Monday, November 24, 2008

Sunset blues

The Sainik Ashram at Kochi caters to the Army veterans who took part in World War II. Abandoned for the most part by their families, staying in the ashram allows them to live lives of dignity. But the lack of a government pension is galling to all of them

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ravindran Nair, a soldier in the British Army, was stationed in Baghdad, in 1945, during the Second World War. One day while he was standing guard, with two other soldiers, at a roadblock, he saw a trio of Iraqi soldiers, with guns, crawling stealthily towards them.

Ravindran took aim with his .303 rifle and shot dead one soldier, the bullet piercing the forehead. The other Iraqis got up and ran away.

"I did not feel bad about killing the soldier because they were planning to attack us," he says.

Mark David saw action on the Burma front. "I killed two Japanese with my .303 rifle," he says. He was shot at and a bullet was lodged in his back for several decades. It was only last year that it was finally removed.

Suresh Prasad was a dispatch rider based in Rangoon, Burma. "One day while I was on my way to deliver messages on my motorcycle I saw Japanese soldiers at a distance firing away," says Suresh.

He hid the motorcycle by the side of a hill and jumped into a trench. "The bullets flew over me," he says. He stayed the night and at dawn, escaped on his vehicle.

More than 60 years later Ravindran, Mark and Suresh are colleagues at the Sainik Ashram in Kakkanad, a suburb of Kochi. There are 17 other inmates and they share a large dormitory. The men range in age from 60 to 89 years. All of them were members of the British Army during World War II. Once the war got over, they were demobilised and spent several years doing small jobs and raising their families.

But now at the sunset of their lives, their families have turned their backs on them. Ravindran's older son is an alcoholic who harassed him regularly. Unable to take it any more, he took shelter in the ashram. "My wife stays with my younger son," he says.

Mark, who, at 89, is the oldest in the ashram, has four daughters. But they don't want to look after him. "My wife lives with my daughter, Susan," he says. "I don't get along with her. She tried to poison me once." So he came to the ashram in order to live in dignity.

Suresh, 84, has six middle-aged children -- four boys and two girls -- and 13 grandchildren. "All my children are financially well-off, but they do not want me to live with them," he says, as his eyes fill up with tears. "So I have come here."

Administrator K.N. Sivaram is not surprised. "Around 70 per cent have not been treated well by their children and have taken refuge at the ashram," he says. "The concept of children looking after ageing parents has disappeared, thanks to the breakdown of the joint family. Nowadays, the younger generation only thinks of themselves."

On a sunny Tuesday morning in November, the men sit around a long dining table watching television. A couple of them read newspapers. Two men are sleeping in the dormitory.

Astonishingly, for the benefit of visitors, Mark, notwithstanding his advanced age, sings a rock and roll song, 'I love you', and shakes his hands and legs vigorously. Most of them do yoga and body-stretching exercises in a roofed enclosure in the early mornings.

The ashram is the brainchild of Col. (Retd.) K.B.R. Pillai. One day, in the early nineties, he saw a group of men holding a satyagraha in front of the Naval Base. "They were World War II veterans who wanted to get a pension for their services to the country," he says. "I did not know there was a group like this. So I thought, 'Let me do something for them.'"

When, as a founder-president, he suggested the idea of an ashram to the Kerala Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association, the members were enthusiastic. In 1997, the association hired a building at Palarivattom and started the ashram. Initially, there were eight inmates.

At this time, an article on the ashram, written by noted journalist, Leela Menon, appeared in the New Indian Express. Colonel S. Pope, the secretary-general of the British Commonwealth Ex Services League, who was visiting India, read it, while in Bangalore. "He expressed a desire to visit the ashram," says Pillai.

At Kochi Pope told Pillai that even though he had visited many Commonwealth countries, this was the first time he had seen such a venture. He went back to England and collected 10,000 pounds from ex-British officers in the Indian Army and sent it. "At that time, it came to Rs 6 lakh," says Pillai. "It was the turning point."

Then a certain Major M. Parameshwaran died and his children donated Rs 50,000. So the association suddenly had Rs 6.5 lakh, where, before, it had nothing. The members used the money to buy the land and construct the building at Kakkanad.

Thereafter, the association has generated its own funds. "We earn money by employing servicemen in various self-employment schemes," says Pillai. "We run security and taxi services. In the ashram we sell fish that we breed in aquariums. All the profits are ploughed back into the ashram."

Most of the inmates say they are happy, but all of them have one grouse: the lack of a government pension. Says Ravindran: "Nowadays, even the personal assistant of a minister gets a pension. What has he done for the country? We have braved storms and heat and bullets. Why are we being denied a pension?"

Pillai says it is true the veterans served the imperialist British army, but at that time it was the government in power. "So why should they be faulted for that?" he says. Numerous representations have been made, at the state and the centre, but since these veterans do not represent a powerful vote bank, nobody is interested.

(Some names have been changed)

(Copyright: The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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