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“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard”

(From a verse in the Katha-Upanishad )


It is well known that leading men in battle, in the face of fire is a daunting task. What is not so well understood is that commanding a large unit or military formation is also a challenging assignment, even during peacetime.  One has to walk over a tight rope to succeed, and that is almost like passing over the edge of a razor. In 1988, I was tipped for the command of a Base Workshop, and I was preparing myself for that ‘acid test’. As a part of the groundwork, I went over to Chandigarh, where my brother was commanding a Base Repair Depot of the Air Force, which is similar to our Base Workshops. Given below is an account of what I saw and learnt.



No 3 Base Repair Depot, Chandigarh

The little man who sat on the hot seat in the office of Air Officer Commanding (AOC) of the BRD was my brother. Our father found him bone lazy; incapable of performing any strenuous work. But I suspect he was clever. The Air Force chose to overlook his sloth and let him rise. Now, having completed his course at the National Defence College, it was amply clear that he was going places. He sat there, completely relaxed. There was no paper in the trays marked “IN” and: OUT” The customary “Pending” bin was conspicuous by its absence. There were no bar charts, no performance curves. On the table, there was a small handwritten paper, which my brother permitted me to see. It said,

“I hate paperwork. Even if someone else does it”.

I had barely settled in my chair when there was a buzz on the intercom. It seemed that someone wanted to meet him. My brother took something which looked like a holy book out of his drawer, opened it and peered into it intently. He then told his PA to let him come. The officer who entered was disposed of in just a couple of minutes, and he went away, quite satisfied.

It was clear as crystal that my dear brother had not changed. I asked him how he managed such a large outfit. And he said, “Come, I will show you” And we set off for a ‘darshan’ of the unit. Wherever we went, people rushed to greet him. He had a word or two to say to everyone. In most cases, he let his officers speak. He would then say just a sentence or two, and then move on. But I noticed that his tone was different each time. At one workstation, we saw a tall officer, who had a lot of charts and diagrams, and he gave us a detailed account of his achievements. The curve showed that the output of his shop had tripled since he took over. He was keen to give a lecture to the other officers of the BRD on the management techniques he had employed to achieve those results. My brother gave a cold look to him and said, Yes. You can do that. But first you must improve the quality of your stuff. That gyro-stabilizer that failed in the flight test last month was overhauled here. Right? If the pilot was not alert, you would have his blood on your hands!”

Jesus! That six-foot-tall engineer suddenly looked like a pygmy, and his rose coloured cheeks had turned yellow, drained of blood, in less than a second!

We next went to another shop. The officer in charge received us. But while he was speaking, my brother’s eyes were elsewhere. He noticed that a junior officer had hidden himself behind a chopper. As soon as the briefing was over, he went that way and called that man out. He gave the meek man a light hug and asked about his ailing wife. The poor soul, who was obviously commissioned from the ranks, mumbled something about the shortfall in his production, but the AOC was not interested in those details… The boss said, I am sure you will soon make up. Your section has never let us down and this little dip is understandable Then he ended by saying, “I saw your son playing basketball yesterday. I think he has a lot of potential” When we left, he clicked his heels and produced one of the smartest salutes I have ever seen.

All through the visit, I observed that my brother was less interested in ‘output’ and more concerned about the officers and technicians he met. He knew an amazing number of names and seemed to know all about their specific hopes and aspirations. One of the officers told me that he never wrote a confidential letter to anyone: no warnings, no ‘show cause’ notices.

When we returned, I asked him what his job, as the Commander was. He thought for a while and then he shared his “Phook Theory” with me. It was like Socrates talking to Plato and I find it more appropriate to recount the dialogue verbatim. He educated me by asking questions, and I sat like a little child answering as best as I could.

(For those who may not know the meaning of this word let me clarify that the literal meaning of the Punjabi word, ‘phook’ is air pressure. Metaphorically, it is sometimes used to describe an ego-state. Thus, if someone is hogging a lot of ‘phook’, he is ‘gassed’ or brash)

deflated tyre phook theory resizedPhook pics

“When you are driving a vehicle, what happens if the tire pressure is low?”

“The acceleration drops, steering becomes hard and the fuel consumption goes up”

“Right. You must inflate the wheels. Now, what happens if the pressure is too high?”

“The ride becomes bumpy, steering wobbles and an odd tire may burst”

Correct. You must immediately pull up to a service station and do the needful”

After a sip of the juice which had arrived, he said, “This unit is like a vehicle. I am in the driver’s seat. These officers are the ‘wheels’ of the vehicle. I have only two jobs, one to steer in the correct direction and two, to ensure that the ‘phook’ level of all my officers is correct, always and every time. So when I see someone down and out, I boost his spirit and if I find a brash officer, I …” And to show what he did, he filled the air in his cheeks and made a hissing sound, ‘Phusshh…’

phook cartoon

Through my mind’s eye, I saw that timid officer hiding behind a chopper get a hug and a tall management ‘guru’ cut to size. Like a little child, I asked him, “But, pray, how do you find whom to pump and whom to deflate?” defeated B W

extra phook“Ah, well! That is what management is all about!” There was another pause, but after that, he became serious. He gave me the most profound lesson of that morning, “That is not difficult. One learns it through experience. The tough part is to keep my own ‘phook’ at the right level. I must not lose my equanimity, no matter what happens. And that is not always easy. I have to make a conscious effort to remain unaffected by the ‘stinkers’ which I receive from my bosses and the greasy words from sycophants around me.”

Just when I thought the lesson was over, he asked, “what is more important, technology or people?”

I looked askance, and said, “You tell?”

His answer was unusual. He said, “Technology iteam phooks for the middle-level officers. At my level, it is my colleagues. Management is all about people. If you do not like people, do not manage. Engineering has many branches, mechanical, electronics, aerospace and so on, but the one which is needed for my job is different. It is called Human Engineering”

At this point, his direct line to his AOC-in-C in the Maintenance Command rand. The big boss was on the line. From his body language, I could make out that the message from the other end of the line was unkind to the point of being painful. My brother kept his cool and offered to get back to his boss within a week, after doing the needful. I could see that he had been caught off guard, and he had momentarily lost his composure.

Once again, there was a buzz on the intercom. My brother told the PA to ask the officer to wait for a few minutes. He took a sip of water and again opened his holy book. This time he looked into it for a little longer. He then closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then took one more good look at that mysterious book, before permitting the officer to enter. He gave a patient hearing to his colleague also and gave him some time-bound directions.

 I had an uncanny feeling that it was not a book, and wanted to see it. When I insisted on seeing it, he took it out and gave it to me. Lo and behold. It was a mirror! I nearly screamed, “Pray, what exactly do you do with this mirror?”

The reply was simple but profound, “Whenever someone enters my office, he first sees my face. My words are less important than the look in my eyes. I want him to go back with a positive attitude, and that can only happen if the look on my face is sanguine and upbeat!”


Five-O-Nine Army Base Workshop, Agra

Armed with the ‘phook theory’ I assumed command of the famous ‘Five-O-Nine’ Army Base Workshop in Agra, in June 1989. And immediately, I discovered the problem associated with maintaining my own phook in check. The star plate on the car; the traffic coming to a halt to let my car go; a reception at the Agra Club followed by a function organized at Hotel Clark Shiraz by a citizen’s forum to welcome me had a way of making me believe that I had ‘arrived’. A sycophant went on to say that no other commandant had been received that way; and that my posting was an event to remember for the citizens in the land of the Taj Mahal. I made a mental note of his name and decided to avoid him because such dialogues unfocused me. I confess that it needed a great deal of deliberate effort to keep my feet on the ground, but the ‘phook’ theory helped. And the folding mirror was of great help, in ensuring that the look in my eyes did not betray feelings of anxiety, whenever I suffered from it like all other mortals. I jotted down the tenets of the ego-pressure theory on a piece of paper, and kept it on my table, as a guide. I also applied it to perform my duties, and believe me, it worked!

Encouraged by the results, I shared this management philosophy with my friends.  The feedback which I received was positive, and so I began to believe that between me and my brother, we had discovered a new management ‘mantra’.

And then one day, the sky burst and the earth began to rumble… A very dear friend, who had taken these dictums as gospel truth, rang up to say that the theory had failed completely. He said he was in sh**. My enquiries revealed that there was a near mutiny in his unit. I requested a colleague to tell me as many details as he could get and then I sent the case study to the author of the theory for advice. The reply came by the return post. In a tersely worded note, he wrote,

pressure gauge resized

“Tell your friend to check his pressure gauge. He seems to be deflating people who have nothing left in their lungs and pumping those who were already on the verge of bursting!”

  1. colls says:

    Saheb jee’s

    jedey jeeeeet jaandein ney
    aunna dee phookh bharee huee
    jedey haaaray haaaaray rhendein hain
    meray waquin

    unnna dee phookh niklee hue

    kyun jee sahee bhaieee
    veer jee
    colls nava kavi

  2. col(dr)s s malik says:

    dear general,
    it goes well wiith the age old definition of management science
    right man, at the right place, at the right time, at the right cost, and at the right ‘PHOOK’….


  3. colls says:

    Such diligence needs more publicity
    you may ask
    to involve the Corps
    more guys know you
    but don’t know

    what they are missing!!!!!

    My Dear General
    warm regards

  4. S J Singh says:

    In real life, we also accost people who do not mean what they say. Some are outright dishonest, and have a hidden agenda. Your ‘phook theory’ does not work there. Ever so often, we find that there are people who say one thing to you and quite the opposite to the others. Do you have a comprehensive method of dealing with such persons?
    Notwithstanding my reservations, I think this is an interesting piece, well written. Keep it up!

    • Surjit Singh says:

      Dear Singh Sahib,
      The ‘Phook Theory’ is a light hearted middle article written for a newspaper. It is neither a ‘Management Mantra’ nor prescription for leaders. It just stresses on the need to give a slight nudge to brash persons and an ego boost to those who are feeling low. It also asks leaders to ensure that they retain their equanimity under all circumstance. For the rest, you have to use all that you have learnt in life to manage your team.
      In the very beginning of this piece, I have quoted from the Katha Upanishad wherein it has been said that :

      “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard”

      Thanks for the kind words.

  5. colls says:

    Now jokes apart.
    The facts of life…. ACRS are simple excuses, to ‘’let on or let off’’ Phook.
    I did an extremely good job, my immediate boss wanted to get me a brazen medal .The High Tech, big man across the phone said, ‘’I think he has done a good job and has been paid for it’’. FULL STOP.
    The immediate big guy had handed over the phone to me, so I could hear from the ‘’horses own mouth’’ which I did. The bigger guys at higher echelons, in order to maintain his ‘’Phookh’’, posted me to a post, where I could live the rest of my life totally punctured till ‘’Big Virji’’- kind saw me and posted me out immediately.
    (I got a red cap finally…)
    Thank the ‘’Unknown Power’’ for smaller mercies. Today coz of the ‘’Phookh inflation’’, I am in Canada … Regards to your brother. I could never have used a mirror, as my mirrors crack just as I look at them. I have had to find steel polished replacements…In any case now I don’t need them.
    The Phookh theory was wonderful…
    One last word

    ‘’Keep a hot patch!
    One can never say
    when one may lose
    Life’s real match.’’
    God Bless!

  6. Lalit Mathur says:

    Here is a mail I received from Retd. Major General Surjit Singh(EME), which I enjoyed reading. I do hope you folks will find it interesting too. Notwithstanding the utter wisdom of the mail, I have my doubts about the pocket mirror theory. I’m sure if I gazed at myself in a mirror so often, my ego would get over-inflated with phook !!


    • Surjit Singh says:

      Lalit Sir,
      The mirror has been used by several great men.
      Have you noticed that our politicians and celebrities look bright and cheerful when they are in public. In private, they are just like any one of us.
      I bet you would have never got bloated up. I have been seeing your mails. You carry a very balanced head on your shoulders. (and, I have nothing to gain by pleasing you!)

  7. Aarti K Pathak says:

    Dear Uncle
    Have read this story many times before and yet when I read it today, I enjoyed it throughly.
    Thank you for sharing the link to it.
    Have a good day,

    • Surjit Singh says:

      I heard from you after an eternity! Where have you been?
      And, have you written something new?
      Why not send a piece for this blog?
      And I noticed your picture. You look lot better in this new ‘avtar’
      Surjit Uncle

      • Aarti says:

        Thank u uncle for the lovely compliment :)
        Yes, Ive written to you after a long time but I have been reading all your emails all this while!
        I do keep writing but am not sure if any of it will go with your blog… will still send something to you.. to read in tour spare time :)
        Have a great day!!

  8. Asil Singh says:


    Thanks for sharing the Phook theory written by Gen Surjit. I am impressed by the content and the literary style.


    • Surjit Singh says:

      Dear Asil,
      Thanks for the kind words.
      And I must confess, that I am much impressed by your name. If I am not wrong, it means, “gentle and congenial” Am I right?

  9. Maj Gen Sateeshwar Chahal says:


    A feedback for you.

    Satti Chahal

  10. yogi says:

    Delightful reading! It works but the hard part is coping with inflators and sulkiness of the deflated! In an ACR obsessed service both are perceived as ‘ kiss of death.

    • Surjit Singh says:

      You have taken words out of my mouth!
      Yes. The most difficult to work with are colleagues who are forever sulking. They have a limitless ability to criticize the ‘system’
      I suspect, we will have to invent another theory!
      Regards, and awaiting your piece for our readers.

  11. D N Sood says:

    I have read your Phook theory earlier. It works.

    I really appreciate your brother’s clean table. I always believed in it till I became a civilian. It is difficult to keep your table clean.

    Great read,

    Dave Sood

    • Surjit Singh says:

      In my visit to your office, I thought your table was clean…and I think I saw a very congenial work atmosphere. I think you are qualified to enunciate you own theory for good management.
      There is a new magazine, “Fauji India” edited by Maroof Raza. It devoted its March issue to cover military officers who have made a mark in their “2nd Innings” I think your story deserves to be told for the benefit of our fraternity.

  12. colls says:

    hold it
    I marrowed phook
    it got inflated

    Well will read
    tis gold plated

    me and u
    see u

  13. colls says:

    Toooo small type
    our zeroing blind eyes
    how can we inflate
    they now only us deflate

    trying phooking now
    let me see

    please with modern type update
    surjit ji and funny me

    shall read thee

    • Surjit Singh says:

      Dear Sergeant Major,
      Aap ka jawab nahin!
      You can convert almost any thing and every thing into verse.
      Your messages are invaluable for me. May the Lord give you a long life and good health
      With best wishes for Veena ji from both of us,

      • colls says:

        hum samjhe aapne humarey sarey khat pade
        par dill koe dhakka lugga
        aap rahe khamosh
        hum hain abhee bhee madhosh

        teesra khat janabh to padoe……………….please////

        aap ek imarat hain
        humm toe sirf pathar
        aapkee buniyaad

        khair karna agar humara naheen sahee urdu mein jawabh
        iskoe mitta dena samaj ke khwaabh

        surjit janaabh

        aap kee shakssiyat hai hum kumzoroin kay liye
        ek Taj Mahali missaal
        hahn ji hanh

        PHOOKH sahee keee ya naheen
        deejeyeyey zarror jawaabh

        sir …gent now major….
        aakka shagird
        umr bhar ka janaabh

        bows colls aaj

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