Friday, August 11, 2017

Fault In Our Stars

Published in Deccan Herald dated 11 Aug 2017

Fault in our stars
Brig A N Suryanarayanan
He predicted a profession of artillery and a four-figure salary in 10 years.

Astrologers and palmists in peril”: Such were the headlines in
newspapers recently, alluding to the Anti-superstition Bill. That took my mind back over the years, to many encounters.

In the late fifties, a palmist in a safari suit (!) used to stand outside Teppakkulam, Trichy, from 6 pm to 7 pm. His paraphernalia: one-foot-square table, foldable stand with a till and a tiny bulb and a huge magnifying glass hanging from his neck. The rates were four annas (25 paise) for a quick palm-reading and a rupee for five written answers.

          Even four annas was a king’s ransom when coffee or masala dosa cost just 2 annas (wrongly shown as Rs 2 in DH print)! While examining the palm and rattling off names of ‘mounds and lines’ in English, he would ask for “approx age.” A brief gist in Tamil of your future would follow: studies, employment, salary, illnesses and life-span, usually ending with “No danger to life in the near future.”

In 1958, a collegemate insisted we try it for fun. Out went two four
anna coins, which he deftly moved to the line of coins. One had to follow the sequence, when he would move it into his till. He predicted a profession of artillery (I had not even finished my degree then nor planned a career) and a four-figure salary in 10 years (while graduates were only earning Rs 140 to Rs 200 in 1959). Both proved amazingly true and my friend narrates it even today.

Another encounter was with a 90-year-old blind retired Physics professor, who offered free consultation for matching horoscopes. If you read out the chart, he would calculate mentally and offer his views. There was a hitch when he compared mine (my exact time of my birth wasn’t recorded) with the prospect and told dad so.

My love-life was in danger! After a year, at my
insistence, my sister and her husband went to him again. The moment he read it, the professor said: “I had asked you to avoid it when your father had brought the same set. But, if they insist, let them (the couple) be happy for 15 years.” The time limit wasn’t revealed to me then.

It was my brother-in-law who finally broke it to me when I lost my wife after 15 years and 2 months of marriage. Two years later, when I was facing a rough patch in my career, my father-in-law took me to an astrolger in Vyalikaval, who extrapolated my time of birth as 12.10 pm. He rightly predicted that I would be rid of my troubles in three years, and I was.

As a Brigadier, I met the younger of the two famous
astrologer-brothers near Jammu where I had been the Station Commander earlier. This man predicted that my elder daughter would pass CA before the age of 23 with flying colours, join investment banking at a seaside location and later go abroad.

The same year, a colleague in Belagavi insisted I meet a ‘rice- reader’ at 5 am just to know my future. I did. He, too, predicted almost the same but insisted on seeing the girl once. While most of it came true, she passed away a few months later in Bombay. This made me lose faith in astrologers, who hadn’t warned me of the impending doom. It’s been 23 years; I have not consulted anyone since.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Speed breaker Dive Biryani

Published in Deccan Herald on  20 May 20 2017
Speed breaker Dive Biryani
Brig A N Suryanarayanan

My friend, Colonel M, a humorous paratrooper, recently underwent surgery for his back, which has only exacerbated his problem. Despite that, he narrated two hilarious incidents about himself: BS (Before Surgery) and AS (After Surgery).

I would have liked to use his humorous words, but the fear of rejection for number of words forces me to use my own. This is the BS, named by him as above.

A foodie, like Bumstead in Blondie comics, driving by a newly opened restaurant on a Saturday, he enquired if biryani would be available the next day, it being ‘no-cooking-at-home’ day. An affirmative reply gave him a sleep full of dreams with an inviting and aromatic hot biryani and accompaniments. An hour before lunchtime, he left on his errand by car.

When he did not return even after an hour, concern, worry, and near-panic, in that order, hit the Lady of the House (LoH). When he did come belated, all those feelings changed to shock, utter disbelief and horror, in that order, for the LoH at his ghastly sight. Bloodied from nose downwards, still dripping blood and in a red-stained shirt and pant, he entered and calmly said like a good paratrooper: ‘Hi. The biryani is safe. Let’s eat first; I’m OK.

Now, let us rewind. After buying the items, neatly wrapped and tightly guarded in his left hand, he was cautiously crossing the road to his car. Though there was heavy traffic both ways, a speed-breaker to his immediate left gave him confidence. One half crossed, he observed an auto-rickshaw approaching threateningly! Typical Bengaluru scene, you say? Assuming it had to slow down at the speed-breaker, he moved ahead.

Everything then happened in a blur: auto-rickshaw didn’t slow down but zoomed ahead, bumping into the paratrooper. Used to such unexpected situations, he reacted instantly with a swimmer’s dive, landing nose first on the speed-breaker, flat on the road. But, the goodies in his hand were held up, not once touching the ground. That was the one-handed speed breaker dive! It soon turned into a typical Indian spectacle with a huge crowd gathering to watch but none to note the auto’s number.

Though bleeding profusely, he wanted to get home with the packets still held aloft and intact in his left hand. ‘How can you delay and eat a cold biryani?’ A passerby who recognised him from the previous evening, drove him home. When he reached, shock, sympathy, and clean-up followed and then they gobbled up the Speed breaker Dive Biryani.

The Biryani eaten, mandatory tetanus, clean up, X-ray and Band-aid (hairline nose fracture, no stitches) and bandage on the face followed. Net result, he became unrecognisable to his own grandson who ran to his mom in sheer fright at the sight of Dadaji! To avoid painfully answering the very first question, ‘What happened to your face,’ M mailed to close friends the gory details, giving me this story!


Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Great Boat Ride on Tonlé Sap (Great Lake)

Travel Diaries: The Great Boat Ride on Tonlé Sap Lake 

(Published in Silver Talkies , e-magazine for spirited seniors on 22 Mar 2017) 


A boat ride along the Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia is a chance to see the floating life. And that’s not all, there are several more attractions awaiting the tourist from then onwards, says Brigadier Suryanarayanan. 

The grand finale of my two-week personalised tour to Vietnam and Cambodia was on 30 Dec 2016 with a day- trip to Tonlé Sap or ‘Great Lake,’ Artisans d’Anglor Silk Factory, Western Baray (Reservoir), War Museum, Killing Field (Wat Thmey), War Monument Memorial and at night, the piece-de-resistance: Apsara Dance Show with dinner at a restaurant. 

Life On Tonle Sap Lake 

Leaving at 9 am from my hotel in Siem Reap in a Toyota Etios with my young personal guide Mr Moeurn, I reached the Boat Ferry 12 km away to the south in 30 minutes and got into a wooden motor boat for a 90 minute round trip towards the floating village, Chong Khneas. While briefing me, the guide also helped me with taking photographs, alternately with my Lumix camera/cellphone. As the boat moved on, it was a great sight to behold floating villages with two distinct ethnicities: Khmer and Vietnamese — separated from each other. Chong Khneas, with approximate 6,000 residents in a group of seven villages, has a hospital, a basket ball court, three gas-stations, five schools, seven fish wholesalers, and four karaoke bars (which, along with free WiFi, is a must in every single restaurant in Vietnam and Cambodia), Police Station, Provision Stores, Church and a fresh water crocodile farm among other things… in fact, every single need ‘floating’! To have everything floating was a novelty to me, a city-dweller and so we visited some. Seeing clothes drying on hangars in floating homes guarded by dogs in the mighty lake, I wondered how the dogs could stay in such confined spaces! Such is their way of life. I saw a lone tall Buddhist Monastery on stilts standing like a beacon, as if guiding everyone safely over the vast lake.

Buddhist Monastery on stilts like a beacon

 Recently a private firm has taken over the village, making it commercial and pricey. 

Boatride-Tonle Sap: The author enjoys his boat ride on the lake 

Returning to the ferry, we moved by car to Pouk District, 15 km west of Siem Reap to see silk production in Artisans d’Angkor, where a briefing –cum-demonstration on the life cycle of a silkworm (47 days) followed, complete with mulberry leaves (their food), breeding, extraction, bleaching, refinement, weaving; and ending, as usual, in their souvenir store with finished products: scarves, stoles, hankies and more. Expensive, but one had to bring back a souvenir for the granddaughter! 

Silk Weaving Work in progress 

Our next halt was West ‘Baray’ (‘Reservoir’, in Khmer) just west of Angor Thom (one of the temples visited the previous day). Approximately 8×2 KM, King Suryavarman had begun construction in 11th Century, with a temple on an artificial island, in its middle. It was later completed by King Udayatityavarman-II in the same century. One school of thought holds it as an imaginative re-creation of the ‘Churning of the Ocean’ from Hindu Mythology, a favourite theme everywhere in Cambodia. 

Moving on, we came to the War Museum. It seemed to be a half-hearted effort with no caption-boards; guides who couldn’t speak English well; and rusted weapons and equipment. Within 20 minutes, we moved on to pay my homage at Wat Thmey, (called Killing Fields), a Buddhist Pagoda with a glass memorial stupa containing the skulls and bones of some victims of the Khmer Rouge: a reminder of their atrocities. Just a short distance on the way back was the War Memorial Monument. Inaugurated in January 2005, it honors the Vietnamese soldiers who died while freeing Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Full of replicas of Angkor Wat, it has Devas and Asuras on either side of the main entrance, ‘churning the ocean.’ It was disappointing to see the place full of rubbish with people (visitors to a nearby hospital?) stretched out. 

After an hour’s rest, I was driven to Crystal Angkor Restaurant, where I was the only vegetarian for dinner, as I had insisted on seeing the Apsara Dance even if I missed many items of food. I had earlier seen similar dance in Thailand but the desire was overpowering. It was well worth it. I didn’t miss the food either, as they produced ‘amok’ vegetarian meal. 


Tonlé Sap or ‘Great Lake’ a freshwater lake in Cambodia, is the largest such lake in Asia. Located in the Lower Mekong basin that gets sedimented due to alluvial deposits, it is a two way lake which changes drastically in size throughout the year: getting its inflow during the rainy season (May-Oct), reaching to its maximum in November (with a depth up to 14 meters) and flowing into the Mekong River for the remainder of the year. One of the world’s biggest inland fisheries, it produces 400,000 tons, i,e, 75 % of Cambodia’s national fish production. The lake feeds over 3 million people, who live around it in the five Cambodian provinces. Of these, 80,000 people live on the water permanently, spread out over 170 floating villages. Fishermen sometimes travel two days to reach the middle of the lake and spend up to a week, out fishing; some may never return. Huge waves, limited food (both because of poverty and optimum load) and risky conditions make fishermen’s average lifespan only 54 years. Orphanages exist for children of deceased fishermen. With the annual income of a household around $500, about 12% children die due to poverty, tough life, lack of medical care and mal-nourishment. 

There are over 220 different species of fish in the lake. But unbridled development is slowly leading it towards loss of marine life. Just 20 years ago, the UNESCO declared it an ecological hotspot. The government takes on the responsibility to conserve, develop and provide logistic support to such ecological projects. 

The captivating Apsara dance; The Final Bow


A visit to Cambodia is incomplete without watching the ancient art of Apsara dance, as depicted on the walls of Angkor’s temples. Special to Khmer culture, they consider Apsaras (born during ‘Churning the Ocean’) as their Mother. There were 3000 dancers in King’s Court many centuries ago exclusive to his watching, but many had been taken away to Thailand in 15th Century. It was revived only in 1995, 16 years after the fall of Khmer Rouge. Mainly some hotels organise these every evening, along with a paid non-vegetarian dinner. 

Girls are selected at age 7 and undergo 6 years training to learn 1500 intricate positions; and 5-6 more years to perfect them. Every position requires great deftness and deliberation: knees bent, heels touching the floor first at each step, coy smiles on their faces each having its own particular symbolism – a finger pointing to the sky indicates “today”, and standing sideways to the audience with the sole of the foot facing upwards represents flying. Before each performance, they are sewn into glittering silk tunics and sequinned tops for a tight fit. I watched the Blessing Dance, Coconut Shell Dance, Peacock Dance, Masked Dance and Apsara Dance. 

Brigadier Suryanarayanan 

Brig AN Suryanarayanan (Retd) is 75 years young and contributes his writing regularly to several newspapers. His first book 'Straight Trees Are Cut First' (ARMY: Process vs Practice) was published in 2009. He has recently self-published his second book, Many Laughs & a Few Tears, with proceeds going to an educational foundation for poor kids. He can be contacted on

All photographs courtesy: Author

Monday, January 30, 2017


Published in Deccan Herald dated 30 Jan 2017


Brig A N Suryanarayanan

I had my own codes to hide names of girls. Saroja used to be SJ & Kalanidhi, KLN.

After a four-day camp last year, a first for her without her parents’ presence, Maya, my 10-year-old granddaughter told me she had maintained a ‘journal’ and showed it to me. I told her, diaries are highly personal and should not be shown to others, including ‘thatha’.

She said it was a journal of daily activities as suggested by her teacher and not a diary and that she has been maintaining one for some years. I explained that it would soon start containing her feelings, which are best kept to herself. I told her it was a very good habit and that I used to maintain one myself from age 14 to 18, but discontinued it later. I didn’t tell her the reason, however.

I used to express my adolescent feelings in a diary. For instance, a girl’s smile or a playful retort or just seeking guide-books/class notes to copy or an odd occasion when 3-4 of us boys went for a picture with a girl (I recall Maya Bazaar in 1957) found a place in my diary.

The ‘diary’ was made annually out of foolscap papers cut to 1/8 size by me, stitched with a thread and placed in the plastic/rexine cover of a discarded diary. I used to keep it hidden from the dozen-plus children in our joint family, but more so from my eldest brother (older by five years), who was the most curious of all.

My elder brother had once written “catched the train” in his diary, which the eldest had stealthily seen and inadvertently mentioned in a conversation. Offended at not only his diary being read, but also at a fault being found with his English, he discontinued the diary thereafter. I had my own codes to hide names of girls, but coming from a boy of 14 in 1955, how good could they be without modern gadgets, Google or army service!

Saroja used to be SJ and Kalanidhi used to be KLN. In 1958, when I was away on an NCC Camp for 10 days, I had forgotten to carry it and ‘the curious one’ laid his hands on it and read through. The day after my return, he foolishly taunted me if I was going to meet SJ. We had a roaring fight, which led me to take out and destroy all my diaries. And, with that ended my diary keeping!

It was 41 years later that I would read about the abbreviations ‘LKA’, ‘HN’, ‘A’ etc in the Jain hawala diaries case and about 17 more years when the Sahara-Birla diaries would be revealed. How the politicians would have loved if the latter diaries, too, had only initials and not names with designations. Still, they got lucky with the Hon’ble Supreme Court dismissing the PIL!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

One more Review of my Book : "Many Laughs & A Few Tears" 
Review: Many Laughs & A Few Tears 

ON NOV 09, 2016 

Retired army man Brigadier Suryanarayanan’s book Many Laughs and A Few Tears is a fascinating account of life in the army and after it. It is also an observation of society, people and cultural norms. 

Many Laughs and a Few Tears is a book that has something for everyone. Memories of a life in the army? Check. Musings on social norms and ways of life? Check. Stories from a time gone by? Check. What made the book very interesting was to see the wealth of memory that is stored in this veteran’s mind. His ready wit is also on hand to add a dash of humour to a number of observations — right from hard to pronounce notes in Tamil to Talkative Indians chattering away on their mobile phones! 

Brigadier Suryanarayanan is an acclaimed writer of middle columns in newspapers. Many of his articles have appeared in Silver Talkies too and you can read them here. What makes the 53 stories in this book stand out the most are his army recollections. Accustomed to reading humour laced pieces by him, it was rather touching to read the chapter on his ‘Reminiscences From War.’ There are recollections of colleagues who fell to an enemy bullet, snatches of guilt at having survived while a friend fell and a peek into how transient life can be for army personnel, especially those facing the enemy. The Brigadier has suffered two personal tragedies in life. Yet as you read his writings, what shines through is his spirit and positive attitude. He seems to see humour in almost every situation. It is also perhaps the best way to deal with the cards that life has dealt him. As I read his tongue-in-cheek musing on retirement and its after effects, what stood out for me was the light for him at the end of the retirement tunnel – time spent with his granddaughter! 

There are some endearing glimpses into the Brigadier’s personal life, like an account of how he became a grinder for Idli-Dosa batter, until he bought his wife a Sumeet mixer. Like everything else, this too is edged by subtle, unmistakable humour. You can almost imagine the Brigadier sitting on an easy chair, remembering old times with a chuckle. Other endearing accounts include meeting his wife in Dehradun in 1966, when he would rush 14 kms each way on his Lambretta, just to see the love of his life walk to college and back. The innocence is what stood out for me here. What simple times! Which ardent admirer would battle traffic and do that now? The simpler times and days gone by are aptly represented in this book and readers will enjoy glimpses into slices of history here. The retired Brigadier is also a person who can laugh at himself and makes light of awkward moments in one chapter. At the same time, he is also observant of the society around him, as evident in chapters like ‘Dignity of Labour.’ His thoughts on ‘Who is a hero?’ is as poignant and incisive and makes you think of the brave people in the army, many of whom are never recognised despite making the ultimate sacrifice. 

Brigadier Suryanarayanan’s observant style of writing is echoed through the book, which makes for an interesting read, especially for those who are curious about life in the army, encounters with legends like Sam Maneckshaw and others and memories of a time gone by. Brigadier Suryanarayanan has self published this book and the proceeds from its sale will go to AVN Foundation, an educational trust for poor and meritorious students in Chennai. It’s an interesting collection of tales from a life well lived, with dignity, courage and good humour. 

You can buy the book directly from Brigadier Suryanarayanan by emailing him on or calling him on +919845254542.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Indian 'Stretchable' Time

(Published in Deccan Herald on 10 Sep 2016)
Indian 'Stretchable' Time
Brig A N Suryanarayanan (rtd)

When my younger daughter got married, the son-in-law followed stretchable time.

Captain S Ramanujam, our instructor at the Academy asked us once of the number of ways to do a thing. Our answer was: ‘Simple, sir, the right way and the wrong.’ He corrected us: ‘No, there is a third: the Army way!’ He was right; in the army if a time is mentioned, it means five minutes earlier.

Having been trained and later served for 35 years, I strictly follow it. In the army HQ, my boss would tick off even delayed seniors that while their time may not be important to them, his was to him, even if he were to be reading Blitz.

Time started having an entirely different connotation on retirement. A number of youngsters in the company I briefly worked for would always be late for the morning briefing, and when questioned would ask rhetorically if the company had lost anything. My answer was that while the company may not have, each of them had lost some of their character.

I am told that in the Indian Railways, till a few decades back, a delay of upto 30 minutes was counted as ‘on time!’ If a train was likely to be delayed further, they would let the others following to pass through, so that their statistics on timeliness would show only one train delayed on that route! I do not know if it is still so.

Once, in Ambala Cantonment, I had gone to a tailor shop to collect children’s clothes but the particular tailor was away. The owner told me: “Sahib, Pappu paanch minute ke liye baahar gayaa hai, dus minute mein wapas aa jaayega. Aap bees minute baith jayiye! (Sir, Pappu has gone out for five minutes, will return in 10, you wait for 20 minutes!)”

More was in store for me after my daughters grew up and boys would take them out for movies. I invariably questioned them on their expected time back and if they were late by even five minutes, God help them. I probably didn’t know then that when my younger daughter got married, the son-in-law followed stretchable time.

On asking what time to expect them, he would say 4 o’clock but leisurely arrive close to 5 o’clock. After a while, he started saying ‘four-ish’ and I had to say that four-ish isn’t a clock time and ask if it was my 4 or his! He understood and my daughter, too, drilled into him about punctuality. Now, he is more punctual than I!

At the parties in our colony, many guests would invariably be late; the excuse of one Brigadier is that his wife felt, he would thus have one or two drinks less, unaware that he could make all his subsequent drinks double or large! For another Major General, it would be the wife delaying in dressing up. For yet another couple, it was always an unexpected visitor landing up, even if that were untrue. And, that is how Indian Standard Time becomes Indian Stretchable Time!

Friday, July 15, 2016

Honey, I've shrunk the machines

Published in Deccan Herald on 15 July 2016
Honey, I've shrunk the machines
By Brig A N Suryanarayanan (rtd), July 15, 2016:

In the army in 1963-64, only tiny Sanyo transistors would be sold by a draw of lots.

The other day, I got a WhatsApp video showing how a smartphone or a tablet of today has shrunk over 20 different instruments that we used to have from the 1950s to the noughties into one. The same day there was an email too showing how a desktop of 1981, cluttered with many different machines, has shrunk to a laptop.

Coincidentally, we were in a restaurant the same day, where my granddaughter saw a transistor radio in a display case and asked what it was. I told her how that used to be a craze in the early 1960s, when even vegetable vendors could be seen ‘karaoke-ing’ with one hanging around their necks, belting out loud vernacular songs.

Reminiscing about ‘those days,’ the first scene that came to mind was the purchase of a valve-radio at home in 1948. Dad had six different brands and models brought – one every day – for trial and chose a GEC with 7 bands. Strict orders existed forbidding anyone from touching it; he would listen to AIR news in English and Tamil, and Carnatic songs from Trichy, Madras and Bangalore stations; and that was all.

In his absence during market/temple trips, the ladies of the house would request me, his pet, to tune to film songs from Radio Ceylon. But the moment his cycle bell was heard from a 100 yards away, I would get the band and metre needles back to the Trichy station, switch it off and disappear into my room.

Once, we didn’t hear the cycle bell warning because of the loud volume; still, I quickly put it off but couldn’t change the band. Dad had heard film music wafting from inside the house; and upon entering, he touched the top of the set and found it warm. I owned up and was excused. The radio served him faithfully for 28 years and for 16 more, till we sold our property!

Sony, Phillips and National Transistors were status-indicators. But in the army in 1963-64, only tiny Sanyo transistors would be sold by a draw of lots (10 per 30,000 troops)! I was lucky to get one. Then, scrounging from a meagre pay, the wife and I managed a Panasonic Piano type portable audio-cassette player in 1978.

It took me 11 more years to get a better one and a national VCR through a friend returning from abroad. Even a B&W Dyanora TV was difficult to own as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1979, which we bought in Rs 100-installments for 12 months and watched the Asiad 1982 in it, while posted in Delhi, despite the advent of colour TV.

Today, thinking back, I laugh to myself at the ridiculousness of it all, with everything easily available thanks to PVN-MMS or NDA. I?forgot to tell you: I have kept all the old machines nicely wrapped for display for any restaurant that may request them; but first, I must show them to my granddaughter!