4 Large Rum
Early morning 5 AM, on detachment at a flying base somewhere in the South-Western sector. I was driving my official Gypsy towards the operations room. The Met Briefing was planned a bit early today for a 6:30 take off. It was rather dark and cloudy.
As there was no flying taking place at this time of the day, I was leisurely driving past the Delta taxy track humming an old favourite Bollywood song. My young Adjutant Flt Lt Sheikh stoically seated beside me was quietly bearing the out-of-tune lyrics emanating from my horsy vocal chords. How I loved a captive audience!
Suddenly Sheikh spotted some activity at the far end of the taxi track and I turned my vehicle in that direction to investigate. As we came closer, we discovered it was our Sqn Safaiwallah NC (E) Swamy who was furiously sweeping a dusty portion of the taxy track where some gravel and loose stones had crept over to the operating surface.
Seeing the Gypsy come closer, he paused and saluted us. “Hey Swamy what are you up to early morning today?”, I asked.
“Sir, the taxy track has to be cleared before the flying starts. Even a single pebble if left behind can possibly get ingested in the intake and an engine failure can take place.”, said Swami with a touch of pride. “And if you don’t mind Sir, may I continue with my sweeping, there is not much time left before the aircraft taxy out”.
Leaving Swamy to his affairs, we turned back towards the ops room. I remarked “Hey Sheikh, I was actually quite amazed at his awareness levels with respect to flight safety and also impressed with his sincerity.”
“Sir, you don’t know this guy. I have seen him from close quarters and he is really remarkable. He can single-handedly take on the job of four guys and never complains about any kind of workload.”
Swamy was indeed a singular force-multiplier for the squadron and was regularly commended and awarded for his sincerity and hard work. In due course, he got posted out and so did I. I happened to meet Sheikh a few years later in a mess bar and somehow the nostalgic conversation veered towards Swamy.
“Sir, Swamy did well for himself after leaving the squadron. In fact, he was a member of a UN mission to Sudan and returned a couple of years back. He saved enough money to buy a house for his family in the outskirts of Bangalore.”Sheikh continued, “After coming back, Swamy got posted to an Officers’ mess in the North-East. That somehow became his undoing.”
“You mean?”, I queried inquisitively.
“Sir, early sunset, bad company, away from family and easy availability of liquor. He became a hopeless alcoholic within a year or so. Now, he is getting treated for ADS (Alcohol Dependency Syndrome) in Command Hospital, Bangalore.”
“I wonder if I can be of any help?”
“Not much Sir. The doctors are doing their best and he is responding to the treatment. Being close to the family has also helped”, Sheikh reassured me.
For some reason, I could not finish the drink I was holding and excused myself for an early dinner.
“Mess Waiter Civilian Raju” replied the diminutive, frail and submissive looking gentleman standing in front of me when I queried him regarding his name. I had just taken over as the Mess Secretary of a newly-inaugurated Officers’ Mess which was in its absolute seminal stage. Raju escorted by the Mess Sgt was not used to such close scrutiny and looked everywhere around fidgetily. He would not just look straight and meet my eyes. A few more general questions and I let him off.
Since the mess was just establishing, a dozen or so mess staff had been posted to us under local arrangements. Essentially, the other messes in the area had been asked to shed one or two of their existing staff to help us out. Raju was one of them. Needless to say, the messes had responded to the diktat but took the opportunity to get rid of their so-called worst guys.
Within a month, we discovered the individual traits and personalities of each of the chosen ones. The cooks needed a refresher course badly and almost all of them probably needed to relearn their trade and attend a finishing school to overhaul their self-grooming skills. Mess waiter Raju had no such problems as it appeared that he had been taught well during his joining days. His problem as we discovered, was different but not quite unlike Swamy’s.
Raju would drink heavily at night and it was almost impossible to get him over for the morning shift. We found out that he had made friends with the barman and would regularly seek out unsuspecting officers to sign “4 Large Rum” for him.
Despite our best efforts to cut off his liquor supply, Raju would always find an ingenious way to procure his daily quota. Tipping by officers in the form of a couple of bottles after every party was cheap and convenient. This tradition was not helping matters in any way.
Taking the bull by the horn, we started a de-alcoholism program in the mess. Repeated counselling, close monitoring and a total ban on liquor tipping. All tips would be now in the form of contribution to a staff welfare fund. Family gifts were procured from the fund for every festival and distributed to the staff.
Well, we practically tried everything under the sun to wean Raju and the others away from this vice. Raju off course had crossed a medical threshold and we had to admit him to the hospital for a damaged liver and ADS rehabilitation treatment.
Thankfully our efforts started paying dividends. The food improved drastically , well not 5 star standard but good enough. The remaining staff also became regular, efficient and well-turned out. Overall, there was energy and pride which was now quite visible.
Raju was the tougher nut to crack but showed a great deal of refreshing change after coming back from the hospital. Knowing the shockers people like Raju can produce if they ever go into regression, we were never too sure if had indeed turned a new leaf. We all hoped that he had.
Life throws up surprises and sometimes pleasant ones. It was unmistakably the morning after Diwali and a holiday. There was a knock on the door and my better half opened it. The unannounced visitor was Raju’s wife Amrita draped in a festive saree with a kid in tow. She was beaming with happiness and had come over to wish and thank us with a small box of sweets.
While Reeta made her comfortable, she said, “Madam, this time the Diwali was really blessed. And I want to share something in confidence.”
“What is it Amrita?” my wife asked her.
“Madam, it is the first time in so many years that Raju has not beaten me and the kids after getting drunk on a Diwali night!” Amrita sobbed in joy.
Reeta hugged her but could not hide her glistening eyes as well.
With intoxicating nostalgia,
Postscript: While we fight over Canteen liquor quotas and multiple excise scams, let us spare a thought for the impacted families of Swamis and Rajus when we sign that “4 Large Rum” tip.
First published at seekmediation.com on 28/08/22
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