Will to excel

Print edition : January 06, 2017
A tribute to the indomitable spirit of an injured IAF officer.

THIS is an interesting book given the current debate on the alleged indifferent treatment meted out to soldiers. It narrates the story of a brilliant officer of the Indian Air Force, Flying Officer M.P. Anil Kumar, whose career as a jet pilot was cut short by a freak motorcycle accident which made him a paraplegic, reduced to a vegetative state for a number of years. It is an exceptional story, whatever perspective one takes.

Anyone would have wilted under such circumstances and Anil Kumar too briefly toyed with the idea of ending his life. But his close friends helped him tide over that phase and after five crucial years his life saw a transformation. He wrote a number of prize-winning articles and, drawing on his own experience, he became a successful counsellor to many afflicted with similar personal tragedies.

Biographers, as a species, are a peculiar kind. Some indulge in adulation (James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson); some indulge in blind admiration of their heroes (Robert Southey’s The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson ); and most operate on a cleverly camouflaged “agenda” of self-promotion. The biographer in this case, Nitin Sathe, is totally self-effacing in his duty to present us with “the stirring account of a fighter pilot who harnessed the power of positive thinking in the face of extreme adversity” (as observed by Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma, Ashok Chakra, Cosmonaut, Soyuz T 11).

Nitin Sathe’s Preface outlines what he has set out to present in the book: After a freak accident on a stormy night which resulted in severe damage to the nerves connecting Anil Kumar’s spinal cord with his brain, he became paralysed below his neck for the rest of his life. “The next few years were spent trying to adjust to a lesser vision of life after which he was formally boarded out of the Air Force to become an inmate of the Paraplegic Home in Kirkee, Pune. He spent the rest of his life there with people like himself, some paraplegics and some quadriplegics. The board outside his room now read ‘Flying Officer Anil Kumar MP, Retired’. He was barely 24. But MP never ever retired. He never got tired despite his disability. His mantra for survival kept him going. His life was about grit, determination and will power of the highest order. Most of us would wilt, confronted with a disability of that magnitude. His zest for life should be the guiding light for many in his situation and in fact for us all, able and disabled. That is why his story needs to be told. I do believe that he was truly India’s Stephen Hawking.” Readers of this book will feel convinced about the uniqueness of this remarkable personality who spent more time in the wheelchair than in his uniform. “From air borne to chair borne,” as he himself wryly remarked.

The author has rightly chosen the “stream of consciousness” approach in his narration rather than a strictly chronological account. The chapter titles sometimes use Indian Air Force lingo (for instance, “Afterburners on, revving up”) to good effect. They are well structured and the tempo sustains the readers’ attention. In fact, this book could be read through in one sitting. But what lingers in one’s mind is the grit, the esprit de corps and the josh of the “hero” which justifies the affection and regard those around him shower on him. The role played by the nurses Sarah, Josie and Shobana in putting a lot of cheer and zest back into his life while he was bedridden has been brought out admirably and it is reminiscent of Cathy in A Farewell to Arms. It was thanks to Sarah’s platonic affection that Anil changed his attitude to life and death; Josie saw to it that he was given a lot of dishes from Kerala, which he relished a lot; and it was due to Shobana’s persistence that he took to practising “mouth-writing”. Later, thanks to the Pune-based Air Force Wives Welfare Association (AWWFA), a specially-designed computer that suited his peculiar needs was presented to him. All these people, and officials in the Air Force, were generous and unhesitating in their support.

In a noble gesture, Vitasta, the publisher, has decided to donate a major part of the proceeds of the sale of the book to the cause of developing the Home of the Paraplegics in Pune.

This short biography, well documented and written in a chaste style, is totally free from clichés or melodrama over Anil’s condition. It is likely to draw the attention of discriminating readers.

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