It was August 1947, a euphoric time in India. After two hundred years of repressive colonial rule, the British were leaving India, and India was to become an independent democratic country. There would be week-long festivities in every city.
We lived in a close-knit community of about sixty people in Kolkata and father was broadly acknowledged as a community leader. So, understandably, Colonel Grover approached father with a proposal.
Grover had an interesting background. His father, an adventurous man, had left India and started a successful trading business in Singapore. Business did not interest Grover and he did an even more adventurous thing. He had heard of an Indian politician who had struggled for India’s independence from British rule for years and then, skeptical of England’s generosity to grant freedom to its richest colony, had surreptitiously gone to Japan and started forming an overseas army of Indians that would fight back into India. Grover found a way to reach Tokyo from Singapore and join the Indian National Army.
The Burma (now Myanmar) front was important to the allied powers, and the British army, composed mostly of Indian soldiers, fought back hard. The Indian National Army lost the battle. Grover was captured, tried by an English magistrate for sedition, but was shrewdly represented by patriotic Indian lawyers and was eventually set free. With oncoming independence, soldiers who had joined the Indian National Army became heroes in the eyes of Indians. Grover basked in that glory.
Father assented to the proposed event and the training began in earnest. Every morning thirty persons would march in unison, practice running up the flag and then salute it as a group. Grover watched like a hawk and insisted on perfect posture and coordination. I was eight years old. I watched the proceedings with rapt attention. My admiration for Grover, his energy and tenacity, grew every day.
Then came the much-awaited day, 15 August 1947. India became an independent republic after two hundred years of colonial subjugation. Flags flew on top of every house. Radios blared patriotic songs. Local bands marched in the streets playing martial music. In our community the program went like clockwork. Father said a few welcoming words and emphasized the importance of the day. Then the group of thirty marched, raised the national flag and finally saluted in flawless split-second coordination. Everybody congratulated Grover on the success of his elegant choreography.
As the assembly dispersed, and Grover started walking away from the scene, I wanted to tell him how moved I had been by the spectacle. I did not have words to express my great admiration. So, to tell him that I had watched everything and admired all, I clicked my heels and raised my right arm and saluted him – just the way I had seen him teach others to do.
Grover then marched directly to my parents and loudly declaimed, “I am sorry but I had to teach a lesson to your son. He mocked our salute to the flag, and it was a despicable thing to do.”
Years have passed since then. I could never forgive Grover, for not just misinterpreting a simple act of admiration as an act of mockery, but for his arrogance in believing that his interpretation alone could be the only one and for his refusal to entertain any doubt that might have induced him to ask me before striking me. So complete was his certainty that he went to my parents and confidently asserted that he had administered me the appropriate instruction.
My career has since placed me in the proximity of several professionals whose confidence in the quality of discipline they learned in military training is deep and unbounded. They often remind me of Grover. I shiver at the thought of the havoc such highly disciplined people wreak in life.