The Man for All Seasons

Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh DFC steps into immortality

Ghazala Wahab

I first met the Marshal of the Air Force, Arjan Singh, in September 2003. FORCE was just a month old. But since its inaugural issue had managed to draw the attention of the discerning readers, both inside and outside the government of India, the Indian Air Force (IAF) public relations officer was less reluctant to forward the request for an interview.

Marshal of the Air Arjan Singh

However, once the request was accepted by the Marshal of the Air Force, he was jittery about letting loose an untested journalist on IAF’s most loved officer. He called me to his office for a briefing before the meeting. Looking warily at the photographer carrying two cameras and multiple lenses, he issued two terse warnings: Don’t ask too many questions, he may not like it. Don’t take too many photographs, he may get irritated.

So understandably, I was nervous. Believing that the PRO is representative of his boss’ temperament, I arrived at his home with bare minimum expectations. As I sat waiting for him, with the PRO for company, I mentally prepared myself to go through the motions of the interview and get away as fast as possible.

And then the Marshal of the Air Force walked in. More than his formidable height which dwarfed all three of us (the photographer included), his warmth filled the room. In no time, he suggested to the PRO that there was no reason for him to linger on and settled down for what turned out to be friendly chat enveloping his early years, his air force and post air force careers.

In all the positions that he held in a career spanning 51 years, 31 of them in the IAF, Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh always managed to rise a bit above his office, influencing the office more than getting overwhelmed by the power and limitations of the chair. Whether as the rookie pilot in World War II, whose gallantry during the Burma Campaign earned him the ‘Distinguished Flying Cross’; or as the chief of air staff during the 1965 India-Pakistan war; as India’s ambassador to Switzerland in 1971; as Lt Governor of Delhi in 1989, he retained his innate goodness, which sometimes translated into unimaginable courage and sometimes as humbling magnanimity. The driving force always had been the sense of putting others, especially the subordinates, before himself.

After that first meeting, I met Marshal of the Air Force a number of times, mostly at public events. In 2007, when the IAF had started to articulate ideas of going beyond supporting the ground battle and the chief of air staff spoke of transformation, I met him again for an interview. This time there was no pre-interview briefing by the PRO. All I had to do was call his house. The interview is reproduced below.

A warm glow suffuses you as you step inside Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh’s intimately done study. Floppy leather sofas, including a rocking chair, beckon you, as do gilded frames on the walls. There are personal photographs, water colours and line art of the aircraft he has flown and an evocative illustration of the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, which he attended in 1938. Then there are trophies, awards, leather bound books and of course, the official citation by the government of India honouring the Marshal with Padma Vibhushan. It’s a room where one could spend the whole afternoon without doing anything: small with polished wood flooring and stacked with assorted knick-knacks each of which have a story to tell. No wonder it is warm, intimate and welcoming. Actually, so much like its owner. Judge a man by his study? Well, maybe.

As you soak in the ambience of the room, he walks in briskly: Unannounced and without a fuss, enveloping you in handshake which quickly develops into a near embrace. “I am sorry, when you called I could not place you,” he says by way of pleasantries. “But, now I will never forget you.” Completely at a loss for words, you let the moment linger. Few things just get better and better. He takes you on a quick tour of the photographs on the walls, nearly ignoring the Padma citation, and when he finally comes to it, he dismisses it by saying jocularly, “And here, the government made a mistake.” Finally, he settles down on his rocking chair. “So, tell me, how are you?” he starts the interview.

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