Some time back, I got a call – a girl’s voice and I expected it to be another of the pesky marketing calls. She introduced her name and said, “I don’t know if you remember, I had spoken to you long back”. Her name was unique, it connected somewhere in my mind. I quickly put two and two together and replied, “Of course I remember you. You are Abhi’s sister”. It was her turn to be surprised. She said, “How come you remember my voice after so many years?” I confessed, “Your name is unique, and I follow Abhi’s updates on Facebook. Your name did come up couple of times and I just guessed, it must be you”. She was asked by her brother to contact me, to know more about a career in Corporate Training.
Her call opened up the closed pores of my memory. It was Y2K. Computers were being introduced in a big way at the National Defence Academy, Khadawasla, Pune – The Cradle of Leadership. Technological advancement was happening big time, yet the cadets remained the same. Trying the same old ways to outwit the Divisional Officer’s (Div-Os) without realizing that these instructors had walked the very same path many years back and were aware of all the Tricks of the Trade. Yet at the end of the day, we often learnt a lot, from these young men.
The squadron I was posted as a Div-O was doing well. Things were going in absolute harmony, till one fine day, Cadet Abhi, a fourth termer from another Squadron, was relegated on disciplinary grounds for some major breach of Discipline. He was transferred to our Squadron and my Division. My Squadron Commander Sqn Ldr Sharad Srivastava, told me, “Sajan, this boy requires guidance.“
I was a No Nonsense guy, who disliked people who broke the rules. I was nicknamed “Bajauddin” by the cadets because I was extremely strict. I knew this because this name cropped up during the spoofs done by cadets during the end of term Squadron Socials. During my first interview with Abhi, I made myself amply clear, “Son, you have to play by the rules, You have made a mistake, for which you have been punished with relegation. It is a big blow, I understand. Now it is time, you got your act together and be disciplined. This Squadron and I, will show NO mercy at all.”
The next thing I did, was to take out the cyclostyled sheet and send a Withdrawal Warning Letter to his father stating that, he better advise his son, Abhi, to improve his Discipline, failing which he would be withdrawn from the Academy. The rule position was very clear. You could not get relegated in the same subject again in the same term. And in all, you couldn’t get Relegated thrice in all the terms put together. The cadet would be withdrawn from the Academy if that happened. Unlike other subjects where one had to clear regular tests, Discipline was assessed differently. Punishments were awarded for every breach of discipline and published in the Academy Routine Order. Each punishment carried with it a physical endurance activity as well as some negative points. For example, Extra Drill would be 1 point, Endurance Training Run awarded the cadet 2 points, a Hike to Sinhgarh Fort collected 4 points, and a Restriction added 7 points. Anyone who collected more than 200 negative points in a single term, was relegated on Disciplinary grounds. So Abhi, having collected 200 negative points, got relegated right in the middle of the term itself.
Unfortunately, this boy was of a different mettle. He just couldn’t care less. He went about his life as if nothing happened. Very soon, I received a report from the Academics Dept about his continued absence from class. I confronted Abhi and he promptly confessed that he had bunked. He used to sit in the library instead and browse through his favourite books, magazines or the internet. I awarded him 5 days Restriction, and counselled him NOT to miss classes anymore. But this boy cared even lesser. In less than a month I received a number of reports that he had missed his classes again. This time I marched him up to the Squadron Commander, who warned him to be careful and awarded him 7 days Restriction for the repeat offence. Since he was approaching the half way mark for relegation (in his case withdrawal), a letter was shot off to his parents asking them to warn their son. Surprisingly, I never got any response from his parents.
Yet this boy would not improve. He was caught bunking again and this time due to the nature of repeated offence he was marched up to the Battalion Commander, who awarded him 14 days Restrictions. I called Abhi and advised him that he was continuing to play with fire and that he better be very careful. If he received any more punishments then he would be withdrawn from the Academy. Despite this, Abhi collected some more punishments elsewhere and crossed the 200 points threshold. As per rules, he was to be withdrawn from NDA. A letter went out from the Academy asking his father to come and collect his son after paying up the training costs. His father had to pay up almost 1.5 lakh rupees for the 4 semesters he was at NDA. I thought, this boy will never learn in life.
The end of semester was in progress. One day, a scraggy looking, tired and weary, thin, bearded man walked into my office. He introduced himself as Abhi’s father. I was very annoyed with him. I asked him why he had never bothered to reply to my numerous letters. Now that his son had been withdrawn from the Academy, what was the use for him to finally come. He spoke with lot of humility, “Sir, I can’t read. Letters used to come to me, and I used to call up Abhi. He used to tell me that they were letters praising him for good work done in the Academy. It is only when I got the letter asking me to pay up huge amount of money, I took the letters to my office colleagues and they told me to rush here.”
I was annoyed further and told, “Now, nothing can be done. Please take your son back. Kindly pay up the training cost at the earliest.” His reply resounded like a tight slap to me, “I am a class IV employee from Railways. I hardly earn anything. This is a huge amount for me. I came here on a Railway pass, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to. All what I earned in my life, I have educated my children. When Abhi qualified for NDA, I thought a huge burden is over. This much amount of money I can never pay back in this lifetime”. And the he delivered his punch, that left me stunned, “Even if I SELL my wife and daughter in Agra market, I can’t raise this much money. You do one thing, please take my son and SHOOT him. He doesn’t deserve us.” I was knocked out!
Tears rushed into my eyes. What have I done? How could I ever resolve this issue? How I wish the father had spoken to me earlier. How I wish I was not instrumental in the punishments awarded to this boy. No one, I knew could ever turn the clock back. This poor family was doomed, and I cursed myself partly for it. I thought there is only one man who could do something. That was the Commandant, Alas! He could do Nothing, now that the orders for withdrawal had come from the Army Headquarters.
I pulled a chair near the computer and furiously typed out a letter addressed to the Commandant from the Father. I poured out the angst of a defeated parent into words. Took a print out and made Abhi’s father sign it. I requested him to post it from his hometown. I told him, I was sorry for what had happened, but the only hope was Commandant acting on this letter. With that letter and Abhi tagging along, with drooping shoulders and his face, writ with pain, the poor man left my office. I got calls from his sister and mother. I told them, I was sorry for what happened, it was Abhi’s mistake, but now, nothing could be done by me. Abhi stood withdrawn from the National Defence Academy on Disciplinary grounds. His father was given some more time to pay up.
Vacations started and I went for my Annual Leave. The pain of this incident receded. Soon the next semester commenced and things started buzzing again in the Squadron. One day I was going to the office and all of a sudden, one cadet jumped into my path. I screeched to a halt almost falling off my Bajaj scooter. The cadet gave a smart salute, standing in perfect attention in crease-less uniform. I realized, it was Abhi standing there. I was shocked, and sweetly surprised. I asked him what he was doing here.
He narrated to me that, he went back to his hometown. He realized that he had brought immense sorrow to his parents and sister. He prayed if and only if he had GOT ONE MORE CHANCE. Miraculously the letter did its work. They received a reply from the Commandant informing that he was taking Abhi back, for one last time. I looked up, thanked God, turned towards the other God inside Sudan Block, the Commandant – Lt Gen SBS Kochar, PVSM, AVSM and thanked him as well. Now Abhi was in another Squadron. He then promised me one thing, standing right there on Trishul Marg, “Sir from today, I will not get even one punishment in my life. You will see this”.
I kept a close watch on Abhi, even though he was in another Squadron. True to his word, throughout his next three semesters, he did not get a single punishment. Not only that, he did not get any punishments at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. He kept in touch with me through letters. He took my guidance to opt for his Choice of Arm. He asked me if his dossier from NDA would ever come in his way when he became an Officer. I assured him, what happened in the Academy stayed there. Soon he informed me about him donning his stars as a Commissioned Officer. I was relieved. My Cadet had kept his word.
Occasionally I got his letters. Years later, we got in touch on Facebook. He was doing well in life. His passion for photography was unmatched. In one of his updates, his Dad, Mom and sister were standing in the picturesque surroundings of Wellington where he was posted. I was not only happy but proud of this reformed cadet.
Today, Lieutenant Colonel Abhi is doing exceptionally well. He was awarded three Commendation Cards for Gallantry in consecutive years. His undercover work broke the back of one NE Militant group where the entire hierarchy was apprehended. He has completed a tenure abroad with the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. I am confident that soon he will be approved for his next rank too. His sister, works for a top MNC traveling often to US. Their Dad is retired, content and happy. A few weeks back, when we talked over phone, I was asking Abhi about his Dad, he said, “My biggest assets in my life are my Parents. My family today is what it is, all thanks to the love and care given by my parents.”
The long journey from the dingy Class IV houses of Railway Colony in Agra to the place where they are today, really is a journey that gives hope to many. Along with it, I learnt very valuable lessons to….. Never Judge a Book by its Cover or even the first few chapters. And to always provide another chance to someone who makes a mistake, once twice, thrice….
Give them their, One Last Chance! You never know when the change happens suddenly, to last a lifetime. Never ever ever give up, on anyone!
This article is dedicated to Abhi, his Dad, Sis and Mom, and to Gen Kochar.