Saturday, September 19, 2015

Europe’s Migrant Crisis – Could This Be a Way Out?

Recently the world woke to the horrific sight of little Aylan Kurdi’s body washed ashore on a beach in Hungary. The unfortunate child was part of a Syrian family trying to escape the war in his country, in order to seek a better life abroad. The toddler’s fate pricked the collective conscience of the world, in particular that of Europe and we saw a sudden gush of emotion from EU member states, each scrambling to assuage their guilty feelings by opening doors wide.
At last count, Austria and Germany were ready to take in nearly 10000 refugees, while Scotland had offered a figure of 1000. The Finnish PM is reported to have offered his spare house to refugees while other European nations were still dragging their feet. The others would eventually, albeit grudgingly, take in refugees. But after that what?
The fact is, refugees or asylum seekers and immigrants have been trying to get into Europe for several months, even years, only the flow has increased of late. The writing on the wall was clear, however, other than seeking more funds and resources for Naval and Coast Guard patrols, there did not appear to have been a serious discussion on how to deal with the refugee problem. As it stands, the EU’s actions have now been overtaken by events and they have no option but to deal with the streams of humanity.
Under European Law, an immigrant has only to reach the shores of Europe after which he or she can apply for asylum from persecution at home. In fact, the Coast Guards of the EU’s Mediterranean countries are duty bound to rush to the rescue of a boat in distress. Greek Coast Guards have reported that boatloads of immigrants often take advantage of these laws by jettisoning the outboard motors of their small boats when within sight of Europe’s coast, knowing that sooner or later they would be spotted by patrols and towed to port after which they can commence the process of seeking asylum. Due to the ease with which movement can take place across EU states, it will be extremely difficult to keep track of the people once they enter Europe.
Germany and Austria have tried hard to project a secular and tolerant image through an effusive display of welcome and inclusion. On the other hand, it is well known that ethnic Europeans have long had a reputation for forming exclusive groups and perhaps even racist tendencies. That they are not particularly welcoming to non-EU immigrants is now established, according to a recent survey by Eurostat – the EU’s official statistics agency. According to reports, there have been large-scale conversions of Muslims to Christianity in Europe, which though voluntary, are being done to further strengthen their claims to EU citizenship, on the grounds that they would face persecution if sent home. In some countries, conversion by a Muslim to Christianity is punishable by death.
It would certainly be incorrect and unfair to doubt the good intentions of most European nations, who have indeed striven hard to help those in distress. Besides, those who have reached Europe must surely thank their Gods for the security and shelter provided them. However the reality of the future is yet to strike both immigrants and Europeans. According to Eurostat, unemployment figures in the EU and EA are around 9.6% and 11.1% respectively. These figures could change for the worse with large numbers of migrants entering various countries within short periods before European economies have a chance to correct themselves.
Already, the EU is showing signs of strain with various countries closing their borders to stem the flow of refugees, the largest since World War II. Hungary has closed her borders with Serbia, followed by Croatia’s closure of the Serbian border. Germany who till recently was striving to welcome refugees, has cut back on cash benefits, hastened plans for deportation and instead of housing benefits, a ticket back to the first country the refugees entered in Europe. The country of 81 million is expecting a refugee inflow of 800000. In other places, refugees are being interned in barbed wire enclosed camps designated for “aliens”.
The closure of Serbia’s borders with Hungary and Croatia has forced refugees into the forested areas of Bosnia where many uncleared landmines from the war remain, thereby increasing the risk for people fleeing from wars. Refugees are understandably reluctant to remain in Serbia, given the high unemployment figures in that part of Europe.
It does not take a great deal of intellect to see that there is a problem waiting to happen if this migration process remains unchecked. Will the host countries send the refugees back should peace return to their homelands? It is unlikely that any of the refugees would return even if asked to. Given the fact that Europe’s ethnic population is on the decline and that the two cultures are vastly different, two things could happen – the demographics of Europe stands to get altered and the possibility of clashes between the distinct ethnic groups becomes high. 
As more and more refugees move into new towns and cities in Europe, adjustment problems of religion, language, food and cultures are bound to surface. Given the unemployment figures, it will be difficult for the new residents to find jobs immediately, leading to a feeling of disparity among the newcomers and resentment among the local population on account of the additional financial burden that is bound to be imposed on them from increased taxes. Civic amenities like hospitals and law enforcement agencies will immediately feel the strain with the sudden increase in population. The possibility of terrorists sneaking in, under the garb of asylum seekers, also increases exponentially, another reason for the host nations to view applications for asylum under a magnifying lens, leading to a further feeling of alienation.
If one looks at the motivating factors for migration, the most common ones are: poverty, lack of jobs / opportunity, persecution on religious / ethnic grounds and war. It would not be incorrect to say that the worst sufferers are usually the poorest. As an extension, one can assume that poverty is possibly the chief factor of migration, for it is this that is compelling thousands of Syrians, Somalis, Libyans, Ethiopians, Senegalese, Bangla Deshis and others to leave their homes in search of a better way of life. If this could be addressed by giving migrants the possibility of reasonably well paying jobs and a decent quality of life in other countries, the stream of refugees into Europe could well be stemmed.
It is here that the prosperous Islamic nations have to play their part in improving the socio-economic conditions of poorer nations in Asia and Africa. It is time that the wealthier Islamic nations reached out to the impoverished and war torn countries of Africa and the Middle East with schemes of employment. Consider that there is a nearly year round requirement of construction workers in Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and other Gulf countries, as well as, a requirement of skilled tradesmen like carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, drivers etc. With Qatar making a bid for the Olympics, there is a great deal of construction and related activity that would require large amounts of manpower. The Arab nations need to consider helping out by employing their poor brethren on these sites.
The European nations, could play a complementary role by setting up technical training and educational institutes in the Mediterranean littoral states of Africa and Asia in order to train personnel for employment in the Gulf and other Arab nations. The money earned could be plowed back to their home countries where it would raise the standard of living in much the same way as the Gulf boom helped thousands of Indians and other workers. The EU could even consider employing people from their former colonies as contract policemen and soldiers in much the same way as Britain employs Gurkhas from Nepal.
It is nobody’s case that this is an ideal or even the only solution, however unless European leaders start thinking out of the box on methods to resolve the current crisis and prevent future ones, the world is likely to see greater problems developing. Europe and the wealthy Arab nations have to work together to resolve each other’s problems.

A Revelation - My Eureka Moment

Way back in 82 or 83, a lecture on Transcendental Meditation by the great Swami Chinmayananda ji was organised at Shivaji. As young officers we were naturally detailed to attend. The Swami ji was a good orator and set about explaining the meaning of TM. He said "TM means simply doing nothing. Just relax! Let your mind free to wander".
My brain which had normally only two speeds, slow and stop, and was dreamily idling along, suddenly went into high gear as something familiar was recognised by some long dormant neuron.
That was my Aha moment. It suddenly struck me that I must be something of an expert in TM as I had indeed been doing nothing for years, the foundation of which had been laid no doubt in Class IV (Non Tech) and Kilo Squadron. It helped in Kilo to be completely spaced out as one went through various F*** fall-ins.
In fact my wandering mind helped so much that without giving it too much thought, I wandered dreamily into the Tech branches in Service despite the honest efforts of several Arts instructors in NDA. 
I guess the Gods of the Navy also needed something to amuse themselves as I carried on airily.
I continued to build up my expertise in TM as I went along through Service, letting my mind wander as the aforesaid celestial bodies continued to amuse themselves. Coming to think of it, maybe thats why they taught us Astro Navigation in NDA, so that whenever things went wrong we could always pass the blame on to Rigel, Deneb, Arcturus, Sirius, Vega or one of the other stars in much the same way as seasoned astrologers blame Rahu and Ketu for the resident ills.
As for getting out of unforeseen trouble, a repetitive pattern of run-ins with resident aspirants for the title of Tinpot Dictator led to a discovery - that no problem lasted more than 3 to 4 days till the next storm broke and one merely had to stay out of sight for that period for things to soothe themselves out.
I also learned a few more truths along the way - to remain out of sight as long as possible and when unavoidable to look busy, that a closed mouth and a blank expression worked better than a moving mouth and the Keen Kumar look. 
Most of all, I learned the following about my buddies:
(a) To let Sunil Jain do the talking, thinking and decision making without butting in. He continued without stopping in any case and did a good job of everything
(b) To let Akshai Malhotra do the sorting-out of others and smile appreciatively at his carvings and artistic aspirations, after which one could get work out of him
(c) To take all precautions and avoid coming under the influence of Rangarajan. Anyone who wanted Ranga to do something ended up doing it himself thinking that Ranga was doing it
(d) To let Anand Sonsale do the job. He did it better anyway
(e) To allow Vivek Chawla his share of grumbling without interruption. Because thereafter he did whatever you wanted
(f) To agree with Sabyasachi Sarkar's views on life, politics, society etc. There was no point disagreeing because you couldn't win any argument with him
(g) That it wasn't difficult to convince Chalapati to plan outings, picnics etc and make superb upma at the same time
My wife of course knew how to get the better of my shooting stars and soon enough began to prefix and suffix every statement with the line, "Are You Listening?" and "Have you heard?". Naturally my otherwise slow moving brain soon got hard-wired to recognise those phrases and to prod my head to nod vigorously thereafter, while simultaneously sending a FLASH signal "Jaise The" to my mouth. 
Suited me just fine anyway, to let others do the talking.
In fact today I often wonder, how I ever got here. The answer - you guessed it, TM in my own style.
(With due respects and apologies to Swami Chinmayananda ji and all my instructors, seniors, juniors, coursemates and everyone else who had sleepless nights on my account)
Teachers' Day
It is customary to honour one's teachers on 5th September every year, for they play such an important part in shaping lives, attitudes and perceptions of young people.
I would therefore like to attempt to recount as many names as I can:
The earliest teacher I can recall was Mrs Fullinfaw who ran the school in faraway Balasore in the early 60s. Balasore was where my father was posted and as there was no school, Mrs Fullinfaw volunteered to teach the dozen or so kids of various ages. She was assisted by her mother or mother-in-law, a rather daunting lady, and her three children Michael, Valerie-Ann and Nigel who were tasked with various chores in addition to spellings, tables and sums. I don't know if she ever got paid for her exertions, or whether she was a qualified teacher at all. However no one complained, since everyone agreed that Anglo-Indians were great teachers and the Mums were only too glad to get the brats off their hands for a couple of hours each morning. Maj and Mrs Fullinfaw later migrated to Australia.
The next teacher I remember vividly was Mrs Lunn in Mount St Mary's Delhi Cantt. She tried hard to slap some maths into me, without much effect. I was too frightened of her to remember anything else and preferred turning the page of my maths notebook over the last lesson, till some twerp snitched on me. Then there was Miss Victor in my next school, St Xavier's, a nice enough lady, but I was a hopeless case in maths and an assortment of beastly kids in class didn't make my life any easier.
We moved to Poona in '68 and I began to enjoy school for the first time, in St Vincents. Those teachers were the kinds that aren't made any more - Mrs D'silva, Mrs D'lima, Mrs Coutinho, Mrs Sundarjee and so many other names now fading from memory; the legendary Fr Oesch who could teach us anything from German, to Physics to the correct technique of Pole Vault; the great Fr Romauld D'souza, who went on to set up XLRI. I caught up with this amazing and dedicated Jesuit years later when posted in Goa, where he was leading a retired life while providing a guiding hand to the Goa Institute of management. 
My father retired from service in '72 and I shifted school for the last time to Loyola, Poona. Loyola had been set up by that immortal Jesuit, Fr R Schoch, and as anyone who has known him will vouch, it was a privilege to study there while he was principal. A most well read and far sighted person who could understand the pulse of people, who could speak on virtually any subject, while keeping his audience riveted - I doubt if there will ever be anyone like him. 
Fr Schoch had the unique quality of inspiring everyone around him - teachers and students alike, he mixed freely with boys encouraging even the shyest to open up. He had clear ideas on what was needed to develop young boys into responsible men and he lived by the school motto, "Men For Others".
The teachers of Loyola lived up to their chief equally well - Fr Clement, Fr Catao, Mrs Gonsalves, Mr Teranikar, Mr Contractor, Mr Swamy, Mr Mahamuni, and many other faces that remain vivid, while the names have escaped.
As I moved into college, there was the teacher of the Maths coaching class attended by Sharad Sohoni, Sanjay Shirole, Nitin Shirole and myself. I was certainly the weakest, but that elderly dhoti clad bare-foot man using only a roll down black sheet as a board, certainly knew how to teach. I have completely forgotten his name as we only referred to him as "Mhatarya" (Marathi for old man). For the first time ever, I began to understand and enjoy Maths. To him I owe my eternal thanks.
Having joined the academy, teachers came to be known as instructors and while they came and went, no cadet can ever forget the Drill 'Ustads'. How can any one who was at the academy during 1977 - 80, ever forget Sub Maj Guman Singh of the Grenadiers. His voice could carry right across the drill square and his inspiring speeches of just the right length and at just the precise moment to revive tired cadets were the stuff that could easily match the speeches of Col Nathan R Jessep (Jack Nicholson - A Few Good Men) and Sgt Emil Foley (Louis Gosset Jr - An Officer and A Gentleman).
One learns important lessons of life from others as well - parents, friends, seniors, juniors and even rank strangers. From the good bosses one learns good things, while from the rest one learns the difference between right and wrong.
I learnt an important lesson of life from a complete stranger, an auto rickshaw driver - I pulled out money to pay him, but he didn't have change. I rudely told him, in the manner of a brash young officer, that it was not my problem. He looked me in the eye and calmly said, "You look educated, now learn to speak with respect as well" and drove off, leaving me clutching the money.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Insurgency On The High Seas
The word pirate has this misleading habit of conjuring up illusions of a colorful character perhaps even a lovable rogue with a salty tongue and a jaunty air. The International Maritime Board (IMB), however dryly defines piracy as the act of boarding any vessel with intent to commit theft or any other crime and intent to use force for the same.
Although piracy on the high seas has been around for centuries, it reduced drastically during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries due to increased patrolling by naval ships, introduction of legislative measures and better administration of islands and ports.
The resurgence of piracy in the late 20th century coincides with a worldwide reduction in naval fleets along with a corresponding increase in mercantile shipping. Naval ships are expensive to maintain and operate and require support bases located in the general area of interest, with a continuous military presence, all of which became politically and economically unviable in the post-colonial world. The reasons for the emergence of insurgent groups are the same all over the world. Exit of colonial powers from underdeveloped countries, leaving behind a poor political and administrative system ill equipped to compete on a global level, the entry of vested interests and the emergence of power factions armed with weapons funded by multinational corporations seeking to exploit natural resources leading to civil strife and a breakdown of law and order.
Somalia’s is a classic case where sea-pirates run virtually unchecked in the absence of any form of governmental control. Civil war has raged for twenty years and the federal government controls only a small part of territory around the capital while the coastal regions remain autonomous. Already poor and war torn, the region suffers from repeated droughts. Tagged as a failed state, the fact remains that Somalia has the longest coastline in Africa and sits at a strategic position dominating the entry into the Indian Ocean from the Gulf of Aden. The absence of a Somali navy or Coast Guard has reportedly been exploited by European firms to dump toxic wastes, effectively killing off the livelihood of local fishermen. Elsewhere, foreign fishing vessels have illegally harvested the locals’ fishing grounds. Initially grouped together to fight off illegal foreign trawlers, the fishermen, who included former soldiers, soon found an easier catch, the large numbers of slow moving, unguarded merchant vessels carrying high value cargo and passing fairly near their coast. Justifying their attacks as retribution for illegal dumping and stolen fish, they also soon discovered that ship owners were more than willing to pay for the release of their crew and cargo and that piracy was far more lucrative than fishing.
According to the Piracy Reporting Centre of the IMB, out of 346 attacks reported worldwide, 194 have occurred near Somalia. As on date there are 15 vessels and 277 hostages held by pirates awaiting payment of ransom.
Although naval forces from various countries have been deployed off the Horn of Africa (HOA), for the last three years, their presence has had only partial success. There is no doubt that naval ships have been successful in disrupting pirate attacks and have escorted many merchant ships to safety. Naval Special Forces deployed in the area have successfully rescued crew members from pirates, capturing a number of pirates in the process, who have been sent to jails in the captors’ countries. However their success in extracting ransom payments for captured ships has ensured that pirate gangs are never short of recruits. That the pirates have begun to see themselves in a patriotic mould is evident from names like National Volunteer Coast Guard and Somali Patriotic Movement adopted by pirate gangs.
Arming of merchant ships and other defensive measures like travelling in convoys has been debated at length, however the discussion has been complicated by the fact that a large number of ships fly flags of convenience to circumvent the regulations of the owner’s country and any political consensus on security is usually defeated, though it is reported that recently some such flag states have agreed on certain measures. The fact that even large merchant ships are sparsely manned and are unable to maintain continuous all round vigil, has further emboldened pirates to attack with impunity.
Owners of ships carrying inflammable or dangerous cargo have been understandably reluctant to allow armed guards on board due to the inherent risks involved with gunfire. There is also the issue of the effectiveness of one or two guards armed with rifles pitted against a number of pirates in speedboats armed with heavier weapons like rocket launchers that can punch a hole in a ship’s side. Arming of merchant ships always runs the risk of pirates raising the levels of violence which merchant ships will not be able to match. Further, there are legal issues involved in carrying automatic and military pattern weapons in the territorial waters of nations that do not permit them. The recent killing of Indian fishermen off the coast of Kerala, involving the Italian marines posted on board MV Enrico Lexie as anti-piracy guards, brought in another dimension of legal propriety, diplomacy and international relations, into an already complex situation.
Recent incidents of piracy have shown that Somali pirates are moving farther afield, away from their home coast right up to the Lakshadweep Islands. This could be an indication of the pressure applied by increased naval patrolling off the HOA, or could be increased boldness on their part. Either way, these actions spell trouble for India since interrogation of captured pirates has indicated a tie-up between the Somali Al Shabab militia and the LeT. There is also evidence that pirates have links with the Al Qaida. India’s stakes in the Offshore Development Areas in the Indian Ocean are extremely high and we can ill afford to let down our guard.
If we attempt to do the math, we shall see that the numbers keep piling up. Piracy has pushed up the cost of insurance premium for cargo transiting piracy prone areas. Merchant ships are forced to hire extra crew members to do lookout duty in their hitherto ignored stern sectors. Some have been forced to hire armed private security guards. Increased naval patrolling has driven up the operating costs of navies who have also been compelled to acquire additional craft to replace those now almost permanently engaged in anti-piracy patrols. And still, all this is not enough.
The oceans of the world are simply too vast, the assets requiring protection far too many and widely dispersed, while the resources available at the disposal of governments are simply too few. Then there are the complex legal issues involved with providing security, for instance, for a ship that flies a flag of one nation, has an owner from another, carries a cargo exported by a third nation, bound for yet another country and manned by a crew that could be a mix of various nationalities. There is also the issue of disposal of captured pirates. The question of what is to be done with suspected pirates who may be observed at sea, but not actually engaged in acts of piracy, begs answering.
Although Somalia has reportedly permitted navies of some countries, including India, to enter their territorial waters in pursuit of pirates, most countries shy away from taking direct action within another country’s jurisdiction for fear of collateral casualties and thereafter getting involved in lawsuits and that country’s issues. Most countries would rather avoid the hostile tag that would almost certainly be applied to them, following their killing of another country’s citizens on their soil, in the course of what would probably be short term gains, since it opens up their own civilians to reprisal attacks.
The similarity between piracy off the Horn of Africa and the Naxal problem in India is startling. Both are the result of economic exploitation of the peasantry. Police action in both cases has not been effective. Both groups see themselves in a righteous, ideological light and both have the potential for linking up with terrorist groups. Importantly, both prey on transport vehicles plying highways, albeit of different kinds. The solutions in one case may therefore also provide lessons for the other.
In an increasingly commercially driven world, where the thirst for energy products has forced countries to depend on ships plying extended supply routes, nations are forced to regard the demands of pirates as mere operating costs. Therefore while to some, piracy may appear to warrant military action, other countries lacking military wherewithal may simply work out a monetary arrangement. A lasting solution is however far more complex and lies somewhere between naval patrols, punitive legislative action, economic aid, enforcing respect for the territorial integrity and rights of a nation unable to do so and political and administrative strengthening of one of the most impoverished and dangerous nations on earth. This is easier said than done as the United Nations would have to display consensus and unity in action to a degree higher than seen lately. Till then there is no option but to continue with naval patrols over vast stretches of ocean.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Living In Trunks And Trucks

               “Oh, Shikha’s been transferred to Vizag a month ago”, replied my teenage daughter in response to my query on the whereabouts of her friend. It didn’t matter to her that it was her friend’s father who had been transferred, and that his daughter was merely accompanying him. As far as she was concerned, Shikha had been transferred and that was that, while she returned to the animated conversation with her mobile phone, clearly demonstrating an early capability of multitasking.
               To a dyed in wool fauji like me who has spent a lifetime in and around the service, as a child transfers offered great excitement – something to brag about to the boy who was always first in class and who knew just about everything that existed in the universe of small boys. Then there was the excitement of watching a house being slowly dismantled and put away into black boxes, farewell parties with plenty of attention lavished on me, and finally, the pinnacle of fun, the train journey.
               I recall the very first posting, when as a four year old, I accompanied my parents from Balasore to Delhi. In my four year old mind, the words ‘posting’ and ‘Delhi’ were synonymous and I assumed that all postings were to Delhi, and Delhi was just another name for posting. On that last day, as usual I hopped into the jeep onto my usual perch and was a little puzzled when someone asked me to sit at the back while a few more than the usual people accompanied us. In the early sixties, Balasore was a sleepy little town and the departure of the army’s station commander was a major event, for the entire population of the town along with their cousins appeared to have turned out, and there were crowds lining the road all the way from the house to the station. Of course I had no idea how the luggage and our dog reached Delhi.
               A few years later, we were ready for another transfer, this time to Pune, or Poona, as it was called then. Once again the excitement mounted, though this time it originated from the fact that I would be leaving that horrid school, where I had found myself to be the focused object of scolding by teachers and bullying by other boys. Besides, this time I was determined to be part of the action during the packing process, and demanded my share of responsibilities. My older siblings instead sent me packing, with “Buzz off” and “Go do your homework” being some of their more polite remarks.
               Eventually, to get me out of the way, I was given an old trunk and told to pack my toys and books. I went about it in due earnest and having carefully put away all my worldly treasures, I labeled it TOYS with my name scrawled on a page torn from a school-book that I hoped I would no longer need. For good measure, I added my class, name of the school and age. Lest someone hadn’t got the point, I added “Handle With Care” and “This Side Up”. Having duly considered the possible threat posed to the household by the presence of my air-gun pellets inside the trunk, I further added “Explosives”. With that, I was ready to move.
               In those days, for long journeys, officers usually hired special railway wagons called EVKs to transport their household effects. I stood in open-mouthed fascination in the railway yard as I watched our boxes being loaded into the wagon and expertly tied into place behind a net of ropes. I didn’t quite understand why the car was also driven in, till the doors of the wagon closed and my father explained that it was also being transported to Pune by train. The older siblings didn’t deem it fit to explain why we couldn’t just drive down to Pune.
               However the biggest surprise of the transfer was yet to come and I was secretly glad that both my older brother and sister would be coming separately. This time we travelled not by train, but by air. It was immensely exciting as we boarded the Caravelle and I accompanied the stewardess to the cockpit for a visit. In those days there were no direct flights from Delhi to Poona and one had to change at Bombay into a four-engine prop driven Viscount for the shorter leg of the journey. Those two flights remained my first ever air journey for many years, till I joined service and hesitantly took my next flight.
               Having donned the uniform, transfers soon became a by-word and the process began to fall into a routine. However as I had probably slept through or skipped the class on transfer allowances and procedures, I remained blissfully unaware of the nuances of baggage allowance, railway warrants and other such mysteries till I learned the hard way. Like all young officers, for many years my most important piece of luggage remained my steed, my trusty bike, and I spared absolutely no effort to ensure that it was properly packed, so that it received not one scratch during the various journeys between stations. My uniforms and personal effects packed into suitcases were a different matter and I usually ended up paying extra as my warrant and ticket was always missing that one crucial entry that entitled me to carry my luggage at the government’s expense.
               With time the dawn of wisdom began to break over me as my wife and I gradually began to put our own nest together, and we learned to carefully preserve the cartons of the items that we so painstakingly collected. The mixer, the toaster, the crystal animal farm that adorned our drawing room, all had their original cartons, which were indispensible when it was time to pack again for the next move.
               When I was younger, I found myself moving every eighteen months. The exercise of transfer began a couple of months in advance of D-day, usually with a muster of locks and keys. Locks were oiled and matched with keys, invariably there were locks that remained locked forever, that were inevitably consigned to the dustbin as neither of us had the patience to find a locksmith. Not long ago, while shopping at the market in Vasco, Goa, the shopkeeper asked me if I was under transfer. When I looked up surprised and asked him how he knew, he replied with a smile that since I was buying a number of identical locks, I was obviously moving, as this was standard practice before a transfer.
               Next came box inspection. Boxes and trunks would be aired in bright sunlight and the resident roaches and other wildlife evicted. It helped to have a fully loaded can of potent insect spray at hand with the memsahib at a safe distance, when opening boxes, as the resident insect population was likely to get agitated at the untimely disturbance. It was also quite normal to discover some long lost teapot or that missing china plate when boxes were reopened towards the end of a tenure. Boxes laid out open in the sun were another giveaway of an impending transfer. So much for confidentiality of transfers.
               Boxes and trunks would then be given a fresh coat of paint, usually black, but any available color would do. At one stage, I had a virtual palette of colors as among the blacks there were a few boxes in ship-side grey, pale-cream yellow, olive green, metallic silver trunks and even oxide brown depending on where I had been posted when the box was acquired. Stencils would be cut with the latest rank and destination duly dabbed on with white paint.
               Boxes would be assigned duties to the drawing room, the dining room, kitchen and so on depending on their capabilities in the same manner as assigning guard duties to troops. Experience is a great teacher and I learned that it were best if one immediately replaced the empty cartons into the boxes after unpacking, so that before the next transfer, the items could go back into the same box. My skill at jigsaw puzzles improved as I juggled cartons into various boxes in different combinations. By then I was a seasoned packer capable of offering my services to any logistics company.
               Invariably, after each tenure the number of boxes fell short and one had to acquire a few more, which meant it was time to go shopping for boxes and trunks. Long before packers and movers introduced the delights of foldable cardboard cartons to the nomadic fauji population, we had discovered the virtues of empty cartons of 555 cigarettes for packing miscellaneous items. Those sturdy cartons, having discharged their consignments found their way to households on the brink of a move. One had to reserve these indispensible cartons with the canteen manager well in advance, and keep the canteen officer in good humour till he handed over those precious items. Such was the demand, that I found myself receiving requests from army and air force coursemates posted as far afield as Siliguri, for a half dozen of those versatile containers, to be sent through someone moving in that direction. At one stage I even mulled setting up a black market of cartons, much like the character Milo Minderbinder, in the book Catch 22, wherein I imagined myself supplying cartons even to the Pakis using PAF planes that had my initials emblazoned on their tails. While Milo in the book had a few generals on his payrolls, I on the other hand, would have been content to have a couple of nasty Commanders working under me.
               There were boxes that had been with us so long that they were practically family, some even had names – there was ‘Big Russian’, a box that had once contained spares from that country, while one that had accompanied my better half as a new bride was simply named ‘Square Ambala’, and a longish trunk that had never been painted became ‘Long John Silver’. Quite easily the box with a mind of its own was one simply named ‘Idiot Box’. This was a large and sturdy wooden box that had seen service on both fronts and had accompanied its previous owner to high altitude areas as well. One look at the box would have been enough to convince anyone of the aptness of its name. It was probably built by a carpenter with more than his share of ‘desi’ inside him. The wood used was of varying thicknesses and types much like a street dog of doubtful ancestry. It’s handles were improperly fitted which made it difficult for loaders to heft. Its lid would not close completely and its two latches were both different. The latches had a tendency to fly apart, as happened when it was being loaded into a truck. Fortunately the quick thinking truck driver nailed it shut. It had been passed on to us by a friend of my father-in-law, a senior army officer, before our first transfer. He gave it to us feeling sorry for my better half, who was his daughter’s age, as he sadly asked, “Who asked you to get married into the Navy, when there are so many fine boys in the army?”
               There were boxes of all types, shapes and sizes. Those who had access to wood and carpenters proudly got a box made for the fridge. This was no ordinary box. In fact, as it guaranteed the safety and security of the family’s bread and butter, a great deal of technical thought and design effort was devoted to it. The wood and ply would be personally chosen by the owner, who would also approve the dimensions, keeping in mind not only the outer dimensions of the fridge carton, but also those of the next fridge, the memsahib had set her sights on. Then there was a box to transport that pride and joy of all middle class families, the television. However opinions were divided into two camps – those who sent their TV along with the rest of the luggage by road, and, those who preferred to personally carry their precious cargo by car or train. The pros and cons of both methods were the topic of fiery debates in parties, particularly after a couple of drinks, with both sides including the ladies ready to do battle on a matter of principle.
               Closer to D Day, a search would be conducted for a suitable transporter. During the transfer season in March - May every year, one would be deluged by flyers, calendars, stickers, posters, business cards and personal house visits of reps of transport companies. Quotations would be obtained, reps interviewed, telephone numbers verified and references checked. One had to be careful as nearly everyone had a horror story to relate of missing luggage, of trucks stalled in the middle of nowhere or other damage with the truck agency untraceable at that crucial time.
               In those days, truckers were a tough macho breed, with fierce upturned moustaches and intimidating stares. The rep usually a grey haired, grizzled old man, dressed in regulation kurta pyjama with a towel over his left shoulder, would saunter through the house inspecting your worldly possessions, much to the disapproval of the maid servant. He would then do a set of mental gymnastics to arrive at a price for transporting the luggage. The quoted price depended upon the amount of crystal in your drawing room, the size and make of your fridge, whether you had a color or black & white TV, and whether you had furniture. Thereafter would follow some fervent haggling over the price. If you negotiated too low, the veteran roadie would stubbornly demand that the amount be paid upfront. On the other hand, if you allowed him to have his way, you were in for a shocker from the CDA later. The price having been fixed, the trucker would conspiratorially call you aside and indicate the sign of a bottle with a huge gnarled fist and thumb. This was the signal when you were then expected to part with a bottle of rum to seal the deal.
               In the old days, when one didn’t have enough luggage to fill an entire truck, one looked for someone to share a truck with, not so much to save on costs, but because it was a given fact that the trucker would use the vacant space to load additional cargo. While moving from Jamnagar to Bombay, I had no option but to ask the trucker to give me half a truck space as there was no one to share with. He agreed to my request to load the other cargo first. When it arrived, I expected to see a truck with boxes of the other load piled in the forward portion of the truck, but I was in for a surprise as I was sharing a truck with a consignment of salt that occupied the entire cargo space to a depth of two or three feet. He cheerfully explained that my luggage would be loaded over the salt and that it would in fact cushion my things. As we were to leave by train the next day and there seemed no option, I agreed. The truck having been loaded, I crossed my toes as well as my fingers while the memsahib glowered crossly at me. Early the next morning, the phone rang. It was the helper I had sent with the truck, calling to say that the truck had stalled. I froze, with visions of my things lying scattered on some desolate stretch of road. When he explained that the truck hadn’t left Jamnagar at all and had actually not gone beyond the trucker’s office, I felt somewhat relieved but quickly got on my scooter to reach his premises. There I found all my worldly possessions stacked nearby, while workmen were busy transferring the salt to the next truck. Eventually, everything was safely loaded onto the new truck and made it to Bombay without further adventures. But that was one heart stopping moment.
               Packing in remote stations, was done by a combination of sahib, memsahib, maid and anyone else who could be drafted in, with yours truly being the chief packer. The trucking companies were far too masculine to do effeminate jobs like packing. That was for the wimps. Luckily, all those days of staring open mouthed at the packers in my parents’ home in Balasore were now beginning to pay off. I became something of an expert in winding hessian cloth around my things, having cut my teeth as a young officer on packing my beloved bike. I could wield the large needle called a sooa with jute string, like a sword. In the larger cities like Bombay, we had the benefit of the ‘bajrang dal’, an epithet given to a group of maids’ husbands who had been trained by an enterprising man to pack officers’ luggage. Since this gentleman usually wore a traditional outfit complete with Gandhi topi, the name of the group stuck. I believe he still operates in Mumbai.
               As one grew older and the number of pieces increased with a sofa set and other furniture added in the course of our nomadic life, the weight slowly began to shift to the other foot. It was the trucker’s turn to get intimidated under the confident, steely eyed gaze of the memsahib seated comfortably on the sofa while he shuffled around uncertainly. Needless to say, he wouldn’t dare to mention the word ‘rum’. In due course, the ‘trucking only’ companies began to give way to packers and movers and hessian cloth was replaced by corrugated cardboard sheet, bubble wrap and cling film. My favored weapon, the sooa has was rendered obsolete by ducting tape. Moreover, I don’t think anyone makes fridge crates anymore, reams of corrugated sheet and thermocol are just as good. Above all, the macho truckers’ reps with their earthy and big-hearted ways and names like Om Pal and Dharam Singh have given way to smooth faced, English speaking, tie clad youngsters with business cards that read names like Nitin and Sachin. 
However, the ethos and excitement of transfers remains the same.