The Benevolent Stranger

Author: 
Baljit Ahluwalia

Baljit Ahluwalia is a veteran trainer with over 25 years of experience with the Indian Air Force and the corporate world. Leadership and management were his transfer skills with the Air Force middle level and senior level officers. He continued to train the senior officers in similar skills in the corporate world as well. But the context was especially designed to the ‘felt' needs of the private sector. As a motivator Baljit honed the personality traits of the participants with the theoretical aspects woven into their application at work place.

Baljit is a pioneer of training in BPO/KPO industry, having published several papers and case studies which are used widely. He relates to his trainees easily and addresses his audience at their threshold level. Baljit is a popular speaker and a panelist in discussion forums.

The year was 1971 and the month of September had just commenced. I had just turned 20.
I was excited at the prospect of completing my graduation and was looking forward to pursue my post-graduation.

I was very keen to take a crack at the Civil Services competition. Many of my family members had joined the Defense Services – but no one had joined the IAS / IPS cadre.

Growing up, I had frequently interacted with members of the Armed Forces. An Indo-Pakistan War looked imminent as the rumblings had already started. Army units, Naval ships and Air Force squadrons were moving towards vantage positions. One could feel the excitement in the air. The uneasy calm at the borders was beginning to look surreal.

After completing my graduation in English Honors in the summer of 1971, I joined the post-graduation course in History.

During those days, this was considered an ideal combination for the preparation for the Civil Services examination. Along with a couple of friends, the launching pad had been set in the right earnest.

However, destiny had other things in store for me. I happened to see an advertisement in the newspapers asking for graduates / post graduates to apply for a career in the Indian Air Force. The opportunity of joining the Ground Duty branch was lurking right in front of me. I wasn’t sure about the prospects; nevertheless, I thought of giving it a shot. We had no counseling sessions those days. Career options were decided at the drop of a hat; it was literally first come, first serve.

Without talking to any one at home or even my close friends, I applied for the opportunity – knowing full well that I may not even get a call for the Interview.

In fact, I had almost forgotten about it. Hence it was a pleasant surprise to receive a letter from Air HQs asking me to report to Air Force Selection Board, Mysore for an interview.

It was tough convincing my parents about this decision to travel all the way to Mysore for an interview to join the Air Force. They were taken aback by my change of mind. They questioned this decision which was totally at variance with my initial plans.

But their counseling did not deter me — I was convinced to give it my best shot. All of 50 kgs and with a scrawny frame measuring 173 cms, I was really not an ideal candidate for selection. But the very idea of going the distance and contesting with other candidates seemed a super challenge. Having excelled at extracurricular activities like public speaking, participation in debates and elocution contests and quite savvy in sports during school and college days gave me the added confidence. More than anything, I was looking forward to competing with others.

Thus, I boarded the train from Jaipur for a long and arduous journey to Mysore. I was travelling in a normal three tier compartment and was allotted the upper berth. I was carrying a suitcase packed with my clothes, original certificates, call letter for the interview, and the PT kit and sports shoes. I had stored most of the cash required for the trip and the return ticket in the suitcase as well.

Besides, there was a bed roll consisting of the usual stuff like a duree, one bed sheet and a pillow which I promptly unrolled on the upper berth. The suitcase was tucked away in the space below the lower berth. As the train chugged into Agra I stepped out for a cup of tea. The stoppage was short. I bought my cuppa of steaming hot tea and quickly jumped back into my compartment.

 
A sleeper coach of the Jaipur - Mysore Express train.

A sleeper coach of the Jaipur - Mysore Express train.

 

One quick look below the lower berth gave me an eerie feeling. I instantly realized that my suitcase was missing. Immediately, I raised an alarm. There were five others who were occupying that coupe. They mentioned that a guy had just come in at Agra station and picked up the suitcase. They mistook him for an acquaintance of mine.

I pressed the panic button. We called for the ticket collector and other co passengers too pitched in to help. But by then the train had already moved off the platform and there was very little that anyone could do at that stage.

Just imagine the scenario: a 20-year-old lad who had just started his journey with dreams in his eyes had been deprived of all his possessions. I was left with my train ticket and about Rs. 75 in my wallet.

I was totally shattered. It looked as if my dreams had come crashing down even before I could make a beginning. My eyes turned moist and I was panic stricken.

I sat on the edge of the seat contemplating my next move. Should I go back home and face the wrath of my parents or press on with the journey and see what the future had in store for me? When I look back, I can safely say that it was the most trying situation of my life and the decision making was equally tough.

And then something unbelievable happened.

A young man in his early 30s who was also travelling in the same coupe initiated the conversation. I soon learnt that he too was going to Mysore and had a business of his own. I shared with him the purpose of my travelling to Mysore and apprised him with the recent development. I told him that there was no point in my continuing the journey and that I was toying with the idea of going back to Jaipur.

This gentleman, Suresh Raghavan by name, literally took me under his wings, comforted me and assured me not to worry about the expenses. Right through the journey, he paid for all my meals and other miscellaneous expenses. He kept pepping me up and spread the good cheer.

It took us good two and a half days to get to Mysore.

He took me home. After a quick cup of tea, the two of us set off for the market to buy new clothes and other items that I would need for the interview. In the evening, he dropped me to the Air Force premises.

It was going to be a long haul. The selection process was spread over five days. The process involved individual tasks, group tasks, group discussions and a final interview with the President of the Board.

Every evening, Mr. Raghavan stepped in to check my progress. He always left with words of encouragement and asked me to put in my 100%.

There were 32 candidates and all were putting their best foot forward. For me, it was a do-or-die situation. After a grueling selection process, I was amongst the four short-listed.

In my personal interview with the President of the Board, Mr. Raghavan stood guarantor for me and assured that all documents and other certificates required will be couriered to the Board
once I returned to Jaipur.

Mr. Raghvan was thoroughly delighted with my selection. He gave me the money for my return journey as well. Sheepishly, I told him that I would return all the money he had spent on me. I had a tear in my eye when he came to see me off at the Mysore station.

His parting words were, “Baljit, you can return the money but will you be able to pay back the
goodwill that I have earned?”

I got the message.

Later in February 1972, I reported to Indian Institute of Medicine at Bangalore for my medical. The 1971 war was over and the hospital was teeming with injured soldiers. I got through my medical and my name featured in the All India Merit List. I was absolutely overjoyed and promptly reported for one-year training at Air Force Administrative College, Coimbatore on 17th July 1972. What followed was a challenging assignment at various Air Force Stations for the next 25 years.

 
Baljit Ahluwalia with Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

Baljit Ahluwalia with Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

 

I owe 25 years of my career in the IAF and a 14 year corporate stint to one Mr. Suresh Raghavan — the benevolent stranger. He made it a point not to keep in touch.

I made a number of attempts to reach out to him but to no avail. The man appeared like an angel from nowhere and vanished into thin air after rendering a good act.

Who says that miracles don't happen? Who says that there aren't many good people around?

Baljit Ahluwalia with his wife, Mrs. Ahluwalia.

Baljit Ahluwalia with his wife, Mrs. Ahluwalia.

Comments

It's an amazing story. Unbelievable but true ... Would likke to read more about your meet with Manekshaw, even if it was brief.

Heart touching life experience...truly inspiring. Your scripting of story telling has been amazing.

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