The 1971 War gifted the 49th Regular Course at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, three additional months of commissioned service. Our commissioning was advanced to 31 March 1972, instead of June that year, to make up for the war causalities. The losses had bequeathed the benefit of early commissioning to about 350 of us. Later, it became a topic of debate among our coursemates whether the benefit we enjoyed was at a cost to the Army. Some thought that the three months of training lost had often shown up in the overall performance of the batch.
While such debates will continue life long, here is a personal story that wouldn’t have been the same, had it not been for the Indian Air Force (IAF). As the IAF celebrates its raising on 8 October, I say “cheers” to them.
Home and away
I was commissioned as an infantryman, into the 7th Battalion, Brigade of the Guards. The movement order given to me indicated that I was to report after 21 days’ leave to Transit Camp, Pathankot. My inquiries revealed that the Battalion was in Ladakh. My parents who were in Cochin, Kerala, could not make it for the passing out parade. The immediate driving force was getting home as a commissioned officer and enjoying the home environment.
Like all spells of leave, it got over before it started. By the end April 1972, I was booked to board the train from Cochin Harbour Terminus (CHT), the southernmost railway station in those days, to head for Pathankot, the northernmost railway terminal. The journey involved two train changes at Madras and Delhi before arriving Pathankot on day four.
The station was about 2.5 km from our home, the ‘Marine House’, my father’s official residence as the Deputy Conservator of the Cochin Port. On the day of my departure, my father was out of town and it was my mother and elder sister Usha, who dropped me off at the station in our black Standard Ten Car numbered of KLR 3076. My mother, like all mothers, ensured that we left the house early after seeing to it that we had avoided ‘Rahu Kalam‘. My big black trunk was protruding from the car’s dickey while my sister cruised at 15 kmph, making sure that the luggage laden with accoutrements of a newly commissioned 2nd Lt did not fall off. We reached the station more than an hour before departure.
We were standing outside the train compartment and I was receiving my dose of ‘precautions for safe travel’ when I suddenly realised I had left my Identity Card at home. We still had about 45 minutes left for departure. So I took the car key and dashed home. In fifteen minutes, I was driving back to the CHTS but gripped with a sense of hurry. 800 meters before the railway station, I noticed, a little too late, that a bus had turned onto the main road — I swerved left and went bang into a pile of bricks. Nothing happened to me. But when I tried to exit, the door was jammed. I took off the key, and exited through the left door. Meanwhile, the bus had stopped and few people came running. After assuring them that I was fine, I jumped into the bus, and requested to be dropped at the CHTS. Thankfully, that was its route.
The two ladies were relieved to see me back on time. I took my sister aside and informed her of the accident and its location, and pleaded that she inform mother only after the train had left.
After a tearful goodbye, I was on my way, lost in Kerala landscape — greenery, paddy fields, and water bodies.
The journey, via Madras and Delhi, to Pathankot was coal-fed, sweaty, and uneventful, except for being rooked by the coolies while switching trains. Before reaching Pathankot, I changed my dress and wore light-colored bell-bottomed trousers, as was the fashion those days. The Army transport for transients was available at the station and I reached Transit Camp Pathankot around 11am on 29 April, Saturday.
As a newly commissioned officer posted to the 7 Guards, I presented myself to the Officer Commanding Transit Camp. His eyes traversed my five foot nine inches lean torso and posed the question – which Army are you from? I was speechless. He broke the silence and gave me a long lecture on how the Indian Army Officers were expected to dress, pouring scorn on the bell-bottoms.
He then perused my movement order — the official document that was my passport to official entry into the care of the Army. He looked up and asked – “why have you come here”? I brought his attention to my reporting station and the movement order, and received the reply – “Don’t you know Zoji La is closed”? I had not heard of Zoji la before. Observing the ‘lost look’ on my face, he explained that since it was April, and Zoji La was snow bound, it wasn’t possible to move to the unit at Budhkharbu, located midway between Kargil and Leh. In summer, I would have been transported via Jammu-Srinagar-Kargil. It now dawned on me that the clerk at the Academy had not factored in the early completion of our course.
“We shall send you to Chandigarh and you will be flown to Leh” was the immediate solution. The Officer Commanding Transit Camp reminded me again that bell bottoms are a no-go. As I was to exit his presence, he produced an ace – ‘wait, let me try and put you on Air Force Transport aircraft that were carrying out regular logistics sorties from Pathankot to Kargil’. He asked me to wait outside, called me in after half an hour, and informed me that I would be put on an IAF Packet aircraft on Monday.
Excited at the turn of events, I was about to exit when the idea of spending the weekend with my cousin, Flight Lt Narayan (Nana) Menon, flashed. So I sought permission to spend the weekend at Adampur Air Force Base. Though the Officer Commanding readily acceded, he firmly told me that I must be back on Sunday evening. “Yes sir,” and I was soon on my way to Adampur though I forgot to change out of my bell-bottoms.
A day with the heroes of 1971
I reached the Adampur Officers mess around 4:30pm, enquired about Nana, and was informed that he was in the Squadron Lunch party that was still in flight. Minutes later we met, ladies were at lunch and the ‘boys’ still at the bar. A round of introductions was followed by their insistence on me having a drink. When one of them saw me looking at my watch, he explained that fighter pilots could only drink from Saturday to Sunday afternoon, so there was no time to lose. The heroes of the 1971 War oozed joy and light heartedness. I learnt that the bar, the fighter pilot and their flailing arms that describe flight paths are inseparable.
At around 6pm, after two drinks and lunch, I crashed in Nana’s bed until he woke me up around 8pm and asked to get ready fast as they were going to ‘bounce’. “Bounce” – what is that? I asked. Nana explained that it is a fighter pilot tradition of the IAF. It involves picking a target household where the bachelors carrying booze would descend and declare that the party was on.
Still in my bell bottoms, I was now part of a motorcycle-heavy bouncing party that descended on the house of a Flight Commander of 26 Squadron, Sqn Ldr C.S. Doraiswami, VrC. He heard the motorcycles, came out of the front door, flashed a welcoming smile, and shouted “Come on in guys”. The party took off in no time; Mrs. Chitra Doraiswami was no less welcoming and soon ‘spirited’ laughter and mirth rent the air.
Though rum was the common drink, I preferred whisky, and soon forgot that I was a novice at spirited indulgence, at a gathering where two fighter pilots were dancing on the dining table. We broke off in the wee hours and I don’t remember my getting into bed. I woke up at 11 am and experienced a ‘hangover’ for the first time. Soon, I was sick enough and I had no option but to stay on at Adampur.
‘The lucky bastard’
On Monday, at around 11 am, I sheepishly entered the office of the OC Transit Camp and had just started with my apology when he cut me short, and showered me with expletives, mostly in Punjabi. He called me indisciplined and irresponsible, and went on and on with his pitch rising with every word. I was shamefacedly at attention. Somewhere in that diatribe, he said – “And you are walking into my office like Aurangazeb”. I wonder even today why he made that remark. Maybe he connected the bell-bottoms to the emperor.
My blasting ended with these words – “But you are a lucky Bastard”. He then told that the Packet aircraft that took off from Pathankot for Kargil that morning had crashed at Fotu La, a pass between Kargil and Leh.
Thus, but for the ‘spirits’ of the IAF, I would not be here to tell you this story.
In 2018, accompanied by Nana, I was privileged to visit the home of Chitra Doraswami at Bengaluru. I recounted the ‘bounce’. She remarked that there were so many such instances and her late husband relished them. Their son Vikram Doraiswami is a distinguished diplomat and presently an additional secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs.
I thank the IAF for the ‘spirits of the bounce’ and wish that they continue to touch the skies with glory. Jai Hind!
Lt Gen (retd) Dr Prakash Menon is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. (He is from the 40th NDA.) He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
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