The story is considered one of Thurber’s acknowledged masterpieces. It was made into a 1947 movie on the same name, though the movie is very different from the original story. It was also adapted into a 2013 film, which is again very different from the original.
The name Walter Mitty and the derivative word “Mittyesque” have entered the English language, denoting an ineffectual person who spends more time in heroic daydreams than paying attention to the real world.
I have been a great fan of James Thurber and especially the story of Walter Mitty. The post below is my attempt to share with you my own secret life on the similar lines. I am sure that in this process you will see the messages I would like to flag with some salt and pepper of satire and humor – as always!
You get to read the original story on-line at http://www.fraumuenster.ch/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/The-Secret-Life-of-Walter-Mitty.pdf. Please don’t miss. Salute to James Thurber!
My Professor friend called me in the morning asking for a car ride to the office of the Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). He was called to chair a meeting on the Review of Research Proposals for MoEFCC’s funding.
Professors’ car plate was odd-numbered and on the day of the meeting odd numbered vehicles were on the ban. So he wanted that I pick him up from his house (as my car was even numbered) and drop him at MoEFCC. But to make my time worth, he said that he had spoken to the concerned Joint Secretary and got me included as an Observer on the Committee. “Your gate pass will be ready along with me”. He assured. Sometimes getting a gate pass to MoEFCC takes much more time than the time for the meeting itself! I agreed to be the Observer as there was nothing to be done.
I was leaving my home to head to Professors bungalow in Noida. My wife warned me “Please pay attention when you drive. Lately, I see that you have become a day dreamer and you don’t concentrate”. I thought that she was right. Indeed, I had become a kind of “addicted” to day dreaming when I was doing nothing or even anything. This day dreaming would often take me to my “secret world”.
The Professor was waiting at the Gate of his bungalow. We started driving towards the MoEFCC office at Jor Baugh. There was not much congestion on the streets – thanks to Kejariwal’s Odd-Even vehicle policy. Professor wasn’t speaking as he was busy reading the Research Proposals that were submitted for review. Apparently, he always read the proposals in the car while going for meeting – Not worth spending too much time on such stuff, he used to say.
I overtook a tanker that was blocking us for a while near the IGL CNG Station. I could now catch up the speed. While overtaking, the HazChem signage on the truck caught my attention. And I entered my secret world.
“There was a huge commotion at UniChem India’s tank farm near Ghaziabad. The tank farm had a storage tank of Ethylene Oxide (EO) of 100 MT. EO is highly toxic and flammable. It has to be stored in steel vessels maintaining temperature in the range of 100 to 150C. If this temperature exceeds then polymerization happens that is exothermic leading to fire and explosion.
One of the junior engineers who was on his routine rounds at the tank farm noticed that the temperature gauge on the EO Tank was showing 18oC and in fact the gauge moved to 19 oC within no time. Immediately, he relayed an alarm of emergency.
I was sitting at the office of MD when the siren started hooting. The HSE Head Chopra rushed to the Tank Farm with his team. Everyone understood the gravity of the situation but nobody was clear what action to take. Guidebooks or manuals were not very useful (as always!). Perhaps this was one of first such instances to face. The fireball if resulted from a 100 MT EO Tank was impossible to handle and would put people in 2 km radius into a zone of acute toxicity. By that time, MD and I also reached the spot. No one dared to go close to the EO Tank.
Chopra was an experienced HSE Head with 20 years of experience in handling chemicals. But he looked all scared and helpless at that time with beads of sweat on this forehead. He looked at me with a sigh of relief “Dr Modak, Good to see you here. Guess the runway reactions are already setting in”. (Only Chopra knew that I was one of the most regarded Safety Expert in the Asia-Pacific region)
I decided to step in. There wasn’t any option. I looked at the pressure gauge and volume indicators of the tank, watched the oscillating needles of gauges on temperature, pressure and volume over two minutes. Did quick calculations on the iPhone I was holding and looked at the ambient temperature on my iPhone App.
I then took slow and steady steps towards the Tank. Everybody was tensed and stood frozen watching me taking such a risk. MD of UniChem said in a low and cracked voice “No Dr Modak, please don’t go close”.
I reached the temperature gauge of the Tank and screwed it off and tossed to Chopra. “No worries friend, this gauge is defective. Please replace with a new one on calibration”.
Everybody was shocked. They could not figure out how I could detect an error in the temperature Gauge. Chopra almost screamed, turned to his Team and said to the MD “Only he could do this Sir, Only Dr Modak”. There was a great applause and the MD patted on my back.
I suddenly realized that someone was tapping my shoulders. It was my Professor friend. He seemed very perturbed.
“Dr Modak, please slow down the car. See your speedometer gauge. You are driving beyond the speed of 140 km/hr. – Do you want to be caught by the traffic cops, get held up and pay fine. Besides we could land into a situation of tyre burst on this not so well done a road. And I have never seen you driving so recklessly before. What is wrong with you today? Please watch the gauge.”
Professor’s warning made me come out of my secret world. “Sorry Professor, my mistake” I said this nervously with my mouth running dry. I was no more that Ethylene Oxide Storage Tank hero.
We drove a few kilometers silently. When we were close to the shopping mall of the Great India place, Professor asked me to take the car on the service road “I need to buy some fruits for my wife from the Shopping Mall. Why don’t you park the car and wait for me? I will not take more than 10 minutes”
I knew he would take more than 10 minutes. Finding a parking place in the shopping mall was not easy but I found one on the second stage ramp. I had to negotiate a place next to a fish van. The workers were pulling out large trays of king fish, black Pomfret and the Emperor fish. There was quite some stink and so I rolled up the windows and put on the AC. Having secured the parking place and settled, I strolled back into my secret world.
Divers on the ship Vijayanta were visiting an isolated site some 300 miles south west of the Gujarat coast to survey marine floors for an Oil Exploration company. The team consisted of 12 divers.
I was with Subra Iyer – the Captain of the ship. I was to do some monitoring to understand relationship between marine iron concentration and the phytoplankton.
It was noon that the Team discovered an injured whale shark. The divers saw a thick metal rope wrapped around the shark, cutting into her skin and threatening the pregnant female’s life and that of her unborn pup. The divers made two trips down to the whale shark to check the condition and tried to remove the rope. All their attempts failed.
When we heard screaming from the divers, we rushed to the deck. When some of the senior divers saw me, there were whispers “Oh, Dr Duck is on board – one of the world famous marine divers who has taken animal rescue as his mission” (I was affectionately called as Dr Duck by the diver community) “Dr Duck is also an internationally acclaimed campaigner against marine debris” One senior diver told this to his junior.
I sensed that there wasn’t much time to think. We needed to act immediately.
“Subra – what kind of diver suit you have on the board” I snapped.
“We have ADS 2000” Subra said. I turned to one of the divers “What depth are we talking”. “200 meters Sir” said he.
“Then ADS is just fine. Get me in. I dropped my T-shirt and the trousers and spread my hands wide.
Aye Aye Sir, said the divers and two divers helped me to get into ADS 2000.
“And get me a set of Scuba Deep Sea Hammerhead Stainless Steel Diving Knife”. I instructed
“Get Doc one “Subra shouted”, “Getting one Sir”, said one of the divers and rushed.
I dived with two divers to guide me to the “spot”.
When I saw the Whale, it broke my heart to see the poor and helpless animal. Indeed it was going to be too difficult and dangerous to rescue her but I felt compelled to help and risking my life.
I moved around the struggling animal and found a thinner section of the rope where I could cut through using my Hammerhead knife. I succeeded. I then unwrapped the rope from each side of the whale shark and finally she was free. The two divers along with me raised their thumbs for “victory”. I knew they must be saying “Only Dr Duck could do it!”
I suddenly heard a number of knocks on my side window. It was the Professor. I lowered the window. “Where the hell were you Dr Modak? The Professor was very angry. “It took me 15 minutes for me to find you. And why did you hide behind this fish van?” Professor was obviously not happy with the stink! “Open the dickey I say and let me put there my sack of fruits” I noticed that Professor’s carry bag was looking like a fish net. Instead of the Whale Shark there were fruits.
We drove out of the Parking lot. I was no more that famous Dr Duck.
We were now close to Lajpat Nagar and got blocked by a crowd of young students making a protest. Initially I thought that the protest was about the incidence that took place on the campus of the JNU, however to my surprise the protest was about why the universities have not implemented the Supreme Court directive on compulsory environmental education (EVS).
Just to give you a background – The failure of universities and colleges in starting environmental studies modules for undergraduate courses despite repeated reminders prompted the University Grants Commission (UGC) to issue a notice. According to the notice, the UGC had prepared and provided a six month EVS module for all under graduate courses in 2003. This was a follow up of the Supreme Court order that was in 1999 directing that appropriate steps be taken to introduce EVS in all universities and affiliated colleges.
The students on the street were demanding action on this lapse given the precarious condition of India’s environment. They were carrying banners that said “Hame Chahiye Paryavaran ke Shiksha – Wahi dega Deshko Suraksha” – Ab Aur Deri Nahi Challegi” (meaning “Environmental Education will provide security to India and its Resources. We don’t want any further delay in imparting environmental education”). One young college student was giving a talk on a loudspeaker lashing the UGC, MHRD and the NGT.
I was overwhelmed to see the love to learn about environment by the new generation. “There is some hope” I said to myself. I wanted to tell about this to the Professor but he brushed me off – saying that he is now busy in totaling the evaluation scores of the research proposals and would not like to get disturbed. He simply said “don’t take these protests seriously”
I asked the traffic Cop on the street about the traffic jam. He said “Sir, relax on the wheel now for the next 20 minutes. The roads are blocked by the students over another kilometer”. So I decided to return to my secret world.
A public hearing was taking place of a Coal Fired Thermal Power Plant project in the State of Orissa. This hearing was conducted by the Orissa State Pollution Control Board as a part of the Environmental Clearance. Nearly 1000 people had gathered and a pendall was erected with a number of standing fans to beat the heat. The Collector was presiding and a Consultant representing the Project Proponent was making a presentation. The crowd consisted local people, some tribes who were to lose their land, environmental NGOs and a large technical team that was brought to answer questions. Media and local police were also present.
There were hoardings around that described the benefits of the project and handouts were circulated in Oriya to everybody. There was a food stall set up to eat, a place to get water and wash face and hands. The arrangement resembled a wedding reception.
I was sitting in the second row in front of the pendall. In this large crowd and all the “hulla-gulla” my presence was not noticed – even by the presiding Collector.
I saw that the Consultant making presentation was simply lying and giving wrong facts. Those asking questions were demanding something unreasonable. There was no transparency or feeling of trust on “either side”. Allegations were made freely without much basis. I could also sense presence of lobbyist on the payroll of rival industrial houses and activists who were mainly interested in milking the proponent. The Collector was sitting more as his duty or a ritual that was to be followed. The situation was worsening with voices getting louder with possibilities of assault and even a riot.
I decided to rise and go to the stage. When the Collector saw me come up, he got up and said “Sirji, I did not realize that you were present. It’s our great honor to have you here”. The industry proponent came forward and called his cronies to garland me on the stage. Most knew that I was the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner of 2015. This annual award was established to perpetuate former Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay’s example of integrity in governance, courageous service to the people, and pragmatic idealism within a democratic society. This award is considered as the “Asian Nobel Prize”.
I spoke extempore about the project, its need and the benefits. Then elaborated on the impacts and the risks, touching on the concerns related to land acquisition. I summarized at the end that we are here to know how the project proponent is going to address the “downside” while ensuring economic development and livelihoods of the locals. The audience was quiet. Everybody was listening. When I stopped, there was silence for 30 seconds. And then was the applause….
“Move boss, move” It was the Cop I was talking to earlier. The traffic was moving already as students were dispersed. Those behind my car were honking with vengence. I started the engine apologizing to the Cop. I drove now not as the Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and as someone ordinary.
We reached the gate of MoEFCC. Professor told me to wait as he would go in, sign the register and get our gate passes. He said this will take only 5 minutes but it took longer.
When he returned, he had a red and upset face.” Dr Modak, the instructions to make your gate pass did not reach the entry gate in time. So there is no gate pass made for you. I tried to speak to the Joint Secretary but his cell phone is switched off”. He then made a very apologetic face and said “Sorry Dr Modak, would you mind spending an hour at Khan Market nearby and come back to pick me up? The meeting would not take too long.”
I realized that there was no other option. “Do some book shopping at Bahri’s” Professor gave me the advice and patted me while getting inside the Gate.
Dr Prasad Modak, the invincible, then drove towards the Khan Market, longing once again to get into his Secret world. This world was much more thrilling and enjoyable than the mortal world he lived in.
(Cover image taken from http://www.recruitengineers.in/blog/career-clinic/find-hidden-unadvertised-jobs/)