October 23, 2009

Traveling With a Soldier

On a recent train journey I sat beside a smiling man with a boyish face. I ignored him the way I ignore every other co-passenger. This time I read Laura Lippman's Baltimore Blues while he asked me questions like "Where are you getting down?", "What time will this train reach that station?", "What do you do?". To not come across as overly rude I too asked him what he did.

Army.

He spoke only in Hindi. Apart from being a bad listener, my aptitude for Hindi is governed by Bala Bharati Bhaag II/III. He didn't seem to mind and did most of the talking even though I was restricted to listening, nodding, and replying in staccato yeses, noes and sorrys.

He is the only child of a family that lives on farming. Few people know that kirana and general stores are the best places to get applications for Amry recruitment. Five years ago he was recruited into the Army during the second year of his Intermediate. After one year of training he has been posted all over the map from Rajasthan to Delhi to Hyderabad to Chennai. It is common for them to be rotated across units all over the country. That's alright. They have good facilities and food in all the units.

His unit, wherever it may be, is his home now. They have a total of 3 months holidays annually in the form of CLs and ALs, but several of them are taken away for some special duty or the other. That's alright. For each of these days, their pay is doubled and added to their PF accounts. It is good money. Senior hawaldaars make up to 25000INR as salary.

He hasn't seen his parents this whole year, and when he decided to go now his superior wanted him to instead go on an assignment of some ammunition transport. He strongly resisted, talked to the unit commanding officer, and was finally allowed to take lave. Before anybody changed their minds, he immediately reached the railway station without luggage, bought a ticket for the first available train, and got into it. He did not even buy sweets for the family and the kids in the neighborhood. That's alright. He will buy some sweets after reaching there.

His family now never knows in advance when he is returning home. His dad will joke that he is returning only after they have made the harvest, Soya this year, after all the hard work has been done. For one month, he will eat his mom's food and sleep. He will play in the fields, but five years of continuously wearing shoes made his feet extremely delicate and now a tiniest twig can cut them. He will first have to wear slippers and harden the feet. Throughout the vacation he will keep his mobile switched off, as there are some duties which can't be declined. If the unit calls home, his parents will tell them that he is sick. He will miss his girl friend. That's alright.

There is one other friend who joined CRPF when he joined Army. With their haphazard vacations, they rarely get to meet now. There was one other friend from Chennai, a driver in Army. Once in the Valley, where there are narrow roads which are wide enough for only a single jeep, that friend along with another person accidentally plunged into the Valley, into a river which takes everything into Pakistan.

They have these huge vehicles in Army which burn like five litres of Diesel per kilometre. Some drivers steal Diesel and make a lot of money. Everybody knows but nobody says anything about it. Why would they when their superior officer doesn't? They don't ask questions in Army.

Sometimes they get orders to fire 300 shells. They don't know why. Each Bofors shell costs more than a lakh rupees. 300 shells in a day! That's a lot of noise despite the special earplugs they wear. And they have to run. Today it takes fifteen minutes for a precise reply in the form of another shell to come across the border. In these fifteen minutes they have to run, set up the gun again, and be ready to fire. It is not fun. He was there. South is safer.

Almost everybody who survives stays for at least fifteen years. No one can quit Army easily. Those back home might whisper that he chickened out. More than that, he feels good serving the country, having a purpose in life.

He looked content.

He didn't avail the defence quota because he was in a rush.  So when it was time to sleep I suggested him to sleep on the floor laying a few newspapers on it. He woke up by 0430 hrs the next morning. Before getting down I told him to enjoy his vacation and to be safe. He smiled and wished my family the best.

October 04, 2009

The Country Club

The last time I distinctly remember feeling patriotic was as a kid after watching JP Dutta's Border for the first time. After the movie ended with the jingoistic jig "Hindustan, Hindustan" I jumped on my bed like a zombie. Too excited to sleep, I stared in the darkness of night feeling that India has the most beautiful cartographic image in the world and that the Indian soldiers at the border must be great fearless and patriotic warriors as those in the movie. During the Kargil war I used to tally the number of wounded and dead Indian soldiers against those on the Pakistani side. I watched a lot of movies in the muddled up category of "patriotism and national integration" as a child.

As I grew up, learning more about myself with each passing year, I realized that I could feel patriotic only when I forcibly pumped that feeling into myself. Since then I have occasionally felt an itch of guilt for what I have become and learnt to live with it. The first time after I left college, took a job, lived independently, paid taxes and donated for charity my itch started to recede and instead has been being replaced with a growing sense of disillusionment and despair.

I am not very different from the billion other people who desire to live on their own and strive for their livelihood and dreams, people who work for themselves, their families and if possible for their communities. I feel optimistic about the opportunities available to the youth, I am inspired by the creativity and capabilities of many of those, and am amused by their naiveté in forwarding to each other Manmohan Singh's résumé or Abdul Kalam's speech about how India really is a developed country and not just a developing one. The latter amusement has in fact shifted from pride to realization and now vacillates between pity and condescension.

I don't particularly like nor respect India as a country. It is very unlike the developed countries that many of my generation truly envy. It appraises property in crores and human lives in lakhs. Nor is it like the war-torn developing countries that not only struggle for survival but also rebuild themselves with alacrity. It takes decades to construct projects, pays its voters hooch money before elections, and confuses fighting terrorism with curbing citizens' rights. Its few achievements are usually those of individuals from whom they have duly been nationalized, and when it does make to the top of a global economic or demographic index in a positive manner it is mostly because of its colossal population. It is at best the largest dysfunctional democracy and in fact the largest mobocracy in the world.

To the critic who questions what I do to change the situation: Bless the man who shot the guy who had said, "Ask not what the country did for you but what you did for the country." The country, whatever it means, is not my ruler and I am not a slave. We have a symbiotic relationship not very dissimilar from the relationship between an apartment building and its residents. The residents pay for the maintenance and a few other funds in exchange for a host of benefits. The residents should not default on their payments and the apartment building (through its elected association) should not fail to provide those benefits. The resident who is unhappy with the functioning of the association complains, and if things don't improve leaves to another apartment building.