When Walking Sticks Were a Matter of Pride

Published: 31st October 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th October 2015 11:16 PM   |  A+A-

In those halcyon days, it was customary to present a walking stick to an employee when he retired. This was done without assessing the load-bearing capacity of his ageing and creaking knees while walking on a flat surface or, more importantly, ascending or descending steep staircases.

Later, a wristwatch, invariably an HMT, was thought of in lieu of a walking stick, though for a retiree the necessity of looking at a watch, now and then, in the mornings to reach office on time was happily a thing of the past.

Unlike a wristwatch, a walking stick functioned as protective gear, a detachable fitting to one’s physique. An old-timer wielding a pricey walking stick was viewed with respect and even awe, for it issued a veiled warning to the onlooker, “Stand back Sir, I am armed.” Consequently, people stood at a respectable distance, away from the reach of his walking stick. Akin to the cane or lathi in the hands of a teacher or a constable, a walking stick proclaimed overt authority.

An uncle of mine who retired from the armed forces with a fund of military anecdotes, many apocryphal, was jubilant when he received half a dozen walking sticks as gifts during a function to celebrate his retirement.

Each stick vied with the other in quality and workmanship. Like Sachin Tendulkar selecting a bat from a cluster of English or Kashmir willows, he checked their grip, sturdiness, ferrule and design and finally settled for the one that passed his acid test.

Before long, his personality rubbed off on the stick so much so that when it was parked near his favourite easy chair, while he was away for his ablutions, it acted as his bonafide proxy.

His sons and daughters — brought up in strict military regimen — tiptoed across the hall as if walking on eggshells, granting respect to their father in absentia. Only his wife, who defied his authority, had the temerity to treat it as a mere inanimate object.

Once when I went to his sprawling house, he was in conversation with his friend, another retiree from the army who had dropped in, no doubt, with his handcrafted walking stick. This acerbic gentleman, with a short fuse, rarely smiled or laughed, but remained poker-faced in my uncle’s company out of respect for his mood swings. When I joined them, they were discussing the merits and demerits of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru and the suitability of each to prime ministership to shape the destiny of free India.

The discussion soon heated up with the verbal fire their arguments generated. As if on cue, the two shot up all of a sudden from their chairs and went around in circles with measured steps, like swashbuckling combatants, waving their respective walking sticks menacingly.

However, this proved to be a damp squib, as they suddenly stopped their theatricals and grinned. “Effect of seeing a film yesterday,” said my uncle sheepishly. “Wanted to mimic a duel between MGR and Nambiar.”

Indeed, a walking stick has many uses both for defence and offence. Like, it can be deployed to check the depth of water on roads that get inundated with a night’s rain, pick flowers from others’ plants for puja, and more importantly, save the calves from the bites of rabid dogs. A walking stick, in such a scenario, is an ideal weapon in an old man’s armoury.

Theodore Roosevelt said: Speak softly but carry a big stick; you will go far.  Notwithstanding such pronouncement of wisdom, the sticks seem to have vanished fast, having no or very few takers. Medical sciences have made tremendous strides. There are sure-fire cures for rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.

Else, if a sufferer fancied new knees, fine, he can have them surgically fitted. And so, many men and women opt to go for knee replacements instead of wielding a walking stick that would become the third leg.

An outspoken lady known to me who had consulted an orthopaedic specialist for her propelling gait was advised to fall back on a walking stick. She winced, aghast at his suggestion. “A walking stick? Really?  Is it not meant for old people?” She is 89 years old. Bravo!

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