There’s a kind of hush
All over the world tonight
All over the world
People just like us are falling in love
–Sung by Engelbert Humperdinck
Losing a dear friend and coursemate, a family member, during a global lockdown for COVID-19 gives rise to a numbing pain somewhere deep inside the chest.
Former naval aviator Cdr Partha Dutta Roy (PD for us) is one of the most doting fathers I have ever known. He was ailing for a while but fought back each time. His time ran out forenoon of 21st June 2020, on Fathers Day. Aviators respect planetary motion, wind and weather. For PD’s friends and family, June 21, 2020 will forever be the longest day for reasons beyond astronomy.
With his passing, Ocean’s Best and 40th Integrated Cadets Course (40 ICC) is down five members. Strangely, all five were either aviators, or training to be one. Two of five died in harness. I hate writing obituaries at a time when folks are celebrating ‘golden’ birthdays or climbing the highest mountains.
Coursemates have a funny way of describing each other. By the end of boot camp, each cadet acquires a ‘name’. Our course has its own Gaaru, Chaube, Lala, Dopey, Piggy, Khopdi, Mama & so on, like all courses do.
PD Roy was “quack”; not because he was interested in medicine. An anglicized divisional officer’s light-hearted observation during first term at Naval Academy that PD’s marching resembled a “pregnant duck” stuck the “quack quack” label on him. True to his innate goodness, PD never resisted. He gleefully embraced the description. Perhaps it helped that he was as peace loving & accommodating as a water bird. He could also maintain a dignified posture afloat while paddling-like-hell beneath. These qualities, and his diligent nature, helped him through his “Harpoon” days later in life.
Always brimming with joy and light-hearted banter, PD’s life was hardly a fairy tale. He lost his mom while we were still cadets. As the only son, he balanced familial and service responsibilities till the twain could be balanced no more. Health, crumbling under the pressure of incessant embarkations, was the first casualty. At a critical juncture, PD quietly hung his overalls, sought a posting to Delhi, and, in due course, retired to his abode in a leafy lane in Chittaranjan Park, New Delhi. PD & Nita’s social glue kept 40 ICC’s Delhi chapter abuzz with activity.
PD and another coursemate TSS “Cash” Prakash were my ‘go to’ people in the tumultuous, initial days of training at AFA. PD & Cash were one pilots course senior to me at AFA. They were in ‘advanced stage’ of 152 Pilots Course (152 PC) when I struggled through ‘basic stage’ of 153 PC. We occupied adjacent rat holes in AFA cadets mess. I used to debrief the day’s debacles with PD (& Cash) over many puffs of ‘Wills Navy Cut’ cigarettes. PD & me are both products of “Shanks factory” – trainees who made it back from a solo check ‘bounce’ with the magic wand of Shanks, one of our most-loved IAF instructors. TSS was the quintessential “Gaaru” – a respectable elder in Telugu dialect – of our course. TSS died strapped into Sea Harrier 611 in Sep 1997 off Goa while flying through the demanding Sea Harrier Conversion Course (SHCC).
Two officers from 40 ICC, Anish Sahai and Sanjeev Dutta, passed away in their early days of flying. Anish died in a tragic bike accident on opening day of our Pre-Flying Training at Kochi (1993). Dutta went down in a shower of flames and metal in naval aviation’s worst air accident in Oct 2002.
In Jan 2014, 40ICC lost “Essel“, an ace Sea King pilot & decorated naval aviator, while on fitness-duty even as a brilliant flying career stretched ahead of him.
Suddenly, life looks like a strange bundle of contradictions. All of us mentioned in this story have shared cabins or cockpits. Most of us rounded a bend called “50” this year. PD wrote Gaaru’s tribute for our ‘Silver Jubilee reunion‘ Coffee Table Book in 2016, while I penned a remembrance for Dutta & Essel. All of us have flown tough missions together. Five from 40 ICC have already left for blue skies. Whose turn next, I wonder? More importantly, who cares in this new normal of social distancing?
PD was ailing for sometime now. Many enquire, but few care. Only true friends know the demons he fought; battling personal and professional challenges; keeping a beatific smile while the world moved on. A few good men stood by him through his darkest days. His slow withdrawal from active life was marked by many upheavals. How many of us would like being strapped to a wheelchair or isolated in the dusker of life? Now there’s a lockdown and COVID to boot. Too late to mouth platitudes like “I wish I had known”.
With the support of coursemates and family, PD managed to pull through many health challenges. Feisty Nita, their son Pranay, and octogenarian dad “Uncle Roy”, nursed him back from the brink many times with true love and selflessness. When a serviceman takes premature retirement to nurture his family’s small dreams, health is the greatest asset. It can also turn biggest enemy if neglected. For folks seeking a second career, admission of weakness or ailments is a sure-shot ticket to oblivion in this dog-eat-dog world – whether serving or retired. It need not be so.
Madhuri (“Mads” for PD) and me met PD in Base Hospital when we travelled to Delhi in 2017 for a lecture at IIT, Delhi. Mads and PD had a special connection; borne out of simple love for Bengali cuisine and ballads. He introduced her to Engelbert Humperdinck over a regular coursemate get-together. “There’s a kind of hush” was their favourite song.
20 years after that first meeting, when Mads caressed his hair as he lay in Delhi’s Base Hospital (he had taken many hard knocks by then), PD wept like a baby. Only coursemates can understand these bondings. Our Delhi chapter kept them braced through much hardship. Ultimately, we all have our own crosses to carry.
To lose him on Father’s Day is the most bitter irony. All of PD’s plans always revolved around providing the best for his son Pranay whom he loved to bits. A dad gone too soon for Pranay; a son gone too soon for Uncle Roy. On Father’s Day. Such is life.
Blue skies, PD. Shake things up there a bit with Gaaru, Dutta, Sahai & Essel. We couldn’t even see you off properly due to the pandemic. But I am sure you understand. Earth sucks & the sky beckons. In between, there’s a kind of hush.
40 ICC, Indian Navy bids farewell to Cdr PD Roy with prayers for his everlasting peace. We grieve with the Duttaroy family and stand with them, now and always. Om Shanti. Rest in peace.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal.