The occasion was the Kutakov Fly-past over Adampur in 1970. For the final day we were operating from Adampur. The first item of the demonstration was a fly-past by 16 Mig-21 (Type 77) and 16 SU7 (Type 22). The last item for the flying display was a low level aerobatic show in a Type 66 Mig-21 two seat aircraft. The aerobatic display was to be performed by Harsaran Gill. He was then a flight commander in No 29 Squadron (Scorpios) under Bapu Sawardekar. The Scorpios were located at Hindon. Therefore the aerobatic display was a part of the tasks for the MiG 21 detachment from 28 Wing. That detachment fell under my jurisdiction as the leader of the MiG 21 group. The group was made up of detachments from 12 Wing Chandigarh (45 Squadron), 28 Wing Hindon (29 and 47 Squadrons) and 8 Wing Adampur (1 Squadron). Harsaran was the deputy leader. The stand-by pilot for the aerobatic display was Kuke Suresh from 47 Squadron. Between the fly-past and the aerobatic display, time was allotted for a flying and static display by AN-12, IL-14, Mi4, SA-2 and SA-6 units. Every weapon system of Soviet origin in use by the IAF was on display.
After the fighter fly-past was over, I was called away to go and meet the Soviet Marshall who was surrounded by a number of top brass from the Command and Air Headquarters. The static display was laid out on the main tarmac. The visiting MiG 21 units were dispersed on the other side of the runway and were controlled through a make-shift flight office at the Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) at one end of the runway. After I was through with my protocol handshake, I came back to the ORP.
The MiG-21 boys were relaxed and were lounging around. Their main task was over. I looked for HighSpeed (that is what Harsaran was called by the fraternity) and Kuke for a quick chat about the low level aerobatic demo that was to follow shortly. Kuke I found without any trouble. He was there at the ORP sitting quietly in one corner, mentally going through the maneuvers that he was required to perform. There was no trace of HighSpeed anywhere. I looked around, then I asked some of the boys to look for him, thereafter I got on the phone and tried to trace him at every possible and even improbable location. I failed in my attempts and started getting really concerned about him. After about half an hour of anxious wait, he was spotted sitting alone on a stone behind the ORP all by himself. To me it looked odd. I approached him from his back, trying to assess what he was up to. He was with a slouched shoulder sitting with his head resting on his palms. It was unusual and it did not look good. At the last moment he heard my foot fall and looked up. There was sadness in his eye. I came up and put my left hand on his right shoulder. What’s up Gilly? I asked. He gave me a wan smile, reached into his breast pocket and took out a letter. He held the letter up to me, looked down again and shook his head gently. All this was so unlike him! I picked the letter up and immediately realized that it was from Basanti – his wife. I returned the letter to him and said that I was not going to read her letter to him. I sat on another stone near him and we just sat like that for a moment stretching to an eternity.
It is difficult for me to pinpoint when Gilly and I had become ‘friends’. He was a Flight Cadet from the 62nd pilot’s course and that made him a direct ‘junior’ to us from the 60th pilot’s course at No 1 AFA Begumpet. At the beginning of the term when 62nd course joined the academy, I was elevated to the rank of an ‘Under Officer’. Over a period of time, Gilly became one of ‘my boys’. We liked each other personally and supported each other within our teams. However, as long as we were cadets, this bond was mild and not exceptional. Even as a cadet, Gilly was attached to a girl, Jaspal, who was his childhood sweetheart. They got married as soon as Gilly was commissioned. Unfortunately for them, they were unable to obtain parental acceptance for their marriage, especially from Jaspal’s side. Immediately after their marriage Gilly had a motorcycle accident which caused him to get rid of his hair as a Sikh. After he recovered from the injury, he decided not to revert to the turban and facial hair. This did not help in his attempted rapprochement with the family elders either. Gilly and Pal therefore had only their air force friends as their social ‘family’. Those of us who stood by their side in those early days became close as friends. My attachment to the Gills increased as Gilly followed me as a QFI in to the newly formed Air Force Flying College at Jodhpur. At that place he was the only married officer of our seniority and his house became our social centre. Somewhere along the line, Pal (that was how we addressed Jaspal) demanded that I treat her as my younger sister rather than a brother officer’s wife. Thus, Gilly became a part of my family.
For the next seven years from 1958 to 1965 we grew in service, never serving together but never losing our bond. I got married and had children, Gilly and Pal had children too. I lost my father and my mother came to stay with me. Gilly and Pal had the misfortune of their parents staying away from them. Pal effortlessly became an additional daughter for my mother and Gilly a very dear son in law. In 1965 when I went off to Andover from the Panthers leaving my family at Ambala, I was secure in the knowledge that with Gilly next door at Chandigarh (He was with the First Supersonics) the family will be well cared for even if the Panthers moved away (as they did). Then tragedy struck. We lost Pal in a fire accident in the kitchen. We were all devastated. When I returned from the UK in 1966 I found Gilly to be a sad and lonely person. His circle of intimate friends had shrunk. His work hours had expanded. Out of sheer necessity, the children had to be sent to a boarding school which ended up exacerbating both his lonelyness and his ‘workaholic’ism. I had kept in touch with him socially and professionally; he had moved into the MiG Cell at the Air HQ and I had taken over the command of a MiG Squadron.
One day in late 1968 I had come to Delhi from Chandigarh on a personal errand. As was my usual habit, I drove into his quarters in the M.A.R. Hostel as an unannounced uninvited guest. I let myself in to a huge surprise. It was a Sunday morning and Gilly was at home. He let me in, smiled and motioned me to a seat. Sit down, he said. I have a big surprise for you. As I sat down, Basanti walked in from the kitchen and the two children came running in. I looked at her and shifted my questioning gaze to Gilly. In a calm and measured tone he introduced us; Tiku, meet Basanti my wife. To Basanti he said ‘This is Tiku. You know about him.’
I do not know whether I should use the word stunned or shocked to describe my feelings. ‘All this has just happened’, he said. ‘Hardly any one knows about it as yet’. I was hurt. This man, I thought, was close to me. He was married to my kid sister! We lost her and we grieved for her. And here he was, introducing me to his new wife as if it was the most natural thing to do! He had not even bothered to talk to me about something as important as a re-marriage? I was upset. Gilly came and sat next to me. In his natural gentle way he explained that Basanti was a senior teacher in the school where his daughter was studying, he narrated how Basanti and the children had been drawn together when she looked after them at their school boarding, he told me how the first suggestion of co-opting the teacher as their replacement mother had come from the children, and in a very low voice he told me how he and Basanti had discussed the matter and decided to give it a try. I sat and listened sipping the tea that Basanti had given me by that time.
I must say they tried very hard to make their marriage a success. Basanti gave up her job to be a full time mother. The children were bought home. For a while every thing looked fine. For us who were close to Gilly it was a period of readjustment where Basanti slowly made a place for herself. We were impressed by her maturity and her dedication. Ever so slowly she made herself respected and loved amongst Gilly’s friends. Human emotions are, however, strangely volatile. The children, instrumental in bringing the parents together, began to drift away from Basanti and Gilly. Neither lenient love nor strict parental control worked. This brought about tension in the house. By late 1969 when Gilly left the air HQ to move to Hindon as a flight commander of 29 Squadron under Baapu Sawardekar, this tension could be felt by their friends. Gilly and Basanti were both strong personalities and they were both determined to keep their home intact; but that did not prevent moments of agony and despair and tension and confusion. We were aware of this situation, especially as we were now on the same station. We felt sad but helpless.
I do not know who broke the spell. We looked at each other and we just had to talk it out. What did she have to say? I asked. He gave me a weak smile. She is leaving me. She will not be home when we return. I remained silent for a moment. He kept on staring at me. Have you spoken to her? I asked. No, he said. She is not picking up the line. Should I call her? I asked. Should I ask Leena to walk over and talk to her? No, he said again. Just leave it alone. I have enough faith in our relationship to ride this one out. He now got up and started walking back to the ORP. I walked with him. On the way we were met by Vasudeva and Kuke. Kuke looked at his watch and spoke to Gilly, ‘Sir, it is time for us to go to the aircraft’.
I was now in a real quandary. I was the detachment commander. Safety of all flying operations by the detachment was clearly my responsibility. Knowing what I knew, Gilly was obviously under tremendous emotional stress. A demonstration of low level aerobatics in a MiG 21 was no child’s play. It needed tremendous concentration of a calm mind. Should I take Gilly off the task? I had a perfectly good reason to do so. I also had a perfectly good alternative. Kuke was available as a stand by to Gilly. He was willing and able to do the show in lieu of Gilly. On the other hand, I had grown up with Gilly and knew him only too well. He had this tremendous ability to compartmentalize his thoughts and action. When he was on a job he could effortlessly shut out every other thought from his mind. If I took him off the show at this moment it would be like saying that I did not have enough confidence in Gilly’s ability to face adverse situations. For him, such an event will be extremely hurtful if it came from me. Then again, if I really thought that Gilly was not in an emotional state to do the job in hand it would be my duty to take him off the job; hurting his feelings would be of no consequence. And yet, I had tremendous professional respect for Gilly’s flying skill, his emotional stability, his precise analytical ability and his absence of false bravado. If he felt that he was up to a task, I should trust him. The dilemma raged in my mind; the fact that I loved him dearly only added to my misery. I gently reached out and touched his hand. Gilly looked up. Should I ask Kuke to do the show? I asked him. He looked straight into my eyes and shook his head gently. No, he said. It is OK and I am alright.
Kuke and Gilly marched off to their aircraft. Kuke remained in the cockpit in dispersal while Gilly went out and performed one of the most outstanding low level shows I have ever seen. It was a short show. Gilly was airborne for less than thirty minutes. To me that half an hour had stretched to an eternity. The events of that afternoon are now in historical past. No one except Gilly and I knew that we had faced a dilemma. I am not sure till today whether I had acted correctly that day or was I just lucky on that occasion.
I need to attach a short post script to the story here. Gilly was right in his assessment of the strength of their relationship. By the evening the two were chirping like lovebirds over the telephone. After we came back to Hindon after the show I confronted Basanti about the storm in the teacup. She smiled sweetly and said ‘which couple does not fight once in a while?’ Leena was looking on over my shoulder. I looked back at her and got an enigmatic smile.