Veteran officers become icons of digital transformation

During the pandemic, with in-house talent, members of Armed Forces Veteran Officers Association Chennai started an e-Connect Series that continues to put the spotlight on a diverse range of professions; and they have also turned their 20-page printed newsletter into a quarterly eBook that is three editions old, with one of them running to 237 pages

Here are fleeting glimpses into what two “raconteurs” shared from the coalface of their respective professions, in two separate but related webinars, when the pandemic was at its height. They were addressing a group in Chennai.

So, first up, here is Karun Chandhok on his “first day at work” as an F1 Race Driver.

Karun divides a typical racing driver’s career into three chapters: First, the preparatory path to F1. Second, being in F1 as a test driver and race driver. Third, “Post-F1, what you do with it”.

Karun recalls how after 10 years of intense and rigorous preparation, the first day of Chapter 2 dawned in 2010 in Bahrain.

This scene unfolds at the paddock.

“It was also the year Michael Schumacher had come back from a sabbatical. He had stopped racing at the end of 2006 and he had three years away and he had come back. All of a sudden, we have the biggest in our sport at that time returning to the sport. And Schumacher was one of my heroes. I had his poster on my wall in my bedroom as a child. That first day I arrived, he was the first driver to come and shake my hand and say, “Welcome to F1!” He wanted to know a little bit about me. He wanted to know how does somebody from India come into the sport. This was a seven-time world champion and I was a nobody. It is something I will always appreciate of Michael.”

In his online session, wildlife photographer and filmmaker Alphonse Roy regales the audience with how his life took a “wild” turn for the better.

He draws attention to how his father, a photographer serving in the Indian railways, would surprise little Alphonse with unannounced weekend wildlife trips.

Alphonse particularly remembers how he was once whisked away to the railway station, straight from school, on a Friday evening.

With the school bag deposited at a book stall in the railway station, the family hopped into a train to Calcutta.

“The reason: the tiger at the Calcutta zoo had delivered four cubs.”

Tours rustled up with mercurially sudden and quick planning were common.

“Suddenly, in the middle of my exams, my father would take me to Thekaddy. That is how my interest in wildlife started,” explains Alphonse. “By the time, I was kind of 10 to 11 years old, I was interested in photography, and my father took me to film the lion-tailed macaque at Manjolai Estate on Western Ghats, beyond Tirunelveli, in Kalakkad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve.”

The father-son duo had gone “along with American researcher Stephen Green, who was carrying out research on the lion-tailed macaque, a species endemic to the Western Ghats.”

Though the filming process was likely something Alphonse would have looked forward to, the journey was proving to be a dampener on his enthusiasm.

Alphonse elaborates that his father was filming in black and white, with a hand-cranked Bolex camera.

“In a day they walked something like 9 to 12 kilometres. And I was around 10 or 11 years old. I was bitten by leeches. At the end of the day, I said never again am I going to step into the forests,” says Alphonse, with a fleeting hint of an effort to squeeze the smouldering disenchantment that he had felt that day, into his voice.

His face settling into what can be called a promise of a half-smile, he says, “Things changed for me. I learnt how to live life sitting in the forests.”

These two webinars are part of an e-Connect Series this group in Chennai has been organising for its members, for their elucidation about diverse professions, particularly the protagonists’ personal journeys.

This group is itself associated with a profession whose coalface is fraught with experiences that stretch a whole galaxy out of the ordinary.

They are retired officers of armed services who have settled down in Chennai: Armed Forces Veteran Officers Association (AFVOA) Chennai.

Though locked-down due to the pandemic, they found a way to keep the spirit of freedom fluttering across geographies through technology. To illustrate, Karun Chandhok did that webinar for these Chennai veteran officers from the United Kingdom.

With the youngest in their sixties and the oldest in their nineties, the group has demonstrated that senior digital-immigrants may not be as far behind on the technology learning curve as usually perceived.

At last count, they had done 21 webinars, some of which can be accessed at their YouTube Channel, whose link is found in their website (

It is not so much the numbers as how they have curated the series that makes the exercise singular. As the AFVOA Chennai organisers put it, the e-Connect Series chooses to bring diverse professionals into focus. The novelty of what they have to offer is another consideration.

“Now that we have settled down in civil life, we want to generally look at varied subjects under the sun. Our president at AFVOA Chennai, Air Marshal Simhakutty Varthaman has been greatly influencing the selection of subjects and speakers. The entire credit goes to him for making those selections,” explains Wing Commander C. Ravishankar, a member of the executive committee, which AFVOA Chennai’s managing committee consults in matters pertaining to certain specialisations.

Wg Cdr Ravishankar, 65 years old, is in his second career as an IT consultant, and brings the tech skills to what he does for AFVOA Chennai.

Though the focus is certainly not on being wired into the minds of celebrity-professionals, now and then, the search does point in that direction.

So, among those featured by the series are: singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan and Carnatic vocalist-singer-composer Sudha Ragunathan, dramatist-actor-singer-playwright Y Gee Mahendra and media artist Shylaja Chetlur.

Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma is the only person featured from the armed forces, but even he spoke about space, which of course is an obvious thing to expect and want from a man who saw India from up and out there and added new vigour to the line — “Saare Jahan Se Accha”.

Diversity of speakers and subjects, some of which best described as “offbeat”, brings with it the need for preparation by the moderators.

For example, historian and heritage-activist V Sriram, took the veterans to the East India Company in Madras, and it is a subject that the moderator would have had to considerably brush up on through focussed reading.

To give another example, reportedly, one of the talks expected to come up a few fortnights down the line would be delivered by a scientist who lives in Australia and has carried out research in Antarctica, which would be the subject of her discussion.

“Except for one session, I have been moderator-interviewer through the e-Connect Series. Though having the speaker send in the bio-data helps, that is not a substitute for adequate preparation. It is essential to do a study about the speaker and the subject. We have a question-answer session at the end; but one has to be prepared for a situation where questions would not come in sufficient numbers from the audience,” says Wg Cdr Harshavardhan, adding that every time, he heads into a session with a rescue package of at least eight questions that he could put to the speaker, and fill any uneasy gaps of silence.

“If people have asked some of the questions on the list, I cut them out, and ask the rest.”

Preparation has enabled Harshavardhan to play it by the ear, whenever required.

Some speakers would want to recast the format in a structure they are more comfortable with.

“Some speakers may want to have it interactive from the get-go. It was like that with Karun Chandhok and Shankar Mahadevan. Shankar Mahadevan’s session was on December 16, at 7 p.m. Around 5.45 p.m., he called me and during the conversation, he said, “Instead of speaking about myself, I should let you ask me questions that I would answer. In-between, I would sing a few songs. I could not say ‘no’ to him, though I had only around an hour to go. The questions that I had already prepared were helpful. As the session started, my wife was sitting next to me, and she kept writing some chits and sending them to me. That was one of the good shows,” laughs Wg Cdr Harshavardhan.

Though, initially, the e-Connect Series was planned as a weekly feature, every Sunday, it has settled into a fortnightly fare — again, generally a Sunday event, but also planned ad hoc particularly when a speaker’s availability has to be factored in — so that the veteran officers can keep their screen time well under permissible limits.

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