Saturday, May 07, 2011

Reminiscing Along with My Dad: A Shared Enterprise

Some of you may already know that my father maintains a blog of his own, posting his memories and photos. Since Osama bin Laden's elimination, he has been posting on our days in Pakistan.

Disclosure: Dad is one of the longest serving RAW officers at the Indian embassy in Islamabad. And our time as a family there was full of strange moments. Also, that was one of the major hostile postings for the family and was not made easy by the fact that it was an "under-cover" post.

My dad, as always, has been quite discreet about what it meant to serve in Pakistan, but it is safe to say that it was one of the wilder, more adventurous stints for the family.

For an example, let me tell you one tiny story: before my dad was assigned to Islamabad, the family had been happily living in India's north eastern borders. We lived in a bamboo hut with a snake trench around it; our beds were bamboo rafts placed on four living bamboo trees which had to be trimmed every two days to ensure that the bed remained horizontal; and I had a fox fur skin that my father had shot one night that I used for comfort blanket; I was horrified many years later to learn that the fuzzy rag I dragged around and chewed on would sell for thousands of dollars on Fifth Avenue but that is another story. At the age of five, my young sister spoke better Tibetan and Nishi than Hindi.

Point is that I was eleven and my younger sister was five at the point that the government announced that we were moving to - along with my father - to Islamabad.  Imagine two kids, one with a wild imagination (me) and another who is convinced that my grandmother's home was the only one in India built of cement and brick (pukka) and everyone "normally" lived in bamboo huts!  Suddenly, this crazy family was assigned to go undercover in Pakistan!

Immediately, my parents decided that I was old enough to be relied on to keep the "cover story going." That meant that I could already basically lie through my teeth, and was now actively encouraged to do so.  I must be one of the world's very few writers who got their training testing their credibility in real life with real and dangerous consequences!

My sister was too young to understand the concept of a cover story. In fact, she was too young to understand the difference between truth and lie.  That made her a liability for the family - which is a pretty awful thing when you are five!

That is when the family came together for one of its weirder ideas! While Dad attended training sessions and briefings at South Block in New Delhi, my mother, I, and various other members of our extended family were entrusted to rewriting my sister's childhood memories.

This meant that we came up with a fictitious identical twin brother (thank god for Bollywood!) for my father - think Ram aur Shyam! Then, an entire life story was constructed for this non-existent brother who was supposed to have migrated to USA after a career in the Indian armed forces.  Once this idea was introduced to my young sister's mind, the entire family collaborated to "alter" her memories: events she had experienced with my father were attributed to this fictitious twin; all photographs of my (and her) father in uniform were re-identified as that of her non-existent uncle instead of her father.

Slowly, over six months, all my sister's childhood memories were subtly altered to ensure that she could not identify any photograph of my father in army uniform. On the eve of our journey to Islamabad, my sister not only did not remember that my father had ever worn an army uniform, she also believed that most of the first five years of her life were untrue and a fantasy she had created.

You may ask if we have since regretted this?

Well, we were supposed to do it for the tricolour - like many other awful and strange and bizarre things our family did in the years afterwards - and so we never thought to contradict. And we still believe that tricolour takes precedence on our lives!

You may also ask if my sister is terribly traumatised by this rewriting of her memories: I am sorry to disappoint you dear reader, but I doubt it: my sister is one of the world's leading anti-terror expert and a respectable citizen to boot!


  1. Rashmi Singh5/07/2011 6:00 pm

    LOL...good ol' memories! Not sure about the respectable citizen bit though! ;)

  2. Thank you Dr. Saraswat. Best wishes

  3. RS: Lol! You may not like respectability but you got it! :) xxx

  4. that (erasing childhood memories) was hilarious if I may say so and it was straight out of our own hindi films. It must have been fun in your childhood.

    However, stresses the tough life officers are expected to lead.

  5. Hey Dolphin: thanks. And yes its something out of a Bollywood movie. Who says those are unrealistic? :-D

  6. I don't know how I stumbled upon this blog (may be through your Arthashastra one) but really, this has to be one of the most interesting posts I've read in many years. What a funny yet amazing story! You must have had an enviously interesting childhood.


  7. Hi Nav,
    Thanks for the comment. Don't know about the "enviously" part but definitely "interesting childhood." There was never a dull moment though.

    Do come by again.

  8. Very interesting. Super tradecraft.

  9. Very interesting. Super trade craft.