Getting selected for the ISW / AFA was my first concern. The syllabus for the examination by the UPSC for entry into the Inter Services Wing of the Armed Forces Academy was rather sketchy; a total of three papers, one each on English, Mathematics and General Knowledge / Current Affairs. In those days, there were no coaching classes available for such tests in Kolkata. The examinee was left entirely on his own. I started preparing for the test rather tentatively. I first tried to study together with my friend Gora who was also a candidate for the examination. However, his house was very far from mine. It was difficult to get together every day. With a little bit of effort I found another student candidate who stayed a bit closer to my home. We set up a study group and without a doubt it was a case of a blind leading the blind. We knew nothing of how and what to study. We purchased a year-book and mugged up every thing written in that tome. Fortunately, my lifelong habit of reading a newspaper from cover to cover every day came to my rescue. I found that questions on current affairs were not difficult for me to answer. The mathematics and English syllabi were more or less covered by our college syllabi for the same subjects. The six or seven weeks that we had between the application and the examination flew by quickly. With a lot of trepidation we presented ourselves at the Anderson Hall. To my great relief, I found the question papers simple. I went through them with ease and went back to my regular daily routine happily.
The months of October and November 1949 went by quickly. Qualifying tests for appearing at the University examinations for Intermediate Science were due in December. I had to put all thoughts about joining the Air Force on the backburner and concentrate on the task in hand. The call letter for appearing before the Air Force Service Selection Board Dehradoon arrived in the first week of December. The appointment was for 12th December 1949 and it clashed directly with the dates for the college tests. Once again a decision had to be made. I chose the SSB over the college test; a big load was now off my mind. I was a bit sad that Gora had not made it through the UPSC. I had thought all along that we two would be together in this venture at the ISW / AFA.
The call for appearing at the SSB arrived along with another very important event. One afternoon a relative visited us with a proposal for marriage for the younger of the two elder sisters of mine. Before my parents could formulate a suitable reply, a delegation from the proposed groom’s house arrived within a couple of days. The proposal was attractive, but my parents were reluctant to give away the younger daughter in marriage before the elder one was settled. The family of the proposed groom was not to be dissuaded easily. The groom had an unmarried elder cousin of suitable age. They now brought a proposal for a double alliance. They proposed the marriage of the two cousins to my two sisters. As soon as my parents accepted the proposal the grooms’ party started pressing for an immediate marriage. In this situation my preparation for the SSB obviously took a lower priority. Shopping for the double marriage began in right earnest. Family fortunes were at a low ebb; getting ready for the marriage function was not easy. There was no question of buying any clothes for me. In December it was expected that Dehradoon would be very cold, and I had no warm clothing what so ever. I went on a borrowing spree and managed to collect one sweater, one lounge suit and some sort of a jacket from friends and family. Ma managed somehow to buy me a couple of pairs of woolen socks, a new pair of leather shoes and a pair of canvas PT shoes. She also managed to scrounge enough money to buy me an ‘Inter Class’ ticket to Dehradoon and give me 30 rupees as my traveling expenses. It was indeed a big sum of money. (In those days, the Indian Railways had 4 classes of coaches; First – Second – Intermediate – and Third). I boarded the Doon Express from Howrah with a mixture of excitement, trepidation and a nagging concern for the financial load I was imposing on the family. It was the first long distance solo journey for me.
After two nights and the intervening day in the train a morning dawned as the train entered Hardwar station. It was very cold and I was frozen stiff. The meager bedding that I had carried proved to be totally inadequate and my legs were numb in my cotton trousers. A cup of tea and a couple of toasts perked me up enough to carry me through the rest of the journey. By mid morning we were at Dehradun.
As I reached Dehradun, an Air Force Sergeant walked up to me and asked me if I was a candidate for the SSB. I promptly surrendered my self to his care and was taken to Clement Town in a 15-hundredweight truck. Registration on arrival and settling in the billet took care of the rest of the morning. After lunch the process of selection tests began. There were written tests to test our logic and our command over English language. We were then divided into small syndicates and were put through some group activities. Night arrived early. It was quite dark by six thirty in the evening and by eight thirty we were in bed after dinner. The next two days went by quickly. More group games and group discussion were followed by individual physical fitness tests and group obstacle clearance exercises. From the third morning we were taken to the PABT (Pilot Aptitude Battery Test) room and our reactions to stimuli was tested one by one. The momentum and pressure of the tests eased off. I managed to spend a little time in the ante-room of the mess after lunch and read up the news papers.
On the fourth morning we took our turns to face individual interviews, first with the group testing officers and then with the commanding officer. The Officer Commanding was one Wing Commander Shah, an extremely handsome Parsi officer who was then the poster boy for the Air Force. As a matter of fact, I had seen recruitment posters with his face during my first visit to No1 Gokhale Road Calcutta. The interviews went through smoothly. Just before lunch all the candidates were gathered together and four candidates out of 17 were declared selected. I was one of those four. While other candidates were sent back to their homes, the four of us were routed to New Delhi for our Medical board.
From Dehradun, the over-night Doon Express brought us to the Delhi Junction Station. A three ton lorry took us to the Central Vista Mess. 18th December 1949 was a Sunday. We had breakfast. Some one suggested that we hire bicycles for our local transportation. There was a cycle-wallah within the mess premises just as there was a barbershop and a small store. Bicycles were available for one rupee four annas a day. It was not inexpensive but we had no option. Public transportation in New Delhi was nearly non existent. Delhi Transport Undertaking did run a few busses on a few routes, but frequency of service seldom exceeded once an hour. The four of us got onto four bicycles and went out to explore New Delhi.
The Central Vista Mess was a collection of hutments on the Queensway just opposite the National Archives. It was fronted by the vast green expanses of the Central Vista along the Kingsway ending at the India Gate. The Queensway ended at Connaught Place, designed to be the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi. We cycled around the Inner Circle; window shopped, ate ice cream and was back in the mess in time for dinner.
On Monday morning we started once again on our cycles. We had been advised to follow the Queensway and ask for directions to Race Course Road. We set out briskly but were thoroughly lost in no time flat. After some aimless roaming on our cycles we found another cyclist who was kind enough to lead us to the race course camp. The Air Force Central Medical Board (AFCMB) was located at the southwest corner of the camp. We reached AFCMB and reported to the reception desk. We were taken charge of by a Sergeant who made us fill up a lot of forms with great deal of information about our family medical history. AFCMB was then commanded by one Wing Commander Bhaduri. At the end of three days of tests the results were declared. Three of us had cleared the medical board. The fourth was advised to join the army.
The journey back to Calcutta was wonderful. The Kalka Mail was much faster than the Doon Express and we reached our destination on the Christmas Eve. Every one at home was happy with my success except for Ma. So far she was not sure whether I will actually get selected, and if I did, then whether I would pass the medical board. I was a sickly child when I was young and ma was not very certain of my medical status. Now that I was back, both selected and medically fit, the thought of my going away for a career in the Air Force started bothering her.
I was now mentally fully prepared for my new life. The date for the double marriage event had been set for 7th February 1950. Every one at home was busy preparing for the big event. My plans were however unsettled. The call letter to join the academy was expected every day but in vain. At long last, when the letter finally arrived, I had only a week left to pack and go to join the academy by 30th of January. At this moment Ma really lost her nerves. She did not want me to go. She could not say so openly, but she was desperately trying to find an excuse to hold me back. She clutched at a straw. She said that we had not obtained a clearance and a blessing for my career option from our Guru, Sri Sri Thakur Anukul Chandra. She would not let me go without an explicit OK from him. Father was not amused. There was no time for any clumsy maneuvers He decreed that we must leave for Deoghar that very evening and obtain the Guru’s blessings. Ma and I left for Deoghar that night by the Banaras Express.
Travel in an unreserved third class coach by night was never a comfortable journey, especially if it was to be undertaken in the height of winter in northern India. We braved the crowded and cold winter journey. Banaras Express deposited us at Jesidih Junction at an unearthly hour in the morning. The first local train for Deoghar was scheduled about three hours later. Another person going to the ashram recognized Ma and got her to agree to share a Tonga ride up to the ashram instead of waiting for a train connection. We got into the Tonga and naturally conversed about our aim of the journey. Our co-passenger was quite certain that Sri Sri Thakur would never permit me to join a dangerous job like flying a military plane. He told us tales about how a few other young boys had sought his permission for a similar venture and were promptly dissuaded by him. The Tonga rolled on and deposited us in front of Dr Banabehari Ghosh’s house. Dr Ghosh was a close friend of my father. We freshened up, had a cup of tea and went down to the ashram to meet Sri Sri Thakur as soon as he came up for the morning darshan. We reached just as he came in and took his seat. He looked at us with a bright welcome smile and enquired about my father’s health. Then he turned to Ma and asked what had brought her to Deoghar all of a sudden. Ma described the situation and implored him with unspoken words pouring out of her eyes to hold me back. The Guru just smiled. He closed his eyes for a moment and then looked directly at me. ‘So, you want to join the Air Force?’ he asked me. I could only nod my head and mutter ‘Yes Sir’. He sat upright. ‘Good. Very good, he said. ‘Go – join the Air Force, learn how to fly well and succeed as best as you can’. That was that. I bowed my head at his feet, got up and left. The elation in my heart was palpable. Now the hurdles had been crossed. Now, at least from within the family, no one will oppose my proposed career. It was a great relief.
We came back to Calcutta the very same day. Only a few days were left for me to get ready and go. Those few days flew by in a blur. On 28th January 1950 I boarded the Doon Express at Howrah for Clement Town Dehradun for the second time. The whole khaandaan came to see me off at Howrah. Both the Grand Moms, Parents and siblings, cousins uncles and aunts, the proposed grooms for my sisters along with their parents, and of course my friends Gora, Nimai, Anil and some others. It was a Mela of sorts. It was a fitting finale for a life time. As the train pulled out of the station I left my childhood behind for ever and entered a new universe.