Table For One

In a Post-Truth world, I am wary of messages on social media. But a recent one has got me thinking for some time now. And having just watched  71 – a hard-hitting independent British movie about a soldier inadvertently left behind on the riot-ridden streets of Belfast at the peak of Northern Ireland conflict, I began to realize the enormous significance of hope in the midst of fear and violence.

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A Still from ’71                                                                                   Photo Courtesy: The Guardian

At National Defence Academy, India’s premier training institution for young military cadets, the dining hall is a prime attraction for outsiders. Officially known as the Cadets’ Mess, it has a seating capacity of 2100 cadets at one time. But little do people know that just outside, stands a solitary table set just for one with its chair tilted forward. This arrangement is in remembrance of all those brave souls either Missing In Action or taken Prisoners of War.

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On the table is a vase with a single rose indicating the love of the families who still hope for their return.  Tied around the vase is also a red ribbon to show solidarity with all who demand a proper accounting of the missing. The candle on the table is never lit, symbolizing lack of light and happiness in their absence.  A slice of lemon placed on the bread plate stands for their bitter fate while the salt is reminiscent  of the tears shed by their loved ones. Finally the glass is upturned indicating that they cannot dine with us tonight.

What a remarkable symbol of the sacrifice of all those who left to do their duty by their country but never came back!

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“Let the chair remain tilted

Let the lonesome table still be set

The candle keeps its dark vigil

lest we forget, lest we forget !”

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Should it come to this…?

On a day that I received a whatsapp forward with a link to a news report about a most unsavoury incident regarding two services wives, I was sceptical. So much of fake news is afloat on the internet that I don’t bother to go to the link unless I recognize the name of the news site.

But because this mentioned a specific incident, I decided to click on the link. The details I will not go into but for the purpose of this blog only indicate that a lapse in military etiquette escalated into an incident of reported physical assault. Fortunately I personally know neither individual involved but unfortunately I am all too familiar with the situation. Services wives throwing around the ranks of their husbands and using it to humiliate younger ladies is one side of the picture while on the other side is a pressure-cooker environment where otherwise ordinary personalities crack under pressure of expectations from the upper hierarchy and break out in unacceptable behaviour.

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The army is too vast, varied and hence complex for anyone to come up with easy solutions to such problems. All that I realize is that with every passing day is that it becomes more difficult for the organization to live in a cocoon and pretend that it will remain forever untouched by the rapidly changing interpersonal, socio-economic dynamics of the larger society. Equally undeniable are challenging working conditions of military officers which in turn determine their special social and gender codes. The way ahead probably lies somewhere in between and would require reorientation at every step but till it is found, some sensitivity and mutual respect would, I think, go a long way…

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