AIRLOOMS – Random Recollections of an Ancient Aviator : By Cecil Parker

Airlooms Cover Cropped ReducedBOOK - Airlooms Back Cover

Sanbun Publishers, New Delhi; Year of publication:2014; Pages:192; Price:Rs.225

Reviewed by K. S. Nair, son and son-in-law of IAF officers; life-long student of the IAF’s history and author of several articles on the IAF.  His book “Ganesha’s Flyboys” tells the story of the IAF in the Congo in the 1960s.  E-mail: ksk_history@yahoo.in

The name Cecil V. Parker should immediately be recognizable to those who remember the 1971 war.  Air Vice-Marshal Cecil Vivian Parker, MVC, VM, is one of less than twenty Indian Air Force personnel since Independence who have received the Maha Vir Chakra, India’s second-highest gallantry decoration.  For 28 years, he was the only MVC recipient from his home state, until Major Padmapani Acharya (the role played by actor Nagarjuna Akkineni, in the film LOC Kargil) posthumously received the same decoration in 1999.

AVM Parker’s MVC was the mid-point of an IAF career with many distinctions.  He remained active after leaving the IAF, in the private sector and in teaching.   Gifted with an engaging writing style, he has written frequently, during and after his period of service.  His articles have appeared in services and aviation journals, general interest magazines, and in newspapers.  Airlooms, the whimsically-titled book under review is a collection of some sixty-odd of these pieces.

Airlooms is certainly not AVM Parker’s “memoirs” – though Indian aviation aficionados would have appreciated that.  The pieces making up this collection are mostly light recollections of escapades and situations from his life, sometimes harum-scarum, sometimes dramatic, but not necessarily of special historic or military significance.  Many are tributes to colleagues; most have a services flavour, but some are simple family stories, and a few are reflections on management or leadership challenges.  They are cheerful in tone, always enjoyable and, at times, thought-provoking.

The tone is sunny and self-deprecating; the humour is nothing so much as – this may be an odd word to use about a highly-decorated warrior, but it is appropriate – gentle.  The tenor throughout is fatherly, and understanding of human foible.  The armed forces career offers opportunities, indeed demands, to exercise courage, certainly.  But often it simply pitchforks a young officer into situations where he has to take some personal chastisement and, if he grows appropriately later, into situations where he has to dish some out.  AVM Parker’s stories demonstrate numerous lessons learnt; and when his turn came, passed on.

There is, characteristically, nothing in this collection on the exploits of derring-do that earned AVM Parker his decorations. There is, and I think this is significant, just one short wartime piece.  It recounts an unplanned attack on a train encountered in the wrong place.  Then-Wing Commander Parker realized, literally just as he rolled his formation into the attack, that the train was carrying civilian passengers.  As that realization struck, this gunnery trophy winner – closely followed in this, as in much else, by his well-trained formation – without any fuss, altered his aiming point just a little, expending his ammunition harmlessly over the target and into empty desert beyond.  I would like to think this little story says something important, about the ethos of the Indian armed forces.

At a time when much is made of how the 1990s and 2000s have greatly improved life in India, AVM Parker’s stories are sometimes salutary corrective.  They convey a sense of an altogether more innocent period, a period when mid-seniority Indian armed forces officers, like most of the middle class in those days, had very little in cash and consumer goods.  Yet, they experienced a certain richness of life, in ways that seem to have been lost today.  Squadron Leaders and Wing Commanders, in the India of that time, could and did encounter Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Governors, and interact with them meaningfully.  They could invite such august personages to their messes, on the basis of a services connection and mutual respect, and see the invitation graciously accepted.  There seems to have been much less of the determined intermediation that would probably be interposed today, by a clucking bureaucracy.

The stories also convey the wonderful diversity of the armed forces, and indeed of India of the time.  This was a period before Bollywood and cable television imposed their current superficial uniformity on the middle class, and some of the rich social variety of that period is nicely captured.

The reminiscences covered in Airlooms span a few decades, during which the author went through a number of interesting roles in the IAF – some of which are only hazily visible as background in these stories.  The stories can all stand on their own, each by itself; but there does seem to have been some editing, to establish connections and cross-references between some of them.

This prompts one of my few criticisms of the book : I might have asked for a few lines of connecting narrative, between pieces, conveying a little more of the background and stage of the author’s progress in service – I believe this would only improve the book, for a wider audience.  I might also have asked for a different cover picture.  The current cover shows a stock image of the IAF’s Suryakirans aerobatic team.  An image of their immediate predecessors, the Thunderbolts, would have had a more direct connection to the author.  The Thunderbolts were formed out of a squadron that the author commanded, and flew the Hawker Hunter, the aircraft type with which he is most identified.

Photo Courtesy : IAF. Thunderbolts Aerobatic Team
Photo Courtesy : IAF. Thunderbolts Aerobatic Team

… But even as I write these thoughts, they seem churlish, among so much else there is to enjoy in this most agreeable book.  Definitely recommended, especially to those who remember the times!

The author is personally known to this reviewer.

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