Saturday, August 24, 2013

Ernie Pyle, the greatest war journalist

"You feel small in the presence of dead men, and ashamed at being alive, and you don’t ask silly questions." These words are from The Death of Captain Waskow, Earnie Pyle’s most popular World War II report. He wrote this after watching the American dead being brought down on mule backs from a hill on the Italian front lines on January 10, 1944.

Ernest Taylor Pyle (August 3, 1900 – April 18, 1945) was perhaps the greatest war reporter of all times. Surprisingly, he never graduated. He joined the US Navy Reserve during World War I but the war was over within a few months. Then the man turned to journalism. He became America’s first aviation columnist in 1928. By 1932 he became the managing editor of the Daily News. After America entered the war he started reporting from the European Theatre.
The readers of nearly 300 newspapers in the US waited for his reports great eagerness. He told them of the war from the angle of the GIs – of their suffering and sacrifices, longing and depression, fear and loneliness, dignity and courage in the face of danger. The feelings went deep inside the readers. They were living the GI life through the Ernie Pyle reports, praying and hoping that the war would end soon.

Ernie Pyle never glorified the war. As John Steinbeck commented, he was telling the story of the ordinary GI out there on the war field. Hollywood made a movie, “GI Joe” based on his writings. The collections of his reports became best sellers.  There are a few of them of them: Here Is Your War, Brave Men, Last Chapter, Home Country, Ernie’s War: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches, Ernie’s America: The Best of Ernie Pyle’s 1930s Travel Dispatches, Ernie Pyle’s Southwest, and On A Wing & A Prayer. Some of these books have been translated to other languages.

Ernie Pyle did something more for the GIs. In 1944 he mooted the idea that the soldiers on the war field should get a “fight pay”. Those days the Air Force was disbursing “flight pay" to the airmen. The suggestion was accepted by the Congress in what is known as ‘The Ernie Pyle Bill’ and the GIs in combat started getting $10 per month extra.

The writer won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1945 and also the Purple Heart. The United States issued a postage stamp in his honour. But I feel that the greatest tribute to him was by the employees of Boeing-Wichita. They built a Boeing B-29 Superfortress at their own expense using the 7th War Loan Drive and named it The Ernie Pyle. The plane which was sent to the Pacific survived the Second World War but the journalist did not. Two weeks before The Ernie Pyle reached its assigned destination, Ernie Pyle was dead.

 In 1945 Ernie Pyle had shifted to the Pacific War Theatre. On April 18, he was shot dead by the Japanese on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa. He was buried there but his remains were later shifted to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Honolulu.
Ernie Pyle War Memorial on Ie Shima near Okinawa
Former American President Harry S. Truman’s tribute to Ernie Pyle was appropriate: “No man in this war has so well told the story of the American fighting man as American fighting men wanted it told.... He deserves the gratitude of all his countrymen."

Way back in college in the early 1950s I came across a copy of Brave men. It impressed me a great deal. I wanted write about the book, write about the man who authored it and write like him. Sixty years later I have achieved, with this article, the first two parts of my wish. Forget the third wish because I’ll never be able to write like Ernie Pyle.

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Monday, August 19, 2013

Custard Apple for better health

Custard Apple (Seethaphal/Seethapazham/Aatha Chakka/Bullock’s Heart) belongs to the Annonaceae family which is believed to be a native of the West Indies. It is now grown in many sub-tropical countries. There are over 2000 varieties in this group. But only fruits of five of these are eaten.

Annona reticulate which we call custard apple is a popular one. The same name is sometimes also applied to Annona cherimola (cherimoya), Annona squamosa (sugar apple or sweetsop), Annona senegalensis (wild custard apple) and citrus related Casimiroa edulis (white sapote).

The ripe fruit is gently opened and the sweetish white flesh which coats the several black seeds inside, is eaten. Actually, it can be used in making ice creams, milkshakes and custards. Some recipes may be found at The seeds are not consumed.

In India, the custard apple, like guavas (see Guavas: A poor man’s superfood) is considered to be a low class fare. The medicinal and nutritive value of the fruit is not understood by most people.

Before going to the fruits, let us have a look at the medicinal aspects of the other parts of the custard apple shrub. A decoction made from the roots is considered to be a coolant which reduces fever. The bark which has astringents and tannin is used in preparing herbal medicines, particularly for controlling diarrhea and dysentery. One of the applications is to soothe gum pain and tooth aches. The leaves are supposed to have cancer cure properties.

The flesh paste or crushed leaves are considered to be effective in treating ulcers, boils and abscesses. Dried and powdered un-ripened fruit is used to eradicate lice.  It is not clear how much scientific work has been done in all these areas.

Now let us have a look at the nutritional value of custard apple. The fruit has protein, minerals, fibre, but only insignificant fat. It contains Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B2 potassium and magnesium and copper. These keep the heart healthy and controls blood pressure. They are good for the eyes, the skin, and the hair. Custard apple helps digestive problems.

Make this ‘poor man’s fruit a regular part of your diet and reap the health benefits. Calorific value of custard apple and further details can be seen at

Images: Wikimedia Commons (top), photo by me (below)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Short Story for Independence Day

As we celebrate the Independence Day let us also spare a thought for the men of our Defence Forces who guard our country. 

Here is a sensitive and touching story about them:




I’m on my way to see Kiran again. We have met only once, at her father’s house, but no other woman has left such an indelible mark in my mind as she did. In spite of the time that has elapsed, every little detail of that meeting is still fresh in my mind.

Maj. Gen. Krishna Marar, a retired Indian Army officer, and I were on his lawn in Munnar, a small hill station in Kerala’s tea country, sipping whiskey and soda and watching a full moon rise over the mountains. After a while I followed the general’s sidewise glance and saw a tall young lady standing a few paces away. She was in a dark-blue silk sari.

“Kiran, my only child,” the general removed the pipe he was smoking from his mouth and introduced us. “Mr. Samuel Mathai is a writer.”

I stood up chivalrously and said, “Hello, Kiran.”

She came forward with great poise, giving me a charming smile. After making her cosy on a cane chair she addressed me, “I’ve never met an author before. What do you write?”

“Well,” I replied, “articles mostly. A few short stories. This time it’s a novel.”

“That’s great,” Kiran responded enthusiastically. “Of late Indian authors have been doing very well.”

“Do you like novels?”

“Yes. The better ones.”

“She reads a great deal,” the general pitched in.

“What’s your novel about?” Kiran asked. And, looking at the moon, added, “Not one of those moonlight and roses stuff, I hope.”

I laughed and answered, “Oh, no. Romance isn’t my genre. It’s about a young army officer.”

“That’s interesting. A war story?”

“Not really. There’s some action of course. But it’s mostly about the young man’s life. His loves and his hopes. The sacrifices. The pitfalls.”

Kiran nodded. “War,” she said, “is a terrible business. Think of people dying, getting maimed. The misery endured by their families.”

“But it’s a fact of life.”


“You don’t seem to like war novels.”

“Some are great. All Quiet on the Western Front, Across the Black Waters. Naked and the Dead was good too, but rather raw for me.”

“You’re nursing your drink” My host’s statement was almost a command. I smiled and took a sip.

Kiran was staring at the horizon, lost in thought. Her shoulder length hair that was parted on the side shimmered in the moonlight.

“Actually,” I said, “I came to consult your father on certain aspects of the book. I’d sent him a copy of the manuscript in advance.”

Kiran nodded and turning to her father asked, “How’s it, daddy?”

Gen. Marar took a quick puff on the pipe. “Good,” he answered. “In fact, very good, I would say. But some corrections and polishing are required. After all, it’s only an initial draft.”

Kiran had a serious expression now. “But a general’s view alone,” she said to me, “wouldn’t give sufficient dimension to a story about soldiers. You should know about the junior officers and the jawans. They are the army, really.”

“All generals were junior officers once,” my host said.

“Okay, daddy,” Kiran responded, laughing.

“You’re right,” I concurred with her. “I’ve covered that as well. In fact, a great deal of research has been done.”

“Good,” Kiran approved. “That’s essential. But what about soldiers’ wives, like me? They form a silent force behind every army.”

Did I feel a tinge of disappointment that she was married? I wasn’t sure. “That’s an area,” I admitted, “I haven’t really looked into. Thanks for the suggestion.”

“My husband, Maj. Mohan Nair….”She stopped abruptly and looked with concern at her father who had choked on his pipe and gone into a fit of coughing. “Daddy, you’re smoking too much these days. Are you alright?”

The general took out a handkerchief, removed his spectacles and wiped his brows. His face was flushed and his eyes blinked. He smiled with some effort and nodded.

After a few seconds Kiran asked me, “Where was I?”

“Your husband,” I reminded her.

“Oh, yes,” she said with a smile, “Before retiring, daddy was his Div. Commander. That’s how we met, at a garden party on a moonlit night like this.” She paused and a faraway look came into her eyes. "He’s coming on leave next month," she added.

Mist was beginning to rise from the valley in soft, woolly streamers. It floated past us in the gentle breeze.

“We should go in now,” the general said. “It’s getting chilly.”

Kiran suddenly woke up from her reverie. “No, daddy, please,” she pleaded. “It’s quite pleasant, really. Let’s sit here a little while longer.”

After a thoughtful moment Gen. Marar said, “Okay,” and poured fresh drinks.

“I could,” Kiran addressed me, “provide you some material from the wives’ angle.”

“That’s very kind of you,” I responded. “Can you go through the manuscript and send me notes? I can come back for a discussion if necessary.”


The suggestions and anecdotes she sent are still with me. I’ve acknowledged her contribution in my book.

“Oh, my!” Kiran exclaimed with a start and got up. “The baby’s crying. I have to go.”

I couldn’t hear any child cry and wondered about the invisible mechanism by which a mother could monitor her little one. I stood up to bid goodbye.

“I hope,” Kran said with a smile, “that your book turns out to be a bestseller.”

“Thank you.”

“You must send me an autographed copy.”

“I certainly will.” I did, and her well-composed letter of congratulation is carefully preserved.

“Please excuse me,” Kiran continued. “Mine’s a spoilt child. Daddy pets her too much. I suppose all grandfathers are like that. Now I have to play the piano to put her to sleep. Good night, Mr. Mathai, and good luck. See you daddy.”

I said good night and the general waved to her affectionately.

Kiran moved away quickly but gracefully. I watched till she disappeared inside the bungalow.

There was emptiness about the scene now. My host began the procedure of refilling his pipe. I sat looking at the moon, which was now clear above the Western Ghats.

A few minutes later, strains of piano drifted over to us through the open windows of the bungalow. Soft, captivating. Trained fingers caressing the keys. The notes lingered in the air.

“That’s beautiful,” I said spontaneously. “Kiran?”

Gen. Marar looked up and nodded. “She’s very good. Her music teacher used to say that she hadn’t come across any one better talented.”

“Not surprising,” I said. “The way Kiran plays is fascinating. It’s a pity - ”

“That such a gift is being wasted,” the general completed the sentence for me. “Yes, it’s sad. She even composes. But army life isn’t the best platform for a musical career.” He put the pipe to his mouth to light.

What Kiran had said about the army wives made more sense now. “Yes, I understand,” I commented.

“She practices every morning. My wife – she died two years back – and I used to look forward to those sessions. I still do. They are so soothing.”

“Where’s Kiran’s husband posted?” I asked.

“He’s been dead five years.” My host stated bluntly.

"Oh," I exclaimed, rather confused.

The general recharged his glass, pushed the bottle towards me, and continued, “Got it on an unnamed hill at the border. Officially, a peacetime casualty. It was one of those days of sporadic firing across the LoC. Half his face was blown off.”  

A strange kind of heaviness permeated the atmosphere and the mood changed tangibly. The music sounded distant, hardly audible. But I could visualise Kiran at the piano – young, beautiful, talented.
I helped myself to a stiff peg.

“He was,” the general went on, “the son I didn’t have. Handsome. So full of life. And a good soldier as well. They had made an ideal couple.” He began lighting his pipe.

Mist was getting thicker and made an eerie haze in the moonlight. The mountain range could be hardly seen. The temperature had dropped and I shivered slightly.

The pipe-lighting ritual took time. Finally that was done. The old soldier let out the smoke and stared at the horizon.

The music was back. A different tune. We were quiet for a while, listening. Then the general drank more whiskey and said, almost in a whisper, “Cradle Song by Johansson Brahms. The lullaby is meant for my granddaughter. Well, a rag doll, really. The one that was Kiran’s favourite as a child. When the news about Mohan came, she lost the baby she was carrying. But her mind hasn’t accepted that.”

There was heavy silence for a few moments. Then Gen. Marar said, “She’s almost normal in everything else.”

I looked away from him towards the house. Diffused light could be seen through the glass of the front door, like a lantern marking some distant grave.

That was four years earlier. This morning’s newspaper carried Gen. Marar’s obituary, which concluded with the sentence, ‘Survived by daughter, Mrs. Kiran Nair.’


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Saturday, August 10, 2013

A salute to Jomon

PG Jomon Pottechira of ITBP who died in the helicopter crash during
the rescue operations at Kedarnath.

“In your homes
Tell them of us who will never return
And say
For your tomorrows
We gave our today.”

[This is from the inscription on the War Memorial at Kohima, Nagaland,
with some modification by me.]  

"Shaurya – Dridata – Karm Nishtha"
(Valour – Determination – Devotion to Duty)
Motto of ITBP.

My brother Hormis Tharakan IPS Retd., (A good man and a good cop,PK Hormis Tharakan IPS retires.) who was DGP, Kerala, Chief of RAW and Adviser to the Governor during the last President’s Rule of Karnataka State wrote an article in the New Indian Express of July 3, 2013 paying tribute to Jomon and others who died in the helicopter crash.
He attended Jomon’s funeral.

Another of my brothers, Jacob Tharakan who is at our Tharavad (ancestral home), Thekkanattu Parayil, Olavipe which is in the village next to Jomon’s had the article translated to Malayalam and made a booklet for free distribution. The cover of it with a photo of Jomon 
is reproduced under the Tricolour.

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France: The sound of Indian military boots again

Monday, August 5, 2013

World Team Tennis: Leander Paes Dazzles

A packed Kastles Stadium at The Wharf watches the finals of the World Team Tennis on 28 July 2013, at Washington DC. In the deciding set, of mixed doubles, Andy Roddick and Alisa Kleybanova fight back from 2-4 down against Martina Hingis and Leander Paes, to tie breaker.

At the match point a forehand winner from Paes bags the World Team Tennis (WTT) Championship 2013 for his team Washington Kastles. Earlier he had won the men’s doubles as well. It was a hat trick victory for the Kastles. In fact they have won the title four times during the last five years. Leander was involved in all those victories. In2009 and 2011 he was chosen as the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the entire WTT.

We in India are not familiar with the competitions and format of WTT which is very popular in the United States during summer months. Leading players from ATP and WTA take part. Both Serena Williams and Venus Williams have played for the Kastles.

The WTT was started in the early 1970s. There have been some changes in the format since then. Each match consists of one set each of men’s singles, men’s doubles, women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. There are eight teams split into Eastern Conference and Western Conference. The winners in each play off for the title. A season involves 7 home matches and 7 away matches for every team.

In certain aspects, the rules differ from regular tennis. There is no ‘advantage’ for instance. If 40-40 is reached the side which gets the next point wins the game. The court consists of coloured segments. The idea originally was to have a distinctive identity and to avoid the white lines. But the lines are back as you can see in the photo below:

Barney Allis Plaza Team Tennis Court, Kansas City

Coming back to Leander - He is a highly respected and successful personality in WTT as he is in ATP and Davis Cup. India has honoured this winner of 13 Grand Slam titles with Arjuna Award, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award and the Padma Sri.

Even at the age of 40, his playing capabilities have not diminished. He recently made a statement that if he knew he would stay on in competitive tennis for so long, he would have continued playing singles for some more years.

It was a sad day for his many fans when he decided to concentrate on doubles only. Like Ramesh Krishnan he had won the junior singles championships at Wimbledon and the US Open. He was ranked World No.1 among juniors. In the ATP he did not shine in singles as expected though he did reach the rank of 73.

But in Davis Cup it has been another story. Remarkable record in both singles and doubles. Debut in 1990. Victory-Defeat Record: Singles 48-22 Doubles 40-10. One of his most outstanding performances was in the World QF against the much superior France at Frejus in 1993. The 20 year old Leander won his second singles tie also to even up the match scores 2-2. Then, in a nail biting classic encounter another of India’s great tennis players, Ramesh Krishnan, beat R. Gilbert 2-6, 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 to take India to the semi finals.

Leander Paes has always given priority to playing Davis Cup matches for India. His personal interests take a back seat on such occasions. In February 2013, he was presented with ITF’s Davis Cup Commitment Award.

Then there was the Olympic Singles Bronze Medal at Atlanta in 1996. Incidentally, Leander is the only tennis player and one of the very few sports persons to have participated in six Olympics. Will he make it to the next Games? Why not? He points out that Martina Navratilova was winning Grand Slams at the age of 50. One, I think, was with him as partner.

Leander has appeared in a Bollywood movie but that has not affected his focus on tennis. Acting is probably in his blood somewhere. On his mother’s side he is a direct descendant of Michael Madhusudan Dutt a great Bengali poet and dramatist of the 19 c.

Carry on, Leander. And come back from Rio with a Gold Medal before you hang up your boots.

Photos from Wikimedia Commons.

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