Akashganga never had it so good. Enthused and awed by the sense of spectacle, for the first time in the history of the Air Force, a full load of 37 skydivers in spanking new and fancy dungarees jumped to join an assembled parade contingent on ground consisting of nine Squadrons of three flights each of about a thousand Vayuputras, in 1989. They then joined the ceremonial march past in the august presence of Mini Bawa, the Mukhya Deva Adhikari of the Central Command. Banjo was commended by the Chief of Air Staff for this unique planning and exhibition of military freefalling skills imbued with the spirit and festivity of sports skydiving. Sunil tells us more about the thrill and threats of Akashganga, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.
Members of Akashganga moved on to multi-tasking and become a lean mean fighting machine. Sport and military parachuting complemented each other. for more
The first sight evokes awe and large bites of fear…Poetry beckons ,still. Enticingly tripping of wings, nature, flying,birds and of a treacherous unknown :sense of the free.When shaken and stirred, a heady cocktail results into intoxicated delirium.Part truth and mostly well meaning fiction,it is.Euphoria of conquering the Everests of fear and summiteering the unreachable begin to cloud minds and the blasphemy of daring the divine becomes the new vocabulary of desire.At another and more realistic remove,fear overwhelms just because the scale of the unknown is not easily definable.
Paradoxically,however, the continuous search of one’s own identity and to overreach the limits competes with the other intangibles of mortality. It dares your vanity and challenges to commit acts uncommon and not necessarily normal. I would imagine when I sit back rather than stand on the edge of the aeroplane these mixed and sometimes contradictory and conflicting emotions hems the jumper….At least that is what happened to me with uncomfortable regularity.Confused, I look up to read once again the quote that stares from the white sepulcral walls of my bedroom,“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” ― J.M. Barrie,
…I used to be a scrawny and frail child.Small in size and certainly not strong.Though always playing all kinds of games as is the wont of children.Carrying my brother’s much used sports shoes, more often than not, instead of trying to be in them was how I grew.Always striking from behind,running away from the strong,never ready to take a fight head-on, sly and restless my cross of physical fragility was much in evidence.
When I decided to join the Indian Air Force,(IAF) even friends, shook their heads in disbelief.Air Force, to its credit gave me a new confidence,self belief and a sense of discipline and organisation.I must admit, though, there was something of a rebel residue within that seemed to surface every now and then .Physically I was becoming stronger but not enough to fight the street corner thug, yet(if that is what you imagine).Started to play field or troop games like football and hockey, got noticed and found place in various novice levels of teams. In a skewed way, self belief began to get back with my conceited mocking of the modest competencies of the sports-minded in the IAF. While I was changing
slowly in skin and bone I joined the merry band of Parachute Jump Instructors(PJI’s) at Paratroopers Training School (PTS) as a volunteer from a special and strenuous selection process of the IAF. Once again,many of my dear friends, quietly and between their teeth whispered of how standards in the Indian Air Force had deteriorated.
Would you believe I never knew , the selection and training meant; jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes ? I had no clue of the tough Sergeant Majors -back breaking schedules of running, exercise, gymnastics and then again running until the legs and knees were no part of yours’- of salt and water in the body vanishing into thin air leaving you cold, dry and weak -the sinking feeling looking out from within the cosy interiors of the aeroplane into the blue to the blurred and fuzzy green and yellow down below called Mother Earth, -the adrenalin rush and the daylight stars of rude awakening when hurtling on in a roller-coaster fall or the parachute opening up almost wringing your neck … As if that was not enough, totally innocent I was, about the limbs or life that would be always at risk.
I had no idea of what it was to be a man among men. Rambo,I’m afraid was good to watch only, from a distance and on the unreal silver screens.Yes ! And then I jumped for the first time like the thousands before me had,when the green lights came on for the Exit. Became a Military Freefall and Skydiving Instructor too.
Fear wore many masks and played hide and seek with me.It was de rigueur. Sometimes I was simply scared without knowing why or when looking out from the open doors of the aeroplane high above.At other times on ground I felt weak kneed thinking of all that could happen to me.Parachute not opening, failing to deploy the Emergency reserve when the mains had failed to open, twisting my knee or neck and much worse cracking strong bones upon landing. If I got over the heebie-jeebies thinking of jumping by day, the night jump stalked like an unfriendly ghost.As I put behind these ; a new aeroplane,changed doors of exit, different heights, parachutes and Landing Zones became the fresh bugbears. The previous ones were so benign after all,I reasoned.This done, now fledging trainees got off aeroplanes at my bidding.I kept my fingers crossed and prayers quiet.My never-ending platter of queasy meals of anxiety and fear teased further when Free Fall came my way and I had to open a parachute, of my volition at designated heights, while racing down at over 180 miles per hr.(Until then, the static line attached to the parachute used to assist opening of the round canopies mechanically and without any of my doing,but getting out of the aircraft). My leader queried if I was ready to save other lives.Would all my trainees come off safe and alive?
Dropping Zones looked like a blur and far away often times.Sweat refused to come and inchoate pains crept up for unwelcome leavening of my tasteless palate.Psychologically troubled I was left to wonder churlishly of birds, skies ,freedom and song.
Shhhh…No one was to know of these unmanly secrets. Lest, I be found deficient of maschismo in tales untold at extended sessions in the bar or at the back slapping glorified re-unions.It was quite another thing that in lot of other countries including the Asian ones, the sport of skydiving had been divested off a lot of myths and misplaced fears as all and sundry had taken to it on weekends at beaches and abandoned air strips.The passionate had gone to cliffs and towers and bridges instead of aeroplanes, wore skates or nothing, rode cycles in the air while falling free.They stood, rolled and sat quite literally in the air and made a mockery of gravity.
Thankfully,this too did pass and I went on to make several jumps from many aeroplanes, at different places and in front of many dignitaries. Cheers, applause, photos and garlands,exclusive videos uplifted me into rapturous delights and it was the magical brew I pined for.All fears were strangely forgotten.Birds and wings once again filled my dreams and sleep.I too, then did it like many others….
And I look at myself, today, to wonder what has changed after all? That little wimp from distant Cuttack from the state of Odisha,India had finally managed to look down on the earth below by falling? Happenstance,luck ,destiny…?Or is life about the many small things of the routine and ordinary that get stitched together, as if by some mysterious design, to become and look incredible ? Or is it quite simply because in India not many get to do or find an opportunity to skydive and hence its “mystique”
Am I then coming to terms with what came my way and was fortunate to have lived it? Struggling to realise that life should not script a story of “mourning” or become an ‘endless tantrum’ about the lives we are unable to live,’ for the exemptions that we suffer, whether forced or chosen , makes us what we are ‘. Who knows ?
I am still trying to reconcile a past : overcome the distressful thoughts of roads not taken,opportunities wasted,possibilities refused, of potentials never fulfilled or to just as well be happy for what I am, rather than wondering, what was and could have been.
Life, maybe, is all about the interregnum between the beginning and the aspiration .For it is, in between, that we have to encounter luck, coincidences, opportunities, fears, anxieties,failures and hardships, envy and humiliation.