Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Mentor - Maj. Sandeep Unnikrishnan

Maj. Sandeep Unnikrishnan, the mentor who taught me so many things, who showed me what all can be done with a positive attitude, whose genuine nature was very contagious and hence was extremely popular wherever he went, has always led from the front... once again he did this... and I have learned more from him yet again.

I moved to Bangalore in 1989/90, with parents in the Air force as doctors, we moved to a whole range of places in remote parts of India. This was a cosmopolitan city already; I was still getting used to the 'big' city feeling and always felt a bit out of place. I managed to get admission into the Frank Anthony Public School, Bangalore and walked into the class 8B. I was first greeted by this person tall (even in class 8th) and lanky guy with a broad smile on his face. He said, “Which school are you from?” I said I am from another city and it was probably my English accent at that point of time which immediately was self-explanatory to him. Later I realized this new friend I made had an exceptionally good command of English and was clearly above average when compared to the rest of the class.

He invited me to sit next to him, I was the only one in the class without a uniform and was in casuals, so stuck out like a wet thumb and every teacher would walk up to me to probe about my previous school. Sandy, is how I called him for the next 18 years and so did everyone in the class, would give me an assuring nod, hinting “that was not so bad... was it” / “you did just fine”. The next break we had – the short break, I was not used to a school with two intervals and time till 15:00 in the evening, and he helped me mingle with other boys in the class. That was it, there was no looking back, he took me under his wing and I kept learning things.

In the 8th standard, I realized Sandy was into so many things, ranging from sports to quizzes, debates, extempore and what not. He had an excellent general knowledge, trivia and current affair updates especially for a guy of 8th standard, and this grew every year exponentially. For sports there were divisions in school, which were decided either depending on your age or height and weight. In the 8th it was on age, and me being one of the younger ones in class, fell into a different one than Sandy. He excelled in his division, and was quite popular with the house captains and house bearers. I am not sure about that year, but I think he bagged the individual trophy for maximum points in the division. I got into debates just like Sandy, he was doing it in English and I was in the Hindi debate.

In school, we had many incidents which we would talk even now and laugh about. Some incidents where we got mischievous enough to get punished, he would never squeal and that made me so much more comfortable doing more mischief. I remember, in the 9th standard, I had carved nick names of some friends on the desk, the four of us who usually hanged around together – Ugandhar and Sushant. It happened to be his desk, and the teacher caught him. Asking him, had he done it, he said he did not but refused to tell who did it, even if he would get punished for it. That day I learned something from him, stand by your pals come what may. After the punishment he smiled at me, I thought I was going to hear it from him, but it was just a few customary 'gaalis' (abuses) and we were back at the next mischief with a stronger plan on how not to get caught.

He had an immense respect for authority; he would not indulge in loose talk about any faculty member. This taught us again. He corrected me in finer details of English and pronunciation and I taught him Hindi, by the end of it both of our abusive or 'gaali' vocabulary of both languages was something to be admired. One day in the 9th grade itself, he was writing a letter to someone, thanking them for their help and support for a certain gesture. He asked me to review the letter, can you imagine, he asked me to review a letter written in English by him. This was another thing; he trusted his friends and pals more than anything, completely unconditional. Anyway, the letter contained a line “... thank you for your priceless help and support ...”, my response to him was, “Sandy, 'priceless', amounts to being worthless, what is your intention?”, he really got confused and changed the word to something else, but he did not give up. He checked the correct usage and grammar and told me the next day. His English was really immaculate he knew the correct use and application of all 20 figures of speech (you can imagine, I was shocked to find out there were 20 figures of speech).

His Birthday always was during the exams or during the vacations, while the board exams were ongoing - 15th March. So we got invited to his place in summer vacations just after the exams by his mother for a nice Kerala meal. We used to normally share lunch-boxes in school and we were wishing and hoping to eat some nice delicacies prepared by Auntie, It was fantastic, that summer afternoon after filling ourselves with odd shaped and colored rice, amazing fish curry and fish fry, of which there seemed to be no end in supply of, as Auntie kept putting food into our plates, which vanished like there was no tomorrow. This was followed by a nice game of 'gully' cricket with some of his other pals in the ISRO quarters. I noticed his place more closely that day. I found, there as many medals and trophies that even a sports shop selling them would not stock. Obviously it was not just the 8th and 9th that I saw him in action in sports, quizzes, elocutions, debates, extempore at school, but these were all through the school time. He had bagged the individual trophy for this division as well and this time I was in the same division. I remember, when the high-jump competition was going on, he kept jumping over the bar even after the others competing with him had finished their maximum height attempts. He crossed the record, and then he jumped 2 more heights after that and wanted to still do more. The final height, he was determined to cross and did clear it in his final jump it was a new record and I think it still stands till today. He recently spoke about this, mentioning 2 out of his 14 or so records in sports were still unbroken till today.

He helped and encouraged me to get into more sports. Till the 8th, one can play in the junior team and from the 9th you can be on the senior team, so the competition is tougher to make it to the team. He obviously got into all the teams of his house and I got into soccer, due to my built maybe. He was fast... really fast. He would run and I remember he would constantly ask me to measure the steps in a single stride they were 11 and a half even in the 9th. So he won all the short races, high jump, long jump in the track and in the field he used still keep it competitive. He told me to go for the longer races, due to my stamina and I won, I couldn't believe that I could do it. This was the magic of Sandy... he would make you believe in yourself. While playing soccer, I was a back and he played forward. When we played our match (between our houses), he taught me another important thing, while on the job there are no friendships which hamper either person's performance. Even if it meant we needed to play rough against each other. He took everything he did very seriously, with great focus and determination. I remember very clearly I was defending in a match against another house, and I was clearly fouled by a senior from the 12th grade, the referee missed it, I protested and complained. Sandy was standing on the side line and shouted “'Abey'! Don’t complain! get back into the game and just play your best... run and get that ball back!”, this was I think my first match in senior team and by the end of it, I was badly bruised. We met, to discuss the after-math, he told me one thing, which I can never forget - “If you are in a game, never let the other know when you get injured, disturbed by their actions / words don't let him see you in pain, show a strong face and determination come what may”. I remember to stop limping after this. He also taught, that complaining gets one nowhere, he also never did it. In his match, with another house, I saw Sandy shoulder-pushing a senior while fighting for the ball in his own 'D', and did not give up till the ball went out of play. He did not foul at all, yet he did not give up nor did he fear getting into a physical challenge of this heavy tackle / dribble with a senior and who was much bigger and stronger than him. I was just watching with my jaw dropped. He surprised everyone on the field. He did not let the guy pass the ball except for kick it out.

He used to love watching movies. He preferred English movies, and we did not miss a chance to watch once we were done with exams or on weekday holidays. It used to be a class affair, but Sandeep and I went for movies alone as well. He would know his movie trivia very well from actors to actresses. He even remembered some dialogues which he would quote at various instances. I remember the movie 'Romancing the Stone', at Plaza on MG road Bangalore, we went after our exams in the afternoon. The particular dialogue, when Jack T. Colton (played by Michael Douglas) rescues Joan Wilder (played by Kathleen Turner), Joan asks Jack what is your name, he responds “Jack T. Colton”, she asks, “What does the 'T' stand for”, and he looks back her in the eye and says “Trustworthy”, Sandy just made mental notes and I just registered this one instance as he repeated it when we came out of the movie.

When we entered the 10th, I remember we both had undergone a drastic change in our physical appearances. Hint of muscular frame was evident. He was concerned about his lean body, but he was muscular. Studies took priority over some of the activities we would've normally done. In English we studied Language and Literature, he was strong in both. I remember, in Literature we had Julius Caesar as a work of Shakespeare, some short stories and a book of prose and poems. He knew all three very well. He used to refer to his birth date as the 'Ides of March' which, in the modern Roman times happened to be the date Caesar was assassinated (in 44 BC), but in the old Roman times the Ides of March was a festive day dedicated to the god Mars and a military parade was usually held. He did well in the ICSE examinations or the 10th board. He was also strong in Geography and History, apart from all other subjects. He had a flair for languages and humanities. In the 10th it was the first time we were to be in the annual social event at School (equivalent to a prom in any American movie), as a farewell to the outgoing students of 10th. It also happened to be the 25th Anniversary of the Frank Anthony Public School, Bangalore that year, where we had an event in the Ashok – the 5star hotel.

He made it into the ISC (or the 11th at FAPS) Science while I was on the wait-list. I finally got in, and he was again there to let me in on the new class we had a mix of toppers from various ICSE schools all over Bangalore. ISC is a tough syllabus, and the jump from 10th to the 11th was even greater. We both got into studies for some time to cope up to the level of some others in our class. Then came the 1st term exams, we had done well. Then the all familiar domain of sports started – this is a seasonal thing at FAPS. Students from the 11th grade and the 12th grade fall into a different division of their own – the Junior College. He did extremely well. I remember, we had a fast runner in our school, well recognized and he was in the 12th when we were in the 11th, so being in the same division, Sandy was running the final race alongside him. To everyone’s surprise, Sandy won the race and I think it was a record time as well.

We got into some of the inter-school literary fests, we bagged some awards, and our horizons were broadening. Everything looked bigger than the previous achievements. We made new friends. These friends became special and relationships that last even till today. We got to see the school from a whole new perspective, the teachers and what junior school really is from a seniors / faculty's perspective. We got into newer things like Basketball which we hadn't played till then. We became the interim prefects and had some Authority bestowed upon us, he took this very seriously and would become very formal at times, akin to an Army officer, that's how we used to quip in those days. Who knew, he would actually get into it. He was always fascinated by defense, and paid special attention to when I narrated some incidents from the ‘fauji’ circles.

In the social event that year, the 11th grades had the benefit of participating in all 3 events outgoing party for the 10th and 12th students, the welcoming of the 11th and the Alumni party. Apart from this, we started to have parties for Birthday or other occasions of friends outside school as well. We were learning about people and relationships. He would be very particular about things like dress code, and protocols. We again quipped, this not the Army man. Once he was not as formally dressed as he normally was, so he said “I am in formals. The pun is intended...” and smiled (between in formals vs. in-formals).

Once in the 12th, studies had become heavy and also some of our classmates were putting in much more efforts than normal. The time came for the announcement of the House bearers, Prefects and Captains. Sandy was unanimously chosen to be the Captain of his House and a bit surprisingly I was chosen to be the captain of my House. I don't think I would've been there if it were not for Sandy, for sure!

We both got very busy to arrange and organize various events and competitions which run through the year at FAPS. Every competition, every award meant points on the overall tally (just like Hogwarts), we were competing with each other and yet we came closer than ever. He took things very seriously, we even got into unchartered waters for us, that of singing. Both of us were no good... I was worse, I mean I still am. I can't hold my notes even if someone pointed a gun to my head, because I just don't know how. But being the house captains, it was imperative we be in the choirs and the singing competition. Our music teacher at school was very supportive and he became much more than a teacher, mentor, and friend - Mr. Narayan Swamy. Sandy really admired him. There wasn't a year that he did not wish NS (how we all call Mr. Narayan Swamy) on his Birthday and Teacher's day except for when he was in Siachen. At the end, my House won the 'Cock House' shield and I remember, him walking up to me and congratulating in a very formal manner. He was as good a loser as a winner; he was dignified and is the person with best sportsmanship I have ever personally met. He could either be a part of the team doing his bit to the maximum when we were in 9th in the team or lead his team to give their maximum when the house captain. He always stood by his people.

After school, we went in different directions. During 12th he had already cleared the written tests of the NDA. He wanted to do things himself, on his own capability. This is something also I learned from Sandy. After the medical examination for entrance, he was told that he was 6 – 8 Kgs underweight. He said, they recommended me to have a lot of Eggs and Bananas and Beer if possible, we both laughed, and we knew the last bit was his own addition.

We did not meet for a long time, but we started to meet again after we finished our courses. We had some more parties, where remembered the good old times. I missed his teachings and mentoring. I used to ask him, about what exactly did they teach at the NDA. He used to smile, he did tell me stories from NDA and the 'Oscar' squadron or the Olympian, but I never witnessed anything myself. He did mention two things to me, that, “When you command a team, you are responsible for their safety, you should be aware of the capability of each member in your team, and make sure you make them realize their own capability and help them perform to their max” and the second, “If my team is working, there is nowhere I am going till it is parked” (this was when one of the days he was late at office).

After this the more recent interactions with him were on the social networking websites. We were planning to meet where he would meet my wife and kid for the first time. Every message from him, inquired about the 'kiddo'. He was the kind of guy no one would want to mess around with... you never knew, when he would unleash his arsenal of 'gaalis' in multiple languages or even worse... all the 20 figures of speech!

I miss you Sandy!!