in and out of the platform are no different. This write-up is about getting a fact check on whether, and how, air travel has affected train travel in India.

Train reservations are not available even months in advance on any route. Any class. This was the situation 20 years back too, with fewer trains, fewer aeroplanes and fewer people. Now, as averred, more people fly and there are almost double the number of trains. So why is the train scene unchanged…why indeed do trains remain so heavily oversubscribed?

These thoughts played on my mind as I undertook this train journey after a long hiatus, with notions of romanticism generally associated with train travel. Such notions of course went right out the window the moment I stepped onto the bustling railway station and muscled my way through a sea of humanity, baggage in tow. More notion-busting was in store when I found a whole family in occupation of my reserved berth, with their lunch spread in front of them (it was only 10:00 am!). They were kind enough to however allow me a corner on my own berth! Not for nothing do they say that train travellers are a considerate lot. It’s the air travellers who wear the stiff upper lip and wouldn’t glance at their co-passenger.

https://resources.stuff.co.nz/content/dam/images/1/d/m/f/h/v/image.related.StuffLandscapeSixteenByNine.1420×800.1dmfyg.png/1471564217795.jpg

I try to strike a conversation with my fellow passengers and encroachers, offer a biscuit to a child who was being an utter nuisance, but only draw a tepid response. The lady with the lunch spread gives a cold look. She perhaps takes me as one of the forceful occupants. In any event, everybody and their children are busy with their cell phones. Some are watching videos and playing games without headphones and the cacophony, with the sonorous accompaniment of the clanging coach wheels, is a surefire conversation killer. So I take out my own (cell phone) and start this… the only way I can deal with the distress politely in the land of Nirvana.

Train travels have been beautifully essayed by writers like Kipling, Ruskin Bond and others. Steam engine-pulled, 5 coach trains, gently puffing and meandering through the dales, glens and rolling hills of British countryside are a far cry from our 22 coach, electric engine-driven monoliths. They crisscross the vast Indian landscape like giant caterpillars… only somewhat faster. Still the best way to see this beautiful land… provided you can see out the window through the packed heads and bodies and the smudged window glasses.

Make no mistake, however. Indian railways is one of the best things you have running. Imagine 12,000 plus passenger trains carrying 23 million people daily, more than 7,000 freight trains everyday, over almost 1,20,000 kilometers of tracks, connecting more than 7,500 stations! The statistics are mind boggling. Almost the entire population of Australia travels by train everyday in India! Under such daunting challenges and gargantuan numbers, I would imagine even the accident rate (which critics carp about) is not as bad as it could be. True, even one accident or loss of life is not acceptable or being condoned – but it has to be seen in the light of the mammoth task and figures. And this when the systems and infrastructure here are not ultra modern. I would even venture far out enough to say that given these conditions, the overall on-time running percentage of trains is also commendable. Could of course be better, but, hey… give the guys a break. With such a massive machinery and thousands of clogs to control and coordinate, don’t trash the railways for a little delay now and then. Gone are the days when it was quipped that the only thing that runs on time in the Railways is PT Usha! In any event, a cynic would argue, people travel trains because they have the time…so an hour or two extra shouldn’t hurt.

Back to the flyer and some more number crunching. As per estimates, 3,30,000 people fly domestically everyday in India. Of these, 90% or about 3 lakh were taking the train earlier! So it amazes me that with so much of rail traffic per day taken on by airlines in the last 20 years, there is not even an iota of reduction in rail traffic. Whatever economic or social data you may throw at me, you cannot deny that air travel has caught on in a massive way in India…and that includes Bharat.

It is then that I had my face-palm moment. Doing simple math tells me that 3.3 lakhs out of 23 million, still leaves you with 22.7 million or 227 lakh people traveling by train everyday. This is not counting the local/metropolitan passengers in suburbs! So the air travelling population, despite mushrooming lately, is a mere drop in the ocean – a speck in the sky if you will! Is it any wonder then that our trains are overbooked, overfull and sometimes overdue? The hypothesis with which I started is patently flawed and flies in the face. Domestic airlines have absolutely nothing to fear – the competition is just not there.

https://www.wraltechwire.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/rdu-at-night-e1525701985671-1280×640.jpg

As I board my return flight (no return train journey for me!), I conclude that people travel trains not because they want to, but because they have to. I am also left wondering what kind of air infrastructure we would require to cater for our kind of traveling population. Some more numbers to underscore a point. What if even a third of train travellers, or about 7.5 million people were to fly every day? At about 180 seats in an A320 airbus (taking it as a standard aircraft in Indian skies – there are many smaller too) this would mean – hold your breath – about 41,600 aircraft per day. Or if you take an acceptable average of one aircraft doing 8 trips a day, you still have 5,200 aircraft flying every day. I am not talking of airports, airport handling capacity, air crew, ground staff, air traffic control etc. So…the obvious question and conclusion: can we be a nation of fliers ever, as say most developed nations are? Obviously no….not anytime soon at least.

The figures used in this blog are ball point estimates. They can of course be challenged by agencies, departments and even individuals in better know. But if we were to overlook the nitpicking, it can be firmly deduced that Indian Railways has and always will be our main transporter, carrier, mover, shaker… our literal vehicle for progress, as it has been through the years. The rapid expansion of the air network and the newfound popularity of air travel is never going to cause the Railways to break into a sweat. They will chug on and take India places. On wheels, rather than wings.

*******

© Sharabh Pachory, 2019. All rights reserved.

Pictures from sources as indicated against each.

We the ‘Booked’ 📖

Before any other thing, let me explain the ‘we’ in the title. It is people born in the 60s, a little earlier, or possibly mid 70s. A generation which (in India) did not have access to television and the internet. A generation which could not tuck itself into bed without a book – many often hoodwinked parents by hiding Archie comics between text book pages. Later the comics occasionally made way for Hugh Hefners’ Playboy and his centrefold bunnies. We were boys tasting the first bittersweet joys of adulthood. ‘We’ lived through exciting times – times of want and longing, an era which despite some harmless amorous pursuits, was defined by innocence and naivete. As Charles Dickens wrote, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…

I am not sure if youngsters still do these things…books were central to our existence. A close modern day analogy would be the cell phone or the laptop, without which it is today difficult to imagine a youngster for any significant length of time. We read till we were almost dead…Enid Blyton and her Famous Five, Secret Seven and the ‘R’ ( Barney mysteries) series were indeed to die for. Characters like George (from Famous Five), the quintessential tomboy and Uncle Quentin, the stern & strict ‘grown up’ were part of our real world, rather than fantasy. We saw a little of Dick and Anne in all our friends and fancied ourselves as little heroes, destined to be saviours of humanity.

The Guns of Navarone and the unforgettable opening lines: “A small, dusty man, in a small dusty room….”, from The Dark Crusader brought the inimitable Mr Alistair McLean into our lives. Ms Enid was sadly being edged out, having initiated us to the joys of simple English writing and reading. From the innocent world of scones and muffins, it was to the sinister world of sabotage and subversion .To Ms Blyton however, must go the credit of making us lifelong prisoners of the written word.

James Hadley Chase with ominous titles like Believed Violent , The Vulture is a Patient Bird or Like a Hole in the Head, ran McLean close, despite his blockbusters like Where Eagles Dare, Puppet on a Chain and others. Chase seemed to have his nose ahead, with those few suggestive, titillating accounts of amour, stopping just short of the roll, thrown in. Despite possibly higher literary and storytelling value, I think McLean lost out to Chase… voyeurism has always had its uses.

The peerless Erle Stanley Gardner and his unforgettable creation, Perry Mason, the indefatigable, genial lawyer brought the American judicial system with all its faults, foibles and fantasies into our vistas. His alliterative titles like The Case of the Horrified Heirs, The Case of the Vagabond Virgin and so many such, had us rushing to the local book lender (yes, these worthies, masquerading as librarians, actually existed – a testimony to the prevalence of the reading bug then) with 25 paisa in change to get the latest Perry Mason. We fought over these books, we swore by Mason and we hated DAs…those wily shysters with pointed noses in pin striped suits, often with a pince nez, out to convict innocents, who our hero defended through excellent briefs prepared with the help of Della Street, his suave and smart secretary. She was as close as you could get to a computer those days. Sadly, Perry and Della were never romantically involved – if they were, Mr Gardener surely kept us guessing!

The advent of books and authors in our lives was not necessarily sequential…rather it was concurrent, or even random. I do not exactly recall when Harold Robbins made an entry. I do remember however, that it was with a bang. A Stone for Danny Fisher took our small literary world by storm. The struggles, successes and eventual doom of a young Jewish street fighter, Danny Fisher, cast a spell, traces of which still hang in the air. That fictional character, not the ideal Momma’s boy you bring home, has been an evergreen hero – perhaps a sign of the times we grew up in. The Carpetbaggers and it’s prequel, Nevada Smith, brought home Hollywood and its glitz – accompanied lamentably, as critics aver, with liberal doses of sex and gore. As I said, those were heady, tough days – you needed your Danny Fishers and Nevada Smiths, even as those were not, by ethical standards then prevalent, exemplary influences on young men. Discerning parents frowned – others were blissfully oblivious to the literary pursuits of their wards.

In between we made forays into the Wild West. ‘Sudden‘, that unforgettable character by Oliver Strange, so named due to the lightning speed with which he drew his revolvers, introduced the world of Red Indians, horses, squaws, posses, pistol duels and motels in dusty one-horse towns with creaky swing doors. It was toxic. Louis L’amour, the other author of ‘Westerns’ who broke into the scene, filled up any gaps that Mr Strange may have left. We were indeed spoilt for choice. Hollywood, New York, Arizona, values, ethics, courts, bars, sex, violence, sleaze, espionage and subterfuge vied for our fleeting attention spans – America in all its avatars, had found a niche in our minds.

And then came what I call the lord and master – PG Wodehouse. As has been famously said, there are two kinds of people in this world : those who have read PG Wodehouse and those who have not. To quote Hugh Laurie “…..PG Wodehouse is still the funniest writer ever to put words on paper…those who contest this must be irretrievably insane….”. Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, The Drones Club, The Empress of Blandigs, Aunt Agatha….the list of these unforgettable characters, places and stories that kept you enthralled, in awe and in splits, is a mile long. Only the Master could have woven them in the web of farce, burlesque and absurdity that he did and made language sound like music! I remain till date, amongst the most ardent Wodehouse fans and an eternal, diehard aspirant for Drones Club membership. As Bertie Wooster would say , “Not likely, ole chap……”

As I said, our reading graph was not linear…we read authors in no particular order – in the sequence we could lay our hands on the books in a time of scarcity. In between, some of us were privileged to read semi classics like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It was fun to be a Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler aficionado at a time when Ashley and Melanie were the flavour of the day. You could always impress the few girls that you spoke to in your late teens with misquotes from GWTW. At around the same time, one of the most intense characters, Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made the profound impact that he does on all who have read this classic. These books literally had the power to shape character, and I would imagine they did.

In between, and as we savoured college life, our literary taste buds got more defined and varied. There were several authors who at various times and stages donned the tag of favourites – Irving Wallace, Ian Fleming, Arthur Hailey, Erich Segal, Robin Cook, Stephen King, AJ Cronin, Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, John Grisham….Then there were those few writers who could cast a spell with only one book of theirs that you could lay your hands on, like Marie Corelli (Vendetta), Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds), Alberto Moravia (The Woman of Rome), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) and a few others. Some of us flirted with DH Lawrence, he of the evergreen and titillating Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame – and (so we thought) were none the worse for wear for it, even as one had to read it clandestinely and drew severe rebuke from parents, extending to a full ban on reading, if ever found in possession of such ‘putrid’ literature! So, the reading career, such as it was, was chequered and many-faceted, if it was anything!

That’s the wrap folks. As ‘we’, well past our prime, enter the evening of our lives (some of you may vehemently contest that – God bless you), and even perhaps prepare for the hereafter, I would unhesitatingly draw on the Mary Hopkins song : “those were the days”. A touch of the maudlin there – advancing years do that to you! The reading habit, even as all that we read was not ideal or classic, stood us in good stead right through life – in the lessons imbibed, the language skills adapted, the broadening of our intellectual horizons and most importantly, facing up to the challenges life threw up with alarming regularity. The books we read helped establish a connect (Ms Blyton would frown at ‘connect’ being used as a noun – the perils of modern day usage, which has not left even us old timers untouched) with a world with which we had nothing in common. Yet there was alignment and association. Computers don’t do that. Those books gave us an education which I felt school only complemented.


Mushy as it appears, one would imagine that that generation faded away with the advent of technology, television and terabytes. Kids, young and old, do not read as much anymore – they only assimilate, I suspect, without imbibing. They are of course, a whole lot smarter. Laptops and cellphones have ushered in a million plusses, but in one fell swoop, put an end to the age of innocence and chastity. Ms Blyton, Mr Wodehouse and their ilk would however, remain indelibly and eternally etched on the collective psyches of that wonderful generation. We owe them our very childhood, some of our happiest times and so much more.

The Hand that Rules ✋

I had a most interesting month-long holiday in USA recently. Refreshing, invigorating, enlightening, enjoyable and at the same time a bit disconcerting and unsettling. Some ambivalence here, I realize. Well, stories from my USA diary will find their way to the blogspace someday. I will then endeavour to explain the conundrum. The nascent writer in me is straining at the leash to let go, even as the prospective recipients of my travel journals run for cover. That’s not going to stop me folks – so brace yourself for it: it may be sooner than you imagine.

For now, what I wish to share with you is relatively benign, though intriguing and not a little mystifying  – even amusing from an Indian perspective. Instructive too.

So let me explain – I allude to the palm: the hand which brings Americans to a dead stop anywhere and anytime, the hand that rules the roads and intersections, the hand that directs and often delays. This is the ubiquitous orange palm sign for pedestrians to cross the road at intersections – a necessary but oft exasperating symbol of authority and order.

The India perspective, in particular the scant regard, bordering on dismissiveness, for traffic symbols, rules, laws, byelaws –  brings in the aspect of intrigue. Here too we use the hand to cross a busy street – but it is our own hand. This palm of the pedestrian has the same power – to stop everyone on wheels dead in their tracks. The ensuing curses and abuses of motorists, as their brakes screech, leave the all powerful hand unfazed – in fact, more empowered. The owner of the palm saunters on, headphones often firmly in the ear, a wicked smile and a resolve to use the powerful panja with gay abandon at the next crossing.

My American friends – and I did make a few – would find this perplexing. On several occasions, on a completely vacant crossing, they have stood still, till the ‘go’ was given. A picture of genteel obedience and order.

Strangely, some of us, most wilful and liberal users of the hand in India, as described above, followed the rule to a T there! This is not a hand you messed with: you could be handed down a ticket. The fear of law is always at hand there. There are no palms to be greased. Also, you don’t want those glares and baleful looks, often reserved for third world denizens. So you meekly eat out of the hand that stares from the pole. You resolve firmly to hand it out with greater vigour when back home.

Talking of home, there is another palm that had been looming large on the political landscape and threatening to halt the ruling party in its stride. Hand in glove with others, it promised more than a handful. Probably the reason why people saw it as a sleight of hand. Fortuitously, the Hand of God intervened, a flower bloomed and swept the hustings hands down. That Palm and its proponents may feel they were dealt a raw hand…they have grudgingly handed over claims to power, which successive generations had handed down to heirs who felt they must have a hand in running the nation.

That was an aside. Back to the orange palm. As you stared at the broad, often car-less roads, waiting for the palm to turn into the ‘go’ signal, which resembles a man in a break-dance jig, you wondered how such order and adherence to rules could be enforced back home.  A hands-down approach, a ham handed outlook, a hands off policy, kid gloved handling, or a firm hand to deal with offenders? One hand too many there.

Whichever hand is played, we do need a hand in finding  a solution to the hand issue… it is the Individual Hand versus the State Hand. While the former appears to stop all vehicular traffic, the latter halts pedestrian traffic. One is lawful, the other is taking the law into your hand – literally and figuratively. The intrigue lies in the question – why we follow the State hand outside the country and our own hand inside. A show of hands on the hand that you prefer may be handy.

Either way you look at it, the hand just found another use… a facilitator or an inhibitor. The hand has been dealt. Take your pick.

Long is Lame

As soon as my first blogpost, on nothing really, was out, I was swamped with feedback. Most of it was good because it came from friends and acquaintances, who probably wanted to be nice. Notwithstanding the element of familial obligation and courtesy in these texts, I was perked up – seemed like I had arrived on the literary firmament. Having sent the customary thankyous, obsessed as I was with my silly first blog, I got down to some sifting. Didn’t take me too long to discern that each of the missives had one common thread – my sentences were too long. Some said they had to be read twice to get the sense. Others were not so kind. I was acutely aware of this shortcoming (‘long’coming, more aptly) and had made a passing mention of the malady in my ibid blog. However, the feedback suggested that the problem needed to be addressed post haste.

So I did some soul searching and complemented it with another kind of search, more common these days …. Google search. While soul search drew a blank, Google helped. I found a few interesting facts – the longest English sentence, which stood at 1288 words till 1983 was later surpassed by a sentence by novelist Jonathan Coe in “The Rotter’s Club” which had a 33 page-long 13,955 word sentence. Talk of long sentences existing only in the mind! I wonder if these were literary stunts to get into the record books, an expression of life-long angst, a way to get back at the English teacher or a purging of the soul. As far as the last goes, I would believe that this was purging of every purgeable part of the anatomy. It was evisceration.

But soul or body, it gave me heart. I was in august company. Of course, my longest was only 64 words, so I had some catching up to do. Maybe I would eventually get there with practice….if I could add another 13,891 words, I could be a contender for podium finish in the field of sentence length. But given the adverse feedback, I thought going with short could yet save the day for me… give my fledgling blogging career a leg up, maybe.

The shortest sentence in the English language is one word, two letters :”Do.” (or, “No.”, or “Go.”). So there is a wide range, array if you will, from 1 to 13955 words to choose from. Popular opinion favours the short sentence. Creative Writing experts never tire of belabouring the virtues of the short, crisp sentence.Essayists and Englit students vie with each other to say more in less. Brevity seems not only to be the soul of wit, but the ticket to literary greatness. With my appallingly long and wordy sentences, I was just not there.

It would appear, ipso facto, that contemporary English writing has no place for long sentences, which reflect, inter alia, the confused state of mind of the writer and of course inability to connect with the reader. So where does that leave long, ghoulish sentence-makers like me? Out in the cold, I would imagine. And what of friend Coe, he of the 13955 word monstrosity? I guess he could forever be in deep freeze.

I recall mentioning in my one-blog old writing career that I have taken to writing not because I nurture notions of literary greatness, but possibly because it has missed me by a mile. Even as I unabashedly chase that chimera, the long and short of it seems to be the debate between long and short. Clearly short is winning.

So I have decided to take the antidote to stop my word diarrhoea. Can’t say if it will work, given that the ailment is chronic. As is my wont, I put the idea, along with this write-up to the wife, weary under the effects of my new found avocation and its fallout : the put-on demeanour , my accompanying aplomb and swagger. She remarked with her usual disdain, that I could churn up nothing even half good. This evinced me to retort, tongue-in-cheek : “That’s why I have named my blogspot, ‘nothingmuch‘”. While on word play, in the league of catchy, alliterative tag lines like Bold is Beautiful, and in deference to the victory of the short sentence, I conceded – Long is Lame, Short is Sure.

Long live Short.

Blogging Blues of a Services Scribbler

Military Intelligence is an oxymoron – I am not the first to say so, though I wish I was. This notwithstanding, whenever I wanted to utter this witticism while in service, I was afraid: some full-of-himself General or Admiral may take exception and subject me to a harangue on how inept I was,who the hell did I think I was, what did I know about the military, or intelligence for that matter. All of it true. So I shut the hell up and went on for 37 years, smug in the tedium & banality of military life, all the while believing that wisdom is the sole preserve of seniority. All through service I also nurtured that wily hope that someday I will get the chance to get my own back.

Then came retirement. Contrary to the commonly held belief that it shackles you and puts you in the back foot, it liberated me – gave me wings. I am still afraid, but not so much of the military, as much as, say, of detractors in the family : the daughter an English Hons graduate from LSR who avers, all the way from USA, with the unabashed abandon and dismissiveness of the millennial, that I rig up incomprehensibly long winded and disjointed sentences, which make no sense. The son, who as a budding writer for a website, earning his living off 400 worders, and the new-found intellectual hubris that such accomplishments bring, scoffs at my feeble attempts at writing. The wife (who, in any case was right up there in the fear department), makes no pretenses and can barely hide her disdain at what she feels is an attempt at reaching out to a wider audience with my inanities,of which, for 30 years, she was the sole recipient and victim. So these shadowy figures lurk behind the curtains as I make my foray into the world of blogging , now that I am out of the olive greens.

The daughter’s apprehensions vis a vis long winded sentences, sadly, have already been vindicated if you read the last para. Those of my other exalted household hounders, will too, in time, even more sadly. Made of sterner stuff, I however soldier on. Takes more than veiled criticism to stop a determined, retired old military fogey, who seems to have consigned himself to self destruction and is hell bent on having an ego ride. So if you are bold, you are reading this blog, at pain of suffering and tribulation.

As a first-time blogger, despite my show of nonchalance and indifference, I admit to a degree of trepidation. I ask myself what entitles me to express myself on a public platform where so many with impeccable literary credentials and claims to scholarship occupy pride of place. No answers are forthcoming, except perhaps a latent desire to be read, fuelled by a misplaced belief that you too can string up an odd good turnover and titillate more than a few uninitiated literary palates. Long years as a senior in a uniformed service, where most of what you say or write draws canned approbation from fawning subordinates does that to you.

But it can’t be only that: you certainly are not so naive, as a two star General, to believe that the adulation of starry eyed juniors, when you enjoyed all authority, can be a trigger to launch yourself into a writing career. I put this poser to the wife, who with barely concealed disdain and eagerness to get me off her back, remarked that it would be good for all in the family if I were to engage in something creative, rather than barking instructions from a chair all day, as if the household were my command. So bingo! I finally settle for ‘creative outlet’ – yes, a destructive man, in the evening of his life, suddenly discovers the virtues of creation. That looks good.

But how do I overcome the poverty of thought, bankruptcy of ideas, lack of aptitude and of course the deficiency of language skills? Literary pursuits are alien to me and the closest I ever got to writing was when I had to draft three-line replies as a young adjutant for my second in command; of course before the cursed draft could reach that worthy, the head-clerk fed it to the trash can, already overfilled with my masterpieces and re-did the whole thing. In later service life, my literary efforts were further reduced to writing inane remarks on files, letters and drafts, which I suspect no one understood and fewer cared for. So the antecedents were just not there. I therefore fear this blog may meet a similar fate ; however I draw solace from the fact that there are no e-trashcans where this can be dumped… despite its lack of merit and literary appeal it will dwell and float in cyber space, not unlike space debris, which floats up there, but has no use, except a debilitating one of causing harm to useful objects orbiting in spatial harmony .

As someone said, you either start out of fear of failure or hope of success. While in my case FoF screams out loud and tells me to go back to my armchair instruction-barking, with my undying optimism, I go with HoS. So dear reader, the less than handful of you (mercifully you can’t be in decimals), as I make this maiden and wry attempt at humour and penmanship (or should it be keyboard-manship now?), brace yourself for more. Make no mistake however: not all military writers are dumb – its only I who enjoys unchallenged monopoly in that domain.

So, as they say, watch this space: but don’t say you were not forewarned.