The Indian Air Lines Viscount brought me from Kolkata to Madras just before eleven on the morning of 14 October 1959. It was a fine morning when I landed; the breeze from the sea was cool and the sunshine bright, but there was sadness in my heart strangely admixed with the jollity and merriment of the past three days. I had clutched a double brace of unexpected holidays and had rushed home to be with my parents and my pretty young wife only to be pushed around by circumstances and having to come back with one of the days of authorised leave unspent. No one was expecting me to come back by that flight and there was no one to receive me at the airport. I rang for a transport to pick me up and sat down to wait for it to arrive from Tambaram. The hour-long wait gave me enough time to ruminate over the hectic happenings of the past three days.
It really had been hectic for me, not just the last three days but the whole of past six months! Father being paralyzed by a cerebral attack in April, a matrimonial alliance fixed up for me within weeks, a marriage in early May to a teenager and then a forced separation before we could really get to know each other. My wife had to stay back with my ailing parents and I had to rejoin duty. I was distraught. My unit, The Flying Instructor’s School where I was an instructor, was sympathetic. I was offered married accommodation out of turn and was encouraged to bring my wife down. I accepted the house, but I was unable to bring my wife over. Perhaps this was what was called a Dharma Sankata in the scriptures. My dharma as a husband, my dharma as a serving officer and my dharma as a dutiful son were at war leaving me as a bewildered and mute spectator. It was painful. I was detailed for a ferry flight to Kanpur, was given four days of casual leave en route and was asked to visit home to sort the problems out. I had just finished that spot of leave and was on my way to rejoin duty, but my problems remained as unsolved as ever.
A car picked me up after an hour or so and took me to my ‘house’ in the Madambakkam camp, an uninviting return to an empty room. I had accepted the family accommodation as a kind of minor rebellious act. I knew fully well that with the status of my father’s health as it existed, it would be impossible for me to bring Leena down to stay with me in the near future. At the same time, I could not bring myself to accept the situation fully. I hoped against hope that it would some day be possible for Leena to stay with me and I wanted to be ready for the situation. This decision to move into a family accommodation as a single person was perhaps unfair to all the married persons without a house. The knowledge that there was a long line of officers waiting for their turns for family accommodation made me feel somewhat guilty. I made partial amends for this by offering to share my house with another officer, one Flight Lieutenant Naidu and his wife Kalpana. I needed only one room for myself and the Naidus were quite comfortable with the rest of the house being available to them.
A few minutes after my arrival, Kalpana knocked on my door with a steaming cup of tea in her hand. Would I like to lunch with her? I had to decline politely. I had just come back from home. It was necessary for me to go and report my arrival to my Chitty Mrs Rukmani Rajagopal. I could not even imagine the emotional consequences if I failed to do so. So, to Kalpana I had to say thank you but no thanks. After the cup of tea and a bath I got on to my bike and went down to the Anchorage to report arrival to Chitti and to have lunch with my friend Raghavan (Roxy). By then it was about two in the afternoon. Roxy arrived from office for lunch on his bike and let out a yell as he sighted me. ‘I have news for you!’ he shouted. I ran out to meet him as he parked his bike. He grabbed me by the arm and we arm wrestled for a while. Roxy was always a bit physical and effervescent with his friends he was close to. ‘You are posted out from FIS’ he informed me while he was still pushing me around. Now this was a rather important piece of news. I stopped wrestling with him and wanted to know where I was posted to. By this time he had push me to the front door of the house. Chitti came out of the pantry and intervened. ‘Stop fighting like little boys’ she said. ‘Wash up and sit down for lunch.’
Roxy had not yet told me the operative part of his information as we sat down for lunch. It was obviously something that would excite me as I could see mischief twinkling through his eyes. He kept me waiting through the lunch and then at last he told me that I was posted to an NCC squadron in Calcutta with immediate effect. I was being replaced by Koko Sen who was coming in from Hakimpet. I was stunned and happy and sad and excited all at the same time. I was stunned at the speed at which the Air HQ had acted on my request! It was but a week that I had submitted a request for an interchange of posting with Koko Sen who stood posted from the Fighter Training Wing to 12 Bengal (Air) Squadron NCC and here was the result thereof already! I was to go to Calcutta instead of Koko and he was coming in to replace me. My first reaction was obvious elation. I had been trying to go to Calcatta area on a posting for a long time so that I could look after my ailing and paralysed father better. My efforts seemed to have borne fruit at long last. Strangely, almost at the same time I felt sad. An NCC unit was unlikely to provide me with work satisfaction like what FIS could. The flying Instructors’ School was an elite institution. One could not even become a student here without being judged professionally ‘above the average’. Every instructor was hand-picked. It was necessary to professionally obtain an instructors category of at least A2 to be an instructor here. Many of the instructors held an A1 category, and there were less than 50 A1s in the whole Air Force at that time. A posting from the FIS to an NCC unit was a professional descent that could not be hidden. It was strange, this feeling raging inside me. When I had requested for a ‘home’ posting to Calcutta a couple of years ago, I was a ‘joe’ pilot-instructor at the Air Force Flying College Jodhpur. I was unmarried and was keen to do some thing for my father who had become paralyzed. The Air Force had not granted my request then. I had then improved my instructional category to A2 and had moved to FIS as an instructor. The situation now was quite different. I was a married man now and I had been given married accommodation out of turn. I could now bring my parents along with my wife and set up a house, some thing that I had been trying to do for some time. I had to admit that I had made a new application for an ‘exchange posting’ with Koko Sen about a week ago. However, that was an unpremeditated action on the spur of the moment while I was passing through Hakimpet on a ferry flight just a week ago. I also had to admit to myself that with the state of my father’s health, it might not be possible to shift him from his present location at all and therefore a posting for me to Kolkata would be logically good. All the same, I was sad with the prospect of leaving Tambaram.
After our lunch we sat down in the living room, Chitti prone on the swing and we on two chairs, and gossiped for long. I had a lot of stories to tell as my recent trip had been quite eventful. We also talked of my impending departure and how it would perhaps help my family. After a while, Chitti just sat up and asked me how I could think of going away without her meeting Leena. It was of course a serious question that I had not considered at all. Slowly, an idea formed. After I rejoined the unit and officially received my posting order, I would be entitled to some preparatory clearance and joining time. That period could easily stretch to a couple of weeks. Why should not Leena come and join me for this period? In any case she would be entitled to come to Tambaram at government expense from her father’s house to join me at my work place for the first time after marriage. After that, she would be entitled to travel back with me at government expense on my transfer. Therefore, there would be no financial burden if she came now for a few days. The idea seemed nice, in fact very nice! After my marriage with Leena in the month of May I had not had any chance to take her out for a short trip by ourselves that could be counted as a ‘honey moon’. Instead, I had to leave her behind with my parents and come back to Tambaram. If now Leena could join me for a couple of weeks while I was on my ‘joining time’, it should be a pretty close substitute for a much delayed honeymoon.
After the mandatory cup of afternoon coffee Roxy and I went down to the telegraph office and sent a telegram to my father in law: “REQUEST SEND LEENA TO MADRAS IMMEDIATELY BY AIR UNESCORTED”. I was pleased with the draft of the message. It reeked of military precision and firmness!
We came back to the Anchorage, waited for dinner and then I went back to my desolate room. That night I came down with a viral fever. I had no idea of the external world for the next twenty-four hours. On the next evening I was awakened from my stupor by Naidu. There was a telegram for me announcing the arrival of Leena on the morning flight next day from Calcutta. I was too unwell to apply my mind on any plans for the next day. I gulped a cup of tea thoughtfully supplied by the Naidus along with a tablet of paracetamol and went back to bed. I was too ill to even inform Chitty or Roxy about my condition.
Far away at Siliguri my telegram arrived to cause great surprise and consternation. This was the first time Leena had come home after her marriage for a presumably long stay. No clear discussion had taken place between my parents and my Father in law about the length of the stay for Leena. At Siliguri, the presumption was that since the son in law was in any case away to his place of work, Leena would stay in Siliguri for some time, perhaps a month? With the arrival of a telegram demanding her despatch within hours of her arrival there caused utter confusion consternation and unhappiness. My father in law however had his priorities right. If a husband calls then the wife must respond. Some amount of money had been brought home in anticipation of the visit of the newly married daughter. Now he went out and purchased two tickets to Kolkata for the following day, and very reluctantly, a single ticket for Leena to Madras for the day after. In his style of functioning, letting a ‘girl child’ travel alone to an unknown destination was unthinkable even when that ‘girl child’ was now a married girl! Therefore all possible precautions were taken. A telegram was sent to me. Leena was briefed not to leave the destination airport without me being with her. A blank telegram form with her arrival report at Madras was pre-drafted and was put inside her purse. With much trepidation she was seen of from Dumdum on the following morning.
I woke from my fevered stupor rather late that morning without any recollection of having received the telegram the previous night. Kalpana knocked on my door by about nine thirty with tea and some breakfast. She was concerned about my fever. After I washed up and had something to eat she asked me what the telegram that had arrived last evening was about and whether all was well at home. Slowly the penny dropped. It was already close to ten in the morning. It would be very difficult for me to reach Meenambakkam (the civil airport of Madras) even if I started immediately. With fever still well over 102 degrees F, I did not trust myself on the motorcycle. The room was in a mess, un-swept and cluttered. It was certainly not in a condition that I would like my wife to see. My consternation must have shown on my face as I narrated the situation to Kalpana. She immediately offered to tidy up the room and offered the use of her car (a midsized Ford Round-back). I thanked her, accepted the offer of the car and declined her offer of getting the room tidy. I struggled into some clothes and drove down to the officers mess still wondering what to do as time was running out. Slowly a plan evolved in my mind. I rang up my friend Mr Bose at the air port; he was an air traffic control officer there. We were very friendly with each other and I had expected an immediate shout of support. What I found was silence on the other end. I was a bit puzzled. Hello? I said. Mr Bose? The response came slowly in a subdued voice. Perhaps you are unaware, Bose said, I am in mourning at the moment. My mother has passed away three days ago. I did not know how to respond to this new situation. After a pause Bose told me not to worry, he would go down to the airport lounge and receive Leena as she arrives. He hoped that Leena would not be upset to be received by an unknown person in mourning weeds.
After sorting out the immediate problem I drove down to the Anchorage and narrated the situation to Chitti. She, as usual, was an instant decision maker. She would come with me and fetch the new bride home. I was to sit down quietly and have a cup of coffee while she got ready. Her morning chores were not yet fully done. It took her about an hour and a quarter to finish with the kitchen, have a bath, say her prayers, and be ready to move. We reached the Bose house a little after one thirty. My fever was still raging high but I could not help that. I must have driven rather slowly.
In the mean while, Leena’s aircraft had arrived. Bose did not have any difficulty in spotting a newly married young girl looking hopelessly lost. He marched up to her and asked her whether she was Mrs Sen? I mean Mrs Aloo Sen, he elaborated helpfully. Now Leena had no idea that amongst our friends my vegetarian status was often adjectivised as my being the ‘Aloo’ Sen. She objected vehemently. No, she said, I am married to Flight Lieutenant TK Sen, but who are you? Poor thing. Being accosted in a public place by an unknown person unshod and unshaven, in a dhoti and with a bare body carrying a grass mat and a small piece of iron in his hand could be unnerving for a newly married seventeen year old! But my friend was a smooth talker. He explained my situation and my predicament and convinced her to follow him to his home. I was proud of the level of self-confidence displayed by my young wife under the circumstances.
Chitti took charge of the situation as usual. Leena was brought back home. All suggestions of her even visiting the room where I stayed were firmly vetoed. I was put under medication and was ordered to move in to the Anchorage. No questions were asked and no excuses were accepted. Chitti left the entire first floor of the house to our disposal and ordered Roxy to move down to the ground floor guest room. Thus began our honey moon, Leena’s and mine, though we did not really realize it at that moment.
I went down to the unit to rejoin after my temporary absence and was placed ‘Sick in Quarters’ immediately by the doctors. Over the next three days my fever subsided and I resumed normal activity. During my sickness, Chitti played Mother to Leena to her heart’s content. She had no daughters of her own. Having a spritely teen-aged girl next to her all day long was an experience she loved and made the best use of. Her days were spent in cooking and feeding her, prattling and chatting with her, dressing her up in gorgeous Kanchipuram Saris pulled out of her enormous (mostly unused) stock of saris from her boxes and in general making much of her through out the day. Leena on her part was overwhelmed with the love and affection showered on her. By nature she was a family oriented person and had no difficulty in accepting this fawning addition to her newly enlarged world. She was used to romping around with six brothers at home; Roxy fit into that mould effortlessly in her mind and they became close pals very quickly.
As I became fit and rejoined duty, the social rounds of welcoming my wife and the saying farewell to us began in right earnest. Protocol visits to the Commanding Officer and the flight commander, and then a round of meals with married friends, our social calendar became quite full. We also did a few touristy visits to Madras, had dosa at the Udipi Hotel, visited the secluded Elliots Beach where Leena had the first glimpse of the sea in her life. Roxy took Leena down to the water line and then gave her a dunking, ruining one of her favourite sari in the process.
As I have said earlier, Chitti had left the entire first floor of the house for our use. The main hall of that floor contained a huge library containing the collection of books and music by Professor Rajagopal, Chitti’s husband. It was a wonderful collection. It was quite evident that the professor’s interest ranged far and wide with his special subject – mathematics – being only one of many. By then I had started on my ‘joining time’ and had no need to attend office. It was an idyllic time. We explored the books and the music when ever we had time from exploring ourselves emotionally intellectually and physically. In this process we discovered all the bays and caves and coves within ourselves as we laid ourselves out to each other. We discovered the emotional highs and lows. We discovered our blue lines of ecstasy and our red lines that must never be crossed. In those days at the Anchorage we were harboured and yet transported to levels unknown thus far.
Our very personal interludes were thoroughly mixed with interchanges with people at home. Chitti was always there to feed us; I just do not know how many times we ate something or the other for those days. Roxy was also there constantly for the period that he was not in the office. At that time of her life it was very easy to tease Leena; after all she was just a young teen-aged girl. Roxy took full advantage of the situation and filled her with stories of my romances with my real and imaginary friends who happened to be girls. He must have done an effective job of pushing poor Leena to the edge of her womanly curiosity. To this day after more that half a century Leena is still at times unsure whether I am really as innocent as I look or am I a big Casanova under a well crafted mask of innocence!
I said that it was an idyllic time and it is well-known that an idyll is mostly illusive. Within a week of Leena’s arrival I got a letter from my Mother. Father was not keeping well and was missing the tender ministration of his new-found Bahu. Could I please send her back pronto? It was quite obvious that she had not received my letter informing her of my posting as yet. It was possible to drag on my joining time for another week, but I had never learnt to go against the desires of my parents. Leena, who had become very attached to my Father was even more affected by this letter and insisted that we start back immediately. Tickets were booked by the Howrah Mail. The RTO was kind to allot a coupe for us. The journey back was tender if sad.
The honeymoon that had started on that October morning did not end with that journey on the Howrah mail. It has lasted us a life time, through the coming of our children, through all the ups and downs of my service career, through all the sadness of the death and departure of our parents and other seniors in our care, through the joys of the children growing up, through the coming of the grand children and their happy growth to adulthood. For this I can only thank God for his blessings, thank Leena for her unlimited capacity to love and thank Chitti for providing us the beginning of this wonderful lifelong partnership.