Monday, January 15, 2018
What the fauj--and parents--taught me
Last week, a friend in the Army, reacting to my latest documentary on the endless-and thankless-war that Indian soldiers fight in Kashmir, paid a heartfelt compliment by calling me a ‘soldier-journalist’. Flattered though I was for a moment, the remark also embarrassed me no end. For I have never donned the uniform. To me soldiering is the only profession in which men and women go beyond the call of duty and therefore deserve the highest respect in the society. To me soldiers are a breed apart. In my chosen profession of journalism, this attitude is regarded as partisan. Many feel I am blind to many sins of commission and omission that the armed forces personnel seem to indulge in these days.
The charge may be partially true but I am not ashamed about it mainly because our forces are still way above the rest of the society when it comes to upholding the values of honour, teamwork, professionalism, ethics and camaraderie. But let me also confess: the biggest reason for my soft corner for the forces comes from the fact that I too am a fauji kid and sub-consciously somewhere deep down I still live by a dictum one learnt as a kid: Karmanye Vadhikaraste, Ma phaleshou kada chana (Do your duty to the best of your ability and don’t seek rewards).
When I look back, I realise that my father, who retired as a subedar major in 1982 and with him my mother, followed this practice in their daily life and passed it to us three brothers without making a song and dance about it. Throughout my 28-year career as a professional journalist, I have been fortunate that I could follow this principle without even realising that I was practicing what my father did all his professional life. Now, wiser and littlemore experienced than before, I am in a position to analyse some of the reasons behind the moderate success that each of us-three brothers-have managed to achieve in our respective professions.
Adaptability, my biggest strength, has been a second nature through our growing years thanks to the frequent transfers and constantly changing schools. In the 1960s and the 1970s, ordinary soldiers — and my father was one — had a tough life in the Indian Army. They lived far from their families, toiled hard for a pittance and yet possessed a dignity that is not found in an ordinary civilian. The soldier never complained, never whined and never expected anything in return for what he did. I changed eight schools in 10 years and studied in three different mediums- English, Marathi and Hindi before entering junior college in 1978. Sub-consciously, without ever preaching to us, our parents drilled a motto into us: “Take life as it comes.”
And we did.
We met the challenges head on. I remember travelling from Pune to Lekha Bali in Arunachal Pradesh by train in the late 1970s. It used to take us four days and five changes at Kalyan, Allahabad, Baruani,
New Bongaigaon and Rangiya before we could reach the destination.
Reservations were never confirmed.
Dad was never with us.
One lived by one’s wits and survived. Frequent transfers meant frequent dislocations and packings. And unlike today, there were no movers and packers in those pre-liberalisation days. So we learnt to adapt.
To be responsible for our actions. Discipline and punctuality was given.
Colleagues laugh at me when I start getting uncomfortable if I am late for an appointment. They laugh at the fact that I sleep by 10 pm and up by 5.30 am. But I know no other way. I mentioned adaptability earlier. My parents not only taught us how to adapt and accept but also practiced the principle. The biggest proof is my being a journalist. In the summer of ’83, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were concerned.
I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30 and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold.
I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of combined defence services exam that December.
That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow.
The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for their sports pages. Having played all games from kabaddi to squash and from kho-kho to cricket as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held.
Five days later, they called me for an interview. With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 700 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday. At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me, “When can you join?”
My answer was, “Whenever you want.” He said, “Can you join, tonight?”
And I agreed to join that very evening. Then I became a journalist.
Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am. Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot.
My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a junior commissioned officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father
accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time was “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam.
My parents moved back to Pune soon after but again luck smiled on me. Neha married me in 1988 and continued to encourage me to take risks with life and with career. Never ever complaining that I chose to take up risky assignments touring deep into north eastern states, reported the Kargil war, the Sri Lanka conflict, when I could have played safe and remained a desk bound journo.
Today those risks have paid off.
I can say with a bit of immodesty that I can compete with the best in business without feeling inferior.
The urge to do better than yesterday comes naturally to the men in uniform. If I behave that way even now, it is thanks to my upbringing in a military environment. Despite all its faults and foibles, the military remains a vital part of my life for whatever I am today is thanks largely to the fauj and its ethos.