It’s fitting that Bajaj Auto started delivery of its latest motorcycle model V – The Invincible, made with metal from the INS Vikrant, India’s legendary aircraft carrier – on 23 March, close to Bangladesh’s Independence Day on 26 March.
Soon someone will ride the V to a job interview, take their date out for a spin perhaps, or drop their child off for his/her first day at school. I wonder how many will reflect upon what went into the making of their machines, the hundreds of stories – like my late father’s – that made INS Vikrant a symbol of triumphant Indian pride.
I have no use for nostalgia, and therefore no quarrel with the Indian Navy’s decision to scrap the ship and direct its resources where needed instead of maintaining a white elephant at great cost. What better illustration of the cycle of life, death and rebirth? Needless to add, it was a masterstroke by Bajaj Auto to procure some of the scrap metal for its new model, thus bringing the spirit of our war heroes even closer to our daily lives.
An Unprepared Civilian
My father, T Kannan, was not even in the Navy. In 1971, he was a junior officer in the Central Information Service, posted in Bombay, when he was picked to serve as a Public Relations Officer Observer with the Indian Navy’s Eastern Fleet. He accepted immediately, heedless of strong remonstrations from his family on the advisability of an unprepared civilian (who could not swim!) going off to the war front, leaving a young wife and toddler at home.
He was determined to serve in some capacity, though, having already failed in an earlier attempt. I remember him telling me about the time he had gone to an army recruitment centre without telling his family in 1962 because, he said, “my blood boiled at the very thought of Chinese boots stepping on Indian soil.” But the Army had turned him away then, ruling the scrawny youth physically not strong enough to fight.
In December 1971, he was given the rank of an Honorary Lieutenant in the Eastern Fleet, and the uniform he wore in that capacity is now among our most cherished possessions.
Four years after the liberation of Bangladesh, in a series of articles for the Tamil newspaper Navamani, my father recounted his experiences from his naval assignment, starting from the time he had reported to the Eastern Command Headquarters in Vishakhapatnam on 5 December 1971, with the war already underway and INS Vikrant already in action off the coast of East Pakistan.
INS Vikrant: The Mighty Aircraft Carrier
Although he would go on board several ships, including INS Brahmaputra, INS Gharial and INS Guldar, the highlight of his assignment was unquestionably INS Vikrant.
He got his first glimpse of the mighty aircraft carrier on the night of 8 December, its mammoth outline inspiring awe even in the dark, and more so during what seemed like an endless climb on a rope ladder to board it mid-sea. He wrote of his surprised pleasure at being allotted air-conditioned quarters on board, tempered greatly by the discovery that it was the isolation ward of the ship’s hospital.
The newspaper series conveyed his thrill at getting a ringside view of the Sea Hawk fighter bombers screaming off the aircraft carrier for their devastating raids on Chittagong and Cox’s Bazaar and returning to land on its deck with pinpoint precision.
While he was filing news dispatches from the Vikrant, he was clearly disappointed at not being able or allowed to do more, noting in an official debrief upon his return:
When everybody else right from the rating to the captain was busy I felt it very odd to be in uniform and yet have nothing to do.
He was also able to witness first hand and report on the rapturous welcome the Indian armed forces received in the newly liberated nation. He was on board INS Guldar when it was escorted along the Karnaphuli river into Chittagong after the war had ended. Later, while driving from Chittagong to Cox’s Bazaar, they were frequently stopped along the way by locals fighting to hug the Indians. Even reading his reports over forty years later, I can almost hear the exhilarating shouts of “Jai Bangla!”
My father returned safely to the naval base at Vishakhapatnam on Christmas Eve in 1971, and he held on to the honor of having been on board INS Vikrant through the most spectacular period of its service to the nation.
When you kickstart the Bajaj V, or glimpse it on the road, I hope you will spare a thought for all the stories embedded in that steel. For while nostalgia is largely useless, memories are indispensable in keeping nations and cultures alive.
(Indira Kannan is a senior journalist currently based in Toronto)