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An Escape That History Forgot

 

Four Miles to Freedom
KS NARAYANAN | Issue Dated: December 29, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : Four Miles to Freedom |
 
History bears witness to the fact that, over the years, prison terms have often acted as a launching pad against unjust rule, helped in liberating people and offered men of ideas the time and opportunity to write thick tomes on issues of import. But for war prisoners, a jail is either a torture chamber or an ‘escape to freedom’.
 
Four Miles to Freedom: Escape from a Pakistani POW Camp by Canadian writer Faith Johnston is the tale of three Indian fighter pilots who tried to escape from a prison in Rawalpindi during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. This war had changed the political geography of the subcontinent by creation of a new nation -Bangladesh – as well as dealt a body blow to the two-nation theory that led to the birth of Pakistan over six decades ago.
Johnston is a former teacher. She worked in Chandigarh for two years and now lives in Winnipeg, Canada, and in Pune. Married to Air Commodore Manbir Singh, she wrote the biography of one of Canada’s first women parliamentarians, A Great Restlessness, and won five awards for her effort.
 
The book begins with the end of the 1971 war when Flight Lieutenant Dilip Parulkar was shot down over Pakistan on December 10, 1971. He quickly turned that catastrophe into the greatest adventure of his life. On August 13, 1972 Parulkar, along with Malvinder Singh Grewal and Harish Sinhji, escaped from a POW camp in Rawalpindi.
 
Based on interviews with eight fighter pilots who helped execute the escape and two who escaped as well as on intense research into other sources, FMF is also the moving, sometimes amusing, account of 12 fighter pilots from different ranks and backgrounds coping with deprivation, forced intimacy, and the pervasive uncertainty of a year in captivity, and coming together to support Parulkar’s daring escape plan.
 
India was jubilant after splitting Pakistan into two nations. But the kith and kin of thousands of Prisoners of Wars on both sides of the border were unsure whether to celebrate or to mourn their fate as they had little idea about where their men were.
 
Confined to their cells, Indian POWs were free to mingle and spend time together from breakfast to dinner. Awaiting repatriation, they fell back on books, periodicals, cards, chess, seven tiles, volleyball, gossip, and even flying kites to kill time. To comply with the Third Geneva Convention, they were paid Rs 57 as monthly allowance. Thanks to the devaluation of the Pakistani Rupee against the US Dollar, their pay packet increased to Rs 147.
 
Parulkar, who was the hero and inspiration for the great escape, hailed from an ordinary family. He was keen to join the Indian Air Force after he witnessed the country celebrating the first Independence Day 15 on August 1947. But flying as a career option was out of the question as his family thought it was a risky proposition. But things changed when Dilip was eleven and a second son was born in 1953. Reluctantly they acquiesced and Dilip soon entered National Defence Academy and became a fighter pilot.
 
Thanks to the 1965 Indo-Pak war, Parulkar earned the much-needed confidence after he was wounded on his first sortie. This time he was not that lucky and was shot down, captured and handed over to the army by villagers. Six days later, the war formally ended. Parulkar’s plan to escape began long before he became a POW at the Rawalpindi camp thanks to watching Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.
 
In fact, he had told his commanding officer Wing Commander M S Bawa in 1969 that he would escape if he were captured. Itching to escape, Dilip was joined by his friends Malvinder Singh Grewal and Harish Sinhji. Making a compass to find direction, saving their salary in the prison, writing letters carefully, and finding routes when some of their wounded POWs went to hospital for treatment was part of the meticulous plan and preparation was underway for many weeks.
 
It is not only a story of a great escape by Indian POWs. It is also equally the story of Pakistani authorities, jailors and their families and how they treated these Indian POWs well after intense interrogation during the initial days.
 
One wonders how the authorities treated Indian POWs with kid gloves after Parulkar and others were caught at Landi Kotal, the town at the summit of the Khyber Pass after their attempt to escape failed. The answer lies in Parulkar’s sense of humour.
Worthy of being turned into a film, FMF is not a grand saga of battles fought and demons conquered, but a true account of unpredictable moments, like life itself.
 
Author:  Faith Johnston  
Edition: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-8-184-00487-8
Pages: 182
Price: Rs 350
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017