Stories of Indian fighter pilots from 1971 war
Recounted in third person by Dhirendra S Jafa, Wing Commander (Retd.) Indian Air Force, “Death Wasn’t Painful”, brought by Sage books, salutes the sacrifices made by these fighter pilots, many of whom were taken prisoners of war (POW) and spent months in Pakistani prisons before returning to India.
Jafa, who himself took part in countless bombing missions in erstwhile West Pakistan, was taken a prisoner of war following the crash of his SU-7 fighter bomber aircraft near North Lahore and was awarded Vir Chakra for the unparalleled bravery displayed in the battlefield.
He was lodged in the POW camp of the Pakistani Air Force at Rawalpindi, alongwith 11 other Indian fighter pilots, all of whom had their own stories of capture, beatings, torture and injuries to tell.
The book, thus, is the tale of these 12 fighter pilots in enemy captivity- their deprivations, their longings for home and families, their interactions with Pakistani military officers and civilians is recounted.
It also recounts their not so latent pride in being Indians and representatives of a victorious nation, their indomitable spirit of freedom and their everyday struggles with boredom and loss of hope, while waiting behind bars in the country they had just defeated in the war.
While depicting the intrepid life of fighter pilots in actual combat, the book also has an introspective side where it portrays the subtle and human reactions of soldiers when faced with the harsh realties of war- injuries, death, broken families, alienation and grief.
The experiences of POWs are finely drawn. A fighter pilot’s life in actual combat, where death is but a glorious martyrdom, is juxtaposed with the tepid, monotonous and uninspiring life of prison, where brave, fearless soldiers ponder over the inevitability and futility of war.
In between these rather philosophical, often gloomy monologues on the pros and cons of war, there are personalised stories of individual valour and determination shown by Indian soldiers.
Jaffa and his compatriot’s ability to find humour, in most unlikely situations is an added advantage, like the story of Flight Lieutenant Jawahar Lal Bhargava, “the ever-smiling, every-ready-with-advice, HF-24 pilot, who had after his capture by villagers in a remote area in Sindh, successfully enjoyed their hospitality by carrying on as a downed Pakistani Pilot”.
Or the immediate reaction of Flight Lieutenant Harish Sinhji after the news of his release to India finally reached him: “Looks like our countries have decided to play poker with prisoners of war.”
Then there are the inspiring stories of Flight Lieutenant S S Malhotra, who was awarded Vir Chakra for downing a Mig- 19 over Pakistan’s strongest Air-Base station Sargodha, and the story of Kala Sandhu, who was instructed by his peasant father either to win recognition for his bravery in battlefield or achieve martyrdom.
In the chapter, ‘The Breakout’, Jafa recounts the story of Flight Lieutenant Dilip Parulkar, Harish Sinhji and Melvinder Singh Grewal, who made an epic escape from the Pakistani prison, following on the foot-trails of J Murray’s “A handbook for travellers in India, Burma, and Ceylon”, published in 1906, but were recaptured just five miles short of Afghanistan.
The chapter, ‘The Great Homecoming’ recounts the doubts, and dilemmas of these POWs and their frustrations with the Indian leadership for leaving the question of Kashmir open, despite comprehensively defeating Pakistan.
“The Long, purposeless incarceration in enemy jail. Feelings of abandonment and neglect by our own countrymen. Long hours to think and debate. Monologues, discussions and arguments.
“Anger and frustrations at having to fight over the same issue (Kashmir) again and again. Then seeing the gains frittered away, again and again. At such cost, at such sacrifice of life and limb. Nothing to show in the end. No lasting gain for the country. No lasting honour for the fighting man.
“All this interspersed with peace. Peace worse than war,” writes Jaffa, feeling betrayed that the gains made in the battlefield on the back of soldiers lives were ceded to Pakstan during diplomatic talk