Monday, January 09, 2012

The armed forces and I....:-)

Me and the Armed Forces. We go back a long way. 

Unlike the police with whom I've tangled a bit because of their fairly arbitrary application of traffic rules (where I was concerned) and certain exchanges of valuable papers (between them and fellows on motorbikes) observed by me from a distance,   my interaction with the armed forces  has been something that I only have praise for.

My earliest experience was as a child in Ahmednagar, a town near Pune. My father, part of the civil service, was posted in Ahmednagar, and we spent our vacations there, while schooling in Pune. We had been put up in quarters at the Circuit House, since they were still trying to allocate goverment accomodation. This was in some kind of Civil Lines area outside the main city. And there was some kind of military range nearby. 

Summer meant hot dry air, and sarees and stuff was always hung out to dry on a line in the big gardens. My brother and I must have been in single digit ages, when one day , there was a mother of a windstorm, and before we knew what happened, my mother's  drying  saree had suddenly risen up into the air like a parachute, and was literally flying in a vague direction. There were these sudden cries, and my young brother and I took off, running behind it, going around hedges, crossing roads, and out over the fields.  We finally ended up retreiving it in what appeared to be a firing range, with an entire line of fellows lying in a line on the ground, looking through, what looked like rifles.  

Their supervisor /leader called out and gestured to us, and asked after us. They had seen the saree drama in the distance.  Naturally we asked about the shooting , was it real bullets , and so on. And of course, shamelessly asked if we could hold the gun for a bit.  Amazingly, the teacher agreed.  He showed us how to lie prone, look through the viewfinder, allowed us to touch the trigger and we came back from this trip totally zapped.

The next time was when many years, college, marriage, etc later, we were on a trip south by car, landed in Ooty, and I remembered that I had a cousin whose husband was posted at Wellington. I only knew her married name.  Not her husband's  designation or anything, and neither did I know army hierarchy stuff.  I arbitrarily decided he was a Major, and we drove around asking for Major K. My cousin was someone who was culinarily highly enabled, and did classes and stuff, and we'd ask about her too.

Did an entire round driving, and even landed up at something called Flagstaff House , which was very impressive, and the guard, probably flabbergasted at seeing an ancient Fiat merrily and a bit noisily trundling up,   politely advised us to turn back. :-)  .  While we had a lovely drive, stopping intermittently to ask about Major K (and sometimes his wife),  there were so many folks on the road who stopped to guide us, sometimes in detail.  The biggest reward was knocking on a door, and seeing my cousin's flabbergasted face, as she saw us on her doorstep, as she opened the door. It turned out that her husband was a Major (as I suspected), and he was about to leave for some stuff, and she was bustling around with some of his uniform stuff.    This whole thing was nothing short of miraculous.

Many years later, my knowledge about designations had marginally improved. I was working in an educational institution of great repute, my immediate superior was called away in an emergency, and in an age when mainframe computers, punchcards, and "computer runs" were the order of the day, I was left managing access/bookings  of users to these.  We had several folks from the armed forces who joined to work for a post graduate degree and were sponsored by the government, and they stood out in their very disciplined way of conducting conversations, peppered with Sir and Ma'am, and I had occasion to observe a Captain, a Major, and  a Squadron Leader.

One day, one of our oldest respected employees, L., who expertly punched cards, that held every user's programs,  came up to me with a complaint.  It was submission time, there was a crowd, and folks were being asked to form a queue to get their stuff punched, at several punching machines.  Mostly students, some staff, and some folks were getting upset . Suddenly, this one guy , the Captain, starts cribbing, and abusing the setup and the people, arguing.  Maybe he had submission tensions, maybe he was running late, but so were many others, and L was taking folks in a proper queue. When he made improper remarks about her favouring folks, she was hurt, and came up to me to complain, saying that never in her 25 years of work had this happened, and that she was so pained, she had to complain.

I felt bad for her, and was wondering how to handle this, given that I had no real authority, and I was just standing in for my superior .  I suddenly had an idea.  I sent word to the Squadron Leader, a very impressive Sardar.

Confided in him, and told him that this episode had simply shaken the impression I had about the armed forces, and the way they conducted themselves, particularly vis-vis ladies, in a professional environment. The lady in question was someone with more than 25 years dedicated work experience, working for many years with many people, and if she was hurt, then something was wrong.  Told him I didnt know where a  Squadron Leader of the air force stood vis-a-vis a Captain, but we needed his help to communicate something to the guy, and this was a question of the prestige of the armed forces.   He understood, agreed, and said he would act. 

That same afternoon, L., came up to my office, waited till we were alone, and then asked me, what I had done. Turns out that the Captain in question, had come down to her and  apologized.  Profusely. And said he would see to it that this wouldn't repeat. She had never seen such a thing (quick response, action etc) in all her years of work, and had come to ask me.  She was totally amused with the Squadron leader story, and to this day, we have a laugh over it. 

I later learned that the Squadron Leader had had  "words" with the Captain. And I had a great time, imagining the folks at attention, the clipped responses of "Sir!" accompanied by feet stamping, twirling moustaches,  angry  and possibly pseudo-repentant looks, hurt egos ,  and many other things.

There is something to be said for technology that included people as an integral part.

Today, the mainframes have gone, the punching machines were actually transported away in a junk truck,  and the big hall where the machines lumbered, are now a bustling lab with 103 PC's, and folks fidlling away , day and night,  keying in stuff, doing assignments and so on.  Today it's all about you and your machine. When the machine is a laptop, you could even be working under a tree, making it all , even more exclusive.

But you learn less about people. And how to work in a hierarchy.

And then someone tells you to take a course in management, organizational behavior, managing human resources and so on.

I think I had much more fun learning it the hard way. 

And made many more friends.

One person even thanked me in the preface of his degree project report.   And no, it wasn't the Captain :-)



  1. it is indeed a different life with army, my grand dad being in army so i have experienced it ..

    from childhood we were taught to be respectful even to a bat-man or to a officer yo ucalled "AAP" never "TUN"..

    I would really love to have that sort of discipline in normal civil life too :)


  2. I have always admired people from the armed forces. They always stand out in a crowd. And they always leave a lasting impression too :)

  3. My Dad was a civilian working in the Army Headquarters, so the armed forces were a part of our lives! I also have a cousin who retired as a Major General, who never failed to charm us with his sense of fun and innate courtesy. His son is now doing well for himself in the navy. Also many other connections with the armed forces among in-laws and friends. The recent age debacles and such like are demoralizing, though:(