Like last time, the telephone call came from my son Subir. Like the last time, the news he conveyed was sad. ‘Daadi Shastri has passed away’. ‘Daadi Shastri’ for Subir meant the mother of Kukke Suresh and Grand mother of ‘Bubba’ Aishwaria. She was in her nineties and ailing. Such passing is inevitable but that does not make any such happening any less sad. It also revives the memories of other such sad moments: like the last time.
The last time was in September 2006. My wife Leena and I were in Chennai when Subir had called up to inform us that Usha was no more. Usha was Kukke’s widow. We had known her for just about thirty-seven years. In the Air Force the bonds that you grow with the men you work with and their near and dear ones are no less than familiy relationships; sometimes they are even stronger. Kukke, and through him Usha, were two such persons who had grown into our family. The news of her release from life brought us some relief. Spread of cancer in her mouth was causing her enormous pain and there was no solution in sight. We had visited her for the last time after Diwali of the previous year. It was a painful experience watching her battle unequally with physical pain and emotional emptiness. Kukke had left her and gone, also because of cancer, just over a year earlier. With Kukke’s passing, and with the onset of cancer on her own body, Usha had become bitter with life. .
I had met Kukke for the first time on 31stMarch 1968. He was one of the few officers who had arrived and signed-in in the re-formed 47 Squadron at Chandigarh before I had arrived to assume its command. He had just finished his conversion to MiG 21 aircraft and was half-way through his operational training at that stage. My first impression of Kukke was very favourable. Tall, fair, with a smile on his face, and a pair of bright light-grey eyes sparkling and dancing as if in mischief; he was instantly lovable. Within a day or two I discovered that he was also bright and reliable. He would shoulder any task given and would discharge it well. I grew to depend on him in the task of reforming the squadron with new equipment. I also decided to accelerate his flying training so that he could shoulder the responsibilities of a middle seniority leader effectively.
By mid-may of 1968, Leena came and joined me in Chandigarh and soon my house became the social hub of the unit. Almost every evening there was a gathering of the unit boys and their wives at home, drinking coffee (there being no alcohol at home) and listening to music. My little spool to spool Grundig was a small gadget, but my collection of music was not small. As the days progressed, I discovered another nice little facet of Kukke that I had not noticed earlier. Kukke was a social glue. He had this wonderful ability of being liked by all. It so turned out that Leena and Kukke were approximately of the same age, and they became closest of friends. I often wondered which job Kukke performed better, being my adjutant or being the social secretary to my wife! I think he managed both the jobs with great élan.
Days rolled by. We flew a lot, trained hard and partied harder. The Archers became a well knit group and made their presence felt socially on the station. By the end of the year, while the unit was closing on to a ‘fully operational’ status, we were ordered to relocate from Chandigarh to Hindon. Kukke and Vasudeva, the two senior most flight lieutenants in the unit, had become operational by day. I was keen to get their night operational certification done, but that was proving to be a bit elusive due to administrative problems on the station. Ultimately I did manage to get their night syllabus through with a bit of trickery, but that is another story.
We moved to Hindon in February 1969. Leena had gone to Kolkata in December for her confinement, so I had moved to the new station on my own. She rejoined me with my new born son by the middle of March. A few weeks after Leena came back, Kukke came to me with a bit of news. His parents were planning a trip north and would like to visit him for a few days. Could that be arranged? Leena was keen that I host them at home, but Kukke was not sure that his parents would be comfortable to accept such an arrangement as they did not know us at all. I inquired about the dates, spoke to the President of the Mess Committee (PMC) and arranged for their stay in the officer’s mess.
Kukke’s parents arrived in due course of time and were quite pleased with the arrangements they found at Hindon. Kukke’s father, Mr Shastry, was a senior Police Officer of Karnataka. He was fairly close to the age of retirement; perhaps 1969 would have been the last time he would avail a leisurely vacation on his leave travel concessions. The Shastry family was in a happy frame of mind when they arrived at Hindon at the start of their holiday travels. They came home to call on us and we got along very well. Mrs Shastry spent a long time with Leena both in our house and on the station as she was taken around the Air Force Station. Naturally, amongst the many things they talked about, they also talked about Kukke; the mother was very keen to see him married and settled and my wife agreed with her visitor’s sentiment. Further discussion on the subject revealed that they actually had a girl in mind, but Kukke was refusing to let the matter proceed; he would not even meet the girl even though she was staying not very far away. Her father, Mr KN Rao, worked in the sugar industry and they were located at Saharanpur, pretty close to Hindon. As a proof that the proposal was really alive, Mr and Mrs KN Rao and his Sister in Law Mrs KV Rao came over and called on the Shastrys while they were in Hindon. Leena and Mrs Rao, over their sessions of talk, then hatched a plan. The Shastrys had planned a few touristic visits in the north. It was decided that after they were through with their sight-seeing, they would once again stop by at Hindon. A small squadron get together would be arranged for them to meet all the squadron boys. Mr KN Rao and his wife and daughter would be invited to join the party. We would let the matter proceed under it’s own steam there after. Kukke was not let into this nefarious plan beyond the information that his parents would stop by a second time after their tour.
The plan thus hatched was put into operation. Mr and Mrs Rao and their daughter Usha accepted the invitation to visit the Archers. A get together was arranged under Leena’s care. We found Mr Kurpad Nanjunda Rao and Mrs Jayalakshmi Rao to be delightful people. My father’s younger brother Sri Susil Sen (my Mejo Kaka) was a chemist in the sugar industry; I was no stranger to that environment. We had a lot to talk about. All went well till the time of the function when one of the boys got to know about the motive behind the party and leaked the info to Kukke. Kukke got very angry and decided to skip the get together. For a little while there was a bit of chaos. I had to get into the act and convince Kukke that the event could also be viewed simply as a Squadron get-together and the visitors could be treated simply as the unit’s guests. Kukke was mollified and the party went through as planned. Kukke and Usha met each other as a part of the get-together without any other overtones. As soon as the party was over, however, Kukke came and saw me. He was mentally not ready to get married as yet. He had nothing against the girl being proposed. However, since he was not presently ready to marry any one, he was feeling embarrassed for the girl.
I found nothing wrong or improper in Kukke’s stance and was ready to support him. However, the ladies were not to be dissuaded so easily. I then introduced another point of view that made them ponder and hesitate. It was like this: for some time before this instant, I had been dabbling with a bit of palmistry. Not that I believed in it with any conviction. However, there was a time in my childhood when palmistry was studied seriously by my parents. I had had the opportunity of going through the available literature of that discipline and I was indecisive about the accuracy of predictions based on lines on ones palms. However, I had seen some amazing predictions come true even in my own life and I could not dismiss the tradition out of hand. In the process, I had inspected the palms of all my boys and it was a fact that the life line on Kukke’s palm stopped at about the age of thirty. It was some thing that had disturbed me even though I had kept quiet about it. I now shared my disquiet with Leena and told her that in view of Kukke’s reluctance to get married and the lines on his palm, we need not lend our support for a forced relationship. Leena was convinced with my arguments and the story ended there, or so we thought.
By the end of 1970 I moved out from Number 47 squadron and went to the Staff College as a directing staff. Kukke also left the squadron soon after me in April 1971 and went to the Hunter OTU (Operational Training Unut) in Jamnagar. Exactly a year after I left the Archers, the war of 1971 came about. Jaisalmere in Rajasthan housed a Care and Maintenance Unit(C&MU) of the Air Force which looked after its administration. During the run-up to the war, my dear friend and course-mate MS (Minhi) Bawa was pulled out of his job as the Chief Instructor at the Armament Training Wing Jamnagar and was put in command of the C&MU there. Jaisalmere is very close to the border with Pakistan. It was vulnerable to air strikes. Minhi obtained a detachment of Hunter aircraft from Jamnagar to provide him some sort of air defence. Kukke came to Jaisalmere as a part of this Hunter detachment in November 1971. Born on 12th December 1941, Kukke was then almost exactly 30 years old on 5th December 1971 when the C&MU at Jaisalmere got embroiled in the famous battle of Logewalla!
The air battle over Longewalla is a classic in air operations that cannot be encapsulated in a paragraph. I can only say that in the history of air land warfare there is no other example where an isolated company outpost of infantry is attacked by two regiments of armour and that attack is first halted and then routed by a handful of fighter aircraft from the air. My dear Kukke was one of those fighter pilots who helped achieve this wonder.
For Air Force Station Jaisalmere the drama started to unfold with a telephone call from the Army to the base commander. It was past midnight of 4th/5th December 1971. An armoured threat had developed on a post at Longewala. There was a report that a probe by a section of tanks was seen near Ramgarh. If this thrust materialized then the Army had no forces to stop Jaisalmere from being overrun within the next few hours. Wing Commander Minhi Bawa, the Base Commander, was advised to evacuate the airfield if he so desired. Defending the base against an armoured attack was considered untenable. My friend Minhi was of course made of a different stuff. Instead of evacuating the base, he responded with extreme aggression. All the aircraft on air defence role were stood down and were re configured for anti-tank role. His choice of weapons was limited. The only armament available was T-10 rockets. All the available aircraft were fitted with rocket rails in the middle of the night. Rockets were loaded on the aircraft. At day break the aircraft were launched in pairs to find the tanks and destroy them. Near Longewalla the terrain was just open desert. The Pakistani armour waiting outside the post for their attack at daybreak was just sitting ducks. Unfortunately, it was soon realized that it was not easy to hit a moving tank or APC with a T-10 rocket. The accuracy of the weapon was inadequate. The Hunter boys also noticed that in their wisdom the Pakistanis had strapped additional fuel barrels on the rear of each tank or APC, and these fuel drums were not bullet proof. The pilots were also delighted to find that there was no air cover for the tanks. The Pakistan Air Force was totally absent from the battle field. The pilots quickly changed their tactics. Instead of rockets they now started using only their guns and aimed at the strapped-on fuel drums. The guns were far more accurate even against a manoeuvring tank. It was a massacre for the tanks. To make sure of their kills, the Hunters were coming really close to the tanks with their guns blazing. Bullets punctured the fuel drums and the tanks caught fire. The tank crew quickly abandoned their mounts where ever they could.
In one such attack on the morning of 5th December, as Kukke was diving at a tank with his guns blazing, the tank crew raised their main gun towards the aircraft and fired. Kukke had not expected this. The gun shell did not hit the aircraft, but Kukke faced a momentary loss of control. He was distracted for a moment. The distraction caused him a delay in his pull-out from the dive by a fraction of a second; his aircraft grazed the top of a sand dune just behind the tank he had attacked. The bottom of the tail of the aircraft was bashed in and a four-foot section of his jet pipe was lost. But wonder of wonders, the engine of the aircraft kept on running and the aircraft kept on flying albeit at a much reduced speed. The Hunter was obviously a tough bird.
He managed to come back to Jaisalmere and land. The death that the lines on his palm had predicted was just about averted. Kukke’s logbook carries a wry comment for this sortie over Longewalla that shows how very modest and self effacing he was in his service life: in his neat hand it says GOD SAVED ME. His dogged determination is well demonstrated by the fact that even after this very close brush with death he kept on flying operational sorties till the end of the war. He flew twice on the 6th, once on the 7th, and then twice on each day on 8th, 9th, 10th, 12th and 13th. On the 13th while on an offensive strike over Talhar airfield he was challenged by Pakistani aircraft and he shot down one Pakistani Sabre in the process. His last operational sortie was flown on the 15th of December 1971. As a result of his operational achievements in 1971 he was decorated with a Vir Chakra.
Kukke was a tall man. Many years of extensive flying strapped to an ejection seat of a fighter aircraft had already caused some injuries to his spine that he was carrying when he had arrived at Jaisalmere in 1971, but after 1971, his back really started troubling him. By April 1972 he moved back to the MiG21 fleet and served a tenure each with 45 and 108 squadrons. Then in 1974 he moved over to the aircrew examining board (AEB) as an instrument rating examiner. His physical condition had however become worrisome. After his tour of duty with the AEB, Kukke was introduced to a new facet of aviation that was in time to become his new passion: Flight Safety. He was sent for a short course on Flight Safety the USA and was appointed as the deputy Command Flight Safety Officer on his return.
With passage of time and with these happenings behind him, Kukke’s attitude to life changed. He now wanted to get married and settle down. By then he had been picked up by the Chief of theAir Staff to be his ADC.
Kukke was an honest man to the core. When he decided that he was willing to get married, he remembered that some seven years earlier his parents had suggested a matrimonial match for him, a match that he had rejected solely because he was not ready to get married. He was not happy about the fact that his rejection might have hurt the feelings of the lady concerned. Now, when he was ready to marry, the first thing he wanted to know was whether the lady in question was still unmarried. It just was so that Usha was still a single girl. So, after about seven years after they had met at my house, Kukke and Usha got married on 20th May 1976. I was then commanding the Flying Instructors School. My private life as well as my Service life was going through stressful times. Leena was in Delhi with two of the children while I was looking after the FIS as well as the other three children of mine. We could not attend his marriage.
From the post of ADC to the CAS, Kukke went back to flying as a flight commander to 7 Squadron and then with his promotion to the rank of Wing Commander he picked up the command of 26 Squadron flying MiG21 BIS.
The decade 1976-86 was very hectic for me. I had some of the most challenging appointments of my Service life. I enjoyed my jobs and had a lot of work satisfaction but I made some of my bosses unhappy. I even manage to earn the ire the PMO on one occasion. I retired in August 1986. During this decade, my contact with Kukke was rather irregular. At the end of his tenure as a Squadron Commander Kukke was moved to a desk job at the Headquarters of the Training Command at Bangalore by 1980, once again in the field of flight safety.
During his tenure with the Training Command Kukke’s problem with his spine intensified. He was advised to stop flying altogether. It was a tough decision to make for a pilot who loved flying and was acknowledged to be good at his job. The doctors were insistent in their demand that he stops flying. Kukke lost his flying category. He was then offered a transfer to the HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) in their department of flight and operational safety. Kukke accepted the offer and joined HAL in 1984.
Off and on when I would visit Bangalore during 80 to 86, we would meet for a few minutes. Similarly when Kukke visited Delhi in the period 77 to 82 and I was there either at the Air HQ or at the MOD, he would drop in and see me for a few moments. We had very little interaction at work, but our social and emotional bonds remained strong and active. In 1978 Kukke and Usha had a child, a pretty girl named Aishwariya, and Kukke grew to become extremely proud of his daughter. I remember of one occasion after I had retired when I visited Bangalore for a short while. I was very pressed for time and Kukke was very busy at HAL, but he insisted on taking me home for a few minutes so that he could show me how the daughter was growing up. By then Aishwariya had started playing tennis and was vying for a position at the state junior level team; Kukke just could not stop talking about her.
Professionally Kukke did well even in his second career with the HAL where he served for about 17 years. He held his position efficiently and rose to the rank of a General Manager in that organization. He retired from HAL in 2001 and settled down in Bangalore in a beautiful newly built house that Usha designed and put together. Ultimately lung cancer caught up with him. In January 2004 Kukke passed away. I was then in NOIDA and got to know about the sad demise through an obituary posted on the internet forum Bharat-Rakshak by his cousin Dr. Shiv Shastry. Usha, the lonely soul, followed him in less than three years falling a victim to the same dreaded disease cancer on 19th September 2006.
Another 19th September has just gone by. I pray to the almighty for everlasting peace and moksh for both Kukke and Usha.