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Sunday, 23 June 2013

Brother in the Air Force

It was when I was studying in Vandematharam High School (now Vandematharam Vocational Higher Secondary School) that ēttan (elder brother – P.K. Sreedharan Namboothiry) joined the Indian Air Force (IAF). It was through the help of Rajan uncle (the headmaster in The Uniform) that he joined the IAF. Uncle knew one Mr Thomas, a retired IAF man who hailed from our village. He knew all the intricacies (and loopholes) to get one admitted into the force. He had earlier helped a few others to get enrolled in the Air Force. That is why uncle contacted him.

Mr Thomas took ettan to Madras (now Chennai) and Bangalore (now Bengaluru) for interviews. Since he was aware of the inside happenings he knew exactly how and where to strike. For example, he asked brother to consume as many bananas as possible just before appearing for the interview to make up for the shortage in the required weight!

When the discussions for brother’s joining the IAF were happening, amma (mother) was not at home. She had gone to visit some relatives for a few days. By the time she returned, everything had been decided and ettan was ready to leave. Amma was quite upset that ettan would have to stay away from home for several years now. She was also initially quite frightened (as were all of us) that he would have to go to the border to fight the enemies and face bullets. It is only after several discussions with uncle that she was somewhat convinced that brother would not have to go to the front. At last she agreed, reluctantly, to let him join.

After getting selected, ettan was to undergo a 72-week training at Tambaram (Tamil Nadu). I remember that in every letter that he wrote (which was at least once in a week, and he never defaulted), along with the place and date on the right hand top corner, he also used to write the number of completed (or was it remaining?) weeks of the training. These letters were of so much value to us that their delay by a day or two would get all of us terribly worried and anxious. It looked like those inland letter cards were our lifelines. And no week passed without receiving a letter from ettan. We didn’t bother who the letter was addressed to. If it was ettan’s letter the first one who could place his/her hand on, would open it. And we were crazy to read it first. Usually the first one who reads it does it loudly so that everybody could listen. None of us knew or understood the concept that only the addressee should open a letter. If it was ettan’s letter, it was for all of us, that is all. It was the same case with other letters also. There was nothing like ‘personal’ or ‘confidential’ among us then.

It was much later that cheriyamma (paternal uncle’s wife) told me that it is unethical to open somebody else’s letter. She said even if it was ettan’s letter, we were not supposed to open it. After that I stopped opening others’ letters, if it was addressed to amma or acchhan (father). But the newly acquired knowledge and ethics were not applied in the case of ettan’s letters, even though they were addressed to either acchhan or amma (when acchhan used to be away doing pooja [priesthood] in temples).

It was only after the completion of the training that he would be granted leave to visit home. As the time for completion of ettan’s training approached, we got more and more impatient. Towards the last few weeks, we had nothing else to talk about other than ettan’s coming home on leave. But to our utter dismay and horror his return was further delayed. After the training he, along with other batch mates, had to be posted before they could be granted leave. Brother’s first posting was at Kanpur. So, it took a few more weeks for him to come home.

And when he came, it was nothing less than a festival for us. There was no road reaching our home those days. There were huge stretches of paddy fields in front of the house and we could see up to the small stream about 300 metres away. There was no concept of receiving somebody from the railway station (which was about 55 kilometres away) those days. Brother took a bus from the railway station, got down at Puthuvely, and walked down home carrying his huge heavy suitcase. Ettan was supposed to reach only in the afternoon. But all of us, including father, stayed in the front verandah right from the morning keeping a constant watch over the tiny foot-bridge over the small stream far away which ettan would cross. And that was the farthest point our vision could travel. Beyond that there were trees, houses, and so on. The moment we noticed brother near the stream, we all jumped up in joy and expectation. Our hearts began to pound faster and harder.

Ettan was with us for two months.

He presented me with a watch. I felt like suddenly being elevated to the seventh heaven. I could never in my wildest of dreams imagine that I would one day own a wrist watch! It was way beyond our means those days. In one of his earlier letters, when he wrote about buying a watch (even small things didn't escape his [or ours, when we wrote to him] letters), he had written in very tiny letters in English, ninakku tharam (I shall give it to you). It was such a tall dream for me that I had refused to believe what I read. But now it had become true! It had an off-white dial with golden hour-indicators and golden hands. I was never tired of looking at the watch for hours together. It was fascinating to watch the second hand jumping from one second to the other with a tiny ‘tick’ sound. I don’t know how many times I must have kissed it. I used to talk to it about everything under the Sun! The watch became my best friend for the next few months and years. Every time I looked at it, I more and more realized ettan’s love and affection towards us all. It was love personified.

In our school days there was only one boy who wore a watch in the whole school. His parents owned Santhosh Sounds (a shop which lent out sound system [microphones, loud speakers, and so on] during events) at Koothattukulam. Raju (I am not very sure, but I think that was his [pet] name) used to be an object of envy in the whole school!

Ettan also gave a watch to father which he proudly wore as long as we could. After his passing away, mother gave it to me. My own watch was presented to a relative. I used father’s watch for several years till I was presented with a Seiko watch by Girija, my sister-in-law, who then used to work in Saudi Arabia. Father’s watch was very heavy. It was a Favre Leuba with silver chain, white dial and silvery, raised hour indicators. The Seiko was lighter, with a leather strap. Also, though Favre Leuba was a very well known brand then, wearing a Seiko has its special status!

When ettan returned at the end of the two months we all became quite gloomy. Now what?

Well, Wait for next year.


  1. Of course ettan is a great companion. He is model in our eyes. When I joined BSF ,elders pointed to him and said to follow him ( for drinking/smoking were considered as two vital evil habits of military men), whereas he was free from those.As another soul one cannot copy anybody completely I tried to copy him to present myself as a good fellow in front of my parents and friends. Send him my love.

    As u had waited for ettan's letters we r now waiting for your writings.Nicely written,regards

    1. Thank you, Omy, for your constant encouragement and kind words.