Meaning of Aathwa Mail

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 18 Jan 2018 10:21:19

Vijay Phanshikar,

Aathwa Mail! Aathwa Meel! -- The eighth mile!, in English. Back then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the country was smarting under first incursions and then invasion by China, the words ‘Aathwa Mail’ assumed tremendous importance in Nagpur and in Vidarbha. The kids like us did not understand much about this ‘Aathwa Mail’, but the elders did. Whenever the two words were uttered, the elders everywhere in the city would nod knowingly. Some of them would curse the Government for being late in
taking up the ‘Aathwa Mail’ project. But some others were more charitable and would say something in effect, “Abhee abhee to hum azad hue hai. Itna samay to lagne wala hi hai koi acchha project shuru karne me.” (We have become independent just a few years ago. Starting of any good project is going to take this much time.)

The kids still did not understand much, but slowly it started dawning upon them as well that at a distance of eight miles on Nagpur-Amravati Road, a huge Ordnance Factory was coming up. In that factory, arms and ammunition would be manufactured for our Army. And once those were ready, the Indian Army was going to teach the insolent Chinese a big bloody lesson.

Aathwa Mail, thus, became a symbol of India’s new dreams of becoming an Armed Superpower, though we understood much of it much, much later. Now, after so many intervening decades, Chief of Indian Army -- General Bipin Rawat -- can say with legitimate pride, in effect, ‘China is a powerful country alright, but India is not a weak nation’.
This proud statement has its origin in the two-word phrase Aathwa Mail (The eighth mile)! For the Nagpurians, the two words meant a symbol of India’s military dreams and recognition that the country had to go a long distance in realising the sentiment of Aathwa Mail.

So, when we realised in our early teens that the Ordnance Factory Ambajhari was coming up just eight miles away from Nagpur, we started picking up our bicycles particularly on Sundays and would travel west to reach the huge site under construction. The campus was frighteningly huge and spread out. The sheds that were coming up, too, were mindboggling in size. On our cycles, we would roam everywhere among the rubble and armies of workers. Nobody stopped us, though there were always terse-looking armed guards whose keen eye did not miss anything.

To us kids roaming around at the site, it appeared that almost everybody in the city was this way or that way connected with Ordnance Factory Ambajhari - OFAJ. Mahadev gardener who worked for us on Saturdays and Sundays to tend our home garden also worked for five days a week at the OFAJ site. Drivers, masons, loaders, carpenters, iron-smiths, potters, vegetable sellers, tailors -- all these had something or the other to do with OFAJ. At least for a few years in the 1960s, the project became an extension of the city’s psychology.

Seeing those massive sheds coming up was a marvellous experience. But only sheds did not come up there. Roads were being laid. Lawns and parks and gardens were being made. School buildings and temples were coming up. Small lines of shops, too, came up everywhere. Living quarters, office buildings, entertainment spots -- a neat township was in the making.

We would wonder where they were going to make bombs and bullets. We never knew, of course, and we were never allowed to go anywhere near those spots. Yet, my teenage dream was to somehow steal one bomb, travel to India-China border and hurl the bomb into Chinese territory so that I could kill hundreds of those stubbed nose demons! Had I really got one bomb, I promise, I would have destroyed Beijing, you know! -- or at least a few hundred Chinese soldiers! That would win me a Veer Chakra at least!
But let alone that, the OFAJ became an integral part of our
thought-process. I do not remember when the OFAJ became operational and who came for its inauguration, but one day, our entry into those sprawling acres was banned. It was a rude shock at first, but nevertheless an assurance, too, that the factory was producing dangerous merchandise that would annihilate the enemy, whosoever he may be.

Before long, however, this little fellow became a Reporter and got the opportunity to visit the OFAJ for coverage of various programmes. A Government vehicle would take us there and took us back once the programme was over. The Chief of the Central Government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB) would check our copy before passing it for publication. All those activities had their own charm for they took us into the haloed precincts of the Ordnance Factory Ambajhari.

On quite a few special occasions, I ventured to seek permission to go around the sprawling project. I did get permission all right, but I could go there only in an official Jeep. Each of those visits produced wonderful ideas of writing reportages and many of those ideas did see the light of the day, in the process earning this little fellow a few citations for good work.

Over time, as we now know, the OFAJ produces some merchandises that are hugely useful to the nation’s Armed Forces. There is no need to list those out, but one does know that at Ordnance Factory Ambajhari, what is being produced is highly useful to national security.

Even as this activity got started in right earnest, another revolutionary activity also began. The Ordnance Factory was an engineering project and needed a lot of material from industrial ancillaries in the region and the country. But the language the Ordnance Factory engineers used, their comprehension of what was needed for those purposes, was
altogether different from the lingo the general industry used. So, a silent Quality Revolution began in the city when the Ordnance Factory engineers started exchanging ideas in the new Quality language that called for precision -- of design, construction, and purpose of making a particular part. As part of this effort came up a branch of the National Academy of Defence Production (NADP) at the project. It is still a matter of pride to get invited by the NADP to deliver
lectures on management subjects for the trainees from all over the country.

Of course, OFAJ was not a project in isolation. Many Defence Projects came up in Central India -- the Ordnance Factory at Bhadrawati, the Ordnance Factory at Jawaharnagar, the Central Ammunition Depot at Pulgaon, the Ordnance Factory at Jabalpur, and of course the Head Quarters of the Maintenance Command of the Indian Air Force.

In his memoir White House Years, celebrated American diplomat and scholar Dr. Henry Kissinger referred to this phenomenon in India. He compared India with Pakistan. He wrote, in effect, when Pakistani leaders were fighting wars of attrition among themselves, India was building its ordnance industry, its general industry, its educational institutions, and also its Green Revolution.
Aathwa Mail meant all that -- for us!.