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Arms Race






Early in life, I was given a lesson in the dynamics of an arms race and thereby learnt of the merits and usefulness of building stockpiles.

I was in Grade 5 but a mere eight years old, since I had started schooling at an early age.

Brother Drew, the teacher, was ill and we had been assigned a replacement teacher for the day.

Which meant that the day quickly deteriorated into a somewhat controlled anarchy. We were told to work on our assignments, while the teacher sat at his desk, engrossed on his own.

Oblivious to him, notes were being thrown back and forth like missiles through the air, kicks delivered under the desks, books snatched and then passed around the room.

I had the misfortune of sitting right behind Ken, the class bully. He was three years older, six inches taller, and easily twice my size.

Having exhausted all other interests in the first hour, he turned to me. Gimme this, gimme that! He tugged here, he pushed there. I coughed hard, shuffled my feet, threatening to attract the teacher’s attention. Ken stopped. Momentarily.

Before long, he was at it again. This time, it was play no more. He was angry at my gumption. He uncapped his fountain pen and gestured as if ready to spray me with ink from it.

[A fountain-pen - for the benefit of those who were born after the advent of the Bic pen - was a metal-nibbed writing device which was fed with liquid ink from a mini-reservoir in the body of its tube. The ink had to be replenished at regular intervals from an ink-pot, which was as basic and necessary an accessory a student had to carry with him at all times, as the pen itself. The fountain-pen was a giant step forward for mankind from the days of the quill-and-ink-well!]

That did not pose a happy prospect since our uniforms were spotlessly white from tip to toe. Each one of us wore a white, long-sleeved shirt and white trousers. And a tie with blue, green and yellow diagonal stripes.

Past experience had taught me that ink showed extremely well against a white background. And, if caught by Brother Burke, the principal, a uniform anything less than spic-n’-span would trigger his wrath and the liberal application of the much-dreaded leather-strap or the bamboo-cane. Explanations were rarely sought or heard on such cardinal sins.

As Ken waved his fountain pen at me menacingly, I realized it was going to be a fight for survival. Defiantly, I pulled out my own fountain pen, uncapped it and held it ready.

No problem, was Ken’s response. He lifted his desk top, rummaged through its innards and brought out two more pens and, in sinister slow-motion, uncapped them. One of them was a new Parker instrument, a full inch in diameter. It could’ve easily sucked up an entire bottle of ink!

He held the three in one hand - his prize possessions, I recognized: a Sheaffer, a Pilot and the Parker - the bare nibs pointing upwards, and waved them back and forth over his shoulder.

This was getting serious. With three pens of his against a single one on my side, I knew I would have no chance. He glanced back and saw the color drain from face.

“Get you at break!,” he whispered. I looked at my watch: a mere 10 minutes remained before the morning recess.

I had no choice: it was a declaration of war!

I had no more pens, though. So I nudged Anil Soni who was sitting next to me. Asked him if I could borrow his pen. Both of them, please. He handed them over.

I felt encouraged. Leaned over to Robbie Peters on the other side. Took his pen. It was deadly: it had red ink! Joe Nazareth behind me, and Bipin Gupta next to him had two each. They became allies.

I was on a roll. I could easily out-manoeuver Ken. Easily, since most of the fellows in the class were fellow-sufferers, having been picked upon by Ken at one point or the other. I threw notes to some of the others. They tossed their pens back at me, no questions asked.

Within minutes, I had stockpiled 14 of them!

I feverishly uncapped them, then laid them out in a row on my desk, the nibs pointing towards Ken.

I tapped him on the shoulder. He looked around. I gestured towards my arsenal. He looked at it long and hard. Now whatchya gonna do, my eyes taunted him. He nodded ever so slowly, and turned away.

I felt brave. Invincible.

The bell rang.

All hell broke loose. Kids shot out of their seats and catapulted outdoors. The teacher fled.

Ken rose slowly. Turned around until he faced me squarely.

I dived for my weapons. I stuffed a bunch in one fist, and grabbed the rest with my other hand.

They were too many. They fell out of my hands and spilled onto the floor. I bent over, and picked them up with lightening speed. Straightened up. Taut. Poised to destroy the enemy. Swung one arm high to spray him. The pens slipped out of my hand again and flew in every direction.

I stood there, stunned, motionless.

Ken stepped forward. Slashed his hand through the air in a few deft movements. And walked away.

I was dead.

There were ink-blobs splattered all over me: loud proclamations of my defeat amidst a timid sea of white.

I stood there, silent and still, trying to figure out how three pens could’ve possibly won the battle against a formidable 14.

By the time I sat down, I had learnt - and I somehow knew I would not forget this in a lifetime - that it isn’t the size and power and number of the guns that matter, it isn’t the technology: the hollow-point or the speed of the bullets, that stops the enemy in its tracks.

What really matters is what goes on inside the head - before, during and after the point of conflict.             


Republished from archives on November 26, 2014.

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), May 15, 2012, 9:48 AM.

General Sher Singh ji: a definitive work on military strategy and tactics. Your war slogan: "Give us the tools and we will finish the job!", would stand in good stead. The Sikh concept of non-violence is also a very powerful tool in preventing escalation. Reminds me of the 1962 Indo-Chinese war which ended in India's shame, and Nehru's cousin, Lt. Gen B. M. Kaul had to take the rap for his hapless performance. John Kenneth Galbraith was then the American Ambassador to India. He asked President Radhakrishnan if the rumour then circulating that Gen. Kaul had been taken a prisoner was true. Dr. Radhakrishnan's quick retort was: "It is unfortunately untrue." I have a couple of untried strategies of mine to expound - but later. This is just to acknowledge your excellent treatise on the art of liquid warfare.

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), May 15, 2012, 10:10 AM.

A great 'lesson'.

3: Sukhindarpal SIngh (Penang, Malaysia), May 18, 2012, 9:03 AM.

Ved hathiaar! The Art of Warfare!

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