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Gone on Greta

A famous Swedish-born Hollywood actress, was responsible for my long friendship with Arjan Singh, writes MN Batra.

india Updated:

Greta Garbo, a famous Swedish-born Hollywood actress, was responsible for our long friendship. Well, not in person but through her cut-outs that adorned my college hostel room walls in Lahore, in the mid-1930s. One day I came to my room to find a strapping Sikh looking at my display. His interests were different from mine. He read everything on flying, had pictures of planes on his wall and would spend his weekends at the Lahore Flying Club. We played most games together but he excelled in swimming for which he bagged the undivided Punjab Olympic title while I did the same in boxing. His name was Arjan Singh but I nicknamed him FS — Flying Sikh.

However, we did have a common objective — to join one of the fighting services. We sat for the UPSC examination. FS was selected for the air force and sent to Cranwell in Britain while I joined the Military Academy at Dehradun.

When we next met, I was posted at Razmak in Waziristan in the North-west Frontier near the Afghan border. One day, as I sat in the signal centre, a flash message was received that an air force plane on a sortie from Miranshah to the Razmak area had not returned to base. The pilot’s name sounded familiar — it was FS.

With an escort of Gurkhas, I was sent out to comb the area. Fortunately, after a two-hour search, I saw a limping figure with a white handkerchief, soaked in blood, covering his nose. Yes, it was FS all right. He was flying a Hawker Audax, came in low, was hit by rifle fire and crash-landed. A week later, FS flew back over our garrison and dropped three messages — to the Brigade Commander for courtesies extended, to the medical team for patching up his nose and a note to me enclosing the latest photo of Greta Garbo.

Our next meeting was in Britain. Soon after World War II, we were at courses of our respective staff colleges. There was a joint army-air force indoor exercise where we were teamed up. Our paper received top honours and we were asked to make a presentation on the final day. The chief guest was a much-decorated marshal of the Royal Air Force. He broadly hinted that he hoped one day FS would be at the head of India’s Air Force.

As we all know, he achieved this, and he was at the helm when the country was at war in 1965. We should be proud of the recognition of his worth by the President, who conferred on him the rank of Marshal of the Air Force (five star).