One Air India Super Constellation brought me back to Delhi from London on a hazy winter morning of December 1965. As I stepped out at Palam I did not quite know whether I should expect any one to meet me on arrival. I had written home of the date of my arrival but I knew that for my wife Leena to come down from Ambala would be very difficult. She had to look after three infants and an old lady. There was no one to stand in for a day at Ambala and to make the journey with every one would become quite an expedition. I did not spot any one at the waving gallery.
Walking through the long serpentine line at the immigration control took about an hour even though my passport was stamped within seconds. Finding a luggage trolley took some more time. Fortunately my luggage was found easily. Loaded with my luggage I made my way into the customs hall only to be greeted with a mass of milling humanity around four checking desks. Slowly some sort of queue developed at each of the tables. The line ahead of me was quite long but I was not short of patience. When my turn came, I handed over my inward customs voucher to the man on duty. On that voucher there was a question whether I had brought any gifts and if so what was the valuation. Like an honest citizen I had answered ‘Yes, Rs 2400/=’. The man behind the desk pointed to that item and said ‘Iska poora byora likhiye’ i.e., please write detailed description of these. Now I was returning after a whole year and my box was full of gifts. It was quite difficult to accurately write down all items with respective prices. I stepped aside and settled down to the task. After a while, another customs officer approached me and asked me what I was doing. I showed him my form and explained what I had been asked to do. He took the slip from my hand, took out a pen, put a line though the line ‘Yes 2400’, wrote the word NO in big capital letters and gave it back to me. Please sign next to the correction sir, he said respectfully. I did as I was told. He pointed his finger at the officer on duty and signalled me through. The expression on the face of the officer on duty and his side-kick standing next to him was indeed sad.
A taxi ride to the ISBT and a bus ride to Ambala bought me to my door by tea time. All the ladies of the house, Ma, Leena and the three girls ran out to let me in. Sutapa the eldest daughter hugged me hard and Sukanya the second one tugged my hand. Swagata the youngest had a puzzled look on her face. She looked at her sisters and then queried her mother – Ma who is this uncle? That was my home-coming after a year.
My homecoming celebrations lasted for just one day. I had to report back to Air HQ for my debriefing after the course and for the orders for my next posting. So, once again there was bus ride back to Delhi and a struggle to get a transit accommodation at the Central Vista Officers’ Mess.
My point of contact at the Air HQ was the Directorate of Personnel (Officers). As a mere Squadron Leader, I was to be dealt with at the level of an Assistant Director. I knocked at the door of ADP(O)1 respectfully and went in. The chair was filled by the ever friendly Squadron Leader Jyoti Prasad Gupta, JP to his friends. I presumed that I was included in his list of friends, walked in and sat down. JP was in his usual cheerful buoyant mood. He greeted me loudly, picked up a pen, scribbled a few lines on a memo pad and handed that over to me. On that pad was a list of a number of directorates at the Air HQ. I read the list and looked up at JP with questioning eyes. ‘Just go around and say hello to all these gents. They might like to quiz you about your trip’. JP’s bright smile and his extended hand made it very clear to me that I was not welcome to loiter around in his tiny office for any length of time. I got up and started down the list starting at the Directorate of Training.
To my utter surprise, no one, including the directorate of intelligence, was in the least bit interested in what I did for the year for which I had been sent abroad. The so-called debrief was a formality. At some directorates I was dismissed in seconds; at some others I was offered a chair and a cup of coffee and was allowed to indulge in generic Gup Shup. In most cases, it was I who had a lot of questions to ask. The 65 war had happened when I was away and I was curious to know every thing about it. In any case, I had to complete the round robin and collect signatures on a form to certify that indeed I had been ‘debriefed’ by the powers that be. It took me three days to complete the task. I came back to JP with that form all duly signed. He took the form and smiled at me. ‘Where are you posting me to?’ I asked. JP’s smile was enigmatic and the shake of his head almost imperceptible. ‘Don’t know that as yet’ he said. ‘You’ll have to wait for some time’.
So I waited for the rest of the day, and the next. On Friday, JP thought of an activity to keep me busy. ‘Hey Tiku, don’t you want to draw your flying bounty for the year?’ JP dangled his bait. Of course I wanted to draw my flying bounty. I needed that money urgently. But, I had not flown for a single minute! Surely, the one sortie that I had scrounged in a Lightning in England would not be counted? I gave JP a wan smile. Yes, but how do I get it? I have no flying hours for the year so far. JP now laid out his plan to get me off his hair for some time. ‘You have been on a ground job for all these months. The rules permit you to be exempted from the requirement of flying hours if you apply for it. Just put in an application!’ I took in the bait hook line and sinker. ‘OK, just give me a sheet of paper and you will have an application.’ JP took out a blank sheet from his drawer and handed it over to me. ‘Who do I address the application to?’ I asked. I did not even know where I stood posted to! Well, JP drummed his fingers on the table in front of him; I think you should take it to Directorate of Ops F and B. After all you are a fighter pilot currently held super- numerary at air headquarters. I took the sheet of paper and finished writing an application in seconds. From JP’s office on the third floor I climbed the stairs to the fifth floor to find the directorate of Ops F&B. The Deputy Director was ensconced in a meeting with the Director. I waited for him to return. On his return I solemnly gave him the application I had in my hand. He looked through the application and returned it to me. I can not help you, he said. All the fighter units are choked and overflowing with trainee pilots. Every hour is needed for their training. No effort can be spared for your bounty hours. I looked back at him in amazement. Sir, I said, I am not asking for flying hours. I am asking for an exemption from the requirement of flying hours under the existing rules. The DD was unmoved. You are not held on the charge of any unit under this directorate. I cannot move your application. May be you should submit it through the OC of Air HQ (Unit). His eyes moved away from my face and his head tilted towards the door. I was dismissed. It was getting close to lunch time. I went down to the cafeteria for a bite. After the lunch break I went down to the office of the OC Air HQ (Unit). This gent looked after the administration of all the administrative needs of the Air HQ building and all the personnel working therein. He looked into my application and shook his head. You are not posted to the Air HQ. You are only on non-effective strength. I cannot process your application. Crestfallen, I went back to JP’s room. He was not at all surprised to see me back. The day was more than half over. ‘I don’t think your file will move today. You better go back to the mess and come back tomorrow’ was his advice to me.
That brought me on to the Saturday. The Air HQ was working on a wartime schedule. Saturdays were seen as full working days. Every one around me was busy, and I had nothing to do. I sat quietly in one corner of JP’s tiny office and twiddled my thumbs. I can assure you that I was not enjoying myself. I had been away from my family for a whole year. I had a child at home who had forgotten how I looked and who I was. I wanted to get home now. And here I was wasting my time. I had not really forgiven JP for having given me the run-around yesterday, but I was unable to take any retaliatory action. The poor fellow was out of his chair from the morning attending meetings with his bosses.
At long last JP returned to his office clutching a file and wearing a broad smile. He patted my back as he got into his own chair. ‘It is all done’, he said. ‘I have your posting order here. You are going to 18 Squadron as a Flight Commander.’ I was thrilled. The squadron mentioned was at Ambala, which meant that I had no administrative hassle of shifting my house! I already had a house in Ambala. Also, going back to a Gnat Squadron appealed to me. I loved to fly the aircraft, and in the air battles in the war just concluded, the Gnat had covered itself with glory. ‘Thanks JP’ I said, ‘but what took you so long?’
JP gave me a weak smile. I don’t know whether I should tell you, he said, but you certainly deserve an explanation. He now sat down on his chair, put his elbows on the table in front of him and narrated a little story. It seems that when I had secured the top slot in the staff college entrance examination, the Air HQ had sent my name to the Ministry of Defence nominating me for the course. Foreign courses have to be approved by the MOD, but normally that is just a formality. For my case however, the file had come back from the MOD with a comment that they thought I should not be nominated for the course. I had come back to fighter flying after a very long break in the training command. The ministry suggested that I should be retained in my current flying job for another year and be given a guaranteed entry into DSSC Wellington next year without having to compete again in view of my excellent performance this year. The ministry had suggested that in my place, the person who had secured the second place in the competitive examination should be nominated by the Air HQ for the Andover slot. Now this was very unusual. The Air HQ was offended by this interference by the Ministry into its own domain. Lots of discussions took place and ultimately the case was referred to the CAS for his decision on the course of action to be followed. Air Chief Marshal Arjun Singh had directed that my nomination for the course should stand. He had added that on my return it could be considered whether I should be given another year of flying before being pulled into staff appointments. For the past week, this ‘consideration’ was taking place and now I was going back to a flying appointment. ‘Be ready for another move by December 1966’ was the parting shot from JP.
JP’s story made me curious. Who had come second? I wondered and I wondered and ultimately I did not want to know. Whoever it was would have been some one of proximate seniority; a colleague if not a close friend. It was not necessary for me to know. I just pocketed the posting order and got back to Ambala as soon as I could.