G Viswanathan was ready to get married and I was invited to attend the wedding. The invitation card came as a bit of surprise. I did not even know that Vishu was looking for matrimony. After all, Vishu had just about two years of commissioned service and one would think that it would be too early to get hitched. Vishu and I had become friends soon after our arrival at Begumpet in Jan 1952 for flying training with the 60th Pilots’ course. I had managed to complete my course and get commissioned as a pilot in April 1953. Vishu had not managed to do so. He was suspended from flying training and was sent to Jodhpur to become a navigator. He got commissioned as a navigator along with the 7th Nav course on 14 Oct 53. The note attached with the invitation card implored me to attend; Vishu was not expecting any other air force friend to take the trouble to travel to Karaikudi where the marriage is to take place. Vishu knew about my fondness for travelling and he hoped that I would be tempted. I was then posted to Number 1 Air Force College at Begumpet. Karaikudi was a small town deep down in south TamilNadu and no one was going to grant me a week’s leave that I would need to travel there, attend the marriage and get back. I put the card in my pocket and forgot about it. As luck would have it, a little while later the flight commander came into the crew room to make an announcement: was there any instructor interested in making a mail run to Tambaram? A load of training manuals were to be picked up from the Flying Instructors School. A Harvard was to be taken to Tambaram, it was to be loaded up with the training publications and it was to be flown back. To make the task a little more attractive he also announced that if the volunteer instructor so desired, he could make the trip a week-end holiday at Madras, going on Saturday and coming back on Monday. Ah! My ears pricked up. Some one was surely trying to ensure that young Vishu was not denied at least one friend at his marriage! I promptly put my hand up. The flight commander looked at me, nodded an acknowledgement, and left.
The squadron was flying the morning detail that week. On the Saturday morning I entered the trip Begumpet-Tambaram against my name and left the time of take off blank. I also worked on the programming officer and slotted myself for only one sortie in the first detail of the morning. Both the trips were duly authorised by the flight commander. The time for take off for the out station trip remained blank. By about 0930 when I had completed my instructional sortie and the second detail was getting airborne I checked for availability of aircraft at the flight line and found an aircraft available. With a very innocent face I approached the flight commander: I am not on instructional programme and this aircraft is available; should I get the paper-work done and push off? The flight commander was a bit surprised. What’s the hurry? You are supposed to go after lunch, isn’t it? I had all my answers ready. That’s true sir, but I am not on instructional program and the aircraft is available. Why should I take a chance with the weather in the afternoon? I was reasonableness personified. I got the nod I was angling for. I took off by eleven and was in Tambaram before lunch.
The flight office at FIS was quite familiar to me. After all, I was a pupil here only a few months ago. As I got into the flight crew room, the pupil officers of the current course broke for lunch. My friend Roxy (Flying Officer JV Raghavan) was one of the officers on the course. He ran and grabbed me by my wrist as he saw me. ‘You are just in time for lunch! Come on. Let’s go home’. Roxy had a motor cycle, a Bullet 350. His home, ‘The Anchorage’, was just outside the main gate of the station. We were there in less than 5 minutes.
Roxy and I had been together for a long time. We were course-mates at NDA and there after at the Air Force Academy and then on to fighter training on Spitfires at Hakimpet. We were of course on two different bases after that for some time, but here he was once again dogging my foot-steps coming into the FIS to become a flying instructor just six months after me. We certainly considered each other as closest of friends. As we drove into the Anchorage we found the house empty. Roxy had a key to the front door and we entered the house. The house was situated on a large piece of land perhaps about six grounds in size. (In Tamilnadu a plot forty feet by sixty feet is called a ground.) The plan view of the house was like an anchor; hence the name Anchorage. The house was a two-storied brick-built structure. The ground floor contained a large living room flanked on two sides by a large veranda. The living room led into two small rooms on one side and a tiny pantry cum kitchenette on the other. The main kitchen was in a separate hut. A large well and a water-pump sat between the main house and the kitchen. The connecting path between the kitchen and the house through the pantry was neither covered nor paved. I was not much impressed with the design of the house from a domestic ergonomic point of view. The living room contained a large swing with a polished teak wood seat. I sat on the swing and enjoyed my self while Roxy went upstairs to change into comfortable mufti.
A few minutes later a smart short dark lady came into the house pushing a bicycle. She looked at me as she appeared at the door and gave me a bright smile as if she had known me for a long time. Roxy got up, took the cycle from her and put it away on the side veranda. The lady came inside the living room. She readjusted her sari, sat down on a comfortable chair facing the swing and flashed her smile at me once again. ‘You are Vijayan’s friend’. It was more of a statement of acceptance than a question thrown at me. I was already up on my feet. I nodded my assent. Roxy came back into the living room. ‘Ruku’, he said, ‘this is my friend Tiku. I have brought him home for lunch.’ I surmised that the lady in front of me must be Roxy’s mother. Strangely, despite our long friendship, Roxy and I had never had a discussion about our families. I had always presumed that he had a family with parents and siblings. Now, inside his home, I was having to regenerate my mental picture about his family quickly without any help from him. Why was he addressing his mother by a pet name instead of the standard form ‘Amma’ or some other derivative of the same? He had called her ‘Ruku’. That would be a convenient diminutive of ‘Rukmani’. Was that her name? I wondered.
The lady got up and made a gesture of utter dismissal. ‘Don’t worry about lunch. There is enough food in the house to feed more than one friend of yours.’ Just before she disappeared into the pantry, she turned around and addressed me. ‘Tiku must be your air force name. Does it mean anything?’ I had to admit that my air force moniker was quite meaningless. I told her that my real name was Tapas Kumar and I presumed that the nick name must have been derived from the sound bytes. She was not impressed. Tapas Kumar is not an easy name to call. Don’t you have a simpler calling name at home? I had to admit to her that at home my parents called me Shankar. They wanted my name to be related to Lord Shiva. This seemed to satisfy her. Good, she said. You will be Sankar to me too. With that pronouncement she disappeared into the pantry.
I was treated to a sumptuous meal of sambhar rice vegetables and rasam. The meal was topped off with a bowl of payasam. She tried the apologise that the meal will have to be entirely vegetarian when she started serving the meal and was extremely happy to discover that in any case I was a vegetarian. I do not know whether I liked the meal more or her incessant endearing chatter. Over the meal she got every detail of my family and friends out of me. In return all I learnt was that she was indeed Mrs Rukmani Rajagopal, that her husband was a mathematician of international standing, and that he was now heading the Ramanujan Institute of Mathematics in Madras. Before this appointment he used to be a professor in th madras Christian College. That is how he happened to have built this house next to the college compound in the so-called professor’s colony
The afternoon was spent in general chit chat with the lady supine on the swing, Roxy sitting on the swing at her feet and me on the chair across until it was time for evening coffee and snacks. Mrs Rajagopal was highly impressed by the fact that I was taking the trouble of travelling unreserved up to Karaikudi just to attend the marriage of an ex course mate. She also insisted that I have an early dinner before I catch my train at night. When you are only twenty-one years old, you need a lot of food to keep you going. I had no objection to her suggestion.
After dinner Roxy dropped me to the railway station. Before leaving I asked Mrs Rajagopal as to how I should address her. Since Roxy addressed her as Ruku, would she like me to do the same? She was very emphatic in her answer. Certainly not! She said. That would sound very rude. This naughty Vijayan would not call me Amma and I have given up trying to make him do so. You can address me as Chitti, which is the generic form of addressing your mother’s younger sister. Will that be OK? I was happy to see that she was now willing to let me address her as a part of the family. She would be somewhat younger than my mother, I thought. Perhaps she was about forty at that stage. That gave her about twenty years over me and certainly I was happy to address her as Chitti.
I took a train to Karaikudi, attended Vishu’s marriage and took the next night train back to Tambaram. The train reached Tambaram very early in the morning, somewhat before six am. As instructed by Chitti before departure, I took a rickshaw to the Anchorage. She was not only up and about at that hour, she had a steaming cup of coffee ready before I could say hello. A stack of dosai was already ready to be served. Roxy joined me shortly. After a quick wash and shave I changed into uniform and joined Roxy for a sumptuous breakfast. By lunch time I was back at Begumpet with the load of training material.
From that day in 1955, Chitti became and remained a part of my life. In the progression of my career, I came back to Tambaram over and over again; first as an instructor at FIS, then as its Chief Ground instructor and finally as its Commanding officer. Through out this long association, Chitti remain as my mother figure and the Anchorage my home. She was there to see me getting married and she was there to see my children grow up, go through their education and settle down in life. I was there next to her when we lost Roxy in a flying accident. I was also able to rush down from Delhi to be beside her when her husband passed away. Alas she died alone. There was no one to inform me when she had breathed her last. It is a sorrow that I would have to carry through my life.