Akashganga:Cosmogony and Mythology of the Indian Air Force Skydiving Team(1)

Not since the days of Veda Vyasa, Mahabharata, the Phantom, Vikram and Betal fables and folklore have been so haunting and mysterious! “Fact, it is believed, very often is stranger than fiction! And I prefer the latter”. Someone so wittily had avowed.

That said, the Kaurava King, the father of a hundred sons, Dhritharastra, bade his charioteer, blessed with futuristic vision (Divya Drishti) Sanjaya to speak of what he saw in another age and time. He sat like most days each morning by the river Sarayu and watched the clean waters rush past…

This is the Kali Yuga. It is difficult, my master, when you set about talking of your ancestors, gurus, elders, friends and family pleaded, the honest Sanjaya. More so when some are not alive and most untraceable. Yet, he continued in the royal second plural. We did not have a culture of recording or documenting about our pioneering school for paratroopers. This gave I suppose a lot of grist to the colonial mill of hitherto, British historians who were so fond of ridiculing and used to say – “the Brownies. These Shudras have no history. It only began with our writing about them.” For more  read on at

Travels with Tokon :Udta Punjab

My friend Tokon had been very keen to  see the Golden Temple, Jallianwallabagh,Wagah Border and all that was there to Amritsar. I am not particularly religious. But having been born to a Bengali, Hindu Brahmin family, God and religion was not just a part of the necessary vocabulary of growing up but one seemed to encounter  its all-pervasiveness while living, sleeping and eating on a daily basis.Even perhaps in our dreams.That aside,history and the Sikhs as a community fascinated me since childhood.The Sikhs were martial,handsome, big and strong compared to the generally undernourished and famished Bengalis.They had fought the Mughals valiantly and were hardworking farmers too.Interestingly,Bengali households found them to be reassuring and comforting and always recommended their daughters to hire Sikh driven taxis, when alone, for their reliability.

The day finally came when Tokon,my wife and I made the trip on the morning of 21st August by Swarna Shatabdi Express from Delhi to Amritsar

Swarna Shatabdi Express at New Delhi Railway Station before departure

.This was the first time all  of us were making the journey to Amritsar.Tokon and I had become senior citizens save Aarti, who is on the wrong side of fifty,devout and god fearing.She was our Travel Planner.

Platform No I it says.

As the train chugged away passing through large and vast fields of green,small and unknown stations,crowded bazaars ,wide highways and lines of trucks I thought of this pioneering social reformer Guru Nanak,the founder of Sikhism.Fed up with the idolatrous Hindu Brahmins, the oppressive caste system and the inequality in society he preached and sang about a new radical social order.Kabir,Farhad and many others joined in the chorus for change and upliftment.These were the days of social renaissance and we are talking about the 15th and 16th century.Subsequent Gurus added to the secular character of this newly formed religious order while reinforcing it with a war-like, aggressive ideology.The Muslims used to constantly harass,loot and attack these swathes of land.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his exploits of daredevilry as far as Afghanistan,fighting for the British in the two Great Wars,the revolutionary Bhagat Singh,the freedom loving spirit of the survivors of Komagata Maru,sacrifices of innocent civilians in the massacre of Jallianwala Bagh,the altruism and courage in the INA was the stuff of bedtime stories: the essential Sikh.Post Independence they were to be seen as far east as Imphal or south in Cochin.They were entrepreneurial,mechanically savvy and loved to work on emerging technologies.Hard working they drove trucks and taxis across states.

Punjab had by then got its statehood but this had not entirely satisfied the Sikh majority.The Green revolution of the sixties had given the Jat Sikhs and the landowners the first taste of rapid growth and modernisation.A small but important section had climbed up the social ladder and soon spread out to Europe, USA,London, Canada and the Africa.Money was being sent back home in plenty.Land was bought and farmed by hired wage labourers.Exploitation of the lower classes like leather workers,sharecroppers,scavengers,carpenters,washer-men,sweepers,blacksmiths and such others was bringing disrepute.They were denied of their dues and rights as the entrenched aristocracy went slow or sabotaged implementation of the land reforms.The Gurudwaras had slowly become exclusive and in very subtle ways were reluctant to open out to the poor.The  Hindu Punjabis for their part always saw in the rise of Jat Sikhs a threat to their business or agricultural interests.A new fractured social order was lurking in the shadows contrary to what had  been so generously conceived by the visionary Sikh Gurus. It was verily going to seed.Akalis and the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee(SGPC) hung on to a regressive,chauvinistic and authoritarian ideology riding on the enormous funds of the Gurudwaras.The Congress on its part was struggling to continue with an uneasy polygamous marriage of convenience with different and contrasting parties. Into this melting pot the Bahujan Samaj Party(BSP) rallied round the disenfranchised lower castes and was mobilising them under a new flag and ideology with great success.The Sikhs had themselves squabbled and split. The new pretenders, the Nirankaris laid claim to being the true leadership of the Sikhs.The Radhey Swamis also threw in their lot. Like always the politicians and the powerful had together sold out its own power base-the people and was busy killing the golden goose.Like always the stage was set for some motivated fishing in troubled waters

.My thoughts raced ahead in no sequence or chronology recollecting the history and politics of the region.I was excited and curious.Suddenly,the train jerked to a stop. A whole heap of talk, noise  and movement in the aisles interrupted my dark thoughts.We had reached Amritsar and I was to step on the soil of Punjab for the first time.

In the auto .Tokon and Aarti

 On the 22nd Aug, around 6 in the morning we were at the SwarnaMandir.Most shops leading to the temple were closed,residential houses  were still to feel the first rays of the sun and remained tucked into their snug bedsheets perhaps.Sweepers were still cleaning the roads and open spaces while the early risers were warming themselves with a steaming cup of “pati-tej chai”(strong tea) from their favourite roadside vendors ! The meandering path was margined by garish, unkempt hotels and shops to disappoint as it curled upwards to the Golden Temple.It was a maze of alleyways sometimes chokingly narrow and sometimes wide as souks  as  if the history of assaults by  Mughal,Afghan and later the English from 17th to 19th century had permanently infused a sense of siege even into its architecture and town planning.

 A bandana to cover our heads was provided for free while we removed our shoes and handed over to a matter-of-fact caretaker.Thereafter,we stepped into a clean patch of water in a marbled drain of sorts to clean our feet before entering the sacred premises.

The first sight

And then was the spectacle ! We stood at one of the four enormous gateways leading  into the Golden Temple located at four cardinal directions, symbolizing  the inclusiveness of the Sikh faith for all religions,caste, creed or colour.

As we descended down the flight of stairs, a striking sight filled our eyes : the golden Harmandir Sahib (the abode of the Gods) majestically shimmering on the surrounding  placid waters of Amrit Sarovar(the lake of ambrosia).

The ablutions before the prayers

Out of habit and reverence our heads bowed in prayer.Interestingly,the place of worship,the other gurudwaras,restrooms and the marbled walkways  have been deliberately designed down below to emphasise humility and gratitude as the central virtues of this young faith.

A practicing Sikh  offers his prayers.Notice the sling which carries a small kirpan.

Thought and conceived by the third Guru Amardas in the mid 16th century,it was Guru Ram Das who helped its construction. Finally the fifth Guru Arjan Singh who also gave further shape and substance to Harmandir Sahib a.k.a Durbar Sahib (the Court of the Lord) completed it in a manner of speaking. Guru Arjan also compiled and  placed the Adi Granth(the holy book of Sikhism of more than 7,000 Sikh, Sufi, and Hindu hymns, set to 31 ragas and calibrated to different moods, occasions, and times of the day) in the heart of the Durbar Sahib . Each day before dawn, the Sri Guru Granth Sahib is transported in a palanquin from the Akal Takht to the sanctum sanctorum, to be read and sung from,until late night.

Tokon dressed up for the pilgrimage

The waters of the Ravi were channelized to keep the tank water filled and it was Maharaja Ranjit Singh who contributed in gold to give the temple its famous persona. The Akal Takht(the Throne of the Timeless One)

The Akal Takht :the Throne of the Timeless One

one of the five Takhts, but highest in importance was added by Guru Hargobind to be the seat of temporal power. Thus  both the temporal and spiritual (the concept of piri and miri) were co-located in the precincts of this historic temple.guide-map-of-golden-temple-amritsarA square walkway of marble with intricate inlays(typically reflecting the congruence of Mughal and Hindu architectural styles )circumlocutes the Harmandir Sahib.While walking through I noticed the many hundreds of ceremonial plaques,commemorative pieces and marble stones of various regiments with the names of officers and men embedded in various walls.The Harmandir Sahib also stood as a testimonial of the acts of bravery and sacrifices and martyrdom plaques of its brave sons fighting for the British stretching from Mesopotamia,North Africa, Malaya,Turkey and later for the Indian Army.

The two Bunga Ramgarhia Towers stood as erect sentinels of the Guru ka Langar(Community kitchen) building which provides a simple non-vegetarian meal to all devotees for free and accommodates as many as one hundred thousand devotees in a day. The soft and serene sounds of the Shabad which starts playing pretty early and goes into the late night envelops this awesome place in a spiritual embrace of bliss. This unique blend or contrasts in sight and sound entrances the believer and the unfaithful alike !

The causeway that links the Harminder Sahib with the Akal Takht.Aarti stands overwhelmed.
Dukh Bhanjani Ber

The mystique and mythology continue unabated.The three old Ber trees ( Jujube) fascinate the inquisitive.Sikh Gurus preferred to plant jujube trees in the religious places (Gurdwaras). In the Golden Temple, Amritsar, the historic jujube trees are the sign of rich heritage. Ber Baba Budha Sahib is one of the oldest jujube trees and is considered 440 years old. As this tree was associated with religious Saint Baba Budha Ji, hence it is called Ber Baba Budha Sahib. Dukh Bhanjani Ber and Lachhi Ber are also very old jujube trees.

Many such stories have kept the faithful in awe.Fact and fiction combine ever so often in this Temple of the Gods.We feel weary and sad for the time has come to leave.The three of us would carry our very own impressions.Some new, some shared and some very private and personal.We shall tell new stories to the ever-growing numbers of the faithful or just curious.  and thus the sacred word shall spread. Aarti, perhaps feels blessed and is very grateful;Tokon considers himself fortunate to have made it this far as I am clouded with mixed feelings on our climb out of the Temple thinking of that inevitable tragedy of June 1984.

Operation BlueStar should never have happened.Though I know it shall again. What with the evil and misdirected finding strange retreats ! The devout and the well-meaning together rue the divisive politics of those days and the impious entry of the Indian Army boots into its sacred interiors, the pathology of a Bhindranwale,heartless and avoidable loss of lives of the innocent and the wanton destruction of the holy of holies, Harmandir Sahib, in a free India by the tanks, helicopters and armour of the Indian Armed forces.A Prime Minister and a Chief of the Army Staff paid with their lives .So did several hundreds of Sikhs later during that sad year.

The proud Sikhs seemed to have been wronged by desperate measures. .Punjab no longer has the rivers flowing freely.No longer do the fields dance the bhangra or beat the Dhol when green and golden. Poverty and casteism is back with a vengeance.Politics rules the roost..The Shabad of equality,non-discrimination and brotherhood is slowly dying in the Punjabi hearts.He suffers.The nation bleeds.The hurt lingers still, refusing to heal…

 So for one last time, on my way out,from all of us,our sincere prayers to that One Onkar, to make this land once again,the Land of the Brave !


a Mother to many !

I so remember…

Chhaya Chakravarty had to hit the Prabhabati Bhavan running.Quite literally.A feisty and remarkably modern woman for her times she quickly saw and understood the inertia, sloth and lack of organisation in the Banerjee family. She changed everything in that newly wedded home at Cuttack.

Prabhabati Bhavan Cuttack

She came from a predominantly Hindi speaking belt, a  city that was several hundreds of miles away called Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh. In her mid twenties then, having learnt to speak and understand Oriya and with an understanding and self-effacing husband in tow

Maa and Baba
she went on to sort out most pending land litigations, rubbed shoulders with senior Congress politicians impressing them no end while in the lead of many Community Development Projects set in motion by Pt Nehru in rural areas.(It may be recalled that the Bhoodan Movement and the Praja Socialist Party during these times were aggressive with their campaign for land reforms and anti-zemindari program and quite the bete noire of the Congress Party.)Very soon as a no nonsense woman, her fire and commitment for social service was noticed. She rose from the ranks to become a member of the All India Congress Committee in the mid sixties.

with Pt Nehru in the sixties

Thus her political pedigree was honed. It was a worthy and perhaps natural culmination of her politically vibrant student days, imprisonment during the Freedom struggle and mentorship under Pt Madan Mohan Malviya, the then Vice Chancellor of Benaras Hindu University (BHU).It was fortuitous too, that she came from a politically activist family in which her father,Late Bijoynath Chakravarty was a much revered Principal of an Inter College in Basti,Uttar Pradesh( Incidentally this College celebrated its Centenary very recently)

Dadu and Didima

.In those days Netaji had visited this school and exhorted its children to dedicate their lives to the Freedom Movement.She came from a large family of her own whose stories one would gather to tell some other day.

Jayananda was fortunate that his only elder brother Nityananda was unmarried and the latter bequeathed all or most of his share to the eldest son Swadhin Banerjee. Jayananda had four sons and two daughters

All the Six .From (l) to (R)Niloo,Laloo,Dula,Second Row L to R lina, Babloo,Merina
who grew up with friends and family in this rather big house which had been finally unified tactfully. The endeavour was sometimes freckled with suffering caused by the delay and frustrations of an archaic and slow moving courthouse. In this fateful resolution of organising the properties,Chayya Banerjee stood tall through her uncanny but supreme perseverance.

Never one to rest, her obsession to do some social good spurred her on to conceive in the mid sixties from within the premises of Prabhabati Bhavan, the Haricharan Banerjee Municipality Lower Primary School in the early Sixties( it stands even today at a nearby location with the prefix Haricharan Banerjee dropped though ) to provide free education for lesser privileged in the the neighbourhood of Dhobis,(washermen) keootos (fishermen) and goudas (milkmen), and the Nritya Niketan to encourage and nurture the artistically talented..Nabin bhai, Manu Da, Prafulla Kar, numerous vocalists and dancers who went on to earn subsequent fame were some of its illustrious alumni.
No story would be complete however without a mention of the religious fervour and ritual intensive flavour that the house was wrapped in from the late sixties while all these socio-cultural activities were on.Swami Ram Kripal Dasji,

On the snow filled route to the source of Mother Ganges.Maa,Swamiji,Durga mama and Baba

a sadhu (practicing mendicant) from Chirbasa, Gangotri then Uttar Pradesh had asked one of his disciples Mr Chakravarty, then in Nainital that he wished to visit Jagannath Dham Puri as a part of his religious pilgrimage. As desired by his Guru Mr Chakravarty immediately referred Ram Kripal Baba to unhesitatingly seek the hospitality of Prabhabati Bhavan where his younger sister Chhaya Banerjee lived by marriage and could boast of a few connections. Thus began a long and continuing association of the Yogi and the Zemindar.Chants, prayers, loud and soulful bhajans in chorus, the fragrant incense sticks, smell of fresh flowers, fresh clothes, the continuous rush to the bathrooms for an early bath, the never ending stream of the devout, ringing bells, clanging gongs and the mesmerising sound of conch shells all together.This transformed the house into a public temple for the spiritually starved. The Banerjees in particular were having their first real taste (or more correctly a feast?) at another level – of religion and spirituality.

Late Pt.Onkarnath Thakur.Guruji of Maa and

It was this doing perhaps that gave this rather unwieldy family a certain common direction and godly mooring. Much of the ubiquitous and complex contradictions that were manifest in this Bengali household had this bit added to its already fascinating platter. Today, Swami Ram Kripal Dasji is the fond Bada da (Eldest brother)

Swami Ram Kripal Dasji
to the Banerjee family by common weal.

It was around this time she won the Congress ticket to contest from Banki the village we belonged to. The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi came to campaign for this unusual woman.

With Indira Gandhi at an AICC Session

Sadly, she lost this election contest. The house by then had also transformed itself into a rich nursery for many an aspiring student, politician and job seekers. The likes of Sailabala Patnaik, Mausi of Dagarpara, Rama Devi, Pradumna BaL, Kuna Bhai, Gopal Kar, Sethi, Jena, Bagchi, Bijoy Chakravarty etc spent many of their lonely and hungry hours and days at this house. It never failed the aspirant: pretty much from any walk of life. In all of this Jayananda was the perfect foil – a devoted co-traveller silent and ever encouraging while Panchua the Man Friday, the youngest of the Gomasta family of the Banerjees at Banki (who can happily take credit for having groomed the entire family selflessly and with scant reward): what with the woman of the house being kept busy for matters more serious !

Interestingly, not much income was being generated. Rentals and the earnings of the fast vanishing agricultural land was all that was there. Frequent selling of small and sometimes large pieces of land kept happening to keep the family afloat. The luxuries and profligacy of a “Jalsaghar” was good to see on the silver screen alone. The Zemindari had long since become just another word. How the house and its expenses were managed would be therefore, just another guess. And it is this uncomfortable truth that stood in sharp contrast to the bonhomie and ‘bhoji’ (feast) culture the house seemed to symbolise. Was that then the mystique and allure of all that was decaying, dying or dead? Many later were left to wonder.11703255_10153528646004526_309295202289716903_o

A space secular it is and that is how I remember today. Friend and the stranger alike, struggler or survivor, the well-heeled or the less fortunate, politician , a has-been, musical or the vagrant, the Gomasta (rent-collector)or the bhag chasi,(share cropper) the keuooto, gauda or the dhoba all entered its ancient portals for succour and joy or some minutes nay hours of relief..There was not much but so much to share…Values of simplicity, gratitude and bonding were learnt by practice, of which -my parents, friends and family were a great example. It was a “muhalla” (tenement) of sorts. Everyone was family.

It is here that we flew kites, played marbles, “gucchi tandu,”” saat khapra” and “chor police”.Cricket was played with cork balls and hockey with broken cricket bats. Hockey sticks later came from Meerut city and some cheap pads after great cajoling. In the backyard- yes, many a hand and head was broken or bruised plucking and stealing guavas, mangoes, jamun, drumsticks and Musambhis, bel.Cricket with Tennis balls was too sissy then. Games were for real…many an intrigue that felled the local bad boys had their wicked seeds sown here too.It is here that so many childhoods were nurtured with joy and abandon.

Marriages with much festivity were held to see off the eldest daughter Merina to distant Lucknow as she became a part of the Chatterjees while Swadhin the eldest of the family brought home a nubile and shy Bengali girl from neighbouring Howrah.Alina the younger of the sisters but third in lineage chugged away for her nuptials to Behala in Calcutta to become a Mukherjee.The parents had done their bit to cut the umbilical cord of dependence and the new grown-ups were on their own for once. A well deserved rest for the parents there never was any, though and quite sadly so. Around this time Sukumar, Sunil and Sarat the last three of the family of six in their teens were still deciding whether to wear the shorts or trousers to school.
Friends thronged the busy and noisy household. Shankerbhai or affectionately Lobadiya a gangling sweetheart enthralled the inmates with his skills in Carrom,flying kites and playing cards while the ever-faithful and dependable

Tokon,Hari,Maa,gopi and Dula at Mou’s marriage in Delhi

Tokon remained the precocious adviser for all.Pappu,the little taciturn Bihari showed early signs of his ingenuity and inventiveness while patiently bearing many a taunt and tease .Gopi remained the bewildering Marwari gifted and talented offering his home of plenty for the hungry and sometimes greedy friends.Subuda became a part after having joined this very merry band of scrawny kids, bit later than others, to be the muscle of the growing and very pretentious brat pack.

Debjani, Alakananda,Ashima,Golap,Neetu ,Krishnadi, were the sister’s girlfriends we saw while peeping through the cracks of faded windows and doors. The tenants for their part shared happily their spaces with lip smacking native delicacies to eat, share tales and folklore,hum country tunes unfamiliar but melodious.Behenji with her consistent struggle, Masterji teaching the students to a sing song rote pattern, their intelligent children were a constant source of inspiration and a firm reminder of how difficult life could get. Susila Masi, Gokul Babu,Jamuna Bhai, Bharti, Jaisukh, Ramoo, Jeetu, Sabita masi, later followed by Manjula masi made many a festival a celebration to be remembered. They were Gujarati’s who had migrated  trying to make a living out of their their business and entrepreneurial skills in silver jewellery.The women were independent and hardworking.Very ahead of the times for slow moving Cuttack.They did their own shopping, marketing and were seen in the Bazaars holding their own with eyebrow raising confidence and self reliance. Lakhan da and Boudi were the Bengali goldsmiths from neighbouring Midnapore who completed the caboodle. The tenants were a heterogeneous bunch from different communities. Their sons and daughters always joined in to make the much desired numbers required for every game and it was all such Babel of fun. It was one jungle, where all animals and birds seemed to live contented albeit with not just  an occasional scratch and a scar. Maa smilingly and like always stitched this unwieldy bunch together with all the divergences

The Eighties saw the other remaining siblings ;Lalu, Nilu married to girls of their own choice and Dula to a girl from the interiors of Baidyabati in West Bengal.Quickly life had moved on.A third generation

The Third Generation : of lovely grandchildren

of grandson and granddaughters, friends and family grew up at distant places of Chennai, Mumbai,Kolkata and Delhi.New ways and mores were loosening the large unit that Maa had helped create and sustain.

Baba rests while on the climb to Chirbasa from Gangotri.Himalayas
Jayananda Banerjee(Baba),her husband ,silent companion and support had since passed away in the early nineties of the previous century

11896378_10153528638134526_840426135345280077_o (1)
A collage of Memories : on Baba’s passing away in 1993
.Maa remained quite the traveller moving from one son to another jostling and adjusting with the new women in the family.She welcomed all with a large heart but had to savour the pangs and confusion of growing children, new cultures and different lifestyles that the wives brought along.She has adjusted well,I suppose.Or did she suffer alone in her silences, too.Sometimes? Does she rue the passage of time and things changing bewilderingly?

At the Wedding of Appu.
At the Wedding of Appu.

She must be finding life no longer as uncomplicated and simple as it used to be.That is for sure.Today,she forgets easily.Her memory is short lived.She has a slight limp and a hunch with a support stick.She does make an occasional walk on a wheel chair while continuing to doing her own things and being resolutely her own self ;recognises the sarees that the Bahus and daughters so lovingly have given on various occasions and the many perfumes that she loves touching her frail skin with.She hates to see ugly men with big moustaches and white hair and women not so elegant.Even now ? She still talks conspiratorially in silent hushes of her grandchildren;Munta, she says was her favorite.But don’t you ever tell anyone ? she whispers.

She misses Jayananda,her dearest husband for many a grief is her very own.Her face comes alive when she recognises a familiar face and voice.She yells to her dedicated friend and help Hari to arrange for a lavish feast as of habit.She asks for Dula, the youngest one.Searches for the eldest Babloo

with sunuda,Badada and Dada at grand daughter Appu’s wedding Feast

and knows that Laloo the fifth one is around.She asks Hari where are the other three children and all the lovely Bahus?Of Tokon,

10869759_10153528646439526_141674906157845030_o (1)
with Tokon


with Sudha, wife of Pappu

,Gopi and their families and so many others….

Hooch the Labrador very much part of the proceedings.Stands Guard

.She forgets that she had just met them the day before…

All is well.Maa is up and about.Today,the Fifth of September is a great day.She is into the nineties ! Happy Birthday, Maa.11231043_10153528636444526_5718539052364962890_o May you show us the way like you have done always…