Sunday, July 4, 2010

War and Peace

“Doesn’t indiscipline bother you?”

“Of course it does! Like, I can’t stand people spitting on the road. It simply isn’t done. So I tell them their intestines would dry up if they didn’t swallow their spit. It works on some of them,” said Mrs. Shahane, her eyes crinkling with mirth.

The daughter of an Army General and the widow of an Admiral in the Navy, Mrs. Shahane appeared to quite at peace…and ease with living in the civilian world. Well, kind of. Hers is one of 800 families living in Salunke Vihar (SV), a colony of retired personnel from the Armed Forces.

“I don’t think we live in the real world,” she admitted, referring to SV.

Sure, domestic help isn’t in uniform, drivers aren’t appointed by the Army and there are no freebies, but the colony is close to the Pune Cantonment (Army) Area, houses here are solely owned by retired Army Officers, the Army Club and the Armed Forces Medical College are in a 10km radius and the colony itself houses an Army canteen and a dispensary for its residents. So yes, not exactly the real world.

“Why move here?” I was posing the question to Major General Suman.

“I miss the army terribly,” said India’s foremost expert in defense procurement procedures and offsets. “And SV gives me a semblance of the regimental spirit the Army gave me.”

And exactly how is that? It took me a week to play Spot The Difference between SV and every other civilian colony.

1. Greetings always begin with ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’, out of respect for a senior officer, albeit retired.
2. There’s the distinct lack of bathroom slippers around you. That’s because they’re left where they should be- outside the bathroom, in the house.
3. Morning and evening walks are a ritual where, in classic army style, men will emerge in tiny, white shorts barely covering their strong, lean, 55-60 year old legs. But they will walk come rain or shine…with umbrellas if they have to.
4. Mealtimes are strictly followed.
5. Golf is a favorite sport.
6. When the sun sets, the whiskey emerges, accompanied by loud, rambunctious laughter.

I felt so much at ease within the vicinity of SV and its inhabitants. And safe. And curious. Because after the home, I was itching to know about its residents.

I continued badgering Maj. Gen. Suman. Found out he had overseen the construction of the blast site at Pokhara. During Indira Gandhi’s reign. 38 years of service later, here he was- a retired Army officer.

“It must be lonely now,” I nodded my head sympathetically.

“No!” came the emphatic reply. “I’m busier now than I was in the Army!”

“I write articles for the Indian Defence Review. I interact with the army through seminars; I give expert advice on my area of specialty; I train corporate heads and the Armed Forces about the procurement of weapons….” He paused for breath.

“I volunteered for 18 years as SV’s resident technical advisor. I now occasionally work as a private contractor to help people re-do their houses.” I was now subjecting Lt. Col. Joshi to the same question.

…and others.

“I read and write a lot now. Wrote two award winning children’s books,” Mrs. Joshi, widow of Pune’s Sub Area Commander, said proudly.

“Both my wife and I take care of stray animals now. We have the time. Did you know our colony’s dogs won’t let an outside dog in unless an existing member of the group dies?” Col. Sawalkar looked at me expectantly. I delicately swallowed.

“I attend neurosurgery sessions at Command Hospital….to keep abreast with changes in the field. I don’t practice anymore though. Oh, and I have to cycle 9-10km every day. Health conscious,” said 74 year old Maj. Gen. Biswas surreptitiously.

“…did I mention I go to Khandala for birdwatching?” I looked at him incredulously.

“I worked with the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre for 8 years after the Union Carbide blast. I offer my services as a doctor at an ashram now.” And Lt. Col. Correya didn’t look like she wanted to stop working…moving…anytime soon.

Qualifier- life post retirement isn’t all smooth sailing. If while on duty, your code of conduct is laid down by the Army Act, then retirement is opportunity enough for some to shed their coat of refinement for the drabbiness of mediocrity. Norms, etiquette, ethos are sorely lacking in the outside world. And where discipline in the Armed Forces is much touted, it also stunts creativity when it’s much needed. So much so that in his first job post retirement, Brig. Sathpathy didn’t speak beyond necessity for a month- in an effort to understand how civilians functioned without a code of conduct laid down!

And yet, my head was reeling with all this information. Whoever said old people, retired old people had a lonely or boring life was as off the mark as I often am in relationship advice.

It was time to dig deeper. I decided to commit journalistic heresy and try to elicit the answers I was looking for.

“What about your social life now?” I asked innocently. I knew the Armed Forces were legendary for their parties. “It must be a big change for you.”

They all agreed. The parties they had attended while in service were tough to reckon with. The memories of those giddy headed parties simmered for a minute longer, then came the avalanche of afterthought.

“There is a difference between then and now,” Brig. Deshpande, the Chairman of SV, sagely responded. “Having an active social life in the army was more out of custom. Now it’s a choice,” he said matter-of-factly. And he chose to have a more sedate life now.

“What didn’t we celebrate!” Lt. Col. Correya reveled in the memories. “Farewells, welcome parties, birthdays, promotions…”

“But I always knew that I was an officer first, lady second. No matter what my personal responsibilities were, I had to attend because I was in uniform. Now I enjoy entertaining for myself.”

And in SV, if it wasn’t new people you were meeting, atleast you had your batchmates or colleagues to have those pot luck dinners with. Or read the obituary board with. Or have tea-breaks with.

In fact, one such group of jovial, retired Army officers make it a point to meet atleast once, if not twice a day for their ritualistic tea routine at a cafĂ© within the colony. Believe it or not, they call themselves Panch Pyaare (The Lovable Five). Hey, I don’t know where my friends will be when I’m that age. I was humbled.

From living in the Maharaja of Travancore's palace to living in a hut in Arunachal Pradesh, from commanding a taskforce to being the rookie in a civilian job, from serving the nation to reminiscing about it now, everyone I had spoken to had been there and done that. In the style that was taught to them in the Army. Style which exalts characteristics like perseverance, discipline, secularism, punctuality and camaraderie. And it’s holding them in good stead. Because as Col. Sawalkar puts it, “The choice is simple…there’s the right way, there’s the wrong way and there’s the Army way.”

Two guesses on how the people at Salunke Vihar live their lives.