One evening at the bar and the next day gone! What a terrible introduction to squadron life it was for my buddy Saks and me. We both had landed up as freshly-minted pilot officers in a fighter squadron in early 1985. Filled with excitement at having our dreams finally realized, we had hesitatingly entered the bar the evening of our arrival. “Hey fellas, welcome, great to have you here. By the way, I am Bajji,” we were spotted by a senior squadron mate, Sqn Ldr Balraj. He made us comfortable, chatted for a while and left the bar.
And guess what? Moving for dinner the next day, terrible news came across. Balraj had gone for a night strike sortie and his aircraft was missing. Events unfolded awfully in the next few hours. While rescue efforts were pressed into motion, Saks and I were directed by our CO, Wg Cdr Ron that one of us must always be present in Bajji’s house to provide support to Mrs Balraj who incidentally was expecting. Finally, the dreaded came to pass, Bajji was no more. Declared CFIT (Controlled flight into terrain) due disorientation.
Mrs Balraj was heartbroken and distraught with grief. Her unspoken worst fears had come true. Absolutely unfamiliar in handling such unfortunate tidings, we youngsters really didn’t know how to comfort her. While the squadron ladies tried their best, we awaited the arrival of her family members. Sure enough, by the next day afternoon, Bajji’s parents, brother and relatives rushed down to Ambala from a not-too-distant small town. Majority of them were rustic rural folks.
Upon their arrival, we made them comfortable and guided them through the last rites. The mood was indeed very sombre. Another day gone past and we were slowly reconciling with the tragedy in the squadron. All of a sudden, going past the CO’s office, we heard him yelling explosively at someone,“ You better get everyone to behave or I will have you under close arrest, right now!” Cautiously inquiring, we discovered that Ron was giving a piece of his mind to Bajji’s brother. And given Ron’s temper, everyone knew that it was better not to be on his wrong side.
As it shockingly turned out, Bajji’s folks, uneducated and uncivilized, had been giving Mrs Balraj a hard time. Instead of comforting her, they were in fact blaming her for the tragedy. Later we came to know, they wanted to disown her so as to deprive her of the death benefits. It was obvious that they didn’t realize that such dramatics were going to be quite futile, given the service rules on the subject. Our CO thought it best to address the situation by threatening the only literate guy in that group, Bajji’s younger brother, a newly commissioned guy in uniform.
Next few days the sordid affairs of Bajji’s household were brought under control and all the supposedly-grieving but actually misbehaving relatives were despatched off in batches. While they did go away from sight, what did not go away was the extremely sour taste that this incident left in our hearts. I for one was appalled that how could anyone fall to such abysmal levels? Did these people have no heart or dignity?
I could imagine the horrifying misery and suffering Mrs Balraj went through in those few days. I was told by a sqn senior that such incidents do happen once in a while. Never having experienced such disgusting and shameful behaviour in my life, I was sickened and shattered to say the least.
One Year Later………
I had come home on leave to Delhi, my hometown. One day, driving past my school, I decided to make an impromptu halt and pay a courtesy call on Mrs Tandon, my primary school teacher. Ravi, her son and I were classmates and she used to love me like her own. Fortunately it was her lunch-break time. She called for a cup of coffee for both of us from the staff room as we caught up on old times.
Whilst we were talking and making the most of the recess, another lady teacher, somewhere in her mid thirties, came into the class to offload some notebooks. Mrs Tandon called her over, “Hey Sujata, come over and meet my son Rajeev,” she introduced me adoringly, “He is a fighter pilot in the IAF.”
Sujata, a very pleasant-looking lady, ambled across and I got up to wish her. Mrs Tandon asked for a cup of coffee for her as well and we started talking. Fresh from being declared Day ops on type, I found myself expounding the glamour of fighter-flying to a willing audience. Midway through, I noticed Sujata sniffling and suddenly breaking down in tears. I was actually quite taken aback and profusely apologised without knowing the causal, “Ma’am, I am really sorry if anything I said has led you to tears.”
I promptly fetched her a glass of water. ‘No Rajeev, it has nothing to do with you,” she said trying to control herself. She managed to gather a faint smile to confirm she was okay. Mrs Tandon hugged her and asked her lovingly, “ Sujata, what happened dear?” And then she gently related her life-story with Mrs Tandon and I listening in full awe.
“Actually, many people don’t know that I was once married to a Naval aviator, Jatin was his name. Eight years back, while operating from a ship, his helicopter was lost at sea at night. No remains were ever found. He was declared missing in action,” she related as we listened intently.
“My life literally came to a standstill with two young children, four and two years to look after. I was numbed not knowing what to do and where to settle down. You never plan for such things, you know. My parents expectedly came forth to help, but I was not too keen to move with them as they live in a remote part of Bihar where I knew education for my children would have been a big issue.”
“It is at this point, Jatin’s parents, came forward and categorically put their foot down, “Sujata, you are our daughter and our responsibility hereafter. You are moving in with us without a doubt. It is our promise that you will never have a cause to complain. We may not have much, but everything we have is for you.”
Sujata continued, “I must confess I had my doubts, but after a bit of thought, I moved in with my in-laws. I must tell you, what a good decision it was. My in-laws whom I now address as my parents, treat me almost like a Devi (Goddess). Theirs is a rather small 2bhk MIG flat but their hearts are much bigger. My children are growing up so well in their midst as they go out of their way to meet every requirement of mine. I have no qualms in saying that I have never been more loved and respected in my life.”
Misty eyed, she said, “ I decided not to remarry because today, except for the fact that Jatin is not there with me, I have everything that I could have ever asked for. Fate was cruel to me once upon a time but life has been so blessed thereafter.”
We were so engrossed in Sujata’s soul-stirring travails that we almost missed out the ‘recess is over’ bell. Woken back from my daze, I could not help going back in time thinking of Mrs Balraj. Similar cards, different outcomes. Poles apart had indeed been their lives.
With my faith restored, I walked out of the school gate.
A deeply humbled,
First published on seekmediation.com on 10/07/21
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