Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lead, Kindly Light

Nanu Nair and Chacko were bosom pals. Nearly the same age, they lived close by in a Malabar village. While Nanu Nair was a native, Chacko’s parents had migrated from faraway Travancore in the early 1920’s. They had bought a parcel of land close to the homestead of Nanu Nair’s parents. The migrants were hardworking. They cleared the wild growth and cultivated tapioca, bananas and coconut. They were thrifty and invested the surplus in more land where rubber was planted. In a couple of decades, the two families were on par in their economic (and hence) social status.

The two friends had studied in the same school. After schooling, Nanu Nair inherited the Village Adhikari’s job from his father. Chacko worked for a few years in his father’s farm. That was when the Second World War broke out and the army started massive recruitment. Chacko took a break from agriculture and his wife Mariamma to join the army. This stint took him to several places within and outside India, introduced him to different climes and people and exposed him to new experiences.

Chacko had to return to the village when his father expired because there was nobody else to attend to the farm. So, after two decades of service in the army, he sought and was granted superannuation. Nanu Nair was delighted that Chacko was returning to the village for good. They could spend the evenings in each other’s company reminiscing of their school days, discussing everything under the sun and considering the riddles of the world.

Soon, a pattern emerged. During the day, they would be busy in their own farms, but, in the evening, the two would, after a wash, amble towards the village market. After a while, they would walk back and end up in the house of one of them where they would be in each other’s company till dinner-time.

Chacko would narrate his exploits in Burma or the warfront in Mongolia and Nanu would be all ears, as if hearing it for the first time. Nanu Nair would recite romantic poems by popular poets like Changampuzha or the naughty couplets of Venmony. Mariamma or Devaki Amma, depending on which house the pals happened to be in on the day, would be at a respectable distance, eavesdropping and enjoying their conversation.

The two pals were similarly placed in nearly all aspects. Both had retired from service, were reasonably well off, and respected in the society. Both had their pension to supplement the income from the farm. Their children held small government jobs in the nearby town. They were married and would visit the parental homes when the schools would close. But for those occasional reunions, it was just the old man and his wife in the respective houses.

There was one difference, though. And it was a major difference. Apart from pension, Chacko had access to the military canteen where he could pick up stuff at prices much lower than the market rates. As a retired soldier, he was entitled to a couple of bottles of liquor too. Chacko would cater to the needs of his friend’s household, much to the gratitude of Devaki Amma.

Come the first of every month, Nanu Nair and Chacko would catch the bus to the town, go to the treasury to collect the pension, head to the canteen to collect the provisions and return by noon. The provisions included the liquor that was Chacko’s due.

Unlike other evenings, Chacko would not step out. Nanu Nair would proceed towards his friend’s house where they would share a drink sitting on the bench in the sit-out lit by the hurricane lamp suspended from the the ceiling. Nanu Nair would listen, for the nth time, to Chacko’s narration of his exploits in Burma or the warfront in Mongolia.

This happened in one of the monsoon months. It had rained hard throughout the day. The pensioners could leave for the treasury only by half past eleven. By the time they returned their routine in the town, it was three in the afternoon and it was still drizzling. By late evening, there was a let-up in the rain.

Chacko was waiting for him as Nanu Nair walked to the friend’s house, his feet wet from the raindrops on the blades of grass. Chacko went in and re-emerged, with the bottle of firewater in his right hand. As if on cue, Mariamma appeared with two glasses and a jug of water. The usual recital of poems, recounting of stories and jokes followed.

Though it was getting late, there was no sign of the friends winding up the session. Mariamma who was feeling sleepy after the day’s chores, took leave of them and went to bed, telling Chacko that his dinner had been laid. The two friends traded some smutty jokes and by the time they decided to call it a day, it was half past ten. Both were sozzled.

Though it was not raining, the sky was overcast. The night was dark. (Did I say this was in the 1960s when the village had not yet been electrified, not to speak of street lights?) Chacko offered his flashlight to Nanu Nair.

‘I know my way about,’ replied Nanu Nair, declining the thoughtful offer.

‘There may be reptiles on the way,’ cautioned said Chacko and insisted, ‘Carry this lantern. You can return it tomorrow.’

As the footsteps of Nanu Nair receded, Chacko asked him, ‘Is the light enough? Can you see the ground you are walking on?

‘Oh, yes. Very well.’

‘Still, be careful. Better safe than sorry.’


The next morning, the sight Devaki Amma saw in her sit-out surprised her. What was Mariamma’s pet parrot in its cage doing in this house?

Saturday, May 02, 2009

May Day Thoughts

Today is May Day. The thoughts that cross my mind when I hear the phrase are not those of the gore and blood that the streets of Haymarket in Chicago witnessed this day in 1886 when the police fired on workers agitating for an eight-hour day, killing a dozen strikers.

The May-day has another connotation – totally unrelated to that. It is an international radio-telephone signal word identified as a distress call, sort of an SOS message. It has it origins from French venez m’aider (pronounced ‘venay may-day’) meaning ‘Come help me!’.

Talking of SOS messages, what does SOS stand for? ‘Save Our Souls’ did you say? Or ‘Save Our Ship’? Or ‘Save Our Sailors’? Wrong. Unlike abbreviations that evolve from expansions (which are too clumsy to be handled with ease), these expansions, you may be surprised to know, were ‘invented’ after the ‘abbreviation’ was born. SOS is an example of what they call a backronym.

It is difficult to believe, but SOS has no expansion. There is an interesting, if tragic, story behind it. When Titanic, the huge English passenger liner, hit an iceberg on the 14th April 1912, her ship's telegrapher broadcast a cry for help. As the radio operator on the Californian, a ship only a few miles away, had gone off duty, he never heard the Titanic's distress messages.

More than 1,500 people died. Shaken by the disaster, an international conference decided three months later that at least some ships should be required to have 24-hour radio watches, and adopted ‘SOS’ as the international distress call.

But why SOS? Here’s why. The Morse code initially used by the telegraph and later adopted by the radio officers (nicknamed by sea-dogs as Marconi for obvious reasons) on ships, consists of dots ( . ) pronounced ‘dih’ and dashes ( – ) pronounced ‘daah’. S is represented by three dots and O by three dashes. The operator found that ‘dih-dih-dih, daah-daah-daah, dih-dih-dih’ was a sequence of sounds easy to make. Its unmistakable rhythm made it easy for the person at the other end to identify. Thus it was that the easily recognized SOS came to be adopted universally as a distress signal.

I have been enamored by the telegraph ever since my childhood when I visited my father in his office in Cochin one evening. He was a Telegraph Master in that commercially important port town and there were several ‘telegraph machines’ in his office. The ‘machine’ was nothing but a simple spring-loaded key made of shining brass, mounted on a 3”x5”X1” polished teak wooden piece. Before them sat men and women with queer surnames like Bradbury, D’Couto, Rozario, Gomez and Fernandes. They would be tapping away messages to other cities or decoding the arcane dih- daah-dih from faraway towns into messages. To my young mind, the notion that words could be transformed into metallic sounds and transmitted across the wires to distant destinations where they would be decoded was fascinating, to say the least.

The first time the Morse code was used in public was on the 24th May 1844, when inventor Samuel F B Morse demonstrated his invention to members of Congress by tapping out "What hath God wrought?" on a line from Washington to Baltimore.

It signalled (pun intended) the beginning of a worldwide communications revolution. Here was the cutting edge technology of those times. The telegraph radically changed national and international business, the ways wars were fought and the way news was gathered and disseminated. By 1872, the globe was wound by more than 650,000 miles of overland telegraph wire and 30,000 miles of submarine cable. An estimated 20,000 communities were ‘wired to the world’.

With the invention of the wireless radio telegraph in the 1890s, the reach extended to ships at sea. The first rescue at sea as a result of a wireless distress call came in 1899 off the coast of England, and the use of maritime wireless spread rapidly. But there was a flaw in the system, which was dramatically demonstrated in the Titanic tragedy.

With technological advancement, faster and more reliable means of communication were invented and as time sailed on, the significance of the Morse code dwindled. Radio-telephones, teleprinters, telex machines, fax, cellphones and internet invaded the scene in quick succession. By 1981, radiotelephones were mandatory for commercial ships, making radio telegraphy redundant. As satellite communication has superseded the Morse code, International Maritime Organisation decided to phase out its use progressively. Most countries have already made the switch. Perhaps none of the farewells to Morse code has been so poetic as the French. ‘Calling all,’ a French signal operator at Brittany tapped out on the 31st January 1999, as she signed off, ‘this is our last cry before our eternal silence.’