Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Our grand daughter got up this morning and came right up to the top of the staircase, stood there and called for us. We were both sitting on the mainfloor and she was on the upper floor, in the bedroom. She has learnt how to climb the stairs on all fours but is still not comfortable doing the reverse, and that is why she called (she can call without speaking, and seems to be pretty good at communicating without words - who said one needs words to communicate). We were both discussing that she is scared and does not do anything that she is not comfortable doing, without an adult being present. We call her intelligent enough to know this distinction; I suppose this is God's gift to every parent, to prevent the many mishaps that can happen to a child in day-to-day living. This triggered me to read about fear and courage.

I was looking up the meaning of the word 'courage'. defines courage as the "the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear". I somehow have a hard time convincing myself that courage has something to do with - 'without fear'. I believe that courage has more to do with overcoming the fear, and still doing what one believes to be the right thing. Courage could be physical or mental. When I look back at my life, my acts of physical courage have been when I was in the grip of fear. I will leave out moral courage for another time. Courage, I believe, is only called for when one is fearful as one requires courage to overcome one's fears; to me, a person without fear is not normal. What do you think?

I looked up many of the definitions of the word 'fear' online and found some subtle differences in the meanings. Looking back I could recollect certain incidents in my life when I was scared. These happened at different ages. Before narrating these incidents, let me give you a definition of fear from this source.

Fear is "A painful emotion or passion excited by the expectation of evil, or the apprehension of impending danger; apprehension; anxiety; solicitude; alarm; dread. The degrees of this passion, beginning with the most moderate, may be thus expressed, -- apprehension, fear, dread, fright, terror".

As a child (age - 5 years), I was very fond of watching 'Tarzan' and other children's movies. A movie hall close to our home used to screen these movies but the timings were a little late in the evening so that by the time movie ended it would normally be dark. My father would drop me for the movie and pick me up. One day my father said that you should be able to return on my own after the movie and I agreed with him. These were the late 50s and traffic and other present day issues were non-existent then. Our home, I believe, was about 1.5 kms from the hall. I can still recollect the first time I traversed this distance alone at night. The movie ended... I hurried out, and stood on the road under the street light, in the direction towards my home. As soon as some adults started walking in that direction, I too followed them at a respectable distance. This continued until they all turned in a different direction... I again waited under the street light towards my home, for the next set of people and followed them until they too turned away from the direction of my home. Now I could see no one who would be going towards my home and my home was still some distance away. I felt uneasy, maybe in a state of apprehension, and then I remembered my mother's words, "Any time you are scared just recite the Gayatri Mantra and God will take care of your fear". I can recollect reciting the Gayatri mantra then, and charging towards our home. I reached home safe and sound ... my parents were anxiously awaiting my return, and were happy and proud to know that their five year old son could do this on his own.

The next incident happened in NDA. In our second term (age - 16 years) we were required to clear our swimming test, which comprised of 25 metres of breast stroke followed by 25 metres of any style swimming and a jump from the 7 metre board. A friend and I had gone to the swimming pool on a weekday to practice this during the games period.. (this luxury was only available to second termers who were coming up for the swimming test). We both managed the 50 metres of swim and decided that we would incrementally go up the diving boards, conquering each in turn. The 1 metre was a cakewalk, followed by the 3 and 5 metres.. degree of difficulty kept increasing. We finally went up to the 7 metres area.. our hesitation was palpable but we managed to jump, after a few false starts. Our PTO was a terror and was known to push cadets down from there if they hesitated, and so we decided to do it again... this time was better but... we did not consider it good enough - a clean walk, and jump, was our aim. I suggested that we should jump from 10 metres and then 7 metre would automatically seem easy. My friend agreed and this time we trooped up to 10 metres. The view from 10 metres(33 feet) was breathtaking all around, but when we looked down, the pool looked as small as a match box, and we were pretty sure that we would fall on the concrete and not in the water. We were now very hesitant to jump. My friend was already starting to descend the stairs when I asked him to wait..."let me try once again". I looked down again and ... the ball in my stomach just grew in size.. I was about to agree with my friend when God intervened. How?

The cadets swimming timings were followed by timings for officers and families. On this day too, like every other day, some teenage girls had come to the pool, and were busy watching us .. imagine our plight.. we were scared of jumping from 10 metres and these pretty girls were looking up at us (literally). An on the spot decision was taken that we would not go down the stairs, even if we have to go back in an ambulance, because 'ab to izzat ka sawaal tha, ladkiyon ke saamne sidiyon se niche utarna gavara nahin tha'. Guess what, we both jumped ... and we fell right in the middle of the pool. Thank you girls for making it happen - hamari izzat ka sawaal tha - we both passed our swimming test without a hitch. Guess why the izzat and paltan are so important to the Army.

The next incident took place when I was flying the Vampire (age - 20 years) at Fighter Training Wing. Vampires were ready to be phased out in a couple of years. We were very close to our passing out parade and were happy that our training of 4.5 years was finally coming to an end. Each one of us had a few sorties left before POP. G was likely to get the trophy, as he was doing the best in our course. One day we were all sitting in the crewroom when we got the news that one of the Vampires had crashed.. the pilot was G. The body was recovered and a funeral was held. All of us cadets were shaken up - G was our best pilot. In the good old tradition of the Air Force, we had a bar session in the cadet's mess, with all our instructors attending. They tried to raise our morale over drinks and tried to help us overcome our grief. Some of us had apprehensions about flying the Vampire - it had taken away our best pilot. To help us overcome our fears, four instructors took off in four Vampires and carried out low level strikes over the airfield. This display was stunning, as we had seen nothing like this before. Some of our faith in the aircraft was restored, and cadets started looking cheerful.

We were to fly in the afternoon and I happened to be the first solo that taxied out after this display. My heart was pounding like mad and I just could not think rationally.. and then it so happened that while doing the vital checks before takeoff, my harness would not lock. I remember rationalising to myself that I should go back to dispersal, and declare the aircraft unserviceable.... my thoughts were, "in case I abort takeoff my head will go and hit the gunsight, because my harness is not locked". And then my other self said that, "this is just an excuse, I am scared". "What is there to be scared about"? "Haven't the instructors flown and done some amazing manoeuvres on this very same aircraft". This internal dialogue continued for what seemed like a lifetime and then I decided that I would take-off. I can still recollect that this was one sortie in which every sound/ movement/ gauge flicker would make my heart thump so loud that I could feel it in my mouth for most of the flight. Luckily I landed safe and slowly got my confidence back and got over my fear. What if I had turned back that day? I don't have an answer until this day.

The next recollection of fear is when I came up for my dark night syllabus on the Jaguar. Our CO decided that dark night should be done over the desert to make it realistic... big cities have too many lights and it is not dark enough. We thus went on a detachment to a desert base. We flew a few sorties by moon phase and these were not too bad, compared to our permanent base. The first dark night sortie at low level, I was required to level out at 500 ft, fly a route for about 35 minutes and then do a dummy bombing run over the range. Take-off was normal with the entire flarepath lit infront of me, but once the aircraft was climbing, and in the air, with the flarepath left behind, it became so pitch dark that I could hear my heart pounding away.. fear had crept in again... I tried to level-out at the designated height.. I was pushing the stick forward with all my strength... my muscles were taut and tiring out, pushing forward on the stick, but the instruments showed that my aircraft was continuing to gain height... I couldn't get myself to level out the aircraft.....I kept telling myself to believe my instruments BUT I just couldn't level the aircraft. Finally I managed to level the aircraft about 1800 ft higher than the planned height. Cursed myself for being a chicken, and then gradually descended to the planned height. Every sortie thereafter I was getting better.. next levelled out at 1200 ft above, then 1000, then 700 and eventually managed to level out at the correct height.. training, frank communications between professionals and a very understanding CO all helped me in reaching the desired state.

Each one of these incidents had something to do with fear about the physical self - be it fear of the unknown as a child; fear of getting hurt on landing up on the concrete; or fear of getting killed in an older generation 'soon to be retired' aircraft; or of hitting the ground while flying at low level by dark night. Fear in all the above cited cases, was generally irrational and could only be overcome by an inner dialogue, company of other humans, a sense of izzat, training and communications. Did it require courage - most certainly yes, I believe.

My grand daughter is fearful today of climbing down the staircase. Will she need to overcome this fear and exhibit courage to do this on her own, for the first time at least?


How do we know said...

all your posts, are a treat to read..

MRC said...

So many of the incidents that you've mentioned, sound so familiar , yet I loved reading about them:)
I agree with your definition of courage and I believe your grand daughter will have her first lesson in courage the moment she takes her first unassisted step down the stairs, when she thinks no one is watching over her, but she just HAS to go downstairs.

Balvinder Singh said...

You are right JP, courage is always in the face of fear. In fact while we are afraid our mouth goes dry, our body starts shivering, our voice gets husky, our logical thinking goes haywire and many more such physical symptoms start showing. It is there that either one chickens out or the courage takes over. The force behind the courage can be any thing like the memory of some loved one, the advice of the elders, the prestige of the paltan and the country, chanting of a mantra and some times a young pretty girl watching. You have experienced all such situations , i must say and have described them so well. Very interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

J P Joshi said...

HDWK: Thank you for reading my random thoughts.

MRC: All of us go through such incidents and each one of us has his/ her own moments; some stay with one for life, others are forgotten, I believe. Later in life when one looks back, one wonders what was it that scared you, but these moments are real when they had actually happened.

I am witness to her fears and courage because I have witnessed her at close quarters for some time. Her standing up, her first step, her getting off the bed, her getting on the bed, her first running step, etc. etc. Later in life she would not remember but I have been witness to her apprehensions, hesitations, fright, etc. Life is interesting - child sure is the father of man.

J P Joshi said...

Balvinder: Thank you. The physical symptoms that you mention are so real when fear happens to take over. A courageous act seems courageous to the onlooker because one cannot see the insides of another. Any good public speaker is brilliant while speaking, but I have read any number of times that even the best have their moments of dry throat and choked voices before they start speaking.