It was July 1944. A few weeks earlier, an awesome fighting machine, consisting of 160,000 infantrymen, 15000 pieces of artillery and ammunition and 6000 armored vehicles, had swarmed over the German defenses along a 50km stretch of the Normandy coast, north of France. The scale, the stealth and the degree of coordination with which this one single assault was staged is unparalleled in the annals of warfare.
It was around two weeks after the first landing craft of the invasion scraped it’s bottom in the sands of Normandy that a new kind of sound filled the skies over France. Phillipe Normandin, a member of the French Resistance network, the Ventriloquists, was crouching under the shade of a culvert near Orleans while waiting for a retreating German convoy to pass by, when he heard a shrill whistle that grew louder till it became ear-splitting. Seconds later a dark grey shape flashed overhead at tree-top level, the whistling sound morphing into a throbbing roar due to Doppler Effect, as it flew over his head. It was over within seconds and silence fell once again all around him. Phillipe was trained to identify almost any piston-driven aircraft from it’s characteristic drone but this one had left him flummoxed. “St Merde,” he let out his breath slowly as his eyes continued to scour the heavens for this screeching wraith.
The resistance fighter didn’t know he’d just seen and heard the world’s first full-production jet fighter and the whistling sound it made was from the world’s first turbo-jet engine. He had just had a fleeting glimpse of the Gloster Meteor. The Meteor commenced operations in July, 1944, with the 616 Squadron of the RAF and it immediately proved to be an effective combat fighter.
The pilots of the 616th who flew the Meteor, were a special breed and they knew it. Flying at twice the normal speeds required a new set of skills, faster reaction times and only the best were picked to fly the jets.
Among the first batch of the cream of the cream was Squadron Leader Alfred Keeler, a fair-haired, fair-complexioned Anglo-Indian in his early twenties. His English mother, Penelope Keeler had conceived him in the sprawling Rae Bareilly bungalow that was her father, the quarter-master general’s official residence at the time. It had been in a moment of indiscretion with the young Rajput gardener. She had been drawn to his rustic vitality and the musky, earthy smell he carried with him. Penelope had always been a very precocious girl and all summer long she’d teased him, leaving the large French windows wide open to let him watch her undress or deliberately unbuttoning her blouse front and bending over to inspect a bed of roses while he watered the plants, standing right across.
Finally, one sweltering night, when the huge mansion had finally fallen silent, Penelope had stolen downstairs and out through the pantry door to the little outhouse where the Rajput boy lived. She had worn just a slip that made no effort to conceal her full breasts. She found him asleep, a kind of earthy stench rising from his body. She tip-toed up to his side and sitting at the foot of the bare cot, she had let her hand slip inside the folds of his dhoti and shivered at the touch of his maleness. He had sprung awake at her touch and pulled her down roughly, till her face was just inches away, her perfumed breath mingling with his raw musk.
“Just what do you think you are doing, Choti Mem?” he had demanded.
“Hold me, Shankar. I’m scared of thunder,” she had whispered coyly in broken Hindi and affected an exaggerated shiver as she snuggled up to him.
“But the sky is clear!” he had protested, laughing.
“Ayah said it’ll rain……….,” a naughty twinkle played on her clear blue eyes.
Without another word, he had taken her then and she had willingly let him in. He did. Springing up repeatedly to satiate her through the night. Until the taste and smell of their lovemaking had mingled with the haze of the coal chullahs that started lighting up the dawn.
Soon after, when it became apparent that she was pregnant, Penelope was spirited away to the anonymity of England and that’s where Alfred was born. Alfred’s father was never heard from again. The young Rajput had been fair-skinned and therefore Alfred grew up undistinguishable from the English, his chances of integration further eased by the fact that his mother kept his Indian roots a closely-guarded secret, hidden even from him.
By the time the guns fell silent across the world, Alfred Keeler, now the youngest Wing Commander in the RAF, had come to know of his Indian father, thanks to some spiteful English relatives. As the years went by and India gained her independence, the desire to visit the land of his father burned more and more intensely within him. Till one day, in 1951, when Alfred got the chance to apply for a posting as a lead instructor to train young Indian Air Force cadets to fly the Hunters and Canberras, at the IAF station at Deolali. He grabbed it. Penelope, now seriously ill with bone cancer, didn’t try to stop him. Instead, she handed him a small chest that she’d kept away from him till that day. Inside, among articles like jhumkas, bindis, naths and payals, there was a bundle of sepias held tightly together by a jute string.
One of the photos, taken from an elevation, probably a balcony or an upstairs bedroom window, was of a well-built, rustic young man, looking up at the camera startled, as if caught by surprise as he watered some plants, a sprawling garden spread behind him. On the young man’s forehead was a prominent tilak and round his muscled biceps were tight strings of colored beads. Alfred left everything in the chest behind, except the photo, which he tucked deep inside his hold-all.
India and her air, the guileless smiles, the innocence, the squalor, the unreserved generosity, everything bewitched Alfred Keeler so totally that he began to feel he had been there before. He effortlessly made the language, Hindi, his own and even though he was treated with diffidence because of where he came from, he found joy in completely identifying with his fellow Indian Air Force colleagues and cadets. In the summer of 1953, Alfred got news of his mother’s passing. He went back just once, to settle his affairs in England and was back in a month. In due course, he applied and received Indian citizenship. His best efforts at locating his father or finding out what happened to him, however, were fruitless. He never saw his father. That winter he met Anna Fernandes, sister of one of his cadets, at the Christmas Eve ball in the officers’ mess. They married soon after and in April 1955, their first child, a boy, was born.
They named him Trevor.
Trevor was a tiny, wiry boy when I first met him. It was around 1962. He was the new kid in Miss Hanspal’s class whose family had just moved to Durgapur. The Sino-Indian conflict was raging up north. During break time, I saw him alone, in the school yard, his hands inside his pockets, silently kicking around a small stone, trying to look inconspicuous. Trevor was small, smaller than even me. At last here was someone I would be able to beat up, without having to hightail it right after. I chuckled to myself.
That morning, after assembly, Miss Hanspal had pulled him by the hand, out into the spotlight, next to her table, in front of the class,” Children, I want you all to say hello to a new friend who has joined us today. His name is Trevor. Where are you from, Trevor?” Trevor was looking down, his hands clasped behind his back. He shrank when he heard his name called.
“Deolali”, his voice was hardly audible. There were a few giggles from Mona and Dipti and snickers from the back. That would be Ranjan, Shoumitro and Kalyan, the big boys.
“Deolali! I’ve heard that’s a really nice town! The large bungalows with their own mango orchards! I had an aunt there once. Lots of town folk in the army and the air force there too. Is your father in the military, Trevor?” Miss Hanspal’s voice was soothing. Trevor looked up at her, hesitated an instant and turned his gaze back down to the floor. Miss Hanspal deftly turned the subject to the agenda for the day, while gently guiding him back to his seat.
It didn’t take long for all of us to realise that Trevor, in spite of his size, wasn’t really someone you would want to mess with. That realisation hit us in the schoolyard when someone, maybe Shoumitro, who was always pushing and shoving, pushed and shoved him. Trevor staggered back and fell on his butt. He immediately picked himself up, his right hand scooping up a jagged stone. He swung his arm in a neat arc, lightning fast, the motion ending in a dull thud as the rock connected with Shoumitro’s head. Shoumitro went down like a moaning sack of potatoes. He was never bothered, from that day on.
I didn’t know where Trevor lived but I had a fair idea. I would see him getting into an Shaktiman army truck with other military kids, after school. The driver, a jawan, would lift him up into the cab right next to him. That was the only time I saw Trevor smile as he chattered away excitedly while he played around with the gear shift and the horn. There was an airforce base in the outskirts that had it’s own township. Perhaps his father was posted there.
As time went by, we just gradually fell in together. We first started exchanging Enid Blytons, then superhero and Lone Ranger comics. We’d play superman, me as superman and Trevor as my nemesis, Myxzptlk, the villain who could only be vanquished if superman pronounced his name backwards. Then came Biggles and Hardy Boys. We were inseparable.
By the time my father was on the verge of a transfer and we were getting ready to move out of Durgapur in ’67, Trevor and I were into cricket posters, kites, Jules Verne and Charles Dickens. And Kamini, who sat up front in class and thought we were insects. And I came to know Trevor a bit better. That his father had been a Wing Commander and was missing in action since January 1962. He was flying a Vampire, escorting an Illushin-14 to the frontlines to drop supplies on the forward bases in a blizzard when they lost all contact with him. His name didn’t figure in the POW lists that both sides exchanged regularly. That would be two months before Trevor joined our class.
The day we finally moved, I went to say goodbye. Anna, his mother openned the door. “He’s in his room and hasn’t come out since morning. But he asked me to give you this. And I’ll tell him you came.” She handed me a large package wrapped in gift paper. In it was an exquisitely crafted, wooden 18inch long, scale-model of a fighter jet. A Gloster Meteor. I knew it was his favourite. His father had brought it over with him from England. And he knew I had always been eyeing it. As I went back down the steps of the front porch clutching my present, I turned toward the upstairs window. There he was, his hands gripping the bars, looking down, his mother by his side. One curtain had fallen in his life long back, in a Himalayan blizzard. Today, another act drew to a close.
Trevor and I met again once, in 1982, in Pune. Here I was, 27 and single, gainfully employed, lots of dough to blow. I’d received a call in the morning. It was Trevor. He was now a flight lieutenant based somewhere up north and he was in town for a fortnight-long technical familiarisation course at the Pune CME. Avionics on the new Mig29s being inducted.
When I saw him at the CME officers’ mess, I was impressed. He was tall and had broad shoulders. With the taut, well nourished look that goes with military guys. Quite unlike the boy I’d left behind in Durgapur. If Kamini saw him now in that snappy uniform, she’d move over and let him share her seat. He was still as quiet and taciturn as before. A couple of vodkas later we went out on town, hitching a lift on a Shaktiman troop carrier.
We were on our way back from downtown in a public transport bus around midnight when something happened which convinced me Trevor hadn’t really changed much from the first time he stood up to the bully at school. We were in our seats, in a sort of a happy stupor, trundling merrily along on the one hour ride back to CME. After a while, we could see the lights of the CME in the distance. The ticket conductor came over and stood by us. “Utho, utho, yeh ladies seat hai, dikhta nahin kya? (get your butts off those seats, they are reserved for ladies, can’t you read?”) He gestured toward the ‘ladies’, stenciled in white on the back of the seat. The man was big and glowering. Trevor was in civilian clothes and we must have looked like two tipsy young guys returning from a binge.
Trevor had the aisle seat, his shoulder grazing against the man’s uniform as the bus bumped and swayed. “But there are no ladies standing,” I protested.
“To kya huwa? Uth ta hai ki nahin? (So what if there are no ladies. Are you getting up or not?)” the conductor then did something he’d regret for a long time. He leaned forward and started jabbing at Trevor’s shoulder with his index finger. At approximately the same time, a key ring suddenly sprang into Trevor’s fist out of nowhere, with a big navtal key sticking out through the crack between his two middle fingers. He was still seated, facing straight ahead when there was a blur. The conductor’s skin split open from his left cheek down to his neck. Trevor swiveled, planted both his feet on the man’s chest and pushed him over the opposite seat, out of the way, before the spurting blood could drench us. With a stupid, stricken look, the conductor collapsed over the seats, slid to the floor and began rolling around in a macabre waltz, in rhythm with the swaying of the speeding bus.
The general hubbub that rose alerted the driver and the bus soon came grinding to a halt. “Come on, let’s get out,” Trevor hissed through clenched teeth. He got up, dusted himself and strode purposefully toward the exit, with me scurrying after him. We jumped off and as we hit the ground, he said, “Walk calmly as if nothing’s happened.”
At that point, we were not far from the CME gates. The walk was a short one and we were soon back in his quarters. I felt sorry for the bus conductor. But at the same time, it felt good to have someone like Trevor around.
After that 1982 meeting, we continued to keep in touch off and on. Trevor went on to Mig29s, then Su30s. The last I heard, he was an Air Commodore, still single. And I still have the Gloster Meteor on my desk.