It was the summer of 67. I was all of sixteen years old, had just finished my schooling from a prestigious boarding school and was on a sabbatical working out what to do with my life. My father was a colonel in the army and had a year to go before retirement. We were living in a comfortable government bungalow in Ajmer but as far as material luxuries go, we didn’t have much; no car, no scooter and no refrigerator either – the status symbols of those days. Television had not yet spread its wings in the country and a small transistor radio was our means of keeping in touch with the rest of the world. We however, felt no sense of deprivation and the lack of amenities perhaps spurred our innate abilities to keep ourselves occupied in more meaningful ways.
During those days, it always upset me that father never let us use the office jeep for visiting friends, going to the market or seeing the various attractions which the town had to offer. My brothers, my sister and I would either cycle or walk to where ever we had to go and my mother would take a rickshaw for her occasional trips to the market. Father was the head of his department and could so easily have used service transport for his family had he been so inclined. Many government officials routinely did so but for father such an act was unthinkable. It was also unthinkable for us to question him about it. One evening however, I mustered up the courage and did the unthinkable.
‘Why don’t you let us use the office jeep sometimes, Dad?’ I asked. We were sitting in the drawing room and father had just poured himself a stiff tot of rum. Mom looked at me quizzically, wondering where such a conversation would lead but refrained from saying anything. Dad turned, took a sip from his drink, looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I would son, but the pear would not go down my throat’.
‘What pear?’ I asked.
Father waited awhile and then narrated this most amazing tale. ‘When I was a kid your age, or perhaps a shade younger than you are now’, he said, ‘I had gone out to play with my friends. On the farther side of the village there was a beautiful orchard where the first lot of pears had ripened on the trees. Which young bunch of kids could resist such a temptation? Well, we crawled under the fence and with an intrepidity that would have done a cat burglar proud, took all we could carry before scampering back to safety. I took my share of the loot home, as proud as a warrior returning home with conquests from a famous victory’.
‘Your grandfather was sitting on his favourite chair on the verandah smoking his hookah. It was over a decade since your grandfather had retired from the army, but he was as fit as a fiddle, still had the strength of an ox and his back was ramrod straight. I still remember the scene so vividly; the dusk settling in, the shadows lengthening and the snow clad mountains jutting out in pristine purity over a pale blue sky that was gradually darkening. The stillness of the evening was broken only by the murmur of the breeze and the occasional gurgling rattle like sound emanating from your grandfather’s hookah’.
Father paused, as if reliving those days and then continued with his tale. ‘I ambled over to him’ he said ‘and offered him a plate with the freshly cut fruit. I don’t know what I expected to get from him; praise maybe, appreciation perhaps or possibly just an acknowledgement of my boyish skill? What I got, however, was something totally different. Your grandfather instantly divined the source of the offering and its method of procurement, but he didn’t say anything about that to me. He simply said that the pear would not go down his throat as he found it impossible to eat anything that had not been honestly obtained. There was no admonishment in his tone, no raising of the voice in anger, just a quiet statement of fact. And then your grandfather let the matter rest’.
Dad paused again, looked at me and continued, ‘I took the plate back with an overriding sense of pain and guilt. Away from your grandfather’s eyes, I took a bite of the pear to see if there was any truth in the assumption. Well, the pear wouldn’t go down my throat either. So next morning, I confessed all to the owner of the orchard. I was feeling a bit wretched but atonement was called for if I was ever to live down the sense of shame I felt. The owner, a distant relative, gave me a stern look all through my sorry narrative, but once again there was no outrage, no admonishment. Putting his hand over my shoulder, he took me inside his house and to my utter surprise, presented me with a basket of fresh ripe pears.’ There was silence for some time, then dad continued, ‘life offers many temptations, son, but some of us cannot get the pear down our throats’.
It’s a lesson I never forgot. Life offers so many temptations, so many pears. Having retired now after having served with honour as a third generation officer in the Indian Army, I hope this is a legacy which my children will carry to the future.
Thanks : Maj Gen Dhruv C Katoch, Additional Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS).