On Being Able To Forge My Father’s Signature

A few years after my father passed away, I began to be able to forge his signature. One day, on a lark, I picked up a pen and tried to sign his name; much to my surprise, a reasonable facsimile stood forth. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then tried again. The resemblance of my production to the original grew; or so it seemed. There was no point to this exercise of mine; there were no documents to be forged, no school report to be faked. I’d just been curious to see if I could emulate my father in at least one dimension, one that had always seemed to capture, quite acutely, at least one aspect of the irrepressible flair I associated with him.  I called out to my mother and showed her my ‘work’: she agreed I had, indeed, made a good copy. There it was: the distinctive ‘P’ of his first name, which required an extravagant loop to close the ‘top’, and then, a quick, seemingly unintelligible sequence of lower-case letters, followed by the extravagant ‘C’ that began his last name, followed by yet another quick run of lower-case letters, and then, finally the closing flourish, a sharp, short line drawn underneath the first and last names, finished off with a pair of stylish dots. I had seen that signature hundreds of times: on report cards from school; on letters my father had written to his brothers, my grandfather, my mother; on official documents pertaining to his service in the Air Force; on various official documents that always seemed to be required by the ever-present state bureaucracy that pervaded our middle-class lives. I had seen my father draw it quickly and efficiently, mostly with a fountain pen. I’d always marvelled at how he closed the loop on the ‘P’; he seemed to throw his fingers and the pen upwards, and then drew them sharply down, so that the closed ‘P’ looked like a balloon floating above the stem below.

I know I carry around traces of my father in me; in the books I read; in the music I listen to; in the pleasures I find in the outdoors; in the ways I respond to the sights and sounds of aviation. I‘ve even tried to emulate his appearance; the crewcut I sport and the aviator sunglasses I wear suggest I haven’t given up on this endeavour. My father didn’t know it, but I paid him a lot of attention. That successful attempt at forging my father’s signature showed that somehow, through all those sessions of observation, I had internalized his actions; or perhaps there was some ‘machinery’ in me that made it possible for me to function in the same way.

I‘ve made note here of how I think my parents live on in me and my life. That successful attempt at forgery might have been another way to make my father alive in me again. As I enter a stage of life–the middle-aged years–that my father never got a chance to live through, I wonder how else his presence will manifest itself.

Of Pilots’ Comrades And Young Imaginations

On Father’s Day, like last year, I posted a photograph of my father on Facebook. This one shows him as a young pilot, standing in his flying overalls next to a fighter jet; he stands proud and erect, carrying his flying helmet tucked under his arm. Here it is: the man, his steed, the glamour of fighter pilots and flying, captured in vivid black and white. It is a photograph that can easily serve as the stuff of legend for a young boy–as it did for me.

I’ve written here, briefly, about the effect my father, a fighter pilot who fought in two wars, had on me. That photograph encapsulates part of the reason why he was able to exercise such a hold over his sons’ imaginations. (All that is missing is the sound of the jet engines; their high-pitched start-up, their roar on ‘lighting up’, their flames trailing from their fiery exhausts.) It captures, statically, one of the many, many moments of scarcely plausible derring-do, flair, and élan I will always associate with my father.

Some part of the fighter pilot’s glamor and style was captured–for me–in the interactions these dashing swashbucklers had with each other, their comrades and mates in the air and on the ground. There was talk of flying, their hands and arms, sometimes with a beer mug held in one, tracing out aerial maneuvers with the expertness of a dancer executing a complex interpretive move; there were jokes and repartee; their camaraderie–a bond forged through training, close companionship, and a shared participation in an often dangerous activity–plain to see for all.

I saw many such meetings and interactions. One, in particular, stands out, its remembered details clear as ever.

In 1975, our family piled into our loyal car, a venerable Fiat 1100D, and set off on an epic road-trip up to Kashmir and back. We drove through plains and hills and valleys, up into the mountains and down again; we picnicked, we hiked, we walked, we swam; we stayed with family, we spent nights in ‘rest-houses’ and ‘forest bungalows’; and thanks to my father’s military service, we sometimes stayed in air force bases.

One fine day, we drove into an air force base in Avantipur (Jammu and Kashmir). We would take a brief break, eat brunch at the officer’s mess, and then carry on. We were met–for my father knew some of the base’s residents from the academy or from previous postings–by a bunch of pilots returned from their morning flying. The greetings were uproarious; there was vigorous handshaking and backslapping aplenty; many stories were quickly swapped–the roar of jets taking off and flying overhead provided the appropriate soundtrack. My mother, my brother, and I gazed upon the scene: crew-cut men in flying overalls, still sweat soaked from the cramped cockpits they had occupied a little while ago, wearing aviator’s sunglasses, talking about their trade. These initial interactions over, we made our way to the mess for food. There, sitting on its lawn in glorious sunshine, we watched fighter jets coming in to land; their wheels would kiss the tarmac, the nose would drop down, the colorful landing chute would flare as the mighty aircraft would continue its deceleration toward its eventual resting spot.

It has been forty years since; I still feel like a boy when I think about that day, that sunshine, those men.

Military Brats And Shoe Shines

A good shoe shine isn’t easy to pull off. You have to do a preliminary cleaning of the shoe first: a removal of the dust and grime that has accumulated on the shoe’s precious leather exterior, perhaps with a cloth or with a spare brush. Then, you apply the polish itself with another small brush with dense, closely packed bristles. Not the one you just used for dusting; that will still have some dirt on it which will stick to the greasy polish and will be transferred back to the shoe. (If you’ve been careful in your storage of the polish, that is, you’ve kept the can carefully closed, the polish will not have dried up and become useless.) This initial application done, the actual shine can begin. A larger brush with broader, softer bristles should be used. The last touch–one only used by those who desire the kind of gleam in their shoes that you could check your reflection in–is to use a soft cotton rag to deliver one final buffing. (Incidentally, while some shoe shine kits come with such rags, I’ve found old undershirts work best.)

As this description of the shoe shine process should indicate, I have some familiarity with it. And I continue to take pride in stepping out for the day wearing a well-polished pair of boots. Over the past twenty years or so, I’ve worn Doc Martens, Blundstones and Dickies boots; I think I’m justified in explaining their long lives–several years for each pair–on my feet as being partly due to not just their sturdy manufacture, but also my diligent care of their exteriors.

This attitude of mine is, in large part, due to the fact that I am a military brat, the offspring of an air force pilot, someone who took acute care to make sure his precious flying boots looked ready for action every time he stepped into an aircraft cockpit. This attention to appearance, this external manifestation of an inner discipline, he sought to convey to his sons, teaching them that to look sloppy and slovenly in manner and dress was to be sloppy and slovenly in other aspects of our lives too (and perhaps in our minds too). A school uniform was not one if its wearer sported dusty and dirty shoes. My father taught us how to spit and shine, how to make sure we stepped out in style, taking pride in  pair of well-shined shoes. This was not preening or strutting; this was simple self-esteem made manifest.

Over the years, I let many of my father’s lessons about dress and decorum fade away. I grew my hair long, I got tattoos, I wore jeans and shirts with holes in them; I disdained ties and never learned to knot one; I own only one suit, purchased twenty-fours ago, which I trot out for weddings; I walked around in shorts and sandals; I was often sloppy and unkempt.

But somehow, I never reconciled myself to wearing dusty, beat-up shoes that looked like they hadn’t been shined in months.

Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

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Book Release Announcement: Eagles Over Bangladesh

Some readers of this blog might remember that I write on military aviation history; more specifically, the history of the Indian Air Force (IAF), and especially its role in India’s post-independence wars. Thus, I’m pleased to announce the release of my second book on this subject: Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War (HarperCollins, 2013). As with my first book on the Indian Air Force, The India-Pakistan Air War of 1965, this book is co-authored with PVS Jagan Mohan, India’s most accomplished military aviation historian. (My father and brother both flew for the IAF, in case you were curious why a philosophy professor is interested in military aviation history.)

Here is the cover for the hardback:

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Here is the jacket description:

In December 1971 Bangladesh was born. Its birthing was painful: it had suffered a brutal genocide conducted by its former countrymen from West Pakistan, and a war between the indigenous Mukti Bahini (Liberation Army) and the Indian Armed Forces on one side, and the West Pakistani Armed Forces on the other. War broke out on the Western and Eastern fronts in December 1971 and ended quickly; the West Pakistani Army surrendered in Dacca two weeks later. A significant factor in facilitating the Indian Army’s progress to Dacca was the IAF, which neutralized the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), and provided deadly, timely and accurate firepower to support the Indian Army. The IAF flew a variety of missions: counter-air raids on airfields, steep glide dive-bombing attacks on runways, aircombat with PAF Sabres, helicopter borne operations, paradropping, and shipping attacks. Eagles Over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War, provides a day by day recounting of the IAF’s activities, commencing with raids on Dacca on the first day of the war, and moving on to the final coup de grace delivered on the Governor’s House, all the while bolstered by first-person descriptions from IAF pilots. [links added]

Here is the cover for the paperback:

Eagles over bangladesh cover2

Shrapnel is Still Deadly, No Matter Where It Strikes

Many years ago, while talking to my father and some of his air force mates, I stumbled into a conversation about munitions.  There was talk of rockets, shells, casings, high-explosive rounds, tracer bullets, napalm, and all of the rest. Realizing I was in the right company, I asked if someone could tell me what ‘shrapnel’ was. I had seen it mentioned in many books and had a dim idea of what it might have been: it went ‘flying’ and it seemed to hurt people. Now I had experts that would inform me. A pilot, a veteran of the 1971 war with Pakistan, someone who flown had many ground-attack missions, spoke up. He began with ‘Shrapnel is the worst thing you can imagine’ and then launched into a quick description of its anti-personnel raison d’être. He finished with a grim, ‘You don’t have to get hit directly by a shell to be killed by it.’

I was a child, still naive about war despite my steady consumption of military history books, boy’s battle comics and my childhood in a war veteran’s home. So it wasn’t so surprising that my reaction to how shrapnel worked, what made it effective was one of bemused surprise. So those beautiful explosions, the end-result of sleek canisters tumbling from low-flying, screaming jets describing aggressive trajectories through the sky, those lovely flames capped off by plumes of smoke with debris flying gracefully to all corners, were also sending out red-hot pieces of jagged metal, which, when they made contact with human flesh, lacerated, tore, and  shredded? I had no idea. Boom-boom, ow?

As the aftermath of the Boston bombings makes clear, shrapnel is still deadly:

Thirty-one victims remained hospitalized at the city’s trauma centers on Thursday, including some who lost legs or feet. Sixteen people had limbs blown off in the blasts or amputated afterward, ranging in age from 7 to 71….For some whose limbs were preserved…the wounds were so littered with debris that five or six operations have been needed to decontaminate them.

This nation has now been at war for some twelve years. In that period of time, we have grown used to, and blase about, impressive visuals of shock-and-awe bombing, cruise missile strikes, drone attacks, and of course, most pertinently to Americans, the improvised explosive device, planted on a roadside and set off remotely. What is common to all of these acts of warfare is that at the business end of all the prettiness–the flash, the bang, the diversely shaped smoke cloud–lies a great deal of ugliness. Intestines spilling out, crudely amputated limbs, gouged out eyes; the stuff of medieval torture tales. Because shrapnel is indiscriminate, it goes places and does things that even horror movie writers might hesitate to put into their scripts: slicing one side off a baby’s head, or driving shards deep into an old man’s brains.

Weapons work the same way everywhere; the laws of physics dictate that they do. Human bodies are impacted by them quite uniformly too; the laws of human physiology dictate that.

Flesh and flying hot metal; there’s only one winner, every single time.

My Father’s Aviator Sunglasses

As a young boy I loved and admired many things about my father. Foremost among them was the fact that he was an Air Force pilot, a decorated one, one who had fought in two wars, capable of feats of valor and skill that boggled my juvenile mind. He seemed impossibly charismatic. How could he not, when he could pull off tricks like telling me one bright morning as he headed for work, ‘Watch the sky to the right of the house at 5PM; I’ll be in the second jet that comes over’, and then sure enough, showing up, as promised, at the right time, in the right place, in a screaming jet. (The Hawker Hunter appeared first like a wraith on the horizon, silent and lithe, over a grove of eucalyptus trees, and then suddenly, impossibly quick, it was flying past our house as I heard its Rolls-Royce engine ear-shatteringly announce its awesome presence.)

And an important part of the package, his mystique, his aura, were his sunglasses. Movie and rock stars may come and go, chiseled six-pack-packing models might continue to intimidate me,  but the iconic handsome, strong man will always remain, for me, my father in a pair of sweat-soaked flying overalls, his crewcut visible, wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses. That combination, so well-known, and so well-enshrined in the imagery associated with aviation, was one ever-present in my childhood, and it ensured an orientation of my aesthetic compass in a particular direction.

My father wore Ray-Bans, naturally. I still do not know how he procured them. But he must have spent a fair amount of his modest salary on his beloved pair, and he guarded them, like he guarded his long-playing record collection, with an intensity and attention to detail that was awe-inspiring. The constant cleaning with a soft cloth, the careful handling and placing back in their case, the refusal to let my brother and I ‘just try them on.’ (God forbid we ever disobeyed and sneaked in an illicit wearing session; I think we were meant to understand that they, like the wings he had pinned to his uniform, had to be earned.) They protected him from the three S’s he said, sun, sand and smoke; they protected the pilot’s most important aids; they deserved all the care and affection he showered on them.

As a teenager, I could scarcely wait to emulate my father’s look. I would only grow my hair out long, down past my shoulders, once I had finished my first graduate degree and started work. Till then, off and on, I experimented with getting the crewcut and sunglasses combination right. (This desperation was particularly manifest in my undergraduate days.) Somehow, it never worked. The haircut went awry; the glasses weren’t the right shape; I was too thin; I was too overweight. At some point, I gave up trying to wear aviator sunglasses. I switched to more conventional models, sporty types, Euro-trash styles, and then finally, sadly, to a pair of prescription sunglasses that do double duty now for mild myopia correction and shading my eyes from, yes, the three S’s. (I still try to sport military crew-cuts though I cannot find a barber who does them just right.)

The biggest problem, of course, with these attempts at paternal emulation, was that I wasn’t a pilot and I wasn’t my father. No matter how much I strutted and preened, I knew I was only a pale imitation of a man who could actually fly through the skies, all the while sitting on a top of a controlled explosion, a man who had felt the thunderous kick of a high-performance jet engine propel him down a runway and off into the air. That’s the missing piece, the one I was never able to place in the puzzle to acquire that look I sought when I peered into the nearest mirror.