Ninety-year-old Commander V S P Mudaliar is just back after a week-long trip to Moscow. He was in Russia at the invitation of President Vladimir Putin to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Hitler's Nazi Germany in World War II.
The other invitees included war veterans from all over the world, in addition to about 56 heads of states.
After the celebrations, the veterans returned loaded with gifts. Mudaliar proudly displays the wristwatch received in Moscow. "We were given another pocket watch too. If I could wear both the watches, I would do that," laughs the commander.
Flashback: The Second World War
"I am a mechanical engineer who specialised in automobiles and aeronautics. During wartime, we could learn more about aeronautical engineering only in the UK. In that period, we were called the British Indians."
"With a British Indian passport, we could go to the UK and read aeronautical theory, and it was available only with the Royal Air Force. From 1942-1944, I was connected with the RAF professionally, servicing aircraft and making them available for wartime operations."
World War II: 60 years later
"I was sent to the UK because they were short of hands. And, at that time, I happened to be the only Indian with that particular RAF station. They had Spitfire 8s -- very good fighters -- H-10, H-12 etc for fighting purposes. As they did not have enough aircraft (only about 30 to 40 aircraft) or ammunition, they had to depend on America for that."
"In the first floor of our work place, we had a development centre and nobody was allowed there except a gentleman named Sir Frank Whittle. He happened to like Indians very much, and this Indian particularly. So, one day, he asked me: 'Would you like to come and help me after four in the evening for about two hours?'"
"I told him it would be my pleasure. Nobody was allowed inside except this man. I would call this an opportunity of a lifetime as the great Whittle was developing the first jet engine aircraft. What he was doing was confidential, but he had confidence in me."
"Had anybody seen what he was making, nobody would have believed he was making jet engines. I was fortunate to have worked with him from the research stage to the experimental stage to the development stage."
"From the barracks, I was later sent to a British aircraft factory called the Bristol Aircraft Factory, Bristol. Next to the house where I lived, there was a convent, which the Germans bombarded. Most of the kids were burnt to death. They were dropping bombs everywhere. If the Germans had continued that for another six months, there would not have been a British Kingdom. Britain would have been finished."
"Winston Churchill had become the prime minister and he established a British War Cabinet and all the members worked directly under Churchill. In the British War Cabinet, there was only one Indian and he was Sir Arcot Ramasamy Mudaliar who happened to be my uncle. When I was there, Sir Arcot was sent to America for more aviation assistance, granaries and war material."
"I came back to India when the war ended. I still remember an incident. We had around 100 aircraft here. Then, I received an order to destroy all the aircraft by hammering, and return the documents to London with endorsements that they were destroyed. It was such a sad thing. My heart didn't like it. The flying bombers which looked like boats also were ordered to be destroyed by sinking them in the sea."
What you should know about WWII
"When the British left, they did not want us to have anything, not even our goldmines in Kolar. They flooded the goldmine and destroyed it like they made us destroy the fighters and flying bombers."
Time: 1985. The 40th anniversary of World War II
Mudaliar is still surprised how the Russians came to know about him, and chose to invite him as a state guest to attend the celebrations in Moscow to mark the 40th anniversary of victory in the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it.
He was invited as a World War II veteran by the erstwhile USSR government when Mikhail Gorbachev was the Soviet leader.
"The invitation really surprised me. I didn't know how they got my name. They invited me maybe because I was there in Britain during 1942-1944 as an employee of the RAF. At that time, some Russian technicians used to be brought there regularly for training almost every day. After Russia decided to work with the British War Cabinet, the Russian boys relaxed and started shaking hands with all of us. I think this is the primary reason why I got invited for the 40th year of celebrations. Then of course, all those who were connected with World War II, wherever they belonged to, were called in as World War II veterans."
The celebrations lasted a week, and on the 8th and 9th day, Mudaliar, along with the other war veterans, was allowed to see the city.
The war that changed the world
Because he was an aeronautical engineer, he wanted to see a place called Star City where aeronautical activities took place. His Russian friend, a lady, managed to arrange a trip to the Star City. He wanted to see the aircraft made by Russians which flew at speeds as high of 2000 miles/hours.
"It required special technology, and nobody, not even the Americans knew it then," Mudaliar says.
More than the mementoes presented by Gorbachev, Mudaliar cherishes the visits to the prestigious Metro and Star City.
Time: 2005. 60th anniversary of World War II
The invitation to attend the 60th year of victory in the Second World War came from the Russian government to the high commission in Delhi. From there, the invitation reached Mudaliar.
"It really surprised me. Though I was invited in 1985 for the 40th year of victory, I did not expect them to send an invitation this time. I have grown old and they must have thought I was dead!" chuckled Mudaliar.
The other Indian who was with him in the celebrations in 1985 is no more.
Mudaliar was truly interested in knowing how Russia has changed after the collapse of Communism. The USSR he visited in 1985 was a Communist country, and Russia is a capitalist market economy today.
"Moscow has become unrecognisable from what it was in 1985. I was staying close to the Kremlin last time; right in between the river Moscow and Kremlin palace. The hotel was called Hotel Moskva. This time, I didn't see the hotel at all. I had seen similar type of houses built on the lines of our housing board constructions last time because no individual was allowed to purchase property then. Now, citizens can buy land and build houses of their choice. I saw 15 storey and 18 storey buildings there. Moscow has changed completely. This time, we stayed in a 11 storey building, which was far superior to a 5 star hotel. The roads were very clean and vehicles moved very fast. I would say Russia has changed for the better."
If the last time he didn't see anybody from the continent, this time, he saw contingents from Germany, from France, Belgium, Switzerland, etc. According to Mudalair, all the war veterans were treated royally.
"In his address, Putin first said, 'My dear World War II veterans'. It came out from his heart, loud and clear. Only after that did he say, 'ladies and gentlemen'."
When it was time to leave, all the war veterans were showered with gifts, and that included a huge bag which contained all that a Russian soldier would carry to the battlefield including food. There were also books, watches, and many other gifts. And yeah, of course, there was vodka!
Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj. Design: Uday Kuckian