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Earliest Memories - Part 14 - Capturing the Pilot and His Heart - The legend of

Popularity 1Viewed 505 times 2015-1-2 07:42 |Personal category:StoryTeller|System category:Life| Capturing, the, Pilot, and, His

The legend of Harpreet and Munni

(Capturing the Pakistani Pilot and his heart)

As the fighter plane from Pakistan was shot down and it hurtled towards the ground, burning, the pilot ejected.  A parachute was seen coming down with a limp figure attached to it.  It appeared he was either unconscious or injured showing very feeble movements. People on the ground could roughly work out the trajectory and Harpreet’s group was keen to pick him up as soon as possible after he touched ground. He would be a good prize if caught alive and in good condition. There was a scramble on the ground, from people in the group, who had grown up in the same area, chasing kites that were cut down during certain festivals. They knew all the streets, back alleys, byways, houses, stairs and rooftops.  It was a fitting challenge for these kite runners!

The parachute made its way towards a large housing block. There were about a dozen families living there. Harpreet’s widowed aunt lived in it. He used to visit her often to help her out. Munni’s family also had a distant relation living there in the same block near Harpreet’s aunt. She used to visit them since childhood. It was at this block where she had first met Harpreet as a young child and they had started to play together. In fact, Munni was visiting her relative’s house at that very moment. She had stayed in the trenches  along the edges of the atrium with their little children.

More men gathered and raced towards the block as Harpreet’s supervisor loudly summoned help and more willing hands. He was leading and guiding the way. Hearing all the uproar and realising that some enemy pilot was about to land there, many of the residents who were in nearby trenches and shelters, threw caution to the wind and came by to capture or witness the capture of the Pakistani pilot.

The dangling, limp figure barely seemed to be moving or conscious. Seemingly fortuitously, the parachute appeared to guide itself towards the inner open space (sort of an atrium) in the middle of the housing block. It was of an architecture that was common in the old days, with many families living on more than one level. Within a few moments people were all over the various levels and stairs of the housing block. Most were residents or known to them. Others gathered below near the exits on the ground level to watch the spectacle.

 There were clotheslines strung out between railings along the edges with the day’s laundry still drying on all levels and in the middle stood a sturdy tall tree.  There were many exits at the ends and the middle of the rectangular shape of the atrium. The parachute came down and caught the top branches of the tree so that the pilot came to rest dangling about 10 feet off the ground. He simply hung there quietly, slowly twisting one way and another and gently swinging, slumped against the ropes, as if unconscious. They could not see his face which was covered by his helmet, glasses and mask. He had his uniform and stripes were seen clearly.

A loud pandemonium broke out soon afterwards. Harpreet’s supervisor came rushing in with a few men. They quickly took stock of the situation and started discussing how to go about getting the man down.  They looked the dangling figure that seemed still unconscious. They called out to him and there was no response.

The supervisor took out his revolver from his side holster and had it pointed in the direction of the pilot. He called out to him once again, as if ready to shoot. There was no acknowledgment or response from the slumped, dangling figure, gently still twisting in the breeze, drawing slow breaths.

The supervisor put away his gun. He looked around thoughtfully.

More people were gathering to watch the show. The civil defence people delegated the responsibility to a few men to keep the crowd at bay and behind a clear space in the middle. They wanted a couple of exits kept manned and the crowd back from them to let in other authorities that would surely come in due course to process and take the captive away.

A lot of abuse was flung at the dangling man.

“Come to kill us, eh? Burn him!”

“No! Cut him to pieces!”

“Thrash him!”

A lot of comments of extreme nature and bravado were flung at the suspended pilot. He showed no reaction or response.

“QUIET!! ALL OF YOUR BE QUIET” shouted the supervisor, ironically needing to do so.

His admonition had an immediate effect. The random shouts stopped from the crowd. It became a very manageable background buzz, like at gatherings and weddings when no one is shouting, but everyone is talking earnestly.

Only one man shouted a last challenge at the pilot, “When you come to kill, be prepared to die. It is the law of nature!”

He then looked around for acknowledgement and support from the crowd and retired.

“We’ve got to make sure that we capture him in as good a condition as possible and hold him until the military police arrive. I have sent someone to make a call (telephones were rare and far apart in those days). They will drive over to our Headquarters next to the police station and we need a few of you to go and bring them here,” said the supervisor loudly for all to hear.

He sent off three messengers (it was a  prudent practice that you have more than one, just in case something happened to that person).

“It seems he is unconscious and we will have to cut him down.  You two,” he pointed to a couple of young men, “climb the tree and cut down his parachute ropes to lower him. I will get hold of him as he comes down. I want another two of you to come and hold him down, while I check and disarm him. Then you keep him down and tie his hands behind his back, while I make arrangements to get a report done. The military police will be here in a little while.”

The supervisor was smart. He knew how to get the crowd to cooperate, by involving some of them to help out. It worked much better than throwing one’s weight or authority around.

Two young bucks quickly clambered up the tree, one holding his knife between his teeth, the other had it tucked in his belt. They made their way halfway and started to cut the parachute ropes on one side. Soon the weight shifted and the dangling man swung widely and came down a foot or two.

“Hey, you two, don’t cut at random. Coordinate. You!  On one side and YOU, on the other side!  I will point out who should cut where,” the supervisor called out instructions and came to stand under the swaying pilot.

It took a while for the enthusiastic but untrained amateurs, who had the job of cutting down the pilot, to get it right. The supervisor soon caught hold of the pilot by his ankles and supported him while the pair on the tree reached the spot to cut off the last of the ropes holding him. They had to slash through the parachute in many places to get through.

Soon the big, brawny supervisor caught the full weight of the pilot, who was actually quite petite in size, like a little sack or boy on the shoulders of a man. He was just wrapping his arm around to hold him firmly, before setting him down prone on the ground, when something happened in a flash.

 There was a blurred flurry of movement, the parachute ropes with the straps fell off and the big supervisor was lying on the ground, howling in pain, bleeding. The diminutive figure of the pilot was up like a live wire, dashing away. He had a dripping knife in one hand, ready and a gun in another. He had his gun in front of him and raced towards one of the almost clear exits.

As luck would have it, Harpreet and a few others turned a corner and arrived just then running – huffing and panting heavily, just as the supervisor called loudly, from the ground, “SOMEONE STOP HIM!!”

Harpreet and one of his mates had the quickest reflexes and presence of mind. They quickly realised the helmeted, masked figure was the enemy and spread out, blocking his way as best as they could, spreading their arms wide and crouched down, ready to tackle him. This started to look a bit like the Indian game of ‘Kabaddi’, in which a team tries to stop an intruder from the other side from escaping back to his own side. It is a very physical and demanding game played by boys and men in India over many centuries. Most locals were usually good at it.

One of the tree climbers fell out of the tree in sheer surprise and shock. One civil defence official struggled to get up and pull out his gun and get a clear line of sight.

But he had the presence of mind to shout out “STOP!!OR I’LL SHOOT.”  

It was bit of a bluff as he could not possibly shoot with all the people around, but the pilot had his back to him and did not know that. He froze, his gun pointed straight at Harpreet, just a few yards away.

It was a stand-off. Some enterprising onlookers from the sides and upper levels picked up heavy objects and primed themselves, ready to throw it at the pilot should he make a move. It dawned on all that the pilot was a trained soldier who had keenly observed everything around him while pretending to be unconscious. It was apparent that he was extremely skilful and dangerous as an adversary.

Harpreet, strangely, unarmed with his arms spread wide, advanced towards the pilot. It seemed an example of suicidal courage. But the pilot did not fire yet, he simply pointed the gun directly at his chest, the trigger finger ready.

“NO! HARPREET! DON’T DO IT!!” suddenly a distressed, desperate plea was heard in a loud female voice, coming from the side. Everyone was shocked. Everyone could hear the pain of a lover who could not bear to see her beloved die in front of her eyes. Instinctively the Pakistani pilot pointed the gun in the direction where the scream came from. He turned around to see a young girl in blue Chunni, right in front of him. He was taken aback too, but no one could see his expression.

“MUNNI!!NO!!” shouted Harpreet, but seeing the gun pointed at her. The pain in his voice was obvious too and he stopped advancing. The pilot noted it quickly. He read the situation in a flash.

“STOP!! ALL OF YOU! Let me get away from here and no one will be hurt, else I will have to shoot the girl,” he said loudly after sliding his breathing mask aside.

Everyone and everything seemed to freeze for a few seconds.  There are moments in life when time seems to barely crawl, when everything seems to happen in excruciating slow motion from the point of view of someone who is deeply aware of all that is going on. To those that cannot perceive the fine details, time seems to pass by in a flash. This was such a moment and an example of the relativity of time!! Many in the crowd were very highly aware of the critical details and nuances.

 No one could shoot or throw anything at the pilot since Munni was too close to him.

The normally, happy, cheerful and brave Harpreet’s face was agonised. He did not know what to do right away.

Slowly, after a few milliseconds, Harpreet noticed something. The pilot’s gun was pointed at Munni and he had threatened to shoot her, but his finger was NOT on the trigger, but on the trigger guard. Not everyone could see this. It became clear – the pilot was reluctant to kill an innocent girl, but would not hesitate to shoot at him. He developed a certain respect for the pilot’s values. He could catch a glimpse of a good decent man, with his own kind of values at the core.

In the pilot’s mind too thoughts were churning. He did not want to hurt or even threaten the girl, leave alone kill her. He was brought up to be chivalrous, in fact. He knew that the crowd and others would obey him only if they felt the girl’s life was in danger.  However, if he the girl died, chances were he too would die a horrible death at their hands. The crowd would not hesitate to jump him if he targeted the young man. The young man himself seemed ready to die to stop him. He kept pointing the gun at the girl, as if ready to shoot, but took his finger away from the trigger so that it would not fire accidentally at her. A plan was slowly forming in his mind.

He knew he had a very slim chance of making it out into the streets and finding shelter in town with some Pakistani sympathisers, if he could shake off those following him, for a while. Many Pakistani agents would be around, mingle with the crowd and help at the appropriate time. He knew the secret signals he had to give to ask for help and reveal his identity. He had try and bluff his way out with the girl as his shield without hurting her.

Munni watched the gun pointed at her. She did not notice the trigger finger. She seemed to have fire and lightning in her eyes.  She glared right at the pilot seemingly without any fear for her own life. She seemed happy to see the gun pointed away from Harpreet.  She was ready to die in his place. She knew, the pilot would not hesitate to kill Harpreet. She also figured out that he pointed the gun at her, because that was the only control the pilot had over Harpreet. She could not bear to put Harpreet in this quandary.

A plan formed in her mind too. She decided to take a chance and grab the gun after coming close to the pilot’s gun. She had both her hands holding the ends of her blue Chunni, slung across her chest over both shoulders, tucked under her arms and the two ends clutched in her two hands, clasped together. She did not look like she was in a position to disarm a person with a gun. She decided she would move close to the gun, let him put the gun against her if he wanted, but make a grab for it, pull it down towards herself and hold it. She KNEW Harpreet too would pounce on the pilot as soon as any movement occurred. The supervisor and a few others had gotten up and a few were ready, behind the pilot ready to jump at the slightest indication of movement or him shooting anyone.

“Look at me! Go ahead and shoot me if you want,” said Munni, calmly and quietly looking directly at the pilot and drawing closer. He hesitated just for a fraction of a second (his conscience won over his combat training) and Munni made her move. She grabbed at the gun with both hands and missed. The pilot, instinctively, pulled it away from her, towards his right, his reflexes superior to hers. It now pointed towards Harpreet, who pounced on him. The pilot moved but was blocked by Munni. She grabbed for the gun again, but it was now against Harpreet.  If the pilot had his finger on the trigger then, Harpreet would have been shot in the chest. But the pilot still had to struggle to get his finger back on the trigger away from the trigger guard where he had put it, when facing Munni.

There was a mad grabbing by all three and the gun went off, just as two others pounced on the pilot from behind. All fell down in a heap. Munni was crushed a bit, but pulled aside soon. She had hurt her knees and arms and her head and neck were hurt a bit. Harpreet was shot and was buckled down. There were two strong young men and the big, bulky bleeding supervisor all piled on the pilot who almost vanished from sight. His hand with the gun was pinned down against the ground, his wrist probably broken. It swelled up soon. Someone carefully pried the gun away.  The pilot had done some damage to another of his attackers with the knife in his other hand.  It too was pulled away. Many rushed forward and pulled Harpreet away. He was bleeding, from his thigh where he was shot.

It was all over in a flash to most onlookers.

Harpreet’s aunt came over to tend to him.  People went about to bring first aid. The supervisor shouted out to someone to go and fetch the civil ambulance for Harpreet, himself and the others injured, from nearby, not knowing when the military ambulance would arrive to take the pilot.

Munni’s relatives came over to her and tended to her wounds. She wanted to be next to Harpreet until he was taken to the hospital.

The pilot himself was first held down, crushed by the weight of three men. His hands were roughly folded behind him and tied up. He gave up struggling.  Slowly, one man checked him out carefully to disarm him completely and then he was roughly pulled up, trying to stand him up while being held.  

“Make sure you get the suicide pill!” someone shouted as he was being slowly searched.

This was supposed to be a pill attached to a chain like chord worn around the neck, with the proverbial suicide pill. It was legend that many pilots or people with important knowledge carried these, to quickly consume before imminent capture. This was to prevent being tortured to reveal secrets. The man mumbled something from behind his mask and helmet and slumped. He seemed unable to stand up. So, he was allowed to sit up.

A discussion started on what to do about the pilot. He was obviously not to be trusted.

“Never mind the suicide pill, kill him!!” someone shouted, “He has shot Harpreet, almost killed Munni and others. Does not deserve to live.”

“We will decide what to do about him, but if he as much as moves a muscle without permission, shoot him dead. Don’t take any chances,“ ordered the supervisor.

Immediately, two persons stood next to the pilot with guns pointed at his head.

One of the brawny civil defence men came up and pulled off the mask, goggles and helmet of the pilot. Everyone gasped as the clean shaven face of a young handsome man was revealed, though much worse for the wear from his recent scuffle.  He did not have a suicide pill around his neck.

Harpreet’s aunt suddenly gasped at the sight of the pilot’s face. She let out an uncontrollable exclamation! Everyone looked at her.

“Kya hai, Maaji? (What’s the matter, Mother? “ asked Harpreet.

The old lady just kept looking at the young man’s face.

“Is your family from Sialkot? “she asked.

The young man shook his head to indicate “No”.

Everyone was puzzled. They knew that the old lady had come from the Pakistan side of the border during the partition of India. She had lost most of her family – her husband, two sons and a daughter, her mother and uncle, all were left behind as she made it to India as a single middle-aged widow into India.  Some she had lost to known death and some to unknown fate.  All she had was memories of a long time ago, good times, laughter and tragedy. She had spent most of her life since, reminiscing and telling stories to anyone who would listen. She would vividly, colourfully and beautifully describe her husband, sons and daughter and family. She knew their images in great detail, all living images in her mind.  She had no pictures, no photographs, no physical belongings.

Tears flowed down the old lady’s wrinkled face.

“He looks just like my son and husband, when I first saw him,” she wailed.  She could not contain herself. She slammed her palm on her forehead repeatedly, a typical Indian gesture of bemoaning one’s fate, as she looked up towards the heavens.

 “Do I have to see this one die too? Spare his life, and if you can’t, please don’t kill him here in front of me,” she pleaded.

A hush came over everyone. They all knew that many among them had left relatives behind. Some of them married into the Muslim families in Pakistan. The same genes and looks ran deep between families and people on both sides of the border.  Though unlikely, this young man could very well be related to them. They realised what was happening now was that they were killing each other again, after just a few years after ‘independence’! Only this time, they were doing so with reasons and weapons of war. It was a sickening feeling of helplessness.

“Get him some water,” shouted the supervisor,  who was still hurt and bleeding. He too seemed to weaken and sat down next to the pilot.

Someone rushed to get some water. Others came forward to hold clean the cuts to the supervisor’s hand and legs.

Someone wiped the bruised face of the pilot with a wet cloth. He was offered water that he drank thirstily and gratefully - he opened his mouth and someone poured it in. He sat quietly with his eyes looking around. Soon the military police arrived with an ambulance following them.  There was a brief briefing. The pilot was pulled up to his feet, while being held by his collar from behind. Two men hemmed him on either side.

As they tried to drag the pilot away, he turned his face towards Harpreet’s aunt. He looked at Harpreet’s aunt with undisguised affection.  He knew people like her on the other side of the border. He hesitated a while.

“What is the matter?” military police officer asked.

The pilot bowed his head toward the old lady and quietly, but clearly said,” Paanv laage Pranam, Maaji! (I bow at your feet and salute you, Mother!”

It is a tradition in India to touch the feet of elders, salute them and seek their blessings when leaving home or coming home. When physically not being able to do so while ill, injured or even over  the phone, people in that culture will say it in words,”Paanv laage Pranam!” to express their intent and desire.

This pilot knew he would not likely be untied nor he allowed to touch the old ladies feet, but he wanted to convey his feelings anyway.

“Yes! He should touch her feet. She is like his mother. She gave him his life today,” said someone loudly.

“Well, we cannot allow that and have to take him away,” said the Military police officer firmly and they dragged the pilot away.

At that moment, the All-Clear sounded. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and went back home to their new ‘normal’ lives for as long as it would last.

The civilian ambulances arrived and took Harpreet, his supervisor and two others away to the hospital for treatment. They checked Munni and she was deemed as OK enough to go home. Her family came by and took her home.

Harpreet and Munni’s story became legend in that part of town. They had not just captured the pilot, but also his heart.

The pilot too knew that while he had been captured physically, he had captured a mother’s heart. But the war still had to go on, and it did.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)


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