In The Company Of Friends: What These Old Soldiers Getting Together Could Teach Us About Life

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Every year, Shyamola Khanna attends Udaan, a gathering of her late fighter pilot husband’s course mates from IAF 1966 batch. She writes about the zeal for life and enthusiasm these retired airmen display despite age and ailments catching up.
It is enormously heartening to attend this annual get together of my late husband’s course mates from the Indian Air Force (IAF). In 2018, at Udaipur, Rajasthan, the average age of these officers is 70 plus, while the women hover close by with their ages ranging between 60 and 70. Now however hard you try, (trendy clothes, colored hair, trim bodies notwithstanding!), there is definitely no one below that!

Every good story needs a background. Here’s how this one goes: 200 youngsters between 17 to 20 years from different parts of the country, enrolled in the IAF and passed out as officers in 1966. The course included navigators and pilots. Some pilots moved on to fighter flying (my husband was one of them) while others went to transport aircraft. No. 34 and 35 Navigators courses passed out along with the 96th pilots’ course. So collectively they are called 34-96-34.

In 1991, they celebrated 25 years of their graduation, which was the first one I attended. It was heartwarming to see them meeting each other — some had not met since their graduation, but yes, they knew about each other. Many who had dropped out before graduation also turned up just to get back in touch. The erstwhile minister (late) Rajesh Pilot attended that meeting and greeted everyone with great joy and humility.

Udaan in Udaipur

Over the years, different places have been chosen for this annual event and the good cheer continues despite age catching up. And although my husband went on to meet his Maker nine years ago, I have been tagging along with the gang and I have been made welcome. Of course, there are at least seven to eight widows like me who come every year. We are happy sharing rooms and sharing the stories of our lives and how we are getting along. There are a few officers also whose wives are no more and they come along for the camaraderie.

The most endearing part of the event, fancifully named Udaan after ’91, was that Udaan 18 had seven daughters of the stalwarts attending. And when they were asked to cut the anniversary cake it was indeed a moment of glory. Dr. Rohini Nair, daughter of Wg Cdr SKJ Nair spoke a heartfelt truth when she said, “When we came here with Mum and Dad we came as any other guests. Today when we are asked to cut the cake, we are daughters of this family.” A spontaneous clap resonated round the room.

Many of the course mates do not join for personal reasons—many have kids living abroad so they are travelling. Some are still working and cannot get away, while others are laid up in bed with debilitating ailments. Soares met with an accident two days before heading to Udaipur. Kaushik had to have a knee replacement. Nadu (Nadkarni) is battling cancer. Maxy Manak has trouble with his back and cannot travel and so it goes on.

Veterans with never give up spirit

But I cannot close this without mentioning Sohal and JK. Sohal is the big burly sardar who had picked my husband off the floor in a big bear hug in ’91—I can’t forget the sight because I was rubbing iodex for my husband that night after all the puppy-jhuppies (bear hugs!) Sohal has been coming for the last three years in a wheelchair with a young nurse/companion. With a little help from a walking stick, he can move from his wheelchair to the dining table.

Jaykay is another one— very high spirited and chirpy! A stroke has left him partially paralyzed on his left side but he is mobile on his motorized wheelchair and is always in the midst of all the hungama, raising a glass and manipulating his machine by himself, with a little help from his doctor who accompanies him.

My salaams to these old soldiers whose grit and camaraderie is worth all the gold in the world!

My salaams also to all those who make the effort to get out of their comfort zones and meet up with friends they grew up with — what can be more therapeutic than sitting together and laughing on all the silly things one did as a brash youngster!

It’s the kind of camaraderie and zeal for life many elders could take a cue from. Nothing lifts our spirits better than staying social, active and engaged with friends! And there’s more to look forward to – Udaan 2019 is scheduled for Coimbatore and Ooty!

Featured image: The author with her friends at Udaan 18

All photographs courtesy the author

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About Author

Shyamola Khanna

Shyamola Khanna is a freelance writer and a trainer of soft skills, based in Hyderabad. She is a published author and her first book, 'The COW in Kargyll' was well received. In case you are wondering - COW is an acronym for the Commanding Officer's Wife! While she awaits the release of her second book she continues to paint and indulge in photography.