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For a little boy in a remote village on the border, it became a symbol of empowerment

When Aaditya, my son, was in primary school, we would have a big discussion every time he was invited to a birthday party. What gift to buy?

I would start by asking, “Why not gift her a toothbrush?” Aaditya would convey in all possible ways that he was shocked. He would beseech me to become serious and suggest something useful.

Experience had taught me that no suggestion from my side was welcome. He would have something in his mind and was merely expecting it to come out of my mouth. For him, the purpose of the gift was clear. It was something which he could play with or use whenever he visited that friend. It was not his concern if the gift was of any use to the recipient.

Years later, as an adult, he asked me one day, “Appa, why did you always suggest a toothbrush for a birthday gift?”

“Because a toothbrush was a symbol of empowerment and success for a child many years ago,” I replied.

In one of the isolated forward areas that I had the opportunity to serve, there was nothing other than a cluster of 15 to 20 huts with 10 to 12 children. It was heartening to see that though most of the parents were barely literate, every child of school-going age was enrolled in a government school almost 5 km away. During my interaction with the elders, on learning about the difficulties faced by the schoolchildren in studies, I offered to help.

Most regular among the children who then started attending the “captain’s classes”, as they started calling it (I was then a Captain), was 10-year-old Robin. He was the most gifted of the lot.

Honestly, other than correct his English, I did not have to teach him much. His grades in school were satisfactory. All that I had to do was give him a boost of confidence and he began to sparkle. Soon, I started using him as a teacher for the younger children. This helped him blossom further and allowed the young ones to assimilate their lessons in their mother tongue.

A luxury

Robin had a disarming smile. He was never conscious of his stained teeth. When I commented on his dental hygiene, he became serious.

That is when I learnt that what we took for granted was then a luxury in those parts. I bought a toothbrush, toothpaste and a tongue cleaner for him. He was overjoyed.

He told me that he had seen them being used by someone in a nearby village and had always longed for these. On his request, I had to give him a demonstration on their use. I stressed on him the importance of oral hygiene. To say that he was thereafter imbued with new-found confidence would be an understatement.

One day, he confided in me in all seriousness and innocence, “Some day, I will go out from here and study in a big college. I want to bring prosperity to my village. After all, I am lucky to get an education. After all, I am lucky to be brushing my teeth.” That is when I realised how much the toothbrush meant for him.

Till the time I moved out from there, I would guide him on the path to follow to fulfil his dreams.

Then, I would receive letters from Robin every few months. It was easy to discern that he was making good scholastic progress.

One day, a few years later, when I was posted in Delhi, a strapping young lad walked into my office. Robin it was, the toothy smile gave him away, though he was quite tall and muscular now. He had got admission in one of the top colleges of the country, located in Delhi.

We talked about his younger days and about the “captain’s classes”. I teased him about the toothbrush. Suddenly, he became emotional. He said, “Uncle, for me it was no laughing matter. For me, the toothbrush was empowerment.”


When it comes to evaluating information on social media, even the educated are easily duped

The Internet gives access to a vast trove of data, both necessary and unnecessary. A surfer gets information posted by anonymous people who, uninhibited by the fear of law, post anything and escape the consequences.

As Web pages are susceptible to accidental or deliberate alteration, there is little possibility of finding if the information is valid, doctored, morphed or just a figment of the imagination of the hidden author.

Free services that allow encrypted messages, which are easy to access and forward, are the order of the day. Not a day passes without some text, photo or video, often modified to suit the taste of the creator, landing on our mobile phones. This unchecked way of information-sharing often tends to create scandals of mind-boggling proportions. Luckily, most of these scandals have a short shelf life. The importance of the message withers0 away when new information takes its place in quick succession.

Fake news is now a mounting problem as fraudsters and anti-social elements use social media platforms to target people. Factual news is increasingly getting buried in an avalanche of incorrect information with potential to create rifts between communities, castes and religions. An incident of little significance taking place in an isolated area can easily be showcased as sensational news.

Fact checking

Testing the accuracy of the received information is a hard task. Factual information should reveal details of the author and those responsible for the truthfulness of the content. These should be available for verification by independent questioning. The credibility of information depends on evidence. When there is insufficient material to verify the legitimacy of information, doubts arise about its veracity. The origin and the time of delivery of information received in cyberspace cannot be ascertained easily to make proper conclusions.

Combating the information overflow is a daunting task for ordinary citizens. What and what not to trust are never-ending questions that defy easy answers. Faced with a shower of information, the audience at best, ignores it and at worst, believes it all.

Safeguarding information from falling into the wrong hands is becoming increasingly difficult, making it susceptible to modifications. When it comes to evaluating information on social media channels, even the educated are easily duped.

Our education system should be attuned to preventing young minds from falling prey to this deluge. Regular practice of reading, analysing and evaluating information may be the best defence against sinking into misinformation bogs. It is not unusual to see young minds taking extreme decisions and falling prey to the social media circus.

Students in schools and colleges should be given regular opportunities to think about, and evaluate, information harvested from a variety of sources, to learn to recognise their own vulnerabilities to disinformation, and to look beyond sources that reinforce their beliefs.

Unlike in the case of conventional crimes, the criminal characteristics of those who use communication tools to spread false news are not readily definable. The creators and victims of false news could be from any strata of society. Agonising for a prolonged period of time over doctored news and images will take one nowhere, except succeeding in the author’s intention of causing harm.

The personal information available in different social media and Web platforms are a treasure trove waiting to be harvested for nefarious activities. Children get a rap for sharing too much information online, but adults are no better when it comes to online privacy. When in doubt, share less.

Persons and groups authoring malicious news are not restricted by State or national boundaries. The culprit, concealing his identity, may live in any part of the planet. This makes combating the information deluge a challenging task, both for the police and the public.



As Chandrayaan -2 prepares to land on the moon, I am taken back nearly 60 years when our grandma at Pilimandori village in Haryana used to sing us a lullaby: Chandamama door ke/ pue pakaye poor ke/ aap khaye thali mein/ munne ko de pyali mein/ pyali gayi toot munna gaya rooth.

It was a simple, idyllic life, and the moon and stars played a stellar role as we played at night.

Kabaddi matches would be held on moonlit nights. We would prepare the ground on soft sand and select our teams from the mohallas.

This was also the time to enjoy wrestling by night, with the shining moon being our main source of light.

As a child, I often slept in our fields at night, to guard the crops from stray animals. With my cot in the centre of a swaying wheat or bajra crop and an irrigation water channel running by, it used to be heavenly with the cool breeze and hot milk.

Our grandma had told us a number of mythological stories about the sky and the solar system. “Dadi, what is that dark figure on the moon?” “It’s a grandma spinning charkha,” she would say.

I would ask my brother about the galaxy and the pole star. While he used to explain to me the method to spot the pole star, I would suddenly notice a shooting star and shriek with joy.

In the Army, in our younger days, when there was no GPS or cellphone, navigation by stars and the moon used to be taught to us. During the exercise Brass Tacks in 1987, one night we covered over 70 km using just our compass and the sky, and we hit the target spot on.

During winters in Leh, the temperature reaches minus-20 to -30 degrees Celsius. Still, I would go out of my room and walk through the snow, just to see the moon.


When birding runs in the family, watching winged beauties is not just a pastime

“Patti, did you see any bird?” shouted my seven-year-old grandson, Tanuj, as I returned from a morning walk in the Law Garden in Ahmedabad. “Yes, I saw woodpeckers. They were shrieking loudly and spiralled up a tree trunk.”

Tanuj persisted: “What sort of woodpeckers were they?” I mentioned a few features that I had noticed. “Their back was of a golden colour, they had a red crest, black and white stripes on their head.”

Tanuj ran to get his mother’s Salim Ali book. He swiftly turned to the colour plates, and announced that what I saw was a golden-backed woodpecker.

He needed more information to know if it was a common, lesser or greater golden-backed woodpecker. Unable to describe further, I showed him the pictures that I had taken with my smartphone. Since the middle white stripe had gone all the way to the bird’s belly, he concluded that it was the lesser golden-backed woodpecker.

Tanuj wanted to help me identify the other two as well. He drew side profiles of the head and neck of three woodpeckers, asking me to focus only on those parts. He put a red crest in all of them, but the head and neck differed in the three profiles — four alternate bands of black and white in the common golden-backed, three bands in the lesser golden-backed and a long central white band and three short bands in the greater golden-backed that stopped at the shoulder.

Tanuj asked me to keep the drawing for quick reference. Another day while sitting in the balcony in my fourth floor apartment in Jamshedpur, four small birds alighted on the branches of a jamun tree. I had not seen them before. I took a photo with my mobile and send it by WhatsApp to a former classmate in Kerala. I came to know him through an alumni WhatsApp group, and was pleased to know that Sam is a passionate bird photographer and his wife a birdwatcher. He replied immediately, “Blyth’s starling”, and complimented my photograph for its clarity. I have an advantage as the balcony is at the same level of the tree tops.

After my retirement last year, I set off to fulfil the first item in my bucket list — visit Thattekadu, a bird sanctuary in Ernakulam district of Kerala. Armed with binoculars, a camera and a bird book, I was among eight other birders from North India. The home stay was comfortable, guides were knowledgeable and we saw many birds at close quarters from the “hides” and at feeding points. Birds on treetops and among thick bushes hopped out in response to bird sounds played from bluetooth speakers.

We walked through dense forests and saw owls sweeping down at mice kept on platforms. The serious birders had big cameras, two to three feet long, mounted on tripods. They were professionals and businessmen who systematically covered all the birding locations in India by devoting a week once in two months.

Eldhose, owner of the homestay, asked me with reverence about my uncle, K.K. Neelakantan — Induchoodan for him and Neelamani chithappa for me. I remember my uncle discussing literature with my grandfather, an English professor, and birds with my father, a Conservator of Forests. Chithappa could wear the hats of a professor and a birdwatcher with equal felicity. I had seen his drawings with details of bird beaks and legs and meticulous notes on bird habits. Usually a person of few words, he once came home with great excitement to share owl hoots that he had recorded by hiding in the bushes a whole night. If that was my exposure to birding in the 1960s, now from social media, I learn about my uncle’s great contribution to ornithology in Kerala.

A sense of regret looms large of the missed opportunities to interact more with the remarkable person. Perhaps I was naive and birdwatching was arduous. Now as I do armchair birdwatching in my ancestral house, my grandson’s quick guide is tucked in the book Birds of Kerala dedicated to his great granduncle.



I am full of nostalgia for the homeland I lost 72 years ago to Partition. An entry in my grandfather’s old diary, in Urdu with black ink, says I was born 88 years ago in an old house on Mohan Lal Road in Lahore when the clock struck 7 on a September evening in 1931.

The old magnificent clock on the second floor was a living presence in the household, its loud, melodious chiming regulating the lives of members of the joint family. My grandfather carefully cleaned the clock and lovingly wound it up at 8 every Sunday morning.

I used to feel particularly thrilled when at noon, the clock chimed 12. It was the signal to abandon play and rush for the midday meal. During summers, when everybody rests indoors in the afternoons, it appeared as if the clock was also taking a siesta, reluctantly striking only once every half hour. Then, towards the evening, it awoke from slumber and its chiming became quicker and louder as the household resumed normal activities.

Slowly and steadily, days passed into months and years, and as I grew up through the joys of boyhood and pangs of adolescence, the clock remained my guardian angel. Its slow and steady tick-tock was a reassuring and comforting presence.

This peaceful rhythm of life did not, however, last very long. By the summer of 1946, the country was going through the pangs of political upheaval, leading to Partition which shattered our whole life. As with thousands of other families in Punjab, we had to abandon Lahore overnight, leaving everything behind, even the clock.

Seven long decades have since gone by, and we seem to be different people living in a different world. But in the race towards material progress, we seem to have lost the mysterious joy of listening to the quiet sound of passing time, tick-tock, tick-tock, ding-dong, ding-dong, day after day.

I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s famous words: “Lost time is never found again.” But helplessly, my sluggish memory often crawls back to that old house in Lahore, and I wonder if the clock is still there on the wall.


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