The solitary routine had just one variation. During day time, I used to be called for interrogation, for uncertain duration, extending from 30 minutes to one hour plus. Presumably others too must have been called for the interrogation. On the 2nd or 3rd night, after dinner , Sgt Ayub visited me again and offered me a cigarette. I lit the cigarette and intentionally kept the used match stick without his noticing it. I used this match stick for writing dates on the wall of my cell. This I did everyday and one matchstick was adequate for 2 –3 days. I had requested Sgt Ayub that I like to have one cigarette once in a while, he obliged and I kept my calendar up-to-date. One day a barber was sent to my cell, the shaving part was very painful since the razor he used was not smooth at all. The barber spoke to me and made me a bit sentimental when he asked me about my family members. Tears came to my eyes but soon I took control of myself. Soon after I was visited by Sqn Ldr Osman, our Camp Commandant, who had a chat with me informing me that soon I ‘ll be out of this solitary confinement but that was only a kind of consolation. He also told me that the POW camp was run by the PAF and not by the Pak Army. As per him, our Chief of Air Staff had mentioned to the PAF CAS that post 1965 war, our POWs were badly treated by the Army and that’s why this Camp is being run by PAF itself. He pushed off and I was back to solitary confinement – a deadly experience. I used to lie down with no natural lights in this cell and think so many things. I started seeing Mahatma Gandhi and Jawahar Lal Nehru staring at me and smiling at my condition which at times made me cry – what else could I do – I nearly went crazy. Thoughts were never ending – all kinds of thoughts. Only solace was the time spent with the interrogators where some life was seen, otherwise it was dull and depressing. At times I used to get up from the bed and do some exercise in that small set up. I then started knocking on the wall regularly and after 2 –3 days I was thrilled when I got a response. May be another POW or a Pak ploy? Serving of breakfast , lunch and dinner was a big thing, since doors were opened and some one came in. Days passed and I started adjusting. It was on 17th or 18th Dec night that smoke entered my cell through an unused ventilator. I immediately raised the alarm and promptly I was shifted, though for only about an hour, until they were able to control the smoke. To my very great and pleasant surprise I was made to share the room with my friend Vikram Pethia. When I entered his cell , he was lying on the bed with his head covered. I did not know who he was until he removed the blanket from his face and I straight away recognized him. My day was made! We exchanged notes and I was so very happy to meet him. I told him about Mulla Feroze and Kamat, that they were also somewhere around since we travelled together from Karachi / Drigh Road.
Vikram however did not know about any of this. It seemed that one hour or so passed in just one minute. But I remember distinctly that Vikram informed me about the third degree treatment he received and he showed me the cigarette burns on his arm.I felt extremely sad that he was made to suffer. Too soon the smoke was brought under control, I left his cell and was escorted back to mine. I could not meet him again until we all met in a common room on 25 Dec 71. Next morning, the Camp Commandant visited my cell to investigate the source/ cause of smoke. I requested him to give me a break from this closed and dingy room. May be I could be taken out under escort? He did not say anything, but after sometime, I was pleasantly surprised when a Corporal opened my room and asked me to come out. I really did not know what he was up to. I even feared that he was taking me to the firing squad! But since I was not handcuffed or blindfolded, I felt at ease. We all liked this Corporal, I regret that I have forgotten his name, because he was the only one who addressed us as ‘Sir’ at all times. The others were not at all like him. I was taken to an open area and there was a chair for me. It was hard to believe that I was able to see the sky after so many days. And I saw that there were houses all around this area and I also saw the other cells in the vicinity. Lo and behold, I saw an airborne CAP overhead and I realized that we were near an airfield. I did not know as yet that I was sitting in Rawalpindi.
After about 30 minutes or so, I was escorted back to my cell but I was thrilled. I did not like loneliness and I was once again lucky that same evening, I was shifted to Mulla Feroze’s cell, actually it was a much bigger room than mine. We had dinner together and I was on top of the world. Slept nicely after a very long time, but I saw Mulla was very badly injured. His left arm was in a kind of plaster/ bandage but his morale was extremely high. Next morning his bandage was changed and I was horrified to see the extent of injury. I could see only the bones. I stayed in his room for 3-4 days and found him to be very strong mentally but physically he looked frail. I liked his company a lot. He had a good sense of humour and I enjoyed staying with him. Even though I was not very happy to move away, I was shifted back to my cell on 24 Dec evening.
On 25th morning, Christmas Day, I was escorted to the interrogation room, which by now looked almost like a big sized living room. It had an office table and a few chairs for us to sit. And I was overjoyed to see almost all my co POWs there. I met AVM (then Wg Cdr) BA Coelho, Gp Capt (then Sqn Ldr) DS Jafa, Wg Cdr ( then Sqn Ldr ) AV Kamat ( RIP ) , Gp Capt (then Flt Lt) DK Parulkar , Gp Capt (then Flt Lt) Tejwant Singh, AVM (then Flt Lt) AV Pethia, Wg Cdr (then Flt Lt) MS Grewal, Gp Capt ( then Flt Lt) Harishsinhji ( RIP ), Wg Cdr (then Fg Offr) VS Chati, Air Cmde (then Fg Offr) KC Kuruvilla and Wg Cdr (then Fg Offr) HND Mulla Feroze….we were a total of 12. Dilip, Tejwant and I are from the same course ( 83rd Pilots’ course). That gave us a clear majority, although am not sure whether it was something to be proud of then!. Since we all met at what was a difficult time for all of us, it was an emotional get together. The Camp Commandant had arranged a Christmas cake for us and Bunny Coelho, being the seniormost, cut the cake and obviously became the leader of our group. We were left all by ourselves, at the same time we noticed that a mike was placed under the table.. It is difficult for me to comment on this mike because the same table was used for our interrogation and on clearing the table they might have forgotten to remove the mike; either that or our conversation was being monitored. Tejwant ( Teja ) was the last person to have ejected and he narrated the surrender ceremony which he saw on TV in Amritsar. To his great bad luck, the very next day , he unfortunately became one of us. Even so, his being there raised our morale in that we came to know that we were the victors and there were smiles all around. Well done India! 93,000 taken as POWs from erstwhile East Pakistan and Bangla Desh coming into existence was something which made us all extremely proud and happy.
From day one, Dilip Parulkar had a very clear objective – to escape. Initially we took it lightly but it soon gathered momentum because of Dilip’s insistence that he must somehow escape. After 25 Dec 71, our routine was changed a little. Whilst we were kept in our individual cells during night, during day we remained together from breakfast until dinner was served. We got some books to read and some of us made full use of this facility. A few passed the time playing cards and chess. Thanks to Dilip and Vikram Pethia, I learnt to play bridge despite the fact I always got nervous whenever three no trumps was bid. Vikram was of course a past master at bridge as well as in chess. I hated losing at chess since I always thought I was good at it. However, many check-mates from Vikram and Chati made me less arrogant. We were also pleasantly surprised to receive our pocket money, Rs 57/- per month . This money, equivalent to $ 11 then, was paid to us as per Geneva Convention for buying basic amenities such as tooth paste and the like.
In Feb 72, we got the good news that Mulla Feroze was being repatriated, as sick and wounded. We gave him a small send off utilizing our pocket money. We got some pastries etc from outside and Mulla finally left the POW Camp. We were now 11. Our routine now also included playing volleyball in the evening. So it became seven tiles, cards, reading of books and chess during the day and volleyball in the evening. Once in a while, we enjoyed extra items like pastries after the volleyball match. Quite interestingly, we even got a chance to fly kites! Young kids staying in the houses surrounding the POW camp used to look at us from roof tops and one day they offered us a kite and a huchka – a type of spool with string rolled around a two wheeled spindle. Jafa Sir knew urdu and he wrote on one of the kites that it belonged to POWs ( Jungi Quadi) and anyone finding it was requested to return the kite to the POW camp. Now and again some of us indulged in kite fighting and in a fight one day, we lost our kite. Within a short time, we got the same kite back delivered by someone at the gate.
We also played seven tiles and one day Dilip somehow lost balance and hit the wall head on and got a near epileptic type attack. We could make out that he was saying something like ‘target’ in quite an incoherent voice. His teeth got locked and we all ran helter skelter trying to do something to help him out . We were S@@t – scared seeing his condition. Kamat asked for a spoon which was immediately brought and he forcibly put it in Dilip’s mouth. This carried on for some time and it had us all praying. Gradually he got back to normal and became his usual humourous self, asking why we had stopped playing. In fact he did not know what had happened. We were very grateful to see him back in action. But after this incident, we discontinued playing seven tiles for many days. Let me go back to Dilip’s history when he ejected. We were initially told that Dilip had forgotten about his ejection and also a few days preceding that fateful day. When he uttered the word ‘target’, some of us thought that he had got his memory back – it was not so. Perhaps till date Dilip does not know anything what happened to him 4 – 5 days before and after his ejection. We were told that when he got captured, he kept shouting for his boot. It so happened that Dilip had lost one of his flying boots during ejection and he was only asking for that lost boot. He did not remember anything else.
The camp routine was now getting monotonous, especially for Dilip – yet again the idea of escape came up. As we discussed this issue, Dilip was initially joined by Garry Grewal, both of them were the fittest of the lot and were bachelors. It was also discussed that in case they and whoever escaped were recaptured, there was a strong risk of their getting killed or shot.
I was of the opinion that we could wait for some more time because there had to be some kind of initiative from Pakistan to get their 93,000 POWs back. We did not know the number of Indian Army POWs including their whereabouts. I think around March, 1972 we were informed that representatives of the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) were to visit our Camp and they will bring the first lot of letters from our kith & kin. We were now impatiently waiting for that visit. Soon the ICRC Reps came and met us. We all met over a cup of tea and some refreshments provided by the Camp Commandant. In that meeting they mentioned about some more pilots who were not with us but were missing. It became a matter of concern to all of us and we wondered where they could be. In our own way, but carefully, we tried to get the info from one and all including sweepers, but were disappointed. We never got any wind of this info during the time we spent in Pakistan. Everyone except me received letters. Some even had 4 or 5 letters each! While they were reading their letters I retired into a corner all by myself. I was very close to tears. Thoughts went through my mind – why no letter for me from my family, not even from my Sqn, what must have gone wrong etc ? I was quite distressed. Everyone knew that there was no letter for me, they were busy reading their own and I was sulking. Tears came down my eyes when Dilip and Garry offered their letters saying “Here, Brother, read our letters” That was comradeship, caring and togetherness. Here we were, a group of disparate young men, brought together by unfortunate circumstances and this was our spirit!
Soon came news of Pethia being repatriated under sick and wounded list. I think he left in April or May and he was also given a send off by us. Meanwhile the escape plan was slowly but steadily brewing in Dilip’s mind.
To be continued……
© Copyright Air Commodore JL Bhargava (Retd). All rights reserved. Reproduction or distribution of this article in any form without the express written permission of the author is prohibited.