March 27, 2009

Mettle fatigue

By now, sailors must be absolutely fatigued by the melodrama over the fatigue at sea issue. I certainly am. Beating a dead horse tires everybody out.

The latest: Eight months after the ‘Antari’ incident, a Marine Accident Investigation Branch (UK) report recently took the unprecedented step of recommending that the UK government take unilateral action in addressing the problem of seafarer fatigue. The Antari ran aground off Northern Ireland last year when the officer on watch fell asleep; investigations confirmed continuous overwork and fatigue ever since he joined the vessel. The MAIB says that such instances are rising and says it is just a matter of time before ‘unguided missiles’, as it calls such ships, cause a major disaster. The report also severely criticizes the IMO for ‘failing to address this issue satisfactorily’, hence the recommendation for unilateral action. It also says seafarer working hours are ‘close to slavery’.

Ho Hum. Pass the popcorn.

The moment the lowest rating is told, sitting at home, that the car carrier he is slated to join is short manned and on a short sea trade in winter in the North Sea, he knows exactly what he is letting himself for. A port every alternate day, lashing and unlashing, insane port stays, perpetual fog, heavy traffic and a contract that promises only one thing: that sleep will be at a premium. Everybody knows this: from the seaman to the Master to the manager. The Flag State knows this when they issue a Safe Manning Certificate, hiding behind the notion that crews’ commercial duties are not their concern when they deliberately short man ships. They will claim that it is the responsibility of managers and Masters to ensure sufficiently rested crews. In short, not my problem.

The managers will point out that they are complying with all regulations and absurdly minimal manning certificates. Masters will bemoan the fact that they cannot operate ships with skeleton crews without completely ignoring fatigue. We have gone round this mulberry bush many times. It is tiring.

However, there is a way, as I discovered when I barred crew on one such ship from involvement in cargo securing at about fifteen ports a month. This, after a helmsman was found nodding while steering in the North Sea. Obviously, the stuff hit the fan after my decision. Charterers, owners, managers and supercargoes decended on me. Accountants whipped out calculators and told me how much money and time they would lose by having to arrange expensive shore securing gangs who would work only on a ‘separate lashing gangs required and to be paid during ship’s total stay in port’ basis. The crew weren’t happy either, for obvious reasons. I stuck to my guns, perhaps because I was tired and fatigued by it all. Surprisingly, I kept my job, perhaps because this was a couple of years ago.

Pardon me, therefore, for saying that I for one cannot understand what the Antari hoohaa is all about, because it is crystal clear to me that regulatory authorities in general and managers in particular have no intent to solve this problem. Periodic brouhahas after accidents over more than a decade have resulted in nothing more than hand wringing and finger pointing; the Antari incident promises to be one such. I predict that the wringing hands will be washed soon, though all the perfumes of Arabia may not be enough.

The buck stops, as it often does, with the Master. I should put my foot down more often.

On board Contingency Plans are too many in number and too complicated in implementation. Sometimes we take the ‘What if’ question a little too far. I have periodic nightmares of Superintendents sitting over coffee and risk assessment, one telling the other, “What if they crash into a whale, or even a mermaid? We need a contingency plan for that!”

As a Master, I have sometimes wondered if I am even aware of all the various contingency plans in the manual, worrying that if there is an emergency, I may not realise that the mandarins of mayhem have it well covered. On paper, at least.

Slightly more seriously, some contingency plans are useful, prime examples being abandoing ship, fire, collision, grounding, oil pollution, pirate attack, man overboard and crew injury. Unfortunately, there have usually been more than a dozen contingency plans each on the ships I have sailed on recently, most of them doing nothing more than cluttering emergency planning and diluting the point of the exercise.

Contingency planning must be focused and operationally sharp. It must take into account the level of staffing on ships these days and the fact that small crews are more likely to be overwhelmed by a spreading and escalating emergency more than ever before. It must allow for the time consuming and complicated reporting requirements that are commonplace these days, and that some officers may not be fluent in the language of the emergency manuals on board. It must have, ashore, a Superintendent and a DPA who are completely familiar with the ship (Superintendents often are, DPAs are often not). Finally, contingency planning must cover the most threatening likely emergencies and no more. Twenty contingency plans may look impressive on paper, but the system is unworkable in practice. The planning must be focused and simple. It appalls me, for example, when “Emergency Stations Muster Lists’ occupy entire bulkheads, because I can almost guarantee that many crewmembers have not understood their elaborate, confusing and often conflicting duties. Drills would be conducted in an atmosphere of crisp urgency without confusing crews as to their duties, if the contingency planning were simpler.

How much simpler? Tongue in cheek now, an example from a Norwegian engineer in a Montreal bar, who had me in splits with his ‘Shipboard contingency plan in the event of a nuclear attack’.
It went something like this:
  • When you become aware of the occurrence of a nuclear attack, call the Master and sound Emergency Stations.
  • Try not to panic, or at least avoid screaming.
  • To prevent being struck by flying debris, get under the table and make your profile as small as possible by placing your head between your knees with your fingers interlaced behind your head. The head must be well between the knees for the next step.
  • Kiss your ass goodbye.

    Thank you for your attention.


March 20, 2009

Simple minds

Pardon me for saying this, but nobody on earth knows what is going on with the global financial meltdown.

Take shipping. Just when I rejoiced as the Baltic Dry Index hit its highest level this year, Bloomberg quoted Seafin saying that a third of shipping lines would go bust. And even as I broke out the champagne after I heard from a friend that a few shipping companies have raised salaries even in these times, Lloyds List quoted DNV saying that fleet overcapacity could eventually hit the ten thousand number. One third, and ten thousand, are huge numbers. DNV President Madsen says, further, “To believe it will be over in one or two years is a bit naive.” (The ‘it’ being, obviously, the impact of the meltdown on shipping).

Other reports swing from absolute despair to a resolute sighting of a glimmer of hope. Nobody is jumping for joy and there is no euphoria, of course, but there seem to be many experts in various contradictory states of depression and hope. This is terribly confusing to me, and makes me feel like those two blind earthworms that were trying to have sex in a noodle bowl.

My own opinion is that much of the industry is in a state of denial. Remember that the teenage like excitement over the BDI’s recent rise ignores the fact that it is still at a fifth of last May’s peak, when tonnage was being booked as if it was on sale. Recent higher Chinese commodity demand notwithstanding, that thinking ignores the huge demand supply mismatch in global tonnage today. In addition, it ignores the fact that China is facing large economic problems of its own: 650,000 businesses have shut down and 20 million people have lost jobs. That piper will have to be paid, too.

Some in shipping are looking wistfully at curves, predicting a U shaped recovery, though, slowly, the chances of this recovery happening this year are being ruled out. Others, in acute depression perhaps, predict an agonising L shaped recovery spread over many years. In my opinion again, this is conjecture. Looking at Salma Hayek’s curves would be more rewarding, even more productive. At least those curves are there and real; the U’s or the L’s are all in the future, and subject to fancy guesswork.

So what do companies and individual seafarers do at a time like this, then? We in the industry can hardly give up and die. We must snap out of the ‘deer in the headlight’ mode, though, and the sooner the better. Strategies for survival, whether individual or collective, and strategies for future growth must be planned, realistic and put in place. I suggest we do this right now: spend less time on the crystal ball and more on the ball that has landed right at our feet in the middle of the soccer game.

The game will go on. Play it well at every stage. When the game turns your way, you will win.

It is actually that simple.


Simplicity is underrated. More and more people realise this now that the economic monster hides under our beds: agony aunt columns are full of tips on rejecting blind and vapid consumerism, ‘resetting the button’ and the advantages of simple living and high thinking.

Those of us who have been trying to live simply (or at least live a life less complicated by clutter) find all this amusing. Some of us have lived simply for years; some have even tried to apply this thinking to our responsibilities at sea, knocking out the clutter and the information overload and paper that uselessly decimate time. Instead, we have tried to concentrate much more on what is essential: safety, efficiency and conscientious professionalism. Some have even tried to do this in an ethical, even moral, manner.

Many of us have failed, or as the Americans say in Afghanistan, we have not succeeded. Some of the reasons for failure are human and some are forced by the very complicated way ships are being operated these days. I am here to tell you that the financial crisis (shouldn’t that be plural?) is an excellent time for us to push personal and professional simplicity. I do believe that the advantage to us will be many: as individuals, a more peaceful and prosperous existence. As professionals, this advantage will include higher ethical efficiency at lower cost.

One man’s simplicity is another man’s luxury, so I will not enumerate the ways in which this can be done. I can say from experience, however, that for one to drive a smaller car than one can afford, or to buy what one needs more often than what he desires, is a very peaceful thing. For those of us who have been there, done that and bought the TShirt, an unlittered life has proved to be more serene. And isn’t tranquility more important than aspiring to be King Rat on the treadmill?

At sea, too, the sweet spot has been hit for me most often while ship handling, solving people’s problems or surviving a storm. I cannot think of similar satisfaction gleaned from any of the multitude of clerical tasks being increasingly thrust on a ship these days; those are a chore. I do not say that those chores should be ignored; unfortunately, as the lady says, before you meet Prince Charming, you have to kiss many toads. All I am saying is, kiss them, don’t embrace them.

Finally, for the hardheaded businesses which some of us choose to run, there are obvious commercial advantages in cutting away the flab that has invidiously crept in. Complicated or duplicitous systems, needless administration and communication overload consume resources. Cut the fat out. I would much rather my employees at sea spend their time keeping on top of lowering unnecessary inventories and managing commercial efficiencies than spend it filling up unnecessary checklists. Get your priorities right: tough times give opportunities for innovation and pruning of lard. Keep it simple.

Incidentally, I may have disagreed with Oscar Wilde for the only time in my life here. He said that the truth was rarely pure and never simple.

I beg to differ, sire. Sometimes less is more.


March 13, 2009

Different Strokes

At Differentship Management, we are as numbed by the alarming figures coming out of the industry as any of you. Shocked by the reports of ships laid up across the board, we are aware that VLCCs are being used for storage, as also new box ships. Storing oil and empties is cheaper on a laid up ship than in port now. We do not believe that the recent revival of the Baltic Indices is sustainable, because they are not backed up by improved figures coming out of the global economy. Quite the contrary.

Differentship does not believe that the old paradigms of marine recruitment, whether at sea or ashore, apply today. In fact, we have often criticised those prototype solutions as unsustainable at the best of times. The inability of most of the industry to maintain quality in the recent boom, or even produce the required supply of manpower, bears this thinking out.

After a fair deal of thought, therefore, Differentship has decided on the following course of action within the group. Our aim is the retention of excellence by promoting
long term mutually beneficial associations with our employees, both ashore and afloat.

We now make this plan public.


The execution of our plans will be made in a manner that is transparent to all employees, whether at sea or afloat.
The execution of our plans will be carried out in a legal and ethical manner. Our behaviour towards our employees has never been variable, or dependant on market conditions, and we see no reason to change that now.
We have, at present, 50 ships under management. Although this number can certainly decrease if conditions get worse, we intend to maintain our shore and floating staff at a level that will sustain this number with excellence.
We do not see great issues with financing Differentship’s initiatives. As we will show here, enough lard exists in the system that can be burnt off. Additionally, we have some out of the box plans to ensure economic sustainability.
We will pursue our new initiative with vigour for 3 years starting today. Although this initiative will be reviewed annually, our commitments made now to our employees will remain unchanged for 3 years.
The initial selection process of employees will be intensive, robust and discriminating. We will ensure that only excellent performers are identified. If in doubt, the new plan will not be offered to many.


This is what we have started doing today:

Floating staff

A three year contract will be signed between Differentship and carefully selected floating staff that are willing to participate. The contract will be renewable at the end of three years. We are calling this a ‘permanent contract’.
Differentship will offer this permanent contract to 60 officers, Cadets and Crew of each rank. The balance of our requirements, if any, will be met by additional contractual seafarers, although we intend to have permanent employees wherever possible, subject to our overriding requirement of retaining excellence.
A penalty of a three months salary will be payable and incorporated in this contract, in case either party decides to renege. Our lawyers assure us that this is legally binding and enforceable. We hold ourselves to the same penalty, as a sign of our commitment.
Cadets will be offered full pay, whether at sea or not. We estimate that the cost of this, at 12,000 dollars a month, is well worth the future payoff of well trained officers within our fleet.
All other officers and crew will be paid 25% less salary (now called ‘new salary’) than they presently receive when sailing. A minimum of four months full salary will be guaranteed each year, in the event that the employee does not sail for four months.
When not sailing, all officers and crew will receive wages of 15% of the new salary each month when at home. In return, they agree to undergo online training programmes which we are in the process of finalising, from within the comfort of their homes. We guarantee our mariners more than five months salary every year with these initiatives (4 months seagoing plus 15% for 8 months). Of course, if one sails more than four months, one earns more.
These terms will remain in force for the three year period even if market wages collapse elsewhere, provided the employee does not take up any alternate employment.
Tenures on board will be determined by repatriation costs. We expect some flexibility in this regard from seagoing employees. Our intention, however, is to align these tenures with the contract system as it is followed today, where rank determines the length of seagoing time.
All other present terms and conditions now stand cancelled.
Annual bonuses will be payable depending on company performance to all employees, whether at sea or afloat.
Although a seagoing employee will remain subject to dismissal for fraud and gross negligence, we believe that with our robust selection process already in place, the chances of this are negligible. It does not bear repeating that we pride ourselves on being ethical, and so it will be in this eventuality. The process will be transparent to all employees and subject to peer review.

A simple calculation will show that seagoing staff will get the benefit of permanent employment for three years without a great drop in income. This will remain even if contractual wages collapse elsewhere.

Cadets will be assured employment for three years. Sea time requirements may take longer to complete if fleet size decreases; however, we will persuade owners to increase berths for cadets, which are relatively low cost.

Differentship will get the benefit of retaining performers and weeding out the non performing staff. We envisage that we will be in an excellent position to grow whenever the global economy turns around, as it eventually will. Meanwhile, we will strengthen bonds with our employees within the group.

Shore staff

As with seagoing staff, we will retain shore staff at a level that will support 50 ships. The retention will be based on performance alone. People asked to leave will be given three months notice with full wages.

The following will apply to retained shore staff

A three year ‘permanent contract’ similar to the one with floating staff will be signed. This will have similar enforcement penalties and bonus plans.
As with seagoing employees, shore employees will be subject to a 25% pay cut.
Traditionally, wages at sea have been considerably higher than shore wages, everything else being equal. Largely because of the different nature of work, this is also partly because a shore employee works almost throughout the year. With this reasoning in mind, Differentship will guarantee 6 months full wages to each shore employee (instead of four months offered for seagoing staff). In the event of a shore employee being ‘benched’, he or she will receive 35% of the new salary for the remaining period. This will remain in force for the three year period even if market wages collapse elsewhere, provided the employee does not take up any alternate employment.
Although a shore employee will remain subject to dismissal for fraud and gross negligence, as with seagoing staff, the process in this eventuality will be along identical lines outlined for the floating staff.

Finance, Austerity measures and miscellaneous initiatives

Move to smaller premises. Given collapse in real estate prices and rentals, this makes sense. Also because we envisage a leaner and meaner workforce.
Cost cutting on travel, unnecessary seminars and such expenses. Rollout of online training programmes as mentioned earlier.
New premises to be energy efficient. Functionality to replace flashy ambience. Office to exude a cheerful, professional and no nonsense atmosphere.
We envisage considerably lower recruitment costs after the conclusion of the initial selection, as we believe we will have a core of competent personnel, and a pool that will be growing. Lower attrition rates will give rise to many collateral advantages.
Streamlining of systems to minimise wastage of time, manpower and communication costs, especially between the vessel and the office.
Training programmes for shore and seagoing employees to be well thought, cost effective and sustainable.
Smart maintenance and storing on board. Dead stock to be minimised. Smart maintenance not to mean minimum maintenance, however.

Differentship believes that economic conditions will get worse before they get better. Salaries, too, will probably drop further. While we are locking ourselves in to a three year commitment with a base of higher salaries, we believe that our flexible approach with an annual minimum guaranteed package will offset some of these higher costs, and our austerity measures will do the rest.

Equally importantly, we believe that if Differentship has to come out of this recession poised for growth, we need to identify, employ, retain and train our core employee strength right now. Without people, we are nothing. Our initiative is aimed, therefore, at guaranteeing our performers ongoing employment with us. We are treating them as adults, and we know they will not disappoint us, or we them.

We are comfortable with our back of the envelope calculations on this. We believe that this is a sustainable and forward thinking way of surviving the hurricane that has hit the global economy today. We also believe that we will be idling at the runway, ready to take off, when the storm passes.

While our accountants are crunching the finer numbers, and while we will undoubtedly refine our thoughts as we go along, we will not allow electronic calculators to dictate our business plans in this recession.

We know how damaging it was to us last time this happened.


March 06, 2009

Armchair Hard Talk

Industry statistics and reports out in the last week or so have confused the hell out of me. Unfortunately, the bikini conceals more than it reveals. I confess to bewilderment, besides disappointment, of course.

On one hand, the Drewry/Precious Associates annual manning report says that there will be a shortage of 33000 officers at sea this year, and that this figure will reach 42700 by 2013. The Drewry analysis says ship owners are offering higher wages and benefits even under present economic conditions in a bid to retain floating staff, and, for Indian officers, a five to ten percent pay hike this year is likely.

On the other hand, Lloyds List says that the number of ships scrapped this year will touch the thousand mark, three times last year’s figures. The World Bank says that global trade will decline for the first time since 1992. Reports indicate that up to ten percent of the global container fleet is on its way to being laid up. People are wondering what to do with the Car Carriers fleet that is badly hit, and talking about using those ugly ships for training or for rock concerts. And Precious Shipping (not to be confused with Precious Associates above) says that a third of the global merchant fleet will be scrapped in the next two years.

I honestly fail to understand how, when businesses, salaries and jobs are being lost across the world, the shipping industry thinks it can survive paying higher wages even as freight demand contracts. Granted that the threefold rise in freight indices in the last few months is a welcome breather for our businesses that had their backs firmly to the wall. Regardless, recent manufacturing and export figures out of Japan and Germany are abysmal. China and India are hardly doing much better, with GDP growth slowing down faster than anticipated. Of course, the US continues to slide even deeper in the mire, bailing out everybody they see around them. Globally, protectionism is rising and trade barriers are more likely.

Trade is contracting, and there is an obvious huge oversupply of tonnage, as indicated by estimates of tonnage bound for graveyards in Asia and elsewhere. I find it therefore hard to believe that the industry expects freight rates to pick up dramatically soon from here on; without higher income, higher salaries seem impossible to justify.

So, my question. Shortage of officers notwithstanding, can the industry afford even present salaries, leave alone higher ones, at a time when its freight income is likely to shrink?

Perhaps some can. After all, those who have not gambled away the huge profits of the last few years on injudicious new buildings and roll of the dice FFA agreements are presumably sitting on cash. As for the others, don’t hold your breath expecting firms to be able to afford even present wages, leave alone higher ones. Some will not survive this cataclysm.

Unless the global economy turns on a dime, and soon, I expect seafarer jobs to be under pressure. I expect a cascading effect of loss of some jobs followed by wider industry layoffs and frozen wages. I expect lower wages in many cases.

While all of this will be beneficial to a segment of the industry, making it more competitive and able to employ a higher calibre of officers for lower wages, seafarers would be well advised to be cautious about their near term future. As they saw in the eighties, what is good for the industry is not always good for them. Some officers, depending on individual circumstances, did not survive in the industry in that recession. For them, it matters little that the operation was successful, because the patient died.

I am a regular client of the BBC’s ‘Hard Talk’ programme. Hard hitting most of the time, it seems to elicit passionate responses from the variety of guests defending their positions. Therefore, it was with some anticipation that I sat down to watch Efthimios Mitropoulos on the show last week. The programme billed him as the “Secretary General of the International Maritime Organisation, the UN body charged with safety and security at sea”. The main thrust of the session? Somali piracy.

During the half hour programme, Gavin Esler asks Mr. Mitropoulos, on a couple of occasions, as I recall, why there cannot be a global move to not pay any ransom to pirates. He asks, quite forcefully (it is Hard Talk, after all) why criminals should be negotiated with, and implies that if there was a UN writ to the effect, the problem of Somali piracy would disappear. Mr. Mitropoulos response was a diplomatic and almost apologetic, ‘We have to consider the seafarers on these ships’ (paraphrased by me). If my memory has not failed me again, I think he repeated this on two separate occasions.

With the benefit of preparation time, perfect hindsight and armchair analysis, this is what I would have told Gavin Elser:
“Mr. Elser, the IMO is in the business of safety at sea, not safety at the cost of its seafarers’ blood. Not to put too fine a point on it, if seafarers on twenty thousand ships refuse to sail through those waters, a large part of world trade will grind to a halt”.

“As for a ‘no negotiating with criminals’ policy, perhaps I would be more sanguine in proposing such an action if the world community did not have a history of negotiating with criminals, even terrorists. Recent developments in Swat bear my hypothesis out. Other examples: Spain negotiating with the ETA, the Oslo peace accords when Israel negotiated with the PLO and your British governments’ backdoor channels with the IRA even after that organisation attacked 10 Downing Street with mortars. Incidentally, Arafat got himself a Nobel Peace Prize. Gandhi did not.”

But that is just me.

In all fairness, Elser also asks Efthimios Mitropoulos why Somali pirates are not being dealt with on land and why the international community is not attacking their bases there.

Good question, that one. Worth waiting for an answer.


March 01, 2009

Under the influence-Ramblings on maritime education

A couple of months have gone by since I started teaching navigation, chart work and other such stuff to a bunch of Cadets. Don’t ask me why I started; it seemed an interesting thing to do at the time, and I am at a stage of my life when I have worked too long for just money.

Anyway and as scheduled, I poured myself a Bloody Mary yesterday and ruminated about why I was teaching, why I was enjoying it and why I was taking it so seriously. God knows it is not about money; if I add the time I spend in brushing up my rusty principles of celestial navigation (thank you, D.A. Moore!) to commuting time, classroom time and administration time, I probably get paid an Indian plumber’s hourly rates. (Don’t laugh very loudly. As they say, to teach is to learn twice. They do not say anything about making a living out of it).

It is not about ‘giving back to the industry’ either. I am not that altruistic. I am also, as much of this column will testify, not particularly charmed by the collective industry or most individuals within it, many of whom I hold in contempt for their unprofessionalism and shortsightedness. Although I often say, with some pride, that no other industry could have given somebody of my generation in India so much in life without resorting to criminal or criminally corrupt behaviour, that is neither here nor there. It is beside the point.

I think one reason is that this ruminating cow (bull?) was looking for another interesting pasture. When I found it, the grass seemed greener on my side of the fence; it just was not the banknote green. And since seafarers are creatures of habit, I took the teaching as seriously as I would take to berthing a ship in a storm.

Perhaps Capt. S had something to do with it. He alone, in a bunch of other teachers, taught me with flair, passion, integrity and dignity when I was a cadet long ago. He was the only one who seemed genuinely interested in the whole bunch of us learning something substantial and well, the only one who spent more time teaching than was allotted to him, the only one who mentored many youngsters (including me, a brash and rebellious seventeen year old at the time) in his unique style.

Although he was too honest to last very long in that organisation, he is the only one I still respect, more than thirty years later. Most of the others were chaff.

Anyway, back to my classroom. I think one moment of truth was last week, when my students asked me for a copy of my presentation, saying that my explanation of the hour angles was simpler, clearer and much better than their course notes. For the first time, I could sense their excitement at having cracked a conceptually difficult part of their syllabus. (Fortunately, full details of the gyrocompass are not part of their course content).

Which reminds me of another teacher I respect, for one reason alone. Years ago, a brash and rebellious twenty something year old now, I decided not to join the LBS nautical college prior to my Master’s examinations. College had not yet been made compulsory, although there were stories doing the rounds of MMD surveyors asking for attendance certificates during the orals. All my other batch mates had joined LBS, and although I was studying on my own, I found that a full understanding of the principles of the gyrocompass was taking me far too long. I needed a book, but when I went to the LBS college library I was told that since I was not enrolled I could not borrow anything. I then requested a higher authority in the college for help; he was very curious why I had not joined, and nodded when I told him that the time I would spend in travel plus the time I would spend in attending classes (many of dubious value) meant that too much time was wasted. I told him that if I studied half as long at home I would be better off. He must have accepted my logic, because I left the college with the book in my bag.

So, Capt. Joseph, a belated toast to you. The college did teach me something, after all.

I taught a Cadet at sea, the first time I did this seriously, perhaps seven years ago. I was assigned a ship that was on a less stressful run for once: a run that actually gave me considerable time free at sea between ports. I used to give some of the other officers a break by keeping their sea watches occasionally, keeping watch along with this Cadet who showed a keen interest in learning new things.

I started spending a fair amount of time talking to him on the bridge during those watches, explaining stuff in considerable detail. I found that I enjoyed the opportunity to pass on a bit of what I had learnt (and been taught) myself. I also found it amazing how much I still did not know, and how much I learnt again in the process. I can say with some honesty that I really tried. My litmus test of my commitment used to be a question to myself: If I were teaching my own son, could I do better?

A few months later, the Cadet was signing off. He came to see me, and, just before leaving, stooped and touched my feet before I could stop him. You know, the old Indian gesture of respect towards teachers, amongst others.

Startled and embarrassed as I undoubtedly was, another thought or two did flash through my mind at the time. One was satisfaction at the confirmation that I had done a part of my job decently. Another was the realisation that teaching is not about altruism and it is not a post retirement idle pursuit. It is serious business and requires a professional and dedicated mindset. It is a business like no other, because it cannot be measured by balance sheets or profit and loss statements alone.

It is also about giving to the future a bit of what the past gave to us. It is, therefore, my own little link to eternity.

So, Avasthi, thank you, too. Next time don’t touch my feet, though. Have a Bloody Mary with me and tell me whom you have taught instead.