How tall he stands

 by Roopinder Singh

“Many Happy Returns of the Day, Sir!” I said. Subconsciously, I stood erect, practically at attention, early in the morning while making this call and this brought a grin on the face of my significant other.

I was talking to Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh DFC, the only Field Marshal of the Indian Air Force as he turned 90 on Tuesday. Even though 250 km separated us, I could picture him, tall and handsome, with the gentle smile on his face as he accepted my greetings and asked me about my family.

“We show our respect for others in various ways, and my instinctive posture reflected the deep respect for the person I was speaking to,” I retorted in answer to the grin, even as my mind went to the tea I had with the Marshal of the Indian Air Force in his well-appointed study in 2002 when this honour had been announced.

“What will you write about me? There is not much to write about,” he said when I broached the subject. “There is much, Sir,” I replied, and he graciously agreed to be interviewed for his biography.

I would motor down from Chandigarh to Delhi early in the morning and report by 10 am for the interviews, conducted over tea and savouries served by the gracious Teji, his childhood sweetheart and wife. We went over how he had won his Distinguished Flying Cross, which was pinned on him by Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma when his squadron defended the Imphal valley from the Japanese.

Characteristically, he would not stress on the medal he got, but would always recollect with pride how his squadron got eight DFCs—a record among all squadrons, whether Indian or British.

During my visits, he would sometimes receive calls from ex-servicemen, especially those from the other ranks, who would talk to him about their financial distress. “I must do something for these poor men, they need help,” he said once. Little did I realise that an idea was germinating his mind, and that he would characteristically act in a decisive manner.

Two years later, I received a call from him. “I am no longer a Jat, as you wrote in the book. I have no land now,” he said, recalling a comment made in the biography that the Jat in him was kept alive by a farm he owned near Delhi.

He told me that he had sold the farm and set up the “Marshal of the Air Force & Mrs Arjan Singh Trust” by donating Rs 2 crore towards the corpus. The interest earned on this corpus amount, and now other donations that have added to the corpus considerably, is distributed as grant/assistance to ex-service personnel. Answering my query about what his family’s reaction was, he said he had come to this decision with their support and participation.

Exemplar (one that serves as an ideal model or an example) is the word that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of India’s only five-star general who towers over others effortlessly with his accomplishments and deeds.

This middle was published in The Tribune on April 18, 2008.

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