A man of many parts, a fearless veteran
My hero and role model
As a child I looked up to him - he was my hero and role model as he had the smart looks and confident air that reassured us that our small world was secure. Dad served the Indian Army for thirty-six years. He was a paratrooper and underwent commando training. The picture alongside is an old photograph of Dad in his early years in the Army. It was shot at Bangalore in 1946. I took it out from the family album and digitized it so that it can be uploaded. (Photo Credit : vinodkpillai)
Dad imposed rules and enforced discipline so that everything was organized. It was sometimes suffocating and we rebelled quietly without letting him know. We waited for him to go to office so that we could breathe easy and do what we wanted. But life went on with a quiet precision and there were not many hiccups as long as he had his way.
It is nearly five years since Dad passed away in his sleep, but his presence is still experienced. That is because he was a man of many parts.
A man of many parts
If I do not shy away from picking up new things and straying into unchartered territories, the inspiration is largely drawn from Dad. He grew up in a small village in the coastal state of Kerala in India. He had to terminate his education after leaving school because of family compulsions but went on to educate himself through extensive reading and learning from life experiences so that he could hold his own and command respect among the highly educated, many of whom admired him and went on to become his close friends. He showed me that informal education can be a very great leveler and learning can be a lifelong process.
Dad was a very good listener and would keenly listen especially if you had something new to say. He had the uncanny ability to quickly grasp and then join your discussion with ideas and observations of his own that would stump you. I learnt from him the value of listening much before I read Dale Carnegie.
He was very well read - mostly English and American writing and also Malayalam, which was his mother tongue. He had a very good library for one who had limited formal education and the best part was that the books covered a wide range from science and philosophy to history, culture and religion. We had the Encyclopedia Britannica and quite a few dictionaries and reference books to ensure that help was at hand if we needed to check up something. He created a climate of learning and intellectual development that I still value and which helped me develop an open mind and interest in all realms of knowledge.
Dad was interested in tennis, squash and horse riding and was a good photographer too. He encouraged me in these and many other areas because he believed that diversity of interests is the best antidote for boredom. He also believed that dependence can be a big cause of problems and worries in life whereas independence can liberate and leave you with all the options. I took up some of these forays very seriously and went on to develop proficiency - many I abandoned - but in the process I learnt that if one had an open mind, nothing was difficult to learn and even master. Dad never taught this by preaching; he demonstrated this in his life. He was an expert at very many things from gardening to agriculture and cooking to wine making.
There is a lot that I can write about Dad but if I have to zero in on the most defining aspect, I would pick his fearlessness and keeping in mind that he spent thirty-six years in the Indian army, I would say that he was a fearless veteran.
A fearless veteran
How he earned his paratrooper wings
Dad spent thirty six years in the Indian Army posted in various parts of the country. He saw action in Jammu & Kashmir and was a part of the UN custodian service that served in Korea in 1954 after the Korean conflict.
Soldiers are meant to be fearless and the job probably makes a person fearless. But Dad was by nature fearless, even before he joined the Indian Army. He viewed events and issues on merit and if and when action was called for, there was no stopping him. He could be discrete or considerate if the situation warranted but fear never held him back.
My favorite is the much-recounted story of his wanting to be a paratrooper. He applied but was told by the officials that he was being rejected because he very marginally exceeded the height-weight norms. Dad felt this deserved to be appealed against and so he did. The commanding officer tried to explain the risks involved but Dad could not be persuaded. So he arranged a visit to the military hospital so that Dad could see the casualties and get convinced. After the visit was offer, Dad was asked whether he had changed his mind.
"Sir, all these people were within the stipulated norms?" Dad wanted to know.
"Yes, they were obviously within our strict norms. So you see the danger-"
"Sir if all of them were within the norms then why are the norms so sacrosanct? After all if I have to die, it can happen in many other ways without my jumping from a plane!"
Dad was taken for the paratroopers training and went on to complete the requisite number of jumps and commando course for three years to earn his paratroopers wings. He was given two maroon ties sprinkled with the para wings and he treasured them and brought them out whenever he recounted the para story.
Dad's best advice
Dad often said that fear was incapacitating and therefore needed to be nipped in the bid. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
As a child he once asked me if I was afraid of ghosts and when I said yes, he narrated his ghost stories and then took me to the window and showed me a graveyard in the distance. It was pitch dark and I could barely see the tombstones.
"Go on, I want you to go there and wave out to me from there. Check out if there are any ghosts before you return. I will be watching from here and waiting for you so that we can have supper together."
I don't need to explain how the experience would have been for a twelve year old who was afraid of ghosts. But these and many other chilling and not so chilling experiences taught me that fear was in the mind and could be conquered. It made my life so very different.
Gifts for Dad
What would I present him if he were around? It was always difficult to decide, but considering the fact that he was a voracious reader and loved tinkering around, I guess I would present him these two gifts, which he would have valued.
It would be nice if you could enrich this lens by sharing your thoughts, feelings feedback - whatever you feel like....