Great Writing

Science Answers …

Posted on November 20, 2018. Filed under: Great Writing |

In 1970, a Zambia-based nun named Sister Mary Jucunda wrote to Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger, then-associate director of science at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in response to his ongoing research into a piloted mission to Mars. Specifically, she asked how he could suggest spending billions of dollars on such a project at a time when so many children were starving on Earth…


May 6, 1970

Dear Sister Mary Jucunda:

Your letter was one of many which are reaching me every day, but it has touched me more deeply than all the others because it came so much from the depths of a searching mind and a compassionate heart.

I will try to answer your question as best as I possibly can.

First, however, I would like to express my great admiration for you, and for all your many brave sisters, because you are dedicating your lives to the noblest cause of man: help for his fellowmen who are in need.

You asked in your letter how I could suggest the expenditures of billions of dollars for a voyage to Mars, at a time when many children on this Earth are starving to death. I know that you do not expect an answer such as “Oh, I did not know that there are children dying from hunger, but from now on I will desist from any kind of space research until mankind has solved that problem!”

In fact, I have known of famished children long before I knew that a voyage to the planet Mars is technically feasible.

However, I believe, like many of my friends, that travelling to the Moon and eventually to Mars and to other planets is a venture which we should undertake now, and I even believe that this project, in the long run, will contribute more to the solution of these grave problems we are facing here on Earth than many other potential projects of help which are debated and discussed year after year, and which are so extremely slow in yielding tangible results.

Before trying to describe in more detail how our space program is contributing to the solution of our Earthly problems, I would like to relate briefly a supposedly true story, which may help support the argument.

About 400 years ago, there lived a count in a small town in Germany. He was one of the benign counts, and he gave a large part of his income to the poor in his town. This was much appreciated, because poverty was abundant during medieval times, and there were epidemics of the plague which ravaged the country frequently.

One day, the count met a strange man. He had a workbench and little laboratory in his house, and he labored hard during the daytime so that he could afford a few hours every evening to work in his laboratory.

He ground small lenses from pieces of glass; he mounted the lenses in tubes, and he used these gadgets to look at very small objects.

The count was particularly fascinated by the tiny creatures that could be observed with the strong magnification, and which he had never seen before. He invited the man to move with his laboratory to the castle, to become a member of the count’s household, and to devote henceforth all his time to the development and perfection of his optical gadgets as a special employee of the count.

The townspeople, however, became angry when they realized that the count was wasting his money, as they thought, on a stunt without purpose. “We are suffering from this plague,” they said, “while he is paying that man for a useless hobby!”

But the count remained firm. “I give you as much as I can afford,” he said, “but I will also support this man and his work, because I know that someday something will come out of it!”

Indeed, something very good came out of this work, and also out of similar work done by others at other places: the microscope. It is well known that the microscope has contributed more than any other invention to the progress of medicine, and that the elimination of the plague and many other contagious diseases from most parts of the world is largely a result of studies which the microscope made possible.

The count, by retaining some of his spending money for research and discovery, contributed far more to the relief of human suffering than he could have contributed by giving all he could possibly spare to his plague-ridden community.

The situation which we are facing today is similar in many respects. The President of the United States is spending about 200 billion dollars in his yearly budget.

This money goes to health, education, welfare, urban renewal, highways, transportation, foreign aid, defense, conservation, science, agriculture and many installations inside and outside the country.

About 1.6 percent of this national budget was allocated to space exploration this year. The space program includes Project Apollo, and many other smaller projects in space physics, space astronomy, space biology, planetary projects, Earth resources projects, and space engineering.

To make this expenditure for the space program possible, the average American taxpayer with 10,000 dollars income per year is paying about 30 tax dollars for space. The rest of his income, 9,970 dollars, remains for his subsistence, his recreation, his savings, his other taxes, and all his other expenditures.

You will probably ask now: “Why don’t you take 5 or 3 or 1 dollar out of the 30 space dollars which the average American taxpayer is paying, and send these dollars to the hungry children?”

To answer this question, I have to explain briefly how the economy of this country works. The situation is very similar in other countries. The government consists of a number of departments (Interior, Justice, Health, Education and Welfare, Transportation, Defense, and others) and the bureaus (National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and others).

All of them prepare their yearly budgets according to their assigned missions, and each of them must defend its budget against extremely severe screening by congressional committees, and against heavy pressure for economy from the Bureau of the Budget and the President.

When the funds are finally appropriated by Congress, they can be spent only for the line items specified and approved in the budget.

The budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, naturally, can contain only items directly related to aeronautics and space. If this budget were not approved by Congress, the funds proposed for it would not be available for something else; they would simply not be levied from the taxpayer, unless one of the other budgets had obtained approval for a specific increase which would then absorb the funds not spent for space.

You realize from this brief discourse that support for hungry children, or rather a support in addition to what the United States is already contributing to this very worthy cause in the form of foreign aid, can be obtained only if the appropriate department submits a budget line item for this purpose, and if this line item is then approved by Congress.

You may ask now whether I personally would be in favor of such a move by our government. My answer is an emphatic yes. Indeed, I would not mind at all if my annual taxes were increased by a number of dollars for the purpose of feeding hungry children, wherever they may live.

I know that all of my friends feel the same way. However, we could not bring such a program to life merely by desisting from making plans for voyages to Mars. On the contrary, I even believe that by working for the space program I can make some contribution to the relief and eventual solution of such grave problems as poverty and hunger on Earth.

Basic to the hunger problem are two functions: the production of food and the distribution of food. Food production by agriculture, cattle ranching, ocean fishing and other large-scale operations is efficient in some parts of the world, but drastically deficient in many others.

For example, large areas of land could be utilized far better if efficient methods of watershed control, fertilizer use, weather forecasting, fertility assessment, plantation programming, field selection, planting habits, timing of cultivation, crop survey and harvest planning were applied.

The best tool for the improvement of all these functions, undoubtedly, is the artificial Earth satellite. Circling the globe at a high altitude, it can screen wide areas of land within a short time; it can observe and measure a large variety of factors indicating the status and condition of crops, soil, droughts, rainfall, snow cover, etc., and it can radio this information to ground stations for appropriate use.

It has been estimated that even a modest system of Earth satellites equipped with Earth resources, sensors, working within a program for worldwide agricultural improvements, will increase the yearly crops by an equivalent of many billions of dollars.

The distribution of the food to the needy is a completely different problem. The question is not so much one of shipping volume, it is one of international cooperation. The ruler of a small nation may feel very uneasy about the prospect of having large quantities of food shipped into his country by a large nation, simply because he fears that along with the food there may also be an import of influence and foreign power.

Efficient relief from hunger, I am afraid, will not come before the boundaries between nations have become less divisive than they are today. I do not believe that space flight will accomplish this miracle over night. However, the space program is certainly among the most promising and powerful agents working in this direction.

Let me only remind you of the recent near-tragedy of Apollo 13. When the time of the crucial reentry of the astronauts approached, the Soviet Union discontinued all Russian radio transmissions in the frequency bands used by the Apollo Project in order to avoid any possible interference, and Russian ships stationed themselves in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans in case an emergency rescue would become necessary.

Had the astronaut capsule touched down near a Russian ship, the Russians would undoubtedly have expended as much care and effort in their rescue as if Russian cosmonauts had returned from a space trip.

If Russian space travelers should ever be in a similar emergency situation, Americans would do the same without any doubt.

Higher food production through survey and assessment from orbit, and better food distribution through improved international relations, are only two examples of how profoundly the space program will impact life on Earth.

I would like to quote two other examples: stimulation of technological development, and generation of scientific knowledge.

The requirements for high precision and for extreme reliability which must be imposed upon the components of a moon-travelling spacecraft are entirely unprecedented in the history of engineering.

The development of systems which meet these severe requirements has provided us a unique opportunity to find new material and methods, to invent better technical systems, to manufacturing procedures, to lengthen the lifetimes of instruments, and even to discover new laws of nature.

All this newly acquired technical knowledge is also available for application to Earth-bound technologies.

Every year, about a thousand technical innovations generated in the space program find their ways into our Earthly technology where they lead to better kitchen appliances and farm equipment, better sewing machines and radios, better ships and airplanes, better weather forecasting and storm warning, better communications, better medical instruments, better utensils and tools for everyday life.

Presumably, you will ask now why we must develop first a life support system for our moon-travelling astronauts, before we can build a remote-reading sensor system for heart patients.

The answer is simple: significant progress in the solutions of technical problems is frequently made not by a direct approach, but by first setting a goal of high challenge which offers a strong motivation for innovative work, which fires the imagination and spurs men to expend their best efforts, and which acts as a catalyst by including chains of other reactions.

Spaceflight without any doubt is playing exactly this role. The voyage to Mars will certainly not be a direct source of food for the hungry.

However, it will lead to so many new technologies and capabilities that the spin-offs from this project alone will be worth many times the cost of its implementation.

Besides the need for new technologies, there is a continuing great need for new basic knowledge in the sciences if we wish to improve the conditions of human life on Earth.

We need more knowledge in physics and chemistry, in biology and physiology, and very particularly in medicine to cope with all these problems which threaten man’s life: hunger, disease, contamination of food and water, pollution of the environment.

We need more young men and women who choose science as a career and we need better support for those scientists who have the talent and the determination to engage in fruitful research work.

Challenging research objectives must be available, and sufficient support for research projects must be provided.

Again, the space program with its wonderful opportunities to engage in truly magnificent research studies of moons and planets, of physics and astronomy, of biology and medicine is an almost ideal catalyst which induces the reaction between the motivation for scientific work, opportunities to observe exciting phenomena of nature, and material support needed to carry out the research effort.

Among all the activities which are directed, controlled, and funded by the American government, the space program is certainly the most visible and probably the most debated activity, although it consumes only 1.6 percent of the total national budget, and 3 per mille (less than one-third of 1 percent) of the gross national product.

As a stimulant and catalyst for the development of new technologies, and for research in the basic sciences, it is unparalleled by any other activity.

In this respect, we may even say that the space program is taking over a function which for three or four thousand years has been the sad prerogative of wars.

How much human suffering can be avoided if nations, instead of competing with their bomb-dropping fleets of airplanes and rockets, compete with their moon-travelling space ships!

This competition is full of promise for brilliant victories, but it leaves no room for the bitter fate of the vanquished, which breeds nothing but revenge and new wars.

Although our space program seems to lead us away from our Earth and out toward the moon, the sun, the planets, and the stars, I believe that none of these celestial objects will find as much attention and study by space scientists as our Earth.

It will become a better Earth, not only because of all the new technological and scientific knowledge which we will apply to the betterment of life, but also because we are developing a far deeper appreciation of our Earth, of life, and of man.

The photograph which I enclose with this letter shows a view of our Earth as seen from Apollo 8 when it orbited the moon at Christmas, 1968.

Of all the many wonderful results of the space program so far, this picture may be the most important one. It opened our eyes to the fact that our Earth is a beautiful and most precious island in an unlimited void, and that there is no other place for us to live but the thin surface layer of our planet, bordered by the bleak nothingness of space.

Never before did so many people recognize how limited our Earth really is, and how perilous it would be to tamper with its ecological balance.

Ever since this picture was first published, voices have become louder and louder warning of the grave problems that confront man in our times: pollution, hunger, poverty, urban living, food production, water control, overpopulation.

It is certainly not by accident that we begin to see the tremendous tasks waiting for us at a time when the young space age has provided us the first good look at our own planet.

Very fortunately though, the space age not only holds out a mirror in which we can see ourselves, it also provides us with the technologies, the challenge, the motivation, and even with the optimism to attack these tasks with confidence.

What we learn in our space program, I believe, is fully supporting what Albert Schweitzer had in mind when he said: “I am looking at the future with concern, but with good hope.”

My very best wishes will always be with you, and with your children.

Very sincerely yours,

Ernst Stuhlinger

Associate Director for Science

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The Humble Hashtag – # …

Posted on November 2, 2018. Filed under: Great Writing |

Joanna Rozpedowski – 

From fashion trends to global events, the hashtag (#) has become the conspicuous symbol of the Twittersphere.

What only a decade ago denoted a numerical symbol of no special significance or attribution is now a call to arms for causes that are many and varied.

The “#” is a social organiser, which emerged spontaneously and dynamically from the content generated and updated by social media users. The initial intent behind the “#”, when Twitter launched in 2006, lay in its simple use as a means of organising data and information.

An indexing tool for grouping anything from the politically relevant to the culturally hip, the “#” soon found itself aligned with some of the most significant events in history.

Capturing a broad spectrum of the public’s preoccupations with popular culture, social exclusion, relief efforts following natural disasters or political conflict, the hashtag, as some have argued, has allowed for the efficient emergence of “certain types of communities and ad hoc publics forming and responding quickly to particular events and topical issues”.

And these have developed a social and political power we have only recently begun to fully uncover and comprehend.

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Bertolt Brecht – the Poet …

Posted on August 13, 2018. Filed under: Great Writing, Personalities |

Extracted from Anjan Bose Article  in The Wire –

Bertolt Brecht: The Poet Who Stepped out of the Black Forest and Into the Asphalt City

The 19-year-old Brecht was writing such haunting lines as these:

Half-way along the road from night to morning

Naked and strewn in a rock-strewn glen

A chilly sky across it like an awning

You’ll find the heaven for disenchanted men. ……..

Ever silence where great rocks are lying

The glow remains although the light has gone

Sullen souls, fed up with their own crying

Sit dreamless, dumb and very much alone.

The dainty Polly Peachum, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum (who is very nearly the model of bourgeois respectability) stuns her parents by announcing her resolve to marry Mack the Knife, the London underworld’s uncrowned king. Polly has had many suitors – all of them well-heeled as well as well-groomed – and yet, she always said no.

But then one day, and that day was blue

Came someone who didn’t ask at all

And he went and hung his hat on the nail in my little attic

And what happened then I can’t quite recall.

And as he had got no money

And was not a nice chap

And his Sunday shirts, even, were not like snow

And as he had no idea of treating a girl with due respect

I could not tell him: No. …………

Oh, the moon was shining clear and bright

Oh, the boat kept drifting downstream all that night

That was how it simply had to go.

Off and on he wrote what he called ‘Psalms’, evocative prose pieces that read like chants:

Evenings by the river in the dark heart of the bushes I see her face again sometimes, face of the woman I loved: my woman, who is dead now.

It was many years ago and at times I no longer know anything about her, once she was everything, but everything passes.

And she was in me like a little juniper on the Mongolian steppes, concave, with a pale yellow sky and great sadness. ………..

The 22-year-old Brecht puts on paper his last memories of his mother in a tender little haiku-like poem that could well be a song:

And when she was finished they laid her in earth

Flowers growing, butterflies juggling over her …

She, so light, barely pressed the earth down

How much pain it took to make her as light as that!

Brecht jotted down some lines that were later to be chiselled into the magnificent Of Poor B.B., which begins thus:

I, Bertolt Brecht, came out of the black forests.

My mother moved me into the cities

As I lay inside her. And the coldness of the forests

Will be inside me till my dying day.

A speeding train on a dark night must have seemed to the 24-year-old Brecht  the perfect symbol of Weimar Germany – tentative, transient, even unreal.

In the grey light before morning, the pine trees piss

And their vermin, the birds, raise their twitter and cheep.

At that hour in the city I drain my glass, then throw

The cigar butt away and worriedly go to sleep.

Of those cities will remain what passes through them, the wind!

The house makes glad the eater: he clears it out.

We know that we’re only tenants, provisional ones

And after us will come: nothing worth talking about.

Memorably, this scepticism merges with the moral ambivalence of nowhere land:

In the earthquakes to come, I very much hope

I shall keep my cigar alight, embittered or no.

I, Bertolt Brecht, carried off to the asphalt cities

From the black forests inside my mother long ago.

The long years in exile produced poems of several different kinds, including such quatrains as:

This, then, is all. It’s not enough, I know.

At least I’m still alive, as you may see.

I’m like the man who took a brick to show

How beautiful his house used once to be.


In the dark times

Will there be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing

About the dark times.

Or the tongue-in-cheek epigram written while in Los Angeles:

Every day, to earn my daily bread

I go to the market where lies are bought


I take up my place among the sellers.

In his poetry as much as in his plays, Brecht was in his element in irony, as witness this laconic account of a friendly Encounter with the poet Auden:

Lunching me, a kindly act

In an alehouse, still intact

He sat looming like a cloud

Over the beer-sodden crowd.

And kept harping with persistence

On the bare fact of existence

I.e, a theory built around it

Recently in France propounded.

Talking about irony and satire, though Brecht was an icon of the communist East German state and was awarded by the Soviet Union the Stalin Peace Prize in 1954, he famously lampooned the authoritarian state in poems such as The Solution:

After the uprising of the 17th June

The Secretary of the Writers’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinalle

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could win it back only

By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier

In that case for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

And yet, even in his last few years when his dramatic output had thinned considerably and he kept returning to poetry, the dominant themes were not built around cynicism or hopelessness. He again wrote lyrical poetry, evocative, often wistful:

And I was old, and I was young at moments

Was old at daybreak, young when darkness came

And was a child recalling disappointments

And an old man forgetting his own name.

Well after his death in 1956, the editors of the excellent Methuen collection note, “Brecht the poet remained like an unsuspected time-bomb ticking away beneath the engine-room of world literature”. It may well have been so, but it had not been possible even for Bertolt Brecht to hold back from the world’s view his most consummate achievement as poet, the incomparable To Those Born Later, written in exile in Denmark:

Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests a hard heart. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet had

The terrible news.

What kind of times are these, when

To speak of trees is almost a crime

Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

That man there calmly crossing the street

Is already perhaps beyond the reach of his friends

Who are in need? ………..

I came to the cities in a time of disorder

When hunger reigned there.

I came among men in a time of revolt

And I revolted with them

So passed my time

Which on earth was granted me.  …….

You who will emerge from the flood

In which we have gone under


When you speak of our failings

The dark time too

Which you have escaped.

For we went, changing countries oftener than our shoes

Through the wars of the classes, despairing

When there was injustice only, and no resistance.

And yet we knew only too well

Even the hatred of meanness

Contorts our features.

Anger, even against injustice,

Makes our voice hoarse. Oh, we

Who wished to lay the foundation of kindness

Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass

That man can help his fellow man,

Do not judge us

Too harshly.

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Tribute to a Mother …

Posted on May 21, 2018. Filed under: Great Writing, Personalities |

That ‘Maverick’ Shashi Tharoor – on his Mother –

My mother just bought a new car. It is a gleaming red Nissan Micra, and she proudly drove it to the temple to get it blessed before journeying to the market and bank. Nothing exceptional about any of this—except that she is 82.

I have been pleading with her for years to get a full-time driver, but to no avail. She relishes her independence. A couple of years ago, she finally agreed to hire a driver for her frequent four-hour drives from Kochi to her tharavadu veedu (ancestral home) in Palakkad district.

But for shorter trips, she prefers to be behind the wheel, not in the back seat.

She also stubbornly refuses to hire full-time domestic help. She cooks, cleans and entertains guests. Yes, a maid comes in for an hour a day to scour the dishes and mop the floors, but that’s it. Self-reliance is my mother’s mantra. She doesn’t like depending on others’ help.

My sisters live abroad. My mother lives alone. In recent years, I have begged and pleaded with her to move in with me, but she declines. She comes for a few weeks at a time and gets restless. She likes being in control, enjoys her routine and her neighbours. She regularly phones a wide circle of friends and relatives.

She reads incessantly and borrows books from a circulating book club. She admits she feels lonely, but that has been the case since my father, a larger-than-life dynamo, passed away a quarter of a century ago at 63.

Her antidote to boredom is the internet. She is a tireless emailer and browser of articles, which she forwards widely. Recently, she has discovered WhatsApp and is unremitting when it comes to passing on morning greetings, trending videos, and, occasionally, ‘fake news’.

In her time anything that appeared in print was reliable, and she extends the same credulity to what she reads on the internet. But offline, her scepticism is her shield.

My mother and I have not always had the easiest of relationships. What mother and son do? I know my personal and professional journeys have challenged her. And, as I know too well, she is a direct, no-nonsense woman.

She can be charming if she wants, but generally does not waste time on pleasantries. When others feel the whiplash of her tongue, I shrug apologetically: “Welcome to the club.”

Growing up, I often felt that nothing I did was good enough for my mother. She had the highest expectations of me, which meant she never allowed me the luxury of self-satisfaction. She never congratulated me on my prizes or distinctions; they were expected, nothing more.

The result was that she drove me to excellence. She drove me, too, to debate and quiz competitions, to All India Radio to participate in children’s programmes, and to act in school plays. As the mother of two beautiful daughters, she pressed them to enter the Miss Calcutta contest in 1979. One sister won, the other was first runner-up. My mother expected nothing less.

My mother is multi-talented, but does not stay focused for long. She sings beautifully, but is untrained. A music director who heard her at a party once called her for an audition, but she chose an unwisely high-pitched song and, unused to the studio’s sound system, screeched herself out of a playback career.

She has tried pottery and ceramics. Every visitor to my home is awestruck by a Ganesh she painted on glass in the Thanjavur style, and yet she has given up painting. I dedicated my 2001 novel, Riot, to her: “tireless seeker who taught me to value her divine discontent”.

Still, she can be determined when she has something to prove. After my father passed away, she single-handedly built a house in the Coimbatore suburbs, overcoming innumerable obstacles, and named it for her childhood home. Her point made—that she could do it—she sold it thereafter.

She disapproved of my entering politics, and prays regularly that I quit and return to what she sees as respectability. But, she has queued up to vote for me each time, and when I faced a particularly tough race in 2014, gamely climbed onto my campaign wagon to show her solidarity and support.

She goes on vacations with her septuagenarian friends, pays tribute annually to Sai Baba’s samadhi at Puttaparthi and travels widely solo. She embodies the principle that you are only as old as you allow yourself to feel.

As she confidently soldiers on in her 80s, with two titanium knees, both eyes surgically freed of cataracts, but refusing to surrender to age, I feel an admiration welling up for her that I have rarely been able to express before. I grew up thinking of my mother as critical and temperamental.

But, I failed to see the steel beneath signs of her insecurity, brought on by the ill-health of an improvident husband.. Her strength in coping with such an early bereavement, independence of mind and body, faith in herself and determination to face life on her own are an extraordinary lesson.

I am lucky to have a mother who sets such an amazing example. Happy Mother’s Day, Mummy.


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Macaulay’s Best …

Posted on October 25, 2017. Filed under: Books, Great Writing, Personalities, The English |

Lays of Ancient Rome, a series of very popular poems about heroic episodes in Roman history which Macaulay composed in India and published in 1842.

The most famous of them, Horatius, concerns the heroism of Horatius Cocles. It contains the oft-quoted lines:

Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods?”

PS As a rival you might enjoy

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‘Afterwards’ by Capt Cyril Morton Horne …

Posted on June 3, 2017. Filed under: From a Services Career, Great Writing, Searching for Success |

Beautiful lines by an Irish Officer from ‘Songs of the Shrapnel Shell.’

In the Afterwards, when I am dead,
I want no flowers over my head.
But if Fate and the Gods are kind to me
They’ll send me a Sikh half Company
To sweeten my sleep, when I am dead.
To fire three volleys over my head
 And these are the words they will write for me –
“Here endeth a Fool’s Philosophy!”
 Some shall sneer, some shall sigh,
Yet I shall not hear them as there I lie,
 For this is the Law of Lover and Friend –
That all joy must finish – all feelings end.
 Many will laugh but Some will weep,
I shall not know as I lie asleep;
A worn-out body, a dried-up crust;
Ashes to ashes and Dust to Dust!
 And they’ll drink a toast up there in the Mess,
“Here’s to a friend who is no more!”
 Music and talk, for a while, shall cease
As my Brothers drink to their Brother’s Peace.
 And the Sikhs, once my own, shall say
“Who rode with us now rides alone!”
And leaning over the grave they’ll sigh –
“Sahib Margaye … Ki jai, Ki Jai!”
And I, who so loved them one and all
Shall stir no more at the Bugle call,
But another Sahib shall ride instead
At the head of my Sikhs, when I am dead.
And this thought which hurts me so,
Shall cease to trouble me when I go.
My chestnut charger, Mam’selle,
She was fleet of foot and I loved her well!
Shall nibble the grass above my head
Unknowing that the one she loved is dead.
 Someone – my Horse or my Company
Shall fail to smile at the comedy;
But strive to reason yet fail to guess
That Life is little and Death is less!
And they shall sorrow over my space
Till somebody comes to fill my place;
But all their sorrow, grief and pain,
Shall be expended upon me in vain!
And you – if you read this my epitaph –
Harden your heart and I pray you, laugh!
But if you would deal with me tenderly
Place one dew-kissed violet over me;
I claim not this and I ask no more,
Yet – this was the flower that Someone wore
in the dead yesterdays that have gone before.
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Tagore’s ‘Gitanjali’ …

Posted on March 23, 2017. Filed under: Eloquence, Great Writing, Searching for Success |

Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, chose as his favorite, “Let My Country Awake” by Rabindranath Tagore.

Salil Shetty describes the poem as “a powerful call to action and a declaration of belief in achievable change”. Perhaps most moving, however, is his statement that the final phrase, “let my country awake”, could quite easily be replaced with, “let the world awake”.

The poem is “about universal aspirations” and improving ourselves and is a great source of inspiration and motivation.

“Let My Country Awake”

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

PS  Rabindranath Tagore was an admirer of Tolstoy’s humanism. However according to Tagore, “Everything about Tolstoy is filled with strength and energy and violence!”
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Shashi Tharoor – that maverick politician with ‘problems’ of his own – on OROP

Posted on January 15, 2015. Filed under: From a Services Career, Great Writing, Personalities |

New Year’s Resolutions, it is said, are made to be broken. There’s something about a new dawn that inspires the earnestness of yearned-for virtue in most of us, and we solemnly pledge to do this and that in the course of the New Year which we never thought ourselves capable of fulfilling in the old. And then, as the New Year turns less new, we tend to regret those rash resolutions, modify them, ignore them, or most of all, simply forget them.
Our new government didn’t wait for the New Year to make something of a habit of breaking its promises, To some degree, this is unsurprising in most democracies: after all, as New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously pointed out more than two decades ago, “you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose”.
Extravagant campaign promises tend to look much more difficult to fulfill when faced with the reality of government.
What am I going on about? Very simple: it is the pledge to ensure “One Rank One Pension” for our retired military personnel, who currently suffer gross injustice through the provision of pensions that have not been indexed to inflation, so that a Brigadier who retired twenty years ago gets a lower pension than a Captain who leaves the force this year.
This entirely reasonable demand – made by people who have risked their lives to protect our borders, our nation, and us – was acceded to by the UPA government, echoed by the NDA, and announced again by the new regime after its ascension to power. 
The demand has not been fulfilled. Not one soldier has received an enhanced pension; meanwhile leaks in the newspapers “reveal” that the Finance Ministry has had a change of heart, saying that justice to our men in uniform would “cost too much”.
It seems the Comptroller of Defense Accounts has estimated that the cost of One Rank One Pension could be as high as 9,300 crore. It may sound a lot, but the estimated budget for Mr Modi’s much-vaunted statue of Sardar Patel is 1,500 crore, which puts this sum in perspective.
It is true I have a soft corner for our armed forces. I believe they embody the best of what India can be, but so rarely is: they are motivated, professional, meritocratic, competent, reliable, free of caste and religious prejudice, and they take risks the rest of us would not dare to. Yet we treat them in a disgracefully cavalier fashion.
During my UN peace-keeping years, when I dealt with a large number of senior military officers and issues from around the world, I was appalled to see how poorly our professional officers were valued by our self-regarding bureaucracy.
A full Colonel with over 25 years of service behind him is ranked by our babus below a Director in protocol terms.
I have suffered through peacekeeping seminars in which a knowledgeable Indian military officer had to defer to a callow bureaucrat in discussions on military matters.
At a time when post-Cold War peacekeeping called for serious levels of military expertise at the UN Headquarters in New York, India remained the only Permanent Mission to the UN (of any major peace-keeping contributor) not to post a military adviser. Our diplomats believed they knew it all themselves.
This attitude extends to conditions of service across the board. A Joint Secretary, with nineteen years of professional experience, is deemed the equivalent of a Major-General, who not only has thirty years but has commanded men and materiel, made life-and-death decisions and protected our nation.
We pay pensions to a lot more Joint Secretaries than Major-Generals (only 0.8% of army officers ever attain Major General rank). Yet we are now quibbling about the cost.
Who are the people we are cheating here by pinching pennies? Some 20 lakh ex-servicemen and four lakh widows. It is time to ask the Government of Messrs Modi and Jaitley: gentlemen, have you no shame?
As far back as 2003, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense recommended One Rank One Pension, calling it “a debt” the nation had to pay. It is a debt our Government must honour. Not to do so is an act of dishonor. It dishonors the nation and the flag these men have fought to defend. And it thoroughly discredits those who would treat the well-being of our jawans and officers as one more election promise to be lightly cast aside.

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The Young Winston Churchill on Islam ….

Posted on December 18, 2014. Filed under: Books, Great Writing, Personalities | Tags: , , , |

Islam is noted for many things – among which are its ferocity as well as wide following. Edward Gibbon has covered it very well and we have a few posts from his work .Here is however the young Winston Churchill in an extract from his book, “The River War”.

“How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries!
Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.

The effects are apparent in many countries, improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce,  and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.

A degraded sensualist deprives this life of its grace and refinement, the next of its dignity and sanctity.

The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.

Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities, but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it.No stronger retrograde force exists in the world.

Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step.
Were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilization of
modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome ”

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Best Case for Commensurate Pay for Defense Services …

Posted on June 21, 2013. Filed under: From a Services Career, Great Writing, Guide Posts, Indian Thought, Personalities |

We need a permanent solution to the tussle over emoluments so that the armed forces need only confront the enemies of the nation, says TR Ramaswami, IAS.
In the continuing debate on pay scales for the armed forces, there has to be a serious and transparent effort to ensure that the country is not faced with an unnecessary civil-military confrontation. .
This country requires the best armed forces, the best police and the best civil service. In fact that is what the British ensured.. By best one means that a person chooses which service he wants as per his desires/capabilities and not based on the vast differential in prospects in the various services.
How much differential is there?
Take Maharashtra, one of the most parsimonious with police ranks thus still retaining some merit. The 1981 IPS batch have become 3-star generals, the 1987 are 2-star and the 1994 have 1-star.
In the army the corresponding years are 1972, 1975, 1979.  i.e. a differential of 10-15 years. While the differential is more with the IAS, the variance with the IPS is all the more glaring because both are uniformed services and the grades are “visible” on the shoulders.
First some general aspects. Only the armed forces are a real profession where you rise to the top only by joining at the bottom.
We have had professors of economics become Finance Secretaries or even Governors of RBI. We have any number of MBBSs, engineers, MBAs in the police force though what their qualifications lend to their jobs is a moot point. You can join at any level in the civil service, except Cabinet Secretary. A civil servant can move from Animal Husbandry to Civil Aviation to Fertiliszrs to Steel to yes, unfortunately, even to Defense.
But the army never asks for Brigade Commanders or a Commandant of the Army War College or even Director General Military Intelligence, even from RAW or IB. Army officers can and have moved into organizations like IB and RAW but it is never the other way round. MBBS and Law graduates are only in the Medical or JAG Corps and do nothing beyond their narrow areas.
Every Army Chief – in any army – has risen from being a commander of a platoon to company to battalion to brigade to division to corps to army.
Next, one must note the rigidity and steep pyramid of the army’s rank structure. In the civil services any post is fungible with any grade based on political expediency and the desires of the service. For example I know of one case where one department downgraded one post in another state and up-graded one in Mumbai just to enable someone continue in Mumbai after promotion!
You can’t fool around like this in the armed forces. A very good Brigadier cannot be made a Major-General and continue as brigade commander. There has to be a clear vacancy for a Major General and even then there may be others better than him. Further the top five ranks in the army comprise only 10% of the officer strength. Contrast this with the civil services where entire batches become Joint Secretaries!
Even the meaning of the word “merit” is vastly different in the army and the civil services. Some years back an officer of the Maharashtra cadre claimed that he should be the Chief Secretary as he was first in the merit list.
Which merit list? At the time of entry more than 35 years before? The fact is that this is how merit is decided in the IAS and IPS. Every time a batch gets promoted the inter-se merit is still retained as at the time of entry. In other words if you are first in a batch at the time of entry, then as long as you get promoted, you continue to remain first! This is like someone in the army claiming that he should become chief because he got the Sword of Honor at the IMA.
Even a Param Vir Chakra does not count for promotion.
In the armed forces, merit is a continuous process – each time a batch is promoted the merit list is redrawn according to your performance in all the previous assignments with additional weightage given not only to the last one but also to your suitability for the next one. Thus if you are a Brigade Commander and found fit to become a Major General, you may not get a division because others have been found better to head a division. That effectively puts an end to your promotion to Lt General.
The compensation package must therefore address all the above issues. In each service, anyone must get the same total compensation by the time he reaches the ‘mode rank’ of his service. “Mode” is a statistical term ie the value where the maximum number of variables fall.
In the IAS normally everyone reaches Director and in the IPS it is DIG. In the army, given the aforementioned rank and grade rigidities and pyramidal structure, the mode rank cannot exceed Colonel. Thus a Colonel’s gross career earnings (not salary scales alone) must be at par with that of a Director. But remember that a Colonel retires at 54, but every babu from peon to Secretary at 60 – regardless of performance.
Further, it takes 18-20 years to become a Colonel whereas in that time an IAS officer reaches the next higher grade of Joint Secretary, which is considered equal to a Major General.
These aspects and others – like postings in non-family stations – must be addressed while fixing the overall pay scales of Colonel and below. Thereafter, a Brigadier will be made equal to a Joint Secretary, a Major-General to an Additional Secretary and a Lt General to a Secretary. The Army Commanders deserve a new rank – Colonel General – and should be above a Secretary but below Cabinet Secretary.
The equalization takes place at the level of Cabinet Secretary and Army Chief.
If this is financially a problem I have another solution. Without increasing the armed forces’ scales, reduce the scales of the IAS and IPS till they too have 20% shortage!  Done?
Even India ‘s corruption index will go down.
If the above is accepted in principle, there is a good case to review the number of posts above Colonel. Senior ranks in the armed forces have become devalued with more and more posts being created.
But the same pruning exercise is necessary in the IAS and more so in the IPS, where Directors General in some states are re-writing police manuals (one is doing Volume I and another Volume II!
Further the civil services have such facilities as “compulsory wait” basically a picnic at taxpayers cost. And if you are not promoted or posted where you don’t want to go they seem able to take off on leave with much ease. In the army you will be court-martialled. Also find out how many civil servants are on study leave. The country cannot afford this.
Let not someone say that the IAS and IPS exams are tougher and hence the quality of the officers better. An exam at the age of 24 has to be tougher than one at the age of 16. The taxpaying citizen is not interested in your essay/note writing capabilities or whether you know Cleopatra’s grandfather.
As a citizen I always see the army being called to hold the pants of the civil services and the police and never the other way round. That’s enough proof as to who is really more capable.
Also recall the insensitive statements made by the IG Meerut in the Aarushi case and the Home Secretary after the blasts.
Further, when the IAS and IPS hopefuls are sleeping, eating and studying, their school mates, who have joined the army, stand vigil on the borders to make it possible for them to do so. Remember that the armed forces can only fight for above-the table-pay. They can never compete with the civil services and definitely not with the police for the under the table variety. 
Finally, there is one supreme national necessity : The political class  better become more savvy on matters relating to the armed forces. Till then they are at the mercy of the civil service, who frequently play their own little war games. At ministerial level there are some very specialized departments – Finance, Railways, Security (Home), Foreign and Defense – where split second decisions are necessary. It is always possible to find netas savvy in finance, foreign relations and railways. Security has been addressed in getting a former IPS officer as NSA at the level of a MoS.
It is time that a professional is also brought into the Defense Ministry as MoS! The sooner the better. In fact this will be better than a CDS because the armed forces will have someone not constrained by the Army Act or Article 33, of the Constitution.
Of course the loudest howls will come from the babus. The netas must realize that a divide and rule policy cannot work where the country’s security is concerned. Recall 1962?
Our army, already engaged in activities not core to their functions, including rescuing babies from borewells  apart from national calamities, should not have to engage in civil wars over their pay scales.
I only hope our Defense Minister or anyone who would take a reasonable stand for defense forces ever gets to see this article. It would definitely affect any person with an iota of integrity.


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