The ramp of the AN-32 air-craft slid hack, and those of us inside the plane glimpsed what at first looked like an empty void. A cold December wind rushed in and its deafening roar jerked us back to our impending jump. In a matter of minutes, our whole company would be stepping out into thin air. Looks of anxiety and dread were plainly visible on our faces while we checked that we had all our equipment over and over, tightening each strap one last time. Anyone watching could see that we were a bunch of novices.
An unwritten rule in the Airborne Forces dictates that the senior-most jumper must lead, and in this case that meant me, a lieutenant back then, in 1989. The aircraft banked, straightened, and the Dispatcher barked at us trainees to stand up and assume ready positions.
As our jump loomed closer and closer, the tension in the plane’s thin air was thick enough to be sliced with a knife. The pilot steadied the bird for the home run as we young men poised ourselves on the precipice, running over for one last time in our minds the various emergency procedures we had been taught. The light above the plane’s open door, which we all watched nervously, suddenly gave the green “go-ahead”, and before I could even utter a prayer, I stumbled out into the emptiness.
While lulling, my thoughts quickly replaced each other. The initial consciousness of sinking was interrupted by the jerk of the parachute opening and a surge of relief at seeing the silk over my head. Having less than a minute to prepare for landing, I frantically tried to maneuver myself into the right position to meet the ground. Making matters worse, the wind gods agitated the air, threatening to toss me around in their playful havoc. I looked down and saw, to my surprise, that I had been blown far to the right of the landing zone, and the frightening realization dawned on me that I might miss it altogether.
On training jumps, Air Force instructors bellow instructions from the ground. As you near terra firma, they become audible. “Keep your feet together,” they would say. “Watch the ground.”
I thought I had one of these men clamoring for my attention even as I drifted farther and farther from my landing target. But as the ground and I neared our inevitable convergence, the instructions I heard were spoken in a strangely poetic, accented Hindi and broken English.
“Head well forward, shoulders round, feet together, watch the ground,” sang the man.
From about one hundred feet in the air, I saw that this man was no instructor at all, but an elderly fellow with wispy white hair in traditional Indian clothes. I le had parked his bicycle and was following my downward trajectory on foot.
“Tuck your head in, the wind is from behind, do the forward roll, don’t reach for the ground with your toes,” he continued.
I did as he said, and the impact jolted my innards. But I wasn’t hurt, and I quickly got up to control my parachute, which was bellowing in the wind turned to find the man standing near me, and with gushing gratitude, I approached him and thanked him profusely for his last-minute advice. He was a slightly bent old man, with a keen, intelligent face, adorned with an admirable, white handlebar moustache. His broken ears and withered physique were ample evidence of a youth spent wrestling. A poignant smile lingered at the corner of his eyes. As I struggled with the rolling of the parachute, the old man offered help and with unexpected adroitness, he packed and carried it to his cycle.
“Son,” he said, turning to me. “I have been following your progress. You were the first to exit, weren’t you? They shouldn’t have dropped you because the wind is far too strong for green horns. First jump is it, son?” he asked, smiling.
With my parachute loaded onto his cycle, we started off towards the control tower. As we walked, the old man awed me with his knowledge of the finer points of parachuting. It seemed to me that this man must have had a long career in the Parachute Regiment himself, not uncommon for those living around the training grounds near Agra. This man could have served with the British, I thought, and I began mentally placing him in the erstwhile Air Bourne regiments I had read about in my youth. It struck me that he might have even jumped at Elephant Point in Burma or fought the Japanese at Shashank in the Northeast during World War -II.
We reached the vehicles; I got my chute off his hike. The old man with great care, perched himself on his battered cycle. I thanked him again, shook his calloused hand and as a parting word asked him. “Sahib, which Parachute Battalion did you serve in?”
The old man, who had so far been lively as a cricket, demurred now. I le averted his eyes and swallowed hard. Before answering, he turned his attention towards the paratroopers drifting down and when he turned to face me, I saw that a great melancholy had descended over his face.
“As a matter of fact, my son was in the Parachute Regiment. I used to come here regularly to watch him jump. I would then help him roll his chute and give him his lunch box. Sub-bash’s mother never came because she thought it was sheer madness. As for me Sir, I have always enjoyed it,” he said forcing a smile.’
Excellent father, I thought. He must have been a great inspiration and encouragement to his son. I didn’t think there were too many fathers like him in the country and he seemed especially rare in rural India.
“Which regiment is he in Sahib?” I asked. “Is he still jumping?”
The old man took a deep breath, paused to run a finger along his moustache and then, looking me straight in the eye, he said, “My son, Sir, doesn’t jump anymore. He never will. You see, on a similar winter morning many years ago, he was here for a training jump much like the one you just took. But it was his last jump. For reasons only God knows, none of his chutes deployed. He hit the ground a mere ten feet away from where you landed. He was my only son. His mother soon followed him in her grief.
“For the past thirty-five years, I come here whenever I hear the sound of an aircraft. You never know when somebody might need help. As for me Sir, I have never jumped. Frankly, I haven’t even seen an aircraft from close quarters. I have sold milk for the last fifty years.”
He gave me a blessing and turned to leave.
A broken old man on a broken old cycle, weighed down by heavy milk cans on either side, trying to maintain his balance on a narrow dusty village track – that’s the image I’m left with. I watched him till he was just a dot in the distance amongst the yellow and green mustard fields.
He would have made a fine Paratrooper.
The Indian Army has always been actively involved in promoting the outdoors, especially in the Himalayas. With this column, we wish to honour all military personnel around the world for their incredible fitness, endurance, dedication and mental strength which is an inspiration to the rest of us.
This story was part of the Borderlands section of The Outdoor Journal Winter 2013 edition of the print magazine.