“Times of India (TOI) front full page obituary in color!” Major Menon in all his glory.

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Papa, Dad, Major, Abbe Buddhe (hey, old man!) are some ways my brother and I addressed our father. This is a short, simple and uncomplicated tribute to someone whose life and actions can never be described as short, simple and uncomplicated. I present to you Major Rajendran Gopalan Menon on his first death anniversary.

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He left home, without his family’s approval, to join the Indian army as a jawan (junior most soldier). Went on to be a commissioned officer, was ‘Blue in Boxing’ at the academy, graduate of the Indian Army Staff College and also earned his Army mountaineering badge. He was an obstinate and difficult officer to manage but his regiment troops loved him. Very few officers would have won a popularity contest against him. From our standpoint he was meant to be in the army and should have ended his working career with them. However, that was not to be. His ego and his brutally honest rebuttals with seniors resulted in him taking pre-mature retirement after having served for 23 years. He had never spoken to us about his adventures in the Indo-Pak war or the Bodo militancy. Even Johnnie Walker failed us in this mission. 

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His work life outside the army was equally adventurous. He started working for the King of Jamnagar (in the state of Gujarat) and was responsible for the administration of many palaces, multiple properties and innumerable assets. He had won the trust of the King, but also made many enemies. This led to an attempt on his life in the open streets of Jamnagar. In true Bollywood movie style, he was attacked by a rival group in broad daylight. They, however, failed to smash his head with a metal rod, when on two occasions he barely managed to block the strike with his hand. This resulted in him gaining notoriety in the community and among his rivals as a tough ‘son of a bitch’.  

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Later in the state of Maharashtra, he created a niche in the industrial circle as a fearless front for companies dealing with rogue unions. He respected the unions till they followed the law and worked for the well being of the workers & the company. His claim to fame was a result of his courage, deep understanding of labor laws and wins against Datta Samant unions. During one of my Diwali vacations, I was home from boarding school (grade 7) and witnessed Liberty Oil Mill’s (dad’s employer) labor force on strike. These were violent times, with many managers receiving threats and some physically assaulted during their commute to the factory. Local police enforcements were called in and all managers commuted to the factory and back in armored vehicles. But not Major, he would walk (from the staff quarters) to work and ensure my mom’s blood pressure remained elevated. Late one night, he received a call from the security office, informing him about an increase in the unrest and injuries suffered by a few of the security guards. He immediately got into action and it probably was his army training, because I saw no hesitation in his mind about what he should be doing. He decided to walk to the factory once again, but this time with his Sony walkman, headphones and a torch light. I remember asking him to call for the armored vehicle and take the safe way to work. He simply stated “Beta (son), these jokers are cowards and I cannot let them think I am scared.” The walkman started playing music in full volume and he left home. I went to a window in the house, from where we could see the factory at a distance and joined my mother. Till date, I have not asked her what she thought or if she had even tried to stop him from leaving the house. In later days, I heard from many folks about how Major Menon walked right through the mob, with them shouting abuses, wielding instruments meant to cause bodily harm. He kept pointing his finger to the walkman and gesturing that he could not hear anything. In the town of Shahapur (in Thane district), Major Menon became a legend that night. There were many such stories that I would hear and be in awe of dad. Till his final days, some of the union members visited him or called mummy to check on his welfare and pay respect. It’s hard for me to think, that these very people had threatened and abused him.

He was not all legend material. He had many flaws and had caused deep pain to his immediate family (my mother, my brother and me) and had done that very consistently. However this is the one time, that I am giving him a free pass. This is my dad in all his glory.

I was very shy to talk to anyone over the phone. I had some form of phobia during my high school/college years. The only call I would make with full confidence was to dad when he would be at work. Answering my first question “What are you doing papa?” he would reply “I am masturbating!” He would follow that with a loud laugh and later comment about how lame my conversation starter was. This had become a running joke between the two of us. During his last year he was bed ridden, unable to talk, totally consumed by Alzheimer’s and I would manage to get a smile on his face with his very particular sentence. Guess this was dad’s way of showing Alzheimer’s the middle finger and I loved it.

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You release him into a party or gathering and he would quickly turn into a live wire. He excelled at being the Master of Ceremonies and had the ability to involve everyone to participate in games, jokes and walk away from the event feeling good about themselves. His system did need Johnnie Walker and other associates to get warmed up. There were many occasions, when after a party, he would not remember anything and would not care for it. I recall one such event when after a party at our home, Major was not to be found. Mummy, our community security guard and I looked all around the house and did not find him. We went over to some of our neighbors, who were also at the party, wondering if they were having an after party. However he was not to be found. We had an elementary school, a company club house and a soccer field across our house. Now smaller groups (many of whom were also drunk) were trying to locate Major. We finally spotted him sprawled flat on the soccer field. It was a crisp Indian winter early morning and he must have decided to recount his days as the battalion soccer goal keeper! It took some effort getting him back home (he was a large man). However, after his sleep his memory was wiped clean and he made it to work dot on time. I never attribute it to his antics, but both his sons have never had alcohol. He, however, never failed to take credit for his parenting techniques. 

Watching cricket on television with him was a treat. You could turn off the volume and just listen to his commentary. I was fortunate enough to witness many such games. I remember this 1996 world cup game between India and Pakistan. Aamir Sohail (a Pakistani opening batsmen) was on fire and he was dispatching Indian bowlers all over the park. Venkatesh Prasad (Indian medium pace bowler) apart from being hit for a boundary also got some verbal chatter from Aamir and in the very next ball Venkatesh got him out (clean bowled) and gave an equally fiery send off. Papa erupted with such a war cry that would have brought down the entire apartment building. Thankfully, the Indian team went on to win that game and everyone slept peacefully in the Menon household. 

He was a dreamer and he dreamt big. Life for him was always ‘king size’ and he was a total optimist. You show him the worst case scenario and he had the ability to think about a positive outcome. This was a trait that gave him success in life and also led him to many a financial debacle. You give him Rupees 100 and he would have planned to spend 300. That would not be spent on self or his immediate family, but for the community at large and non-family members. During his last years, when Alzheimer’s had not consumed him fully, I would joke about his obituary and what he would want me to write for him. His reply as always was ‘king size’…“Son, I want a Times of India (TOI) front full page color photo and glowing words about me!”. Just for reference TOI is like the NYT in India. I would laugh and ask him to transfer the money in advance for it. 

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This was my Papa, Dad, Major, Abbe Buddhe (hey, old man!) for you.  As I type these sentences his smile, his warmth, his colorful language, his positive attitude to anything that life could present flashes in-front of me. I am certain if he is reading this post, he would be shaking his head and teasing me for being a chicken and taking the easy way out.

I sincerely request all readers to please share this post of mine and get him the views he would so enjoy. Thanks in advance to each one of you. 

Related data points:

Are you a ‘Human Manatee’?

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Our son, Yash, is an animal enthusiast and would go to any extent to observe and learn about their habitats. When he was seven, he agreed to wake up at 3am – while on vacation – and drive 2 hours to take a kayaking tour with alligators in the wild. I vividly remember this because it took a gentle whisper and he sprang out of bed all excited. Wish he would do that on school days!

For Yash’s 9th birthday, we had decided to take him to Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. A few years back, in an inflight magazine I had read about Crystal Rivers, Florida. A small city, two hours north of Orlando, known to host for Manatees in the Crystal River. The city is located around Kings Bay, which have a number of springs, ensuring that the water temperature is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. Hence, in the winter, manatees move from the cool waters of Gulf of Mexico to Crystal Rivers. This is the only place in the USA where humans are legally allowed to observe Manatees up-close in their natural habitat.

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We had booked a 3 hour tour with ‘Fun 2 Dive – Swim with Manatees’ and after a brief training session were in the boat with our crew, looking for these gentle giants. River Manatees don’t have any natural predators and their number one enemy is boat rotor blades. They eat only greens, sleep 12 hours a day, swim, rest and make babies. No wonder they live long lives!

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Honestly, what amazed me the most about Manatees, was that they did not care about the large number of humans around them – entering their natural habitat. They went about their lives — eating, sleeping, swimming and being with their loved ones — as if we never existed. They were happy! This, to me, was the biggest take away. Can we humans also remain unaffected by our surroundings, people, events and positively carry on with life in a happy state? I believe there are such people, who I would like to call ‘Human Manatees’. Psychologists from the University of California who study happiness found that genetics and life circumstances only account for about 50% of a person’s happiness. So these ‘Human Manatees’ clearly have developed traits and ways to practice them always.

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” —Benjamin Franklin

I classify myself in the category of folks who are NOT ‘Human Manatees’. For people like me, it‘s important to identify any negative drivers that adversely impact my happiness index. We all exhibit behaviors that can be recognized by ourself or loved ones as signs of not being in a happy state. Each of us will have specific signs and it is in our best interest to be aware of them. Sharing a few indicators that I have come to track for myself – also it is appropriate for me to thank my wife, who promptly alerts me when she begins to observe a pattern. 

  • Indicator 1: Eating excessively is my first marker. I may not be eating ‘junk’ food, but that is my way of trying to mask this indicator. On a bad day, for example, I may end up eating a dozen ’dates’ after a good dinner. 
  • Indicator 2: Typically, 6 hours of sleep works best for me. Then there are times when I tend to sleep longer and despite the longer sleep cycle, I wake up lacking that purpose and drive.
  • Indicator 3: Procrastinate many activities. These activities may not be critical but the fact that I have a list piling up, bogs me down.

These indicators will vary person to person. My dad used to watch TV  and play cards (the game – patience) to de-stress himself. Since 1972, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted the General Social Survey to evaluate the social climate in the United States. Regardless of education, income, marital status or age, happier people surveyed watched about 30 percent less television each week than unhappier participants. On average, the happier respondents watched 19 hours of television, compared to 25 hours for the unhappy set. 

In an ideal world I would also be a ‘Human Manatee’ not impacted by the circus around me. Until then, let me continue improving my skills for early identification and early remedial action. Cheers to all those people on this journey to being a ‘Human Manatee’.

Related data points:

 

15 minutes of hell: My first sprint triathlon

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In grade 7, I registered for a diving event – with one catch, I did not know how to swim! My only objective was to add participation points on the scoreboard for my team. We were not doing well in the event – low registration numbers was one of the factors. It was a decision, not under any compulsion or peer pressure, but self driven. Guess I am a good team player.

I had seen the diving pool and also witnessed some of our seniors practice. Was very confident of reaching the edge of the pool and being able to grab the inner railing and make my way out. On our first day of diving practice, I made my way up to level 1 of the diving board. No hesitation, no fear, I took position and jumped – my first dive ever. Here I would like to note, that I had been in swimming pools before – where the water level was low enough that I could stand and have fun with my friends. So in my defense I was not alien to water bodies. 

Popped out soon to catch a breath and then tried to swim to the inner railing. It was close and in just a few strokes my out stretched hands would get there. Then I remember not being able to make it. Memory fades a bit, I recall hearing the coach use his whistle and some seniors jumped in and pulled me out. The commotion had not rattled me. Then my coach asked me “Do you know how to swim?”.  Something he must now do before all newcomers line up for their first dive. When he understood my reason to participate and the fact that team ranking was my only goal, he laughed. The next few days I dived with a rope around my hip and he would pull me to the railing. Soon we did away with the rope and I was able to make it to the inner railing. Now that was my initiation to becoming a swimmer!

Fast forward 21 years, when my son was born, i knew he would learn how to swim early in life. He started his swim lessons at age 4 and today enjoys his time in the pool, in the deep end too! Watching him during his swim lessons rekindled the thought of learning to swim. I started in the lap pool and over a brief period was able to make it to the other end – 25 meters. However this pool was 6 feet at the deep end and I could stand to safety. I struggled getting better in the water and my progress stalled at 4 laps. Have to emphasize here, I had completed 2 full marathons and multiple half marathons. So, stamina or endurance was not my issue. 

Chitra, my wife, suggested registering for a local sprint triathlon event. She was convinced that setting a goal and investing the registration dollars would give me enough drive to do better and be more disciplined in my training. So at the age of 42, I registered for my first sprint triathlon and began focusing more on my swim training. Slowly I progressed to completing 8 laps but was unable to do more. My event was 8 months away, when I spoke to my friend and workout buddy Chandu, an anesthesiologist. He volunteered to give me some basic coaching. Either he was a true friend or Chitra and he were planning to get me out of their way. His presence with me in the pool and motivation was a turning point. We began doing around 14 laps but my poor form ensured I was getting winded. In the event I had to cover 375 meters swim which was around 16 laps, cycle 13.1 miles and run 3.2 miles. 

Enter coach Georgia with whom I signed up for some personal swim lessons. She knew my goal and helped me with my technique and I was able to see huge improvements. I invested in a good road bike and my training was now in full swing. With 2 months to my event, confidence levels were reasonably good, a very supportive wife on the home front and friends motivating me, I had a good shot at completing the event. 

On race day, pressure was high and watching better swimmers, who had earlier starts, complete their swim in 4 to 7 minutes did not help my nerves. My time had come and I started strong, however after about 50 meters in the deep waters I experienced my first ever panic attack. With hundreds of people in the open water I felt like a rock! My mind was unable to control to my arms and legs. I was sinking!!40f8f542-04f7-4aad-9591-7b0695d91ab4

Barely managed to grab on to the buoy at the 75 meter round-about and hold onto for dear life. There were many others who were in a similar state. Two life guards were in the water trying to pull some folks to safety. Many thoughts crossed my mind and more importantly I was able to take a few deep breaths. This break would have been around 30 to 45 seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. I began to swim again, however very soon I had the same sinking feeling. Now other swimmers were bumping against my hands & feet. If the first 75 meters were bad, it was only getting worse. In training, coach Georgia had taught me to roll over to backstroke, which I attempted to do. It was the right decision, enabling me to breathe deep and fast. It made a big difference, as I began to better my form and soon switched back to front strokes. This ordeal lasted 15:33 minutes and being able to stand back up on my feet never felt better. 

Transition 1 from swim to cycle took me 6:38 minutes and when I got onto my bike I was still not completely out of the shock. Slowly, my focus switched from saving my life to gaining lost time with my cycling speed. Both my cycling (49:07 minutes) and running (30:27 minutes) phases went as planned and my overall time was clocked at 1:45:21. IMG_5159

Looking back I could not have done this without the support of Chitra, the constant motivation from Chandu and life saving skills offered by my swim coach Georgia. So what’s next? I plan to participate in the same event again next year and my only goal is to walk out of the swim phase not having a panic attack.

Related data points:

  • School I attended: Barnes School, Devlali, Nashik, Maharastra, India
  • Event participated: Naperville Sprint Triathlon 2018
  • Others whose swimming skills inspired me: Nikhil P., Sara F. & James W.