Still waters run deep, very deep. The Powaikar of this month is a soft-spoken, unassuming man on the outside but a second personality and layers of turbulence lurk within. I’ve known him for quite a few years but could never have guessed he’s led such an exciting life.
Born 3rd of 6 siblings, Ashok grew up in a loving family where brilliance was the norm. Their family traditionally offered a child in each generation to serve the country. So following his father’s footsteps, he joined NDA where he earned 2 blues (merit awards) He joined the army in its Air Defence Artillery unit in Srinagar in 1971. For a young man, life in the unit wasn’t easy. Lots of training, no time for yourself. Soon he was to lose this time too as they got deployed to Chhamb to protect the armoured squadron.
On 3rd of Dec 1971, the enemy struck (ground attack) causing chaos and mayhem. There wasn’t much anyone could do except watch the tanks etc come rolling in killing everyone in sight. Our men knew they had to protect the motherland and their equipment. Ashok had 6 guns; each deployed a km away from the other. The ambush cut off all communication between them. Amidst the shelling they received orders for withdrawal. So Ashok got the guns together and retreated. Concrete Road bridge was the bridge connecting Chhamb to Jammu. Once across, the Engineers blew up the bridge halting the enemy in its tracks by cutting off the only access into town. The tanks and infantry that had already crossed over had no fire support and were trapped like sitting ducks as they were massacred and blown to smithereens. They managed to nab some senior officers as Prisoners Of War. Ceasefire was declared on 18th Dec. They did lose the land that they’d left behind while crossing the bridge but recovered it later. The unit believes and stands by its’ motto ‘Izzat o Iqbal’ meaning ‘Everywhere with Honour and Glory’.
Thereafter the unit moved to Jhansi. At this point Ashok opted for Air Observation Post. His parents were against him flying but he was hell-bent. Acing the aptitude test he was sent for the rigorous training that only a few completed. Advanced training followed with a posting to Srinagar flying helicopters. He stayed there for 7½ years as opposed to a maximum of 3, unimaginable in the military. As he knew the area backwards, each Commanding Officer refused to post him out. In those days the army only had Air OPs. Literally translating this means directing the guys who fire the artillery guns etc because though the gun can fire long distances, they can’t see the target; the enemy bunker or tank. The helicopter pilots also performed other tasks like casualty evacuation, supply of rations etc to high altitude posts.
A short command stint and he was back because of his flying record but this time to the east; Chabua, Assam. Singlehandedly he commissioned a forward army aviation base in Dinjan.
Another short tenure in Jalandhar and he was back in the icy mountains, Leh where most of the flying was to the treacherous Siachen Glacier. Ashok, by then was a flying instructor with the highest rating of “A Master Green”, signifying his capability of flying in the poorest of visibility. Glacier flying technique is very tough. Strong winds, up and down drafts, forceful air currents, etc don’t allow the aircraft to move despite using full power. Calculation of fuel for the mission goes for a toss. All flying is done only in the mornings, after noon it gets tricky. In addition to the infamous White-Out, there’s a tremendous lack of oxygen at these high altitudes that disorients one. While hugging the ground, you have no clue whether you’re on a mountain-top or at ground level.
While professionally he was rising, on the family front too he scored well. He married a smart girl and together they’ve raised two intelligent, beautiful daughters who are doing extremely well in life. Eventually he quit the army to join Raymonds as a commercial pilot. The transition to the civil world was easier because he had a thorough gentleman as his cool boss, Shri Vijaypat Singhania. So our officer who himself is a gentleman found a kindred soul and life was great. But all good things must end and he decided to hang up his boots and bid farewell to flying. At present he is enjoying a simple retired life amidst books and music. Not many know of all that he has lived through because he never talks about it. But on Independence Day he shared some fragments with me and I felt it’s a story that needed to be told.