Tribute: Our Star in the Skies: Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman
By Sanjay Pinto

Less is more. And it’s not what he said but what he didn’t say that has deservedly won him a billion hearts. “I’m not supposed to tell you that” uttered with a flourish that bore no reflection of the pain, trauma, stress and mental harassment that he must have been enduring. The majestic walk past the border with a ram rod straight posture, bearing the brunt of an injured spine and rib cage, as revealed in the MRI, added to the awe that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman has inspired.

As someone who has done research on cross examination techniques, the questions put to our pilot in captivity, as he sipped tea before the camera, were carefully crafted to trap him into blurting out information. Leading questions were interspersed with small talk. “How is the tea?” was followed by posers on where he hails from, the type of aircraft used, the squadron he belongs to. Even under duress, that our Wing Commander did not crack, makes him a true patriot.

Wing Commander ABHINANDAN VARTHAMAN, Indian Air Force. Photo Courtesy: PTI

To a layman, ‘ejection’ from an aircraft means a parachute opens up and the pilot lands. To understand what exactly happens, read this vivid description of the process by well known defence journalist Shiv Aroor of India Today, shared on twitter.

“The pulling of the chord first detonated an explosive charge that lined the frame of the MiG-21’s canopy, bursting it clean off the jet, transforming the Soviet-era jet for a few lively moments into an airborne convertible. Seconds later, a set of rockets built into the seat fired, exploding the young pilot out of the cockpit at crushing speed — fast enough so he wouldn’t be torn apart by the aircraft’s tail fin. Once clear from the aircraft, the seat detached from Abhinandan, spinning away below him. Above him, a parachute quickly deployed, quickly breaking his descent and bringing him gently down into hostile territory.”

The ejection was followed by the downing of a far more sophisticated F16 of the Pakistan Air Force by what India’s Air Chief Marshall Birender Singh Dhanoa termed an upgraded MiG 21 Bison aircraft. The differentiator was Wing Commander Abhinandan. His skill, his dare devilry, his resolve.

As citizens pray that doctors give our braveheart the green signal to fly fighter jets again, the public adulation has taken different forms. Expectedly. From salons across the country flooded with requests for the Abhinandan gun slinger moustache to social media profile pics to kids donning Air Force attire in fancy dress competitions to memes, some linking him to Rajinikanth’s on screen impossible stunts, the patriotic fervour that this hero has stirred up, is mind boggling.

Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle’s quip: “silence is more eloquent than words”, applies squarely to the Wing Commander’s family with a third generation defence background. There was something so dignified about the way they conducted themselves as well. With alarming videos of  Abhinandan being roughed up by a mob in Pakistan going viral, and a frenzied media contingent camping outside his Chennai residence, all that his father, a retired Air Marshall, communicated, was an appeal to be left alone. And a graceful ‘namaste’ from his mother, a doctor with an amazing track record of social service, in response to the spontaneous standing ovation they got from passengers as they boarded a flight from Chennai to Delhi. Despite a photograph of his wife, a former pilot herself and his little son, leaked by the media, there was not an iota of anger or anxiety that emanated from the family. No emotional appeals to the authorities. No exasperation towards the media for unwittingly putting out information that ought to have been avoided. No interviews or statements or tweets. No ‘off the record’ information. Just patience and faith and a steely resolve to face the situation, come what way, shone brightly.

LAHORE, March 2 (Xinhua) — Photo released by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) on March 1, 2019 shows captured Wg Cmdr Abhinandan Varthaman (R) standing at Wagah border crossing during a handover ceremony as Pakistan handed over the captured pilot to Indian authorities on Friday night. Xinhua/ISPR/UNI PHOTO-13U

We will never be able to fathom the sheer inner strength, supreme sacrifice and incredible valour of  such defence families. The willingness to put up their hands to protect the country, in the face of grave danger and life altering adversity, is what gives us all goosebumps. It’s clearly not for career prospects, as soldiers are certainly not the best paid, as they should be. It’s clearly not for post retirement benefits, as we all know about the ongoing battle for pension by ex-servicemen. It’s an admirable desire and zeal to serve our motherland. Period.

Away from movie stars and cricketers and politicians, India has a new icon. A role model, whose indomitable spirit and courage have lived up to the IAF’s motto to ‘touch the sky with glory’. For me, those five short sentences: “My name is Wing Commander Abhinandan. My service number is 27981. I’m a flying pilot. My religion is Hindu. I’m sorry Sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you”, will always ring in my ears. More soul stirring that any motivational speech I have ever heard. Or delivered. The only fitting response is not with words but a Salute. From a grateful citizen.


(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)