M P Anil Kumar, the distinguished Rediff.com columnist and an inspiration to millions, lived in the Paraplegic Centre in Pune for 26 years before he passed away earlier this year.
On Air Force Day, a salute to a fighter pilot, who was an example in life and in death. Air Commodore Nitin Sathe pays tribute to an extraordinary officer and a gentleman.
Reheat... (afterburners on) rolling... (for takeoff). My friend and course-mate M P Anil Kumar, a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, was on his way into the blue skies... the sky was actually the limit now.
Having been literally tied down to his wheelchair for 26 years, he was finally free! Free to do what he liked best -- flying high in the sky. All we could do was cherish what memories he left behind and admire his zest for life.
Empee, as we fondly remember him, passed away on May 20 in the wee hours of the morning. He had spent 50 years and 15 days on this planet. The writing was on the wall, we were told by the doctors just short of his 50th birthday; he had blood cancer and there was no way out.
More than the deadly disease that claimed him in the end, MP lived his life as a quadriplegic after he met with an accident in Pathankot on June 28, 1988 which transformed his life forever.
He changed from being an airborne warrior to a chairborne warrior -- which incidentally was the title of his personal account of dealing with life and quadriplegia -- a story I believe, that launched him into the field of serious writing.
One incident which we all remember about Empee was long ago in 1985. The fighter jocks were posted to Tezpur for their conversion and Empee somehow managed to get on his commanding officer's wrong side in a silly incident which was not his fault at all.
Things came to a head and ultimately Empee's squadron was changed. He thereafter graduated as the best upcoming fighter pilot after training and was posted to Pathankot where the accident took place. Who knows, if this incident hadn't taken place, he would not have got posted to MiG-21s at all and... Destiny.
Over the years Empee emerged as a prolific writer. With a gregarious affinity for knowledge, he could write about anything under the sun. The zest for learning made him like a sponge to water -- he researched deep before he wrote his accounts. His pieces on football, cricket and defence issues were simply marvellous.
Someday I hope we can compile all his writings and publish them as a book in his memory. So correct was he, his publishers and editors had actually almost no role to play. I remember an editor at Rediff.com telling me about the absolute precision of his writing - the only thing that remained to be done once the article was received was to post it online.
He was perfect in whatever he did. Despite the disability, I found him to be the most organised man I had ever met. His little living quarter at the Paraplegic Home in Kirkee, Pune was always neat -- where each thing had a purpose and place.
He remembered where each thing was kept. On one of my visits, he wanted me to read an article that he had written recently. He gave me perfect instructions -- "Look in the left pile of the magazines near the window; the third one from the top; page 72 to 74... And after you read it please keep it back in the same place!"
He also surprised us all with his sharp memory and had a penchant for remembering dates and the time of occurrences. He could remember the date, day and time that he met you, your birthday and anniversary, the names of your children...
I was fortunate enough; and so must be many of his friends, to have received a mouth signed card for my birthday for so many years...
At the Paraplegic home, Empee was a formidable resident because he demanded what was due and ensured that the management treated the community in the manner that they were supposed to.
The quality of life offered to the residents was ensured by him with constant engagement with the management. All turned to him to resolve their problems, he was the de facto leader of the home!
On one of my visits to the home he asked one of the residents over to his room. He explained to me that the gentleman had been promised a wheelchair and some other equipment by his unit but nothing had happened.
He had taken up the issue himself and now wanted it to take it to its logical end. Such was his human touch.
Empee's day started early. He was up and about, washed and clean in a colourful lungi and a matching shirt every morning. He ate his breakfast propped up in bed with his favourite Malayalam songs playing on television; followed by the news, after which he was wheeled into his study and parked in front of his computer.
Here he painstakingly wrote his articles, hitting the key board with a pencil wedged between his teeth and often glancing outside the window to see the goings on outside. Right across the fields, he could hear and see the fighters getting airborne from the Air Force base which gave him some sense of being attached to the profession he loved best!
Visitors who went to meet him, first saw him through this window, he would nod his head and the pencil in his mouth would drop into his lap. The wheelchair was soon out in the corridor and a few chairs were brought out for the audience. The wheelchair had to be kept at the perfect angle -- so that he could keep an eye in the sky for the fighters!
He really loved to speak with people and make them at ease with his subtle wit, humour and vast ocean of knowledge. The uninitiated were generally ill at ease to meet him for the first time, but the warmth and confidence he exuded soon melted away all inhibitions.
Then, it was so difficult to leave him and go. His magnetic charm made everybody cling onto him.
He had a whole variety of visitors -- from fellow paraplegics to batch-mates to young school and college students and not to forget school friends from Sainik School Kazhakootam. He got along like fire with all of them -- expressing his views on all topics that were thrown at him.
One of the major achievements I attribute completely to Empee was the way he fought tooth and nail with the system to get a cadet his due.
The cadet was involved in an air accident in the final stage of his training and was paralysed waist down. As per the policy, the chap was supposed to be boarded out and sent home with no benefits.
Empee wrote letters to all and took it upon himself to ensure that the Air Force and government understood the plight of the young man. His voice was heard and he achieved the unbelievable!
The cadet was granted commission as an officer on wheelchair and is today leading a meaningful life. Kudos MP! You made us so proud!
In his last few days at the hospital the man was not to be put down. He argued with the doctors that he needed to go to his computer as soon as possible since his mailbox would be overflowing and he had a lot of writing to do. He told them to send him back and that he would come over whenever the chemotherapy was planned!
Sitting beside his bed, we saw him slipping in and out of a coma. He would open his eyes and recognise people and his humour, wit and chat would resume. Amazing!
We celebrated his 50th birthday in style at the special corner of the ICU reserved for him. He decided who was to be called, what all needed to be done and gave explicit instructions to us as to how his day was to be celebrated!
I think that was the last time that he was fully coherent. He started slipping away soon after and the doctors told us that the end was to be sooner than expected.
He is free today -- free to soar; out of his shackles. In a way we are pleased that he has gone. He was born to be free -- the Almighty had put him to test; and here too he passed with flying colours.
Happy landings Empee! We will miss you and admire you forever.