13 April 2021 04:31 PM

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Lt General VIJAY OBEROI | 31 MARCH, 2021

Aging Positively and Gracefully - A Military Perspective

Transit from middle to old age


Aging is a universal phenomenon that starts at birth, but the general understanding is that it is the start of the process of old age. That itself is a dilemma because no hard and fast rules exist even for entering old age or transiting from middle age to old age. It also differs from person to person, as some age earlier and faster than others, for a variety of reasons, which we will not discuss here.

Life can be categorised in three ways. The first is obviously biological, which is based on one’s date of birth. We don’t have a control on this. The second is determined by health condition. One can take care of health with good diet, exercise, a cheerful attitude and activity filled vocations. The third is psychological, which depends on how old one feels. Positive thinking, active life and optimistic attitude can reverse the psychological age.

According to Hindu Scriptures, life is divided into four age-based life-stages. These are Brahmcharya (student), Grihista (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation). While broadly they are applicable even today, the discussion here will necessarily be based on the present times, where the last two stages seem to have merged. In addition, the environment and lifestyles have changed and there is no common template for all.

For the purpose of this essay, I have chosen the date of retirement as laid down for government officials, which also coincides with one being categorised as a ’senior citizen’ in our country, viz. 60 years, as the age of change!

In the military, we have Principles of War, which do not change, but one’s adherence to them saves lives and brings victory. In a similar manner, we can perhaps list the following important attitudinal points for “aging gracefully”:

. We need to accept the complexity that comes with longevity as yet another challenge.

. Develop a positive attitude toward growing older.

. Exercise one’s mind. Cerebral growth happens when we challenge our learning and stretch our thinking.

. Broaden one’s interests. Our brains love stimulation. The result is a healthier, sharper mind.

. Recognize and express gratitude. The impact that gratitude has on the quality of life is overwhelming.

Aging is also relative and everyone has different perceptions of aging gracefully. While this narrative will be based on how I dealt with aging in a positive manner, it applies to most military officers, with a few exceptions.

I had joined the National Defence Academy (NDA) Khadakvasla as a 16 year old and when I retired at the age of 60 years, I had been ‘in uniform’ for over 44 years, which is the bulk of one’s life! Hence, every aspect of aging gracefully and positively has been influenced by my service in the army.

When I passed out after three years of rigorous training in NDA and another year of the same in the Indian Military Academy (IMA) Dehradun, the army had transformed me from a boy to ‘an officer and a gentleman’ and before I took the last step as a Gentleman Cadet, I was again reminded of the credo that all military officers follow throughout their service and even as veterans. The credo is:

“The safety honour and welfare of the country comes first, always and every time.
The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next.
Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time”.
                                                    Lt Gen Field Marshal Philip Chetwode


On retirement, the second line of the credo changes to: “The honour, welfare and comfort of the weak and needy come next.”

In addition, on commissioning as a military officer, you are also transformed into “An Officer and a Gentleman”, for that is what our training academies accomplish. This phrase needs to be fully understood, for there are many who do not know the nuances of this phrase. It may be noted that it is not gender specific, as with women joining the military, they are referred to as “Lady Officers”.

When the phrase originated in England, the distinction between gentlemen and commoners was important. However, being a gentleman is no longer associated with being a man of high social position and wealth. One does not need to look any further than the media to know that ‘money and power do not buy class’!

Today, being a gentleman is a matter of choice. It is a title you earn through an unwavering commitment to invest in your character. It is not about perfection, but a constantly renewed pursuit of excellence. Gentlemen are not stiff, pretentious, or focused on elevating themselves. Instead, they strive to succeed while helping those around them succeed as well. Being a gentleman means that you care about how your choices impact others. In short, it is about the ‘human connection’.

Having become ‘an officer and a gentleman or lady’, the qualities one has imbibed and practised remain with you throughout your life. Hence, it is comparatively easy for us to transit effortlessly into the aging process. While one is in service, the types of challenges one confronts are different than those that come one’s way after we hang our uniforms, only the setting changes and one has more time to ponder over the problem than our younger days.

Having dealt with the preliminaries, allow me to briefly narrate salient points about my life so that what follows thereafter is seen in its correct perspective.

The first ‘defining moment’ in my life was the madness of the partition of our country in 1947. Our huge country was cut arbitrarily and new nations were carved out, generating violence at an unprecedented scale. We were in the midst of that mindless violence, and had to leave home and hearth and become refugees in our own country! But we quickly stood back on our feet and in time became part of the mainstream!

There are three major lessons I learnt from this horrific experience among many others. These are ‘standing on your own feet’; ‘the power of bonding’; and ‘never give up’. These assist throughout one’s life and make one stronger to cope with the vicissitudes of life.

My character was moulded by both my forward thinking family and two schools. These were the Nazareth Academy, Gaya (Bihar), a Catholic School, run by Irish-American Nuns; and Shri Ram Ashram High School, Amritsar (Punjab). They were starkly different, but they jointly infused self-confidence in me and prepared me for the challenges of life in the best possible manner.

Both schools were co-educational, but where the former had its focus on European and American History and Geography; English; Shakespeare (yes, we did The Merchant Of Venice in Class VI); the Bible and prayers in the School Chapel; the latter was traditionally Indian; focusing on Dharma; Tagore; Indian values and ethics; Indian Music and Art; Indian History and Geography; Civics (alas a forgotten subject now!); where the morning commenced with patriotic songs, bhajans or recital of poems.

I am convinced that this combination of a supportive home environment and the learning and character qualities imbibed in the schools I attended were responsible in my facing life’s many challenges in my later life.

The second ‘defining moment’ of my life was losing my right leg on account of the severe wounds I had suffered during the war with Pakistan in 1965.The surgeries in various hospitals including the last one at Pune, along with getting an artificial limb took nearly a year.

During this interregnum, two major decisions shaped my later life. The first was to ‘soldier-on’ in my own battalion and compete with my peers in all respects. No concessions were asked for or given.

The second was the culmination of a blossoming romance with the lovely and brave Daulat Surve, the daughter of the first Indian commanding officer of my battalion, which culminated in our wedding after a year! She has been the best partner I could have hoped for. She has proved to be a real ‘daulat’ (wealth) both in name and deed.

At that juncture of my life, my 25th birthday was still over a month away; I held the rank of captain and proudly displayed the accouterments of my regiment. I had a little over four years commissioned service and had already been blooded in battle twice, first during operations against the Portuguese in 1961 and now in the skirmish with Pakistani soldiers. The future looked uncertain, but optimism and a zest for life propelled me to ‘Look at the sunlight, not the shadows’!

Let me now take a huge leap to September 30, 2001, over 35 years later, when I demitted the office of the Vice Chief of Army Staff of the Indian Army. I sat behind the wheel of my Toyota Corolla of 1981 vintage, flying my rectangular three-star flag for the last time, with my lady love and our two dogs besides me and headed for our newly-constructed home at Panchkula, exulting in soldiering-on in the army, which took me from a one-legged captain to the rarified heights of the second highest appointment in the Indian Army, having broken many glass ceilings on the way!

This was the start of my second career, viz. aging positively, productively and gracefully. I had already decided that I would not pick up a job, like many of my friends and colleagues had done, as having reached nearly at the top in the army, no job except as the head of a major organization was worth considering.

Selection of a place to settle down is an important component of aging well. We had selected Panchkula as it met most of our requirements. These included proximity to a big military station which would enable us to continue enjoying some military facilities; having friends and relatives nearby; a comparatively new city without the woes of old established cities; well-connected and so on.

One of the first actions we took was discarding the trappings of power and ego that is part of it. The next was the setting up of a non-government organization (NGO) to assist all war disabled personnel of the three Services, to make them financially independent so that they can live with dignity and become better citizens of the country. Thus, the War Wounded Foundation was born in 2002 with me as the President and another well-known disabled warrior: Major General Ian Cardozo as the Vice President. Since setting up the NGO, we have assisted a large number of war disabled personnel and at the same time by participating in the Mumbai Marathon for the last 10 years consecutively, spread the message that disability is no bar for continuing to deal with challenges. Our Foundation is funded by donors and we do not get any monetary assistance from the government.

Simultaneously with my setting up the War Wounded Foundation, my wife set up an NGO of her own, named Retired Defence Officers Wives Welfare Association (R-DOWWA), which runs free tuition classes for poor children in Panchkula and Chandigarh. They too depend on donors for financial support and get nothing from the government.

While my Foundation was still in its nascent stage, the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen NC Vij, requested me to set up a ‘Think Tank’ of the army, which met another passion of mine, viz. enhancement of studies in military strategies and connected areas and in international affairs. Thus, I became the Founder Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS). I left CLAWS after five years, but the institution is still going strong and my worthy successors have added much to it.

When my wife and I formally started our aging process, the above institutions, besides helping those for whom they were set up, acted as anchors for our own advancing lives. After one retires, one must continue to be productive and happy, besides being content and try and give more to the society and especially to the needy.

Unless one is engaged in pursuits that suit one’s talents and likings, merely living in a mundane manner is neither good for you or the society and consequently the nation. Luckily, for people with a military background, a well-planned and disciplined approach is easy to adopt, as the military teaches one not only how to be a good and effective soldier and leader, but also how to approach a life of dignity that helps others both materially and emotionally.

At this stage, let me list some of the important points one learnt in the military, without any elaboration, as they are self-explanatory, which help one to look at aging in a positive light. These are ‘Respect everyone’; ‘Life is not always fair, but keep moving’; ‘Don’t be afraid to fail often’; ‘Take calculated risks’; and finally ‘Never give up’.

Health is perhaps the most important factor that needs to be dealt with methodically, as good health enables one, not only to live a stress-less life but also to be a better and helpful individual who can assist others. We constantly hear about thinking positive, cultivating a positive mind-set and being positive. Let’s understand its meaning. Positive thinking means right thinking at every moment. We expect the best, visualize the best to happen, but we also accept the outcome, whatever it may be.

Maintaining a positive mentality and getting appropriate and adequate exercise must be considered as duties and one must keep at them consistently. Health, in my view requires four activities, which are exercise; nourishing food, adequate rest and adherence to a fixed schedule.

If one is fond of animals, keeping pets is good for general well-being and learning from their habits and absorbing the love that they give you. The best therapy when you are worrying about anything is pets; the more the better! Pets are as sensitive as members of the family. They have to be walked, exercised, bathed, groomed, trained, fed, pampered, scolded, loved and treated like your own babies.

In the fast pace of life today, we tend to ignore or pay less attention to our environment as well as nature in all its wondrous glory. The reasons are our various preoccupations and what is conversationally called the ‘rat race’! As one grows older, one must find time for absorbing nature and do one’s bit to restore it to its glorious past.

Once again, those from the military are better suited for respecting nature, on account of their postings to hills and dales and all types of terrain and climate and with our habitats as close to nature as possible. In addition, our military cantonments are ‘cleaner and greener’ and indeed the lungs of our cities. We need to keep our homes and streets too in the same manner as we age.

A few parting words may be in order. Most of us are ambitious in varying degrees and we compete with colleagues and peers during most of our working lives. However, when we enter the last stage of our life, we need to adopt cooperation as our ‘Mantra’ and shed competition, as the latter creates stress, fear, jealousy and moves us away from happiness. Co-operation earns blessings and makes us successful.

Success here is not about racing ahead and being Number One. Success is measured by our happiness, health, beautiful relationships and our achievements. Co-operation is natural for us, so let’s live the natural way.

We must also see the reality of life, so that we cherish what we have, enjoy life to the fullest, but stay humble. One must not act superior on account of our age and talk down to others. One needs to appreciate that the way of nature is the way of life; go with its flow and live with equanimity. Success is not to have a life free of pitfalls and falls but success is to walk over your mistakes and go beyond every stage where your efforts were wasted looking forward to the next stage.

While we are still aging or have entered our last stage of aging, we should continue to perform to the best of our ability/capacity. We must always remember that our life is our journey to our destination; it should be at our speed, using our capacity, and on the basis of our values.

Aging gracefully doesn't mean you have to wear your wrinkles with pride - instead, you need to do whatever is necessary to stride into your older years with confidence. If you feel energetic and youthful internally, then it needs to be channelled towards positivity and age must not be looked at as just a slowing down process. We need to separate the physical process of aging from the attitude towards age.

I cannot resist adding a bit of advice, which is what an American author, Todd Henry has written in his book, "Die Empty”, which he explains as ‘don’t carry inside you the best that you have. Always choose to die empty’. The meaning of this expression is twofold. Firstly, to share your knowledge for posterity and secondly, deliver all the goodness that is within you before you leave!

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