I could see the wreckage from quite far away. It was still fairly early in the morning — a desert winter’s day — bright blue sky and unlimited visibility, an aviator’s delight. “Can you see the chute?”, one of us shouted over the noise. The pilot shook his head.
As we drew closer, the pilot raised the aircraft’s nose to slow down the helicopter. We could now see the debris of what had been an aircraft, more clearly. The pilot pointed in the direction of some trees. The blue of his overall was clearly visible and a trace of orange fabric too. So, the chute had come out. Could he be all right? The pilot brought the chopper to a low hover. I jumped off. “Aren’t you coming ?”, I asked the doctor we had brought along. He looked a little green about the gills. “I don’t think its any use now”, he said. The chopper lifted off. I was alone.
The aircraft had struck sandy ground. The point of impact could easily be made out — the plan view of the aircraft being deeply impressed on the ground. Nine tons, travelling at 400 kmph should at least be able to do that. Beyond that point, the aircraft had simply disintegrated. The ground was littered with small springs, gears and tortured bits of metal — nothing I could recognise from what had been taught in our technical classes. A large streak of fuel still stained the soil beyond.
He lay at the foot of a tree, face down. The doctor had been right. It was evident he would never need medical assistance again. I suddenly remembered my Biology teacher in school saying — the human body is eighty per cent water. I now knew that was true. He had ejected late from his fighter. The body had burst on impact — like a water filled balloon. I do not suppose he felt any pain — I hoped he hadn’t.
It had begun to smell. The birds were already circling — three kites and a few crows. The faint smell of death had been enough to attract them. The sun went up higher. I spent the next one hour literally trying to pick up the pieces. Forget Vietnam. We don’t run to body bags. I got a lungi from one of the villagers for ten rupees and wrapped him up in it. He was lighter than in life. The villagers did not offer us water, normally a sacred duty. I cannot blame them. They walked ten kilometres every day for a potful.
I could not connect my burden with the person I had known, whom I had seen laughing just twenty minutes before he took off on a “training sortie somewhere in the Western sector”. Who could sing, catch snakes with his bare hands, eat light bulbs for a bet. But I will not forget.
I cannot forget the villagers too. In a sense he died training to defend them. But I doubt they knew that or cared. They were taking a break from fetching water.
The aircraft arrived early in the morning. The four of us got aboard. We were the only people in the aircraft, apart from the crew. The freighter had been specially requisitioned. It would take us to Jodhpur, where we would pick up the load and then fly to Bareilly, where a helicopter awaited us. That would take us and our load to Jehanabad.
At Jodhpur airfield we found that the load had not arrived. No one knew where it was. It was imperative that we reached before sunset. After three hours, the load arrived — a plain deal wood box. It leaked water copiously. The lid had not been fastened too well. I rang up the Stores officer, as my CO had briefed me to do. He promptly arrived with a hammer and three inch nails. It was now safe from all but all out assault. “We have put in plenty of ice”, I was assured. The air conditioning had been turned off on the ground. We were all streaming sweat in the cabin.
There was some relief when the aircraft took off and the air conditioning system took effect. “Sir, it’s leaking”, said one of the youngsters, after about an hour. We hammered in a few more nails for good measure. There were some traces of red in the water — nothing serious. I realised my cap had been on all this while. I took it off. The others cautiously emulated me. We allowed our faces to relax a trifle. Brows unfurrowed a little. There was even the odd titter, quickly suppressed. After all, for how long can youngsters of twenty maintain an unnatural gravity.
At Bareilly, the whole station was lined up to receive the aircraft, in ceremonial dress. It was now four-thirty. The heicopter was waiting; the captain, a course-mate. The formalities over, the load was transferred. “Have you had a bite ?”, asked the Station Commander. We had not eaten since six o’clock that morning. “I’ll take you down to the Mess”, he said. “ I’ve already phoned them up to have something ready.” Lovely man.
The chopper took off at five-fifteen. “You’d better take charge over there”, said the Station Commander, when he dropped us off at the aircraft. “His family is quite distraught. The parents are quite old. Don’t let them open the coffin”. He repeated my CO’s advice.
At Jehanabad, the helicopter made an approach to the Police Training College helipad. We could see huge crowds converging on the ground to see this phenomenon. For some time, there was utter chaos. A few well-aimed lathis later, we were on the ground. The aircraft was swamped by a great crowd of the unwashed. Authority soon arrived, in the shape of a hefty Dy SP. The crowd retreated. Tamasha-time as usual, in semi-rural India. “I’ll wait for you till six-thirty”, said the pilot, “Last landing time at Bareilly is seven, you know.” A vehicle had been expected. None was available. Our liaison team had disappeared, as expected. “Any help required?”, asked the helpful Dy SP. “I’m ex-Army, you know.” A vehicle arrived, along with an escort party. The coffin was very heavy, what with all the ice put in. Some water and fluid leaked out, onto our shirts.
At his house, all was chaos. A massive crowd jostled to get a glimpse. “Kaon hai ? Crash hua tha kya ? Body dikhayenge ?” We managed to get the coffin down and into the small living room. We were being jostled off our feet.
His parents were not well-off. He had been the brilliant one. Had left a safe comfortable future as a bank officer to come crashing down to earth in a jagged heap of metal on the desert floor. We had not known that.
In that crowd, we had not yet identified the parents and younger brother. A large lady in a green saree appeared to be the most vocal in her grief. “Hai mera Bobby!”, she wailed, spasming in her agony. Poor lady, I thought. “Is that the mother ?”, I asked someone jammed up right against me. “Nahi pata”, he answered. Help finally squeezed through. “Mere sath aaiye.” I met his father. Retired, grey haired, frail, he sat rocking to and fro. He held my hand for some time. I muttered some faint unconvincing words of comfort. His mother was more composed, quiet and dignified. His younger brother shadowed us quietly.
“Mujhe apna Bobby dekhna hai! Dakkan khol do, abhi! Hai mera Bobby! Tujhe dekhne bhi nahi de rahe!” It was green saree. “Who’s that”, I asked and got the reply, “Pados wali hai”. The crowd outside now took up the cry. “Dakkan khol do! Hame dekhna hai tum logon ne kya kiya hai hamare Bobby ko!” The crowd in the room swayed off balance. The situation appeared to be getting out of hand. “Surround the coffin”, I told my team. “Don’t let these jokers get their hands on it.” I explained to his parents that the body was not in any condition to be viewed. They took it well. “What about the cremation? Any arrangements?” None, it appeared. A cousin took matters in hand. The crowd too had thinned, now that it appeared there would be no free show.
His mother sat with the coffin for a little while, then nodded. We picked it up and slid it into the truck for his last journey. The ghats were not far away. There was little further ceremony. We had wreaths ready. His younger brother lit the pyre. The fire sputtered, then caught. As the fire blazed, the Air Force liaison team made its appearance. “Acchha Sir, kaam ho gaya?” And that was that.
We made it to Bareilly by seven.