Who would remember Corporal Konnayil Geeverghese Mathai today? He could not have been married by 1965; so no wife, children or grand children to remember the name. Perhaps there is a black-and-white photo hanging on a wall in some Catholic house in Pala or Kottayam in Kerala. If you ask the children in the house whose photo it was, they might say “Some uncle. He was in the Air Force”.
Mathai was a friend, a course-mate in the Group One Wireless Technical Course in Jalahalli, Bangalore. He was from a senior initial batch, but we were together in the advanced course. Though billeted separately, we met often.
An outstanding student himself, Mathai would advise me to take my studies seriously. “If only you’d try, you would pass out with the best trainee medal”, he would tell me. Whether that was true or not, I was too keen on finding dates in Brigade Road to waste my time on Berkhausen condition and equations for amplification factors. As it happened, Mathai was the one who passed out as the best trainee from the course.
On our passing out parade, his boots shone like mirrors; his uniform was starched stiff. Just as we were going to assemble for the passing out parade, Mathai noticed that my tunic was stained. He insisted on lending me his second best one, far better ironed and cleaner than my best. May be I thanked him, I can’t recollect. The Flight Sergeant who did the preliminary inspection commented on the patches of whitener on my belt and scabbard and the dullness of my boots, but passed the tunic. I looked at Mathai, and he smiled his enigmatic smile, which I never understood.
A couple of days after the passing out, our postings were announced. I was to move immediately to Kashmir, Mathai to some other place. When we were shaking hands and saying goodbye, I thought that Mathai was trying to tell me something. An hour after the train started, realization dawned : I hadn’t returned his fine tunic of a uniform. A humble aircraftsman, even the one who passed out as the best trainee, had at best three sets of uniforms – now Mathai was poorer by a tunic from a set. I decided to keep the tunic safe and return it the next time we met. Indian Air Force was a small world then, and one could always meet the other some time or another.
When I heard that Mathai was selected for training in England on British-made electronic equipment, I felt a pang of jealousy. I missed the aircraftsman first class – Group one status at passing out. If I hadn’t messed it up, I probably would be in the same flight to England as Mathai’s. I should have listened to him.
Five years later, when war with Pakistan was raging, I heard the news that Mathai had died in a bombing raid. I had kept his tunic safe for returning it someday, now I packed it in a plastic bag and put it away for his memory. I found Mathai’s eulogy and photo in Malayalam newspapers. I kept a cutting of it with the uniform.
A couple of years later, a medical assistant NCO who said during the war he pulled out bodies from a trench that got covered with loads of mud by the impact of a thousand-pounder bomb. “One airman had his hand stretched out, stiff, as if he was trying to scratch himself out,” he said: “They said he was a very good technician. The CO cried when he said he would be badly missed. His name was Mathai.”
I do not recall Mathai receiving a gallantry award. Perhaps they gave him one, and I missed reading about it. Perhaps he had not lived long enough to show what meritorious service he was capable of.
As I moved from place to place, the packed tunic and photo got lost along the way. But I often recollect his face very vividly – his tall and ever-so-slightly bent frame, faint mustache, square chin and enigmatic smile.
I do not know the date when Corporal Mathai tried vainly to scratch himself out of a covered trench dug near a runway in an Air Force station in Western India. It happened in April, that much I know. Forty nine years ago.