Akashganga: They also Serve, who Just Stand and Wait – XV

Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Commissioned in the Indian Airforce (IAF) in 1978, Sunil Kumar Banerjee took premature retirement in the rank of Wing Commander. Military Combat Free Fall Instructor for over a decade and have made over 1000 parachute jumps over different Dropping Zones. He is the Founder Member of the elite “Akashganga”, the Team and was featured in the Limca Book of Records for pioneering work in Canopy Flying in India.
Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Behind the risk of life and limb stood the woman by his man. Running from sick quarters to banks and schools, buying groceries riding cycles or by walk, receiving and seeing off loved relatives all by themselves, while her loved man was away is a quality taken for granted and an unwritten part of the wife’s job description. Cooking late meals without notice with nothing in store for an unannounced number of gatecrashers, the free-flowing rum and groggy men being the proverbial last straw. Do not get it wrong here! These were still early days for the women to enjoy much less taste the tabooed liquor. It took a while before the docile and submissive Nari came into her own. In her Sunday best, she soldiered on with a smile. Tears there must have been and many at that but these were to be borne and shared by each in the dark corners of the bedroom. Sunil talks of the trial, tribulations and celebrations of the women folk, among other things, in the fifteenth and final part of the engrossing series on Sports Saga, this week, exclusively for .

Behind the risk of life and limb stood the woman by his man. Running from sick quarters to banks and schools, buying groceries riding cycles or by walk, receiving and seeing off loved relatives all by themselves, while her loved man was away is a quality taken for granted and an unwritten part of the wife’s job description. Cooking late meals without notice with nothing in store for an unannounced number of gatecrashers, the free-flowing rum and groggy men being the proverbial last straw. Do not get it wrong here! These were still early days for the women to enjoy much less taste the tabooed liquor. It took a while before the docile and submissive Nari came into her own. In her Sunday best, she soldiered on with a smile. Tears there must have been and many at that but these were to be borne and shared by each husband in the dark corners of the bedroom. For once, the then, bachelor boys Mishi, Trips, VP, Sheru and Marwah thanked their stars for being single, yet!

Mrs. Indu Lal, the First Lady of Team Akashganga was the mother to most: a sister and comforting elder to all. When all the men were away jumping at the Dropping Zone or on demonstration trips to different stations and cities the Biriyani at Lals, chapattis, salad and subji (mixed vegetables fried or boiled) from arti mangore (fried potatoes/onions/seasonal vegetables dipped in gram flour) of Ebha, the dal chonk (lentil fry) of Alka, dessert of Shubda kept the wide-eyed young, newly married Manju, Mrs Sheru, Kusum and Lotika chirpy and smiling at the regular potlucks. The tribulations of pregnancies, niggling coughs and colds, keeping up with low incomes, demands of the new culture, its alien etiquettes and social graces were learnt or dismissed at such gatherings. No one missed nothing, one would imagine, thereafter. The dulcet tunes of a Lata counterpointed the disco rhythms of an Asha Bhonsle on the music system pitched high or low depending on the mood. A Harry Belafonte, Abba, Cerrone or Boney M kept the feet tapping. The hyper and happy children wanted it more often. While homework and studies were a definite casualty, the blues of anxiety and were forgotten in the bonhomie. Crockery, cutlery, gas cylinders for cooking were shared. Cleaning the dishes was the headache of the host. Birthdays and marriage anniversaries were just another excuse for rushing up get-togethers. The annual picnics at the Botanical Gardens, Fatehpur Sikri or Mariam’s tomb kept the entire fraternity with Ustads, women and children together and bonded. The tradition of such communal living of yore continued and thrived and each individual Dhartiputra, wife or child stepped into the role as and when the need arose without any beckoning. This was family.

Formal sports skydiving had made a decent beginning. While at PTS the boys and girls from civil society under the auspices of the NCC were being trained annually under static line round canopies for five jumps to earn their wings, other civilians under relaxed rules and training and in small numbers were trained exclusively in skydiving at the Directorate of Adventure. The legacies of Skydiving Federation of India of the 50 Independent had also helped. The Aero Club of India had finally shown ambition and purpose in trying to get this activity to be brought under its umbrella by having piggy-backed on the existing talents of the military world and the personal initiatives of Thapar. Mahajan, the Dhartiputra from Vayu Bhavan had also substantially helped in this progression and .

The first National Skydiving Open Meet was held at Hindon, in November 1989, from the 11th to the 17th . Five teams participated: two from PTS called Akashganga Gold and White respectively, one from the Para Brigade led by Tanker Gill and one from Directorate of Adventure of the Indian called Air Devils. Each team comprised of five members. There were also a handful of individual participants from the R&D Establishment and the Army. The four events based on international categories were Accuracy, Style (Team and Open), Relative Work (Team) and Canopy Related Work (Team).Trainee Judges were also introduced for the first time to gain valuable and exposure. It was a seven-day long festival where available teams exhibited their skills and talent while vying for top honours.

The had left no stone unturned to be prepared and ready to win the competition. Akashganga was sweating to deliver, while the other teams and participants struggled to keep up more out of a lack of opportunity and exposure rather than in ability or enthusiasm. The Air Devils came out trumps, in overall Team/Accuracy, Second in Canopy Relative Work, First in Individual Style and Second in Relative work (4-man).The rest of the honours were shared mostly with Akashganga White and Gold. Air Devils both impressed and surprised all with their newly developed team professionalism and skill of flying the HAPPS in deep brakes without fear of stalling, while Team Akashganga were still to come out of their historical fears of deep brake flying off the smaller 7 Cell Accuracy-friendly StratoCloud. Sadly the fatal death of a senior Army paratrooper during a jump brought a pall of gloom to the occasion. But the show went on regardless as was custom.

This championship the first of its kind had made a fair beginning considering the challenges. Like all things new and ambitious, it had shortcomings. Lack of technology was evident. Helmet mounted photography, digital monitoring or electronic landing touch pads, neutral judges among other things were absent and the perils and subjectivities of the human factor to compensate inevitably invited vociferous criticism from the Akashganga Teams. Naked eye assessments of Style maneuvers from the aircraft, while jumpers got invisible in clouds, limited visibility, to record heights as high as tens and thousands of feet from Mother Earth without any kind of binoculars for speed 5 CRW formations, opaque manual logging system of results and announcements at the end of the day during daily Team Meetings became some of the many issues of contention. The simmering tensions and conflicts, the personal and professional rivalries between the apex teams were much in evidence, which went on to expose and reveal the muck and mire of the politics of skydiving sport. The questions on the scale and depth of this quarrel, the prospects of harmony in the tumultuous relationship were in the days to come become anyone’s guess!

Team Akashganga stood, for now, at the crossroads. The Blind King, having known the limitations of the Divyadrishti (god’s eye view) of Sanjaya and the Nyaya (justice) and Niti (principles) of Vidur sought the political counsel of Krishna. Would an independent funding mechanism for its required infrastructure, modern equipment like cameras, trailing smoke canisters and brackets, publicity, parachutes, foreign training and participation, dedicated air effort, a separate organisation just like the Suryakirans Aerobatic Team, logo, motto and mission happen or be provided for to bring in the much-needed change? How long were the Championships likely to continue and would Skydiving really become broad-based and competitive? Could it be possible that Aero Club of India, under the Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGCA) become an overarching presence to prescribe rules, regulations, eligibility criteria, licenses and certifications for sports skydiving in the country and further be the accredited representative of Federation Aviation Internationale (FAI)? Would Akashganga survive at all or be replaced by Air Devils or any other?Or would it finally find its place in the sun and skies above to emerge as a worthy contender to the Golden Knights, USA or Red Devils of the UK? Could the Army and the Navy expect a better deal and look forward to autonomous national central or regional training centres with instructors of their own under a unified command by rotation for military and sports parachuting?

These and many other related challenges and expectations would come to pick the brains of another generation of Dhartiputras, who were anxiously knocking for their moment and opportunity. Anup, Sheru, Bhagwat, Marwah, Trips and Mishi had been watching the progress of the team, contributing as and when called for, with curiosity and bewilderment. Fully competent they were straining at the leash to usher in a new sky full of hope and promise, perhaps. Dhritarashtra weary after having heard this protracted saga of excitement and anxiety, applause and intrigue, politics and chicanery looked up at the dark and charming Krishna wondering if it had ended. And like always, Krishna, the Lord of the Three Worlds hid behind his ever inscrutable smile revealing nothing – adding to the continuing mystery of the cosmogony of Akashganga!

©Sunil Kumar Banerjee

Photos by the .

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