Ahead of his time

"Well anyway, I would never join the Army," said my 17-year-old nephew with finality. We had been discussing a career in the armed forces and he had remained unmoved by all my arguments. His objections were well known. An MBA with a multinational firm received a higher starting pay than a General with 30 years service.

I had pointed out the several advantages of a career in the armed forces, like quality of life, spirit of companionship, opportunities for adventure, job security, dignified life in military cantonments. He remained unconvinced. Finally and somewhat hesitatingly, I touched upon the idealistic aspects like patriotism and service to the nation. I knew such talk was out of fashion but I had taken a chance. Perhaps there was still a spark of idealism in our youth which I could ignite. His derisive laughter told me all.

Later that night, as I thought about our discussion, another incident that had taken place more than 40 years ago in my school came to mind. The school had organised a talk on "Career in the Air Force" by a Group-Captain. We listened with rapt attention as he spoke about the thrills, excitement and glamour of life in the Air Force. At the end of the talk, he invited questions from the audience. Most of the questions were predictably dull and dealt with subjects like the procedure for joining the Air Force, training schedules and so on.

Then one boy got up and wanted to know about the risks in flying because parents often did not allow their children to join the Air Force for that reason. The speaker who had been expecting this question proved with well-reasoned arguments that the element of risk in flying was no more than in most other walks of life. He ended up by saying that war in any case was a risky business and those joining the armed forces should be prepared to die for the country if necessary. We nodded in agreement.

It was at this stage that a jarring note was struck. One of the boys stood up and asked, "What is the pay of a pilot?". There was a sudden silence in the hall. We were shocked. What a question? Here we were talking of dying for the country and there was this boy worried about money. Money! We were so ashamed that most of us did not even hear the answer to that question.

We cornered the boy after the lecture and told him what we thought of him. All his explanation were dismissed with scorn. For a few days he was taunted and shunned wherever he went. How naive and idealistic we were! Tainting something noble like serving the country with even the thought of money was considered unthinkable then.

I have never met the boy again after leaving school but wherever he is, he must be feeling vindicated. He knows that had he asked that same question today, those very boys would have nodded their heads and eagerly strained to hear the answer. His only fault had been that he was ahead of his time.

- by Pran Pahwa. Originally published in the Times Of India on 21st Jan. 1997

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