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Madurai gives a hero's farewell to braveheart IAF pilot

Last updated on: July 02, 2013 13:58 IST

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Indian Air Force Flight Lieutenant K Praveen, who perished in a rescue mission in Uttarakhand last week, was given a tearful farewell in his hometown Madurai on Saturday. A Ganesh Nadar captures the sombre moments 

The Uttarakhand disaster has claimed more than a thousand lives. Locals, pilgrims and even rescuers have been devoured by Nature’s fury, and the final could be manifold.

Among the casualties were the 20 rescuers on board an Indian Air Force helicopter which crashed while returning from a sortie.

Flight Lieutenant K Praveen was one of the pilots of that helicopter. He was an only child, the product of a broken marriage as his father had walked out when Praveen was only three months old.

On Saturday, everything around Praveen’s house in Madurai was quiet. On every wall on the street were posters praising the martyr who had given up his life saving civilians from a watery death. There was no one on the ground floor. “They will be upstairs,” indicated a neighbour. 

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Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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The room upstairs was full of teary-eyed women, looking lost and helpless as they did the impossible task of consoling Praveen’s mother.

Manjula, the mother, spoke softly but firmly. “Please do not ask me anything, why don’t you ask her, both my son and her son went to school together.” She indicated the lady next to her.

“I have known him for 27 years,” says the friend. “He was an outstanding student, an inspiration to others. After school he studied mechatronics in the best college here, the ThiagarajaEngineeringCollege. With 1140/1200 marks in HSC he could have gone to the best college in the state in AnnaUniversity, Chennai, but he chose to study here to be with his mother.

“He always stood first in class and in his final year in TVS school he was the head boy. In college he continued to be a leader. He was also in the NCC.”

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Image: A photograph of K Praveen with his mother, from the family album


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Hearing all this Manjula spoke up suddenly, “It was his stint in NCC that drew him to the armed forces. You know, he got a job while still in college, TCS had selected him in their campus interview. He even went for training to TCS in Thiruvananthapuram. He had also appeared for the UPSC exams.

“Two months into training he got a letter from the Air Force and without hesitation he quit TCS and went to join the Indian Air Force. Did you see his pictures on Facebook? There were thousands of ‘likes’.” She smiled through the pain in her eyes.

Praveen became a pilot and was commissioned into a helicopter unit on June 27, 2009. 

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Image: The walls of K Praveen's home in Madurai are full of his IAF photographs, and his awards and citations
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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Being an only child K Praveen realised that his mother would miss him and made it a point to speak to her every day. Yes, on the fateful day, June 25, she knew that an IAF helicopter had crashed and was already praying when the dreaded phone call came in.

It was not Praveen calling to say he was fine but his commanding officer with the bad news. Her world crashed around her, the world as she knew it ended then.

Manjula, a post-graduate, is a superintendent with Southern Railway, like her son she too got her job by clearing the recruitment exams. “When my husband moved out, my parents moved in, so he was very close to his grandparents,” she said. 

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Image: A photograph of K Praveen with his helicopter, from the family album


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The grandparents were sitting on a cot, rifling through photo albums, a repository of the memories left behind. The old couple looked totally lost, the shock of their grandson’s   death traumatising them into numbness. They stared aimlessly at the albums, the pictures not registering at all. They simply kept turning the pages.

Manjula continued: “I cannot still believe it, maybe he is sitting on a tree or hanging from it and someone will bring him down. I hadn’t lost hope even after the fateful phone call. Then they found his body, and my hopes came crashing down.”

A neighbour said, “Praveen used to tell his friends, ‘At 40 I will become an air marshal’. His death is a loss not only to his mother but to the nation.”

“It is fate, what can we do?” said another. “As we wanted to get him married we checked his horoscope. The astrologer said we should look for a bride after three months. He had said Praveen would live till he was 78.” 

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Image: K Praveen's grandparents, with other members of the family
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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Praveen had said he wanted a good-looking, good-natured bride. He did not want dowry, jewels or money. “He was my boy, he wanted me to look for a girl. He did not have any girl-friend or love affair in school and college,” Manjula said.

The family proudly showed a showcase full of his medals, certificates and photographs. Even the walls of his home had many merit certificates. “When he came home for holidays, schools in the area called him for functions and made him the chief guest. They made him tell students how he became an IAF officer to inspire them,” Manjula recalled.

His first cousin, David Livingstone, is studying mechatronics in an engineering college in Erode. “Though I am seven years younger than Anna (elder brother, in Tamil) he treated me like a friend.”

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Image: IAF personnel lined outside the crematorium in Madurai
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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Saturday, June 29, 2013, dawned sombrely. There was a shamiana erected outside Praveen’s home. There were chairs for dignitaries and a carpet laid out on the road leading up to the house. Manjula was sitting on the door steps with her two sisters (twins). One of them lives on the same road, a few buildings away. “Earlier I was living a little distance away, when I found this house I moved in. I wanted to be close to Manjula. We all want to be with her as she is a single mother,” said the sister.

They were checking the almanac to find the correct time for the funeral. While some wanted to do it during ‘Yama Gandam’, Manjula was adamant that it should be done at an auspicious hour.

The crowds swelled slowly. At 9 45 am the IAF sent a car to take Manjula to the airport where her son’s body would land.

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Image: The authorities had a tough time regulating the crowds who had come to pay their tributes to K Praveen
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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The IAF jet landed at 10.45 am, and the cortege moved to his home. Now the crowd had swelled to a few thousands. The deathly silence that greeted the pilot car broke into a wail when the truck carrying the body arrived.

The IAF personnel lined up on both sides of the road carried themselves with dignity. NCC cadets had also lined up on one side, with the Indian Red Cross and the local police making up the rest of the line.

Controlling the crowd was almost impossible despite repeated announcements telling the people that Praveen’s body would be kept till everyone paid their respects. 

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Image: Flight Lieutenant K Praveen was given a guard of honour
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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Madurai collector Anshul Mishra, who had been transferred to Chennai just the previous day, delayed his departure by a day to pay his respects to the local lad. After laying a wreath on Praveen’s casket he handed over a cheque of Rs 10 lakh to the grieving mother, the ex-gratia announced by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. The state government was represented by Minister for Cooperation Sellur K Raju.

The crowd had students, family, friends, the NCC, the IAF, local AIADMK members, and local leaders of all parties. M K Stalin was in Madurai but did not attend the funeral, neither did the local member of Parliament and former Union minister M K Alagiri.

The station commander of the Thanjavur IAF station NVSK Murthy, group commander of the NCC Colonel Sanjay Pandey, Commissioner of Police Sanjay Mathur and Deputy Commissioner Samant Rohan were present throughout the proceedings. 

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Image: Tamil Nadu Minister for Cooperation Sellur K Raju and the outgoing collector of Madurai, Anshul Mishra, at K Praveen's funeral
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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The casket containing Praveen’s body, wrapped in the tricolour, was taken to the public crematorium at Moolakarai after 1 pm.

Praveen’s father Krishnamurthy too turned up for the funeral. Though the family ignored him, they let him stand near his son’s casket.

At the crematorium he shaved his head as part of the ritual. However, the last rites were performed by Manjula while he stood by stoically.

The national flag was taken off the casket and given to the mother. Rifle shots echoed into the sky as the body was carried into the crematorium. As the flames went up, the skies opened up and wept as if on cue.


Image: IAF personnel with the casket bearing K Praveen's body
Photographs: A Ganesh Nadar

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