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Panther Red One
Memoirs of a Fighter Pilot
By S. Raghavendran
KW Publishers Pvt LtdCopyright © 2013 Air Marshal S. Raghavendran
All rights reserved.
My parents were Palghat Iyers. These are Tamil speaking Brahmins living in Kerala, a state on the southwestern coast of India that shares a long border with Tamil Nadu, home of the Tamils. At some point during the last several hundred years, many Iyers migrated into Kerala from Tamil Nadu.
The exact details of this Iyer migration are lost. While many families can trace their family trees back six or seven generations (2–300 years), there must have been a historical cause for the migration that goes back further. There would appear to be at least one historical event that could have led to a large-scale migration — the sixteenth-century collapse of the Vijayanagar kingdom, the last of the great Indian Hindu kingdoms to fall to Muslim rule. Vijayanagar included the current-day states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and it is possible that Brahmins, as the priestly caste and perhaps an emblem of all that Muslims viewed as blasphemous about Hinduism, were particularly persecuted and began moving away from their historical home in Tamil Nadu. There is also another theory that the Namboodiri Brahmins, who were the priestly class in Kerala, could not or did not want to undertake certain rituals and persuaded the Tamil Brahmins to come to Kerala.
The majority of the migrants settled down, and flourished, in entirely Brahmin villages around the town of Palghat (spelled as "Palakkad" today) or in villages within a radius of about 20 miles from Palghat. Non-Brahmins were not allowed into these villages, except for essential labor in the house or backyard. Palghat itself "belonged" to the British from the late eighteenth century and during my childhood was part of the Madras Presidency, which included all of modern-day Tamil Nadu, all of the coastal areas of modern-day Andhra Pradesh, and portions of modern-day Kerala and Karnataka.
The Palghat Brahmin is a different breed, in the popular understanding, of Tamil Brahmin from the "Eastern" Tamil Brahmins of Tamil Nadu, derogatorily referred to as "Kongans," or Easterners. The Kongans were thought of as smooth, cunning and duplicitous. On the other hand the Eastern Tamil Brahmins thought of Palghat Brahmins as crude, rude and naïve. The Easterners also made fun of the Tamil spoken by the Palghat Brahmins. Malayalam is the main language of Kerala, and over time many Malayalam words had crept in to their Tamil — especially Sanskrit based ones, as Malayalam is replete with Sanskrit words. Also, they had acquired many cultural characteristics of Malayalees, who speak a few decibels above the average. Other hallmarks that they acquired from the Malayalee culture were brashness, risk taking, fieriness and enterprise. Like all Brahmins, their primary goal was education and knowledge and they did well, particularly under the British.
When India achieved independence in 1947, 50% of the Secretaries in the Government of India were Palghat Iyers — a truly stunning statistic given the tiny size of the community (probably no more than a few hundred thousand at the time). And the only Indian scientist to win a Nobel Prize prior to independence was an Iyer (not from Palghat). The list of pre- Independence Iyer bureaucrats, academics, and ministers is a long and illustrious one. But it was highly uncommon for Iyers, Palghat or otherwise, to join the military — the traditions of the community were such that a military career was not viewed as particularly attractive, and the British viewed members of these "intellectual" communities as effete and un-martial in any case.CHAPTER 2
1930s: The Village
My parents had moved out of Kerala back to Tamil Nadu, as part of the great Palghat Iyer Diaspora, to a town called Ootacamund (Ooty) in the Nilgris district, before my siblings and I were born. But we were all born in our "native" village, as my mother returned to the village to deliver each of her children. My siblings and I visited the village every year during our school winter vacations for a couple of months and so knew the village life.
The village itself was called Perinkolam. Kolam, or more correctly Kulam, is a large pond or 'tank' and Peru or Periya means large. The name derived from a very large pond around which the village was built. Perinkolam was on the road from Palghat to Trichur, about six miles or ten kilometers from Palghat. The nearest town was Alathur, two miles away. The village consisted of three sub-villages, each claiming a separate individuality. These were called Thekke Gramam (southern village), Paninjarathu Gramam (western village) and Karuttu Gramam. Each had its own temple and a deity claimed to be the most powerful. The deities were Krishna, Varadaraja (Vishnu) and Lakshmi respectively. There was a common Shiva temple. Life in the early 20th century — and likely for generations and centuries before — centered, in these entirely Brahmin settings, around these temples. The families of both my parents were from Perinkolam. My paternal grandparents lived in Thekke Gramam and the maternal ones in Paninjarathu Gramam.
Each of the three sub-villages had one street about 300 yards long with houses on both sides. The houses were built "townhouse" style; there was a common wall between adjoining houses, and each house had two storeys. All doors were made of strong teakwood and all windows had wooden bars and wooden shutters — no glass! Because of the style, windows could only be in the front side of the houses and the rooms inside were pretty dark. The upper floor didn't extend all the way back and so the rear rooms could have small skylights for light. There were no chimneys in the kitchen — only three or four small outlets in the roof, with curved tiles on them so that the smoke could escape and the rain couldn't get in. The chorals were firewood fed and the kitchen was always filled with varying degrees of smoke. Coffee and tea were prepared the same way, boiled in the water and strained through a cloth kept for that purpose, one for coffee and one for tea. To us "town folk," both tasted terrible. Whenever we had lousy tea or coffee anywhere, we said "just like the one in the village."
Each house had a well, from which water was drawn for the daily needs of cooking and washing. The well was right behind the house or at times just behind the kitchen so that the lady of the house could draw water whenever needed. Each sub-village had a large individual pond separate from the "Big Pond," in which everybody — men, women, and children — bathed twice a day. It was said that the ponds were fed by springs and there were a lot of fish that kept the water clean. Of course nobody caught the fish as nobody ate them. Only the very elderly or invalids bathed at home. Hardly any house had a "bathroom." If you needed to bathe at home, one just got a bucket of water from the well, stood in an area in the back verandah where the water could flow out into the drain at the back, and bathed. Keep in mind that there was no "running" water and there was no electricity until about 1955! At the pond there were separate sections for men and women, with a dividing wall in between. These ponds were strictly for the Brahmins of the village. Other castes lived in their own villages and had their own ponds.
Each house had a long backyard. A little to the rear of the house was the second "kattu," or building, which housed cows and calves. Most people had cattle, two or three cows, which were sent out to graze under the supervision of a common cowherd who took them out to the hilly areas a couple of miles away and brought them back in the evening. I have heard that horses cannot go down stairs, though they can climb up. I can assure you that cows can do both, because they had to climb eight to ten step to get into the houses in the village and I have seen them do it.
Toilet arrangements were very simple. Beyond the cow shed was another stretch of the backyard where vegetables were grown at times but the more important thing was the deep hole in the ground that served as the toilet. It was normally covered with granite or slate slabs, with a hole in them. Some had straw matting around it, some had simple walls and a few had a roof. One better not need to go at night or in the rains!
The daily routine was very standard. Everybody got up before dawn, dashed off to the pond for a bath, went to the temple on the way back and offered prayers, and came home for breakfast. Children and working people got ready and went off to school or work on foot or on a cycle and came back in the evening. School or work could be anything from two to five miles away. The breakfast was really a brunch because there was no lunch at school or work.
After coming back from school, the children would play around for a while and then they would go off to the pond for a bath, visiting the temple on the way back. If there was anything special at the temple, a little more time would be spent. Then it would be time for dinner and homework by the light of the kerosene lantern or "Petromax" light, which was more incandescent.
Everybody slept on a straw mat. These mats were rolled up and put away on a hanging shelf high up and taken down every evening. More often than not there was no pillow and most people used their forearm as a pillow. They all seemed to sleep well and I never heard anybody complaining about lack of sleep due to discomfort! People slept early because it was difficult to continue long conversations in semi-darkness and they had to get up very early. When we visited from Ooty, we were considered sissies and got a pillow but slept on the straw mats. We were also odd because we wore shorts and shirts whereas all the local boys wore dhotis with bare upper bodies. They also wore loincloths under the dhoti — this served as underwear. The dhotis were washed every day in the pond before the bath. The young boys would run on the way back from the pond, clad only in their loincloth, trailing their dhoti behind, flying in the breeze. The dhotis would be more or less dry by the time they reached the temple! The men went home and hung their dhotis to dry.
At times there would be a report of a sighting of one or more crocodiles in a pond. There was never a story of anybody having been attacked, though there were tales of attacks on goats that had gone to the edge of the pond for drinking water. There were two kinds of crocodiles reported: the green female and the more feared black male. Sometimes one would see the back of a black crocodile in the far side of the large pond named Suryappan Kolam that belonged to our Gramam. But such sightings did not prevent the village folk from going for their two baths a day!
Every man and boy in all the villages could swim. They all learned it early in life. MOST of the girls did too but for them it was not universal. My mother could swim well because she grew up in the village but my sisters, who grew up in Ooty, never learned to swim. The flotation gear for learning swimming was unique. In those days tubular arm bands didn't exist anywhere in India, let alone the villages. We used full coconuts, with coir covering and all, which were dry inside the kernel. As we heard it, there was some kind of a frog that could suck the liquid and the pulp from tender coconuts on the trees. These coconuts would float. Voila! Flotation gear! Two such coconuts would be tied together with a short thin coir rope and the young kids would wear it across their chest and float away and learn to swim. My elder brother and I learned to swim late, not earlier than eight or nine years of age, and that too because my brother nearly drowned when we went for our sister's marriage. Our sisters and the two younger brothers never learned to swim.
Girls wore a skirt or paavaadai with no blouse if they were very small, and began wearing a blouse to cover the upper body when they were more than seven or eight years old. Girls were married very young and would wear nine yard saris, the traditional Iyer way. A little before my time the women didn't wear blouses at all and when the first few women started wearing blouses, the village women were scandalized. By the middle 1940s, young women started wearing the saris of six yard length but men didn't have to change anything. The Aranakayaru, the string around the waist was very important for the men because that is what held up the loincloth! Even in this there was a hierarchy. The better-to-do men wore better quality Aranakayaru! Children in rich families had golden ones.
There was one grocery store for the three villages, run by one Chamukutty Nair, who flourished over the years. There was one village school, until the fifth grade, teaching in Malayalam. The children sat on the mud floor and wrote on slates using a slate pencil. For better education, one had to go to the Government school in Alathur, about two and a half miles away. That went up to the 11th grade or S.S.L.C. (Secondary School Leaving Certificate). My eldest uncle (Gopalakrishnan) was a teacher there and eventually became the Headmaster. Everybody, including my uncle, walked to the school. A cycle was a luxury and a status symbol. My other uncle (Viswanathan), the lawyer, had a cycle to go to the Kacheri (Court) because it was infra dig for a highly respected lawyer to walk to work.
Most people earned between 50 to 75 rupees a month and managed to live comfortably, and if one earned more than a hundred rupees one was living in luxury. The rupee was made up of sixteen annas, and each anna was made up of twelve pies. One could buy all the vegetables one needed in a day for two annas. As an aside, children had to learn multiplication tables up to sixteen because there were sixteen annas to the rupee. Servants were paid one to three rupees per month.
My paternal great grandfather — probably born around 1850 — was reputed to be a well-to-do man who owned a lot of cultivable land in the vicinity of the village. Long after he was gone and so was the land, it was still known as Gopala Bhattar's land. The Brahmins who owned land didn't really cultivate it. They had a 'share cropping' arrangement with landless labourers or tenants of the land, who put in the resources, worked on it and gave a negotiated share of the produce or the sale proceeds to the landlord. Hindsight tells us that the output must have been poor because no great inputs of fertilizers, quality seeds, etcetera, were put in, because the tenant was poor and got out only what nature gave. The returns were enough to keep up the fairly simple and frugal life of the Brahmins but if any major expense came, the only recourse was to sell part of the land. So the holdings dwindled.
As far as I know, my grandfather never had a job. After his morning visit to the tank for bathing, visit to the temple and breakfast, he would spend his time playing cards (no gambling) with any friends in a similar situation, till lunch time. After lunch was a siesta, a visit to the pond and temple, and discussion on the politics of the day — more village politics than anything grander. By the time he had educated three boys out of six and financed the marriage of his only daughter Subbulakshmi, there was no land or money left! That was my father's inheritance!
Better-off Brahmins became teachers, lawyers or — more unusually — engineers or doctors. The majority completed high school or college and became clerks. The majority of clerks in every office in the Madras Presidency were Brahmins. My father — P.V. Subramaniam, the P standing for his birthplace Perinkolam and V for Vanchiswaran which was his father's name, as is still the long-standing custom for names in the South of India — obtained his undergraduate degree in Victoria College in Palghat, on a very tight budget. He got married while in college, and then went to Madras to do his teachers' training. He would have loved to have done his Masters degree but finances were tight and he had to start earning as early as possible to support himself and his wife, start a family and help out his parents.
Excerpted from Panther Red One by S. Raghavendran. Copyright © 2013 Air Marshal S. Raghavendran. Excerpted by permission of KW Publishers Pvt Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Birds' Eye View,
2. 1930s: The Village,
3. 1930s: The Blue Mountains,
4. 1942: The Royal Indian Military College,
5. 1942-47: Life at the RIMC,
6. 1947: Deciding on the Air Force,
7. 1947: Initial Training Wing,
8. 1948: The Daring Young Men in Their Flying Machines,
9. 1949: In the Cockpit of "The Spitfire",
10. 1951: The First Squadron,
11. 1953: The Day I Got Court Martialled (Almost),
12. 1954: The Day I Didn't Get Back to Being a Fighter Pilot (Almost),
13. 1955: The Day I Became A Bomber Pilot (Almost),
14. 1958: The Day Halwara Was Bombed - By Me!,
15. 1958: The Day I Missed the Fly Past (Almost),
16. 1959: The First Gnat Squadron Commander In The World,
17. 1961: My First Effort at Flying at a Desk,
18. 1961: Goa,
19. 1962: China,
20. 1963: Iraq,
21. 1965: Pakistan - Part I,
22. 1965: Pakistan - Part II,
23. 1969: Station Commander,
24. 1971: Pakistan Again!,