Friday, 17 August 2012

No Response from Flight VT-CFK

Air crashes and aircraft falling off the radar have been the subject of major motion pictures.  In 1950, Air India had two crashes; both CFIT (controlled flight into terrain), a term introduced into aviation lexicon by Boeing engineers to describe an accident in which an aircraft with no mechanical problem, under pilot control is accidently flown into an obstacle, water, ground or mountain.
The first accident took place on November 3; Air India flight 245 a Lockheed Constellation named Malabar Princess with 40 passengers and eight crew members bound for London from Bombay crashed into Mont Blanc the highest mountain in the Alps. This crash has inspired the 1956 motion picture The Mountain starring Spencer Tracy, the 2001 film Amelie and the 2004 movie Malabar Princess.
But the other crash, though on a smaller scale is no longer in public memory.  The victims forgotten, the human endeavor to locate the crash is not commemorated.

Rangaswami Peak: Photo credit: Jude Thaddeus

On December 13 a Douglas DC-3/C-47 Dakota aircraft belonging to Air India took off from Bangalore.  The flight originated in Bombay was bound for Trivandrum with stopovers in Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore.  There were 16 passengers and four crew members on board.  One of my grandfather’s sons was to board this flight at Bangalore.  
 The flight took off from Bangalore at 9.20 am and was scheduled to land in Coimbatore at 10.24 am.  Till twelve minutes before the plane landed there was no indication of a problem. The pilot’s last contact with the control tower in Coimbatore was at 10.12 am. The aircraft had just dropped off the radar.  At 10.40am the Coimbatore airport issued a “danger caution” notice and informed Madras that there was an aircraft missing.
The driver who had been sent to meet the plane was a smart fellow.  When the flight did not arrive at the scheduled time, he made enquires and found out what had happened.  So my grandfather came to know about the missing aircraft by 10.30 am.  Everyone at home was grief-stricken.   By evening, the news had spread; friends and family gathered around to console the parents. The household was plunged into a vortex of panic and grief. 
Search planes, including one sent by the Rajpramukh of the Cochin-Travancore state, set out from Madras, Bangalore and Coimbatore.  All aircraft returned unsuccessfully to base as low clouds over the Coimbatore region obstructed the search.  Civil, military and railway authorities in the southern region were alerted about the missing aircraft.
That afternoon, a pilot of a small private aircraft which had just flown over the Nilgiri range reported very poor visibility and low cloud cover.  By this time, a drizzle had started and this further hampered the search. Captain Munshi a senior test pilot with the Hindustan Aircraft Limited who led the aerial search returned to base by 6pm and reported the cloud cover over the Nilgiris was just 300 feet above the ground.  Heavy rain was also reported in the surrounding areas.
On both sides of the Western Ghats, search parties were organized.  By afternoon, an army search party under one Major Jadav headed out to the Nilgiri range. The search parties made slow progress; by the time they reached the outskirts of the forests, the sun had set. The jungles, quite unlike what it is today, were dense with no beaten tracks. To add to their misery was the relentless rain.  The advance into the dense jungle was further hampered by the presence of reptiles and wild animals, tigers included.  
On the second day, the search continued. Without precise information the search parties relied on hearsay and rumors.  A forest guard on the Mysore side of the Biligiri Rangan hills reported hearing a very loud sound near Kathedevargudi, which is 18 km from Chamarajanagar. So the search parties combed that side of the mountains.  Another party scoured the hills near Kollegal where someone had reported a ‘loud noise’. Six jeeps and three lorry loads of police personnel left Coimbatore to search the Nilgiris, again based on reports by forest guards, whom The Hindu dated December 15 1950 called “the lone sentinels of these impenetrable forests”.
While the relatives of the other passengers waited with heavy hearts for news of the missing aircraft, in the Cherian household, however, there was to be cause for cheer. At lunch time on December 14, the missing son nonchalantly drove up to the front of the house. Very contrite and sorry for the trouble he had caused. His parents were so relieved to see him that they forgave him. He had missed the flight and had decided to drive up from Bangalore with a friend.  Even today, I wonder why he never called. 
On day three, there was still no sign of the missing aircraft. The Indian Air Force (IAF) continued its search.  It was joined in the search by an Auster aircraft owned by Harry Ferguson and Company. A training aircraft from Mysore was also pressed into service.  These smaller aircraft were used for its maneuverability and ability to fly at lower altitudes.
It was then decided that a reward would be offered to anyone with information.  An IAF Harvard took off from Madras carrying leaflets printed in Tamil offering Rs 500 for information.  These leaflets were thrown all over the Nilgiris. 
The search parties were now combing the Nilgiris .  The actual wreckage was first spotted near Kil Kotagiri, near the Rangaswami peak, by a forest guard who rushed to Kotagiri to inform the authorities.  At the same time, a driver at Curzon estate claimed to see the wreckage.  The tea estate manager informed the army authorities who also sent a team to Rangaswamibetta.
The approach to the wreckage was perilous through grass lands and a deep ravine. The first people to reach the wreckage were the police.  They found bits and pieces of the fuselage all over the place, personal belongings strewn around and worst of all, decomposing bodies or what was left of the bodies after the mauling by the animals.   
Curiously, The Hindu report talks about how all the bodies of the passengers were all under one wing. Questions were raised even at that time as to whether someone had reached the wreckage earlier.
On a lighter view, the Indian Postal Service’s devotion to mail was also displayed at this time. In the first party which reached the scene was the Inspector of the Coonoor Post Office who was able to salvage most of the mail.
Air India had arranged a special flight to Coimbatore for relatives of the victims.  Some of them genuinely grieving while some others seem more intent on getting to documents and valuables carried by the passengers.  
Reconstructing the accident, the authorities realized that because of the poor visibility the pilot had misjudged the distance from the mountain and the wing had scrapped the mountain.    
A few weeks later, my father spotted a driver at our estate, which is near Kil Kotagiri, wearing a gold Rolex watch.  He asked the driver where he got it from.  The driver was evasive and finally said that he got it from the pawn broker.  My father’s suspicions were aroused but before he could act on it the driver disappeared.
Many of the passengers on this ill-fated Air India flight were important people.  A few of them were travelling incognito, as was the custom those days.  What were they carrying, what mission were they on, are questions that will never be answered.
We would never know, would we?
Postscript: I decided to add the list of passengers on this flight, mainly because a reader has written in to say how this post helped him `join the dots'  for Professor Wald as it was presumed that he died in the princely state of Travancore. Maybe the list would help someone else's search.
Passengers to Trivandrum were Prof and Mrs Wald, Mrs Thein and Mr R.A.Krishnan. Passengers to Cochin were Mr and Mrs  R.D Robey, Mr C.G.Marshall and Mr W.F Saile and Mr Vincent to Coimbatore. The passengers who boarded the aircraft in Bangalore were Brigadier Agaya Singh, Mr P.L.Kapur, Mr K.R.Bhadran, Mr C.P Harry, Mr K.G.B Menon, Mr J.B Sud and Mr C.Luke.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

A murder, a bummer and a cure for heartache

I would pass Clovely when I took a short cut to the Coonoor Library.  It was a lovely house overlooking the club and the library with a clear view of the mountains.
It had been lying vacant for years; the once lovely garden overgrown with weeds and its long winding drive covered with pot holes.  Most of the house was clearly visible from the small path which ran along the side of the house. The house had not been whitewashed in years, paint from the windows and doors was peeling. There was an air of desolation about the place.
I would hear sounds when I passed that way.  Sometimes, it sounded like a lot of stones falling on the tiled roof, at other times it was the sound tapping on the window facing the path.  Curiosity soon got the better of me.  I had to find out what these sounds were; so one evening, I plucked up all the courage I had and walked up to the front of the house.
The house had a long covered verandah in front with doors leading into the house.  The main entrance was in the centre flanked by two wings. I peered through the glass on the mullioned doors as I walked slowly down the verandah.  The rooms barring the last were empty, where some lawyer’s assistant had covered all the furniture with white dust sheets.
My initial fears had subsided and soon I was quite cocky. It was just another old house. The rose bushes near the verandah had bloomed and the air was fragrant with perfume.  A bee hummed nearby.  The evening sun bathed the whole place in a mellow light. All was well; I was lulled into a sense of false security.  So when I heard the tapping on the window, I jumped out of my skin.  I didn’t wait to find out what it was; I just took to my heels.
Sometime later I told my father about my visit to Clovely, he didn’t say much. Just that the sounds were not supernatural, just the wood contracting.  Then with a gleam in his eye he tossed a bit of information over his shoulder – that this was the house that Miss Fairbanks was murdered in!
I finally got the story out of my father.  Miss Fairbanks was an old English lady who lived alone in Clovely.  Her father and grandfather were military men having seen action in the Opium wars and Afghanistan.  She was a tough old bird who accosted intruders with a shotgun.  But one morning, her butler and sole servant found her lying dead in the living room with multiple stab wounds.  What was most gruesome was the bite on her throat.   
The police were called in; there was a lot of pressure from Delhi to solve the crime fast, because the British Embassy was leaning on the government.  You know, all that blah about British citizens not being safe and so on.  The police investigation revealed that there was no forced entry, which meant that the old lady had opened the door for the killer, it was someone she knew. 
The Fairbanks house was full of battle souvenirs, some valuable, some kitsch. During their investigation, the cops found ledgers cataloguing all the things in the house.  The killer had taken his pick of things; Ming vases, Rajput miniature paintings, an Urdu book of poetry and two rare saris.  The police were clueless.
Though the murder caused a stir, no one actually knew the old lady and no one missed her, so life went on. A few days later, the Commandant of Staff College threw a party celebrating his wife’s birthday.  The Superintendent of Police  (SP)though invited could not make it, so his wife went for the party along with other friends.  When she came back, she found her husband had just come back from the station and in a foul mood. 
To ease the situation, she started talking about the various guests at the party and the gifts they had brought.  The best gift, which was presented unwrapped was a beautiful Dhaki sari.  Somewhere in the policeman’s brains a coin dropped and he asked his wife to describe the sari.  She said it was a very rare red, black and gold sari from Dhaka.     
She hardly finished her descriptions and SP was on the phone to the Commandant.  He wanted to know the name of the guest who presented the sari.  The Commandant did not know.  But he said, his wife had mentioned that it was an extremely well dressed African.
He was not on the guest list and had just walked into the party.  His style and confidence was such that he was not questioned.  The Commandant had presumed that this was a high level diplomat or businessman who was staying at the Gymkhana, whom his wife had invited and forgotten to tell him.  His wife had had the similar thoughts.  So they let it pass.
After telling the Commandant to keep the sari away, the SP had the butler picked up. Third degree methods on the butler, yielded fruit; the man said that Missy used to get a visitor, a black man, now and then.
A quick search of the hotels and the cops nabbed an African with the other stolen goods.  The African had an Italian passport and claimed diplomatic immunity.  The police were in a jam; what to do.
They, as cops world over are wont to do, resorted to tactics which are highly debatable.  One of the policemen at the station had seen service with the Malabar Special Police, a dreaded police force known for ‘efficiency’ during social unrest.  It was said that the members of the MSP knew kalaripayattu.  The SP asked this policeman to persuade the African man to cooperate.
The senior policemen left the station and the former MSP man started his interrogation.  Using a kalari tactic he slapped the African’s face with his foot.  It took a couple a knocks for the suspect to react.  He bit the policeman on his foot.  The SP was overjoyed, the bite marks were the same, and this was later confirmed, as the imprints of the teeth on the old lady’s throat.  A dentist friend roused out his bed at this ungodly hour confirmed the bite marks on the policeman and the murder victim was the same.   
Who was this African and how did he befriend the old lady were some of the questions left unanswered though the Fairbanks murder was solved.  
But I took to running past the house every time I passed that way.
A bummer         
When the old Parsi died, no one in Coonoor knew.  Mrs. I, not a day below forty years, was seen as usual in her car, veiled and shadowy.  There was of course was no wailing or beating of chest.
 Life went on, until one day, the people of Coonoor noted that Mrs. I now sat in the front seat of the Studebaker with a white man.  Soon, we came to know that this man’s name was Havers, said to be from Bangalore and very rich. “Ah! How she catches the rich ones!” the women in the Club said, their voices dripping with envy.  “But he is quite old, no” said one woman.  “All the better, he will die faster.  So she will get the Parsi’s money and this bugger’s too,” said another.     
A couple of months passed, the happy couple was not seen around.  Their ayah told the mali that dorai and doraichani were in England.  A new scandal engaged the town and the old lovebirds were almost forgotten.  Well! Almost! Then came the shocking news.
Havers had died while on a picnic to Law’s Falls.  Apparently the two had come back, not from England but from Bangalore.  They didn’t make it to England.  It was in Bangalore that she discovered that Havers was not rich; in fact he had no money at all.  They had hoodwinked each other about being wealthy.
According to the servants’ grapevine the couple was fighting bitterly by now.  The picnic at Laws Falls was an attempt at a rapprochement.  While the driver waited in the car, the two of them made their way across the slippery rocks.  It was here that Havers lost his footing, he slipped, one foot got caught between two rocks and he was dangling upside down, under the waterfall with water running over him. 
By the time, help reached him, he was dead. 
Mrs Havers was not seen for some time in Coonoor.  After a couple of months of speculation whether the white bugger had been murdered, the story was no longer of prime interest.  Then one day, just like that, she was back.  A new man in tow! “This one better be rich,” said the town wit.  “Or she will dangle him over the waterfall.”
But she was not lucky this time, also.  The new man, let’s call him Hammers, was made of sterner stuff.  He was younger than her.  No picnics for him.  If there was no money, she had to find it.  She pretended to be the rich widow of not one, but two men.  So now, she would have to get the money.  She decided to sell the house; the word was passed around in Bangalore.   
Then all hell broke loose.  The Parsi’s sons landed up from Bombay.   They stayed in the club and made some noise. She was not married to the old Parsi so she had no claims, they said.  All their father’s will had permitted was a one- third life right but she forfeited that when she remarried.   They gave her and Hammers twelve hours to clear out.   
Nothing was heard of the old girl for some time.  Then someone from Coonoor saw her in Bangalore.  She was working as a housekeeper in one of the big hotels there.
“If she had sat quietly, she could have lived in that house, no.” said the wise people of Coonoor.
A cure for heartache

Varkey biscuits as comfort food are in a class of their own.  You can only buy these crisp, flaky and not very sweet biscuits in the Nilgiris.  Nowadays you get different varieties of Varkey biscuits.  But the classic version is the best.
The origins of this gastronomical delight are a bit obscure. But an apocryphal tale attributes the discovery of the Varkey biscuit to a baker who worked in Crown Bakery in Coonoor. 
The baker was kneading the dough for puff pastry, when he used too much flour.  Before his error was discovered he made round balls and baked them into a kind of biscuit which is a bit like its ugly cousin of the plains, the pora.  The biscuits were displayed in the glass case and when one customer asked what they are called, the owner of the bakery said, “Varkey biscuit” naming it after the mallu baker who baked it.
Besides heartache, it cures other aliments which plague the nonresident Coonoorite such as homesickness and nostalgia.  How it works.  Take a Varkey biscuit, apply Amul butter on the flat surface, dip the buttered side in sugar and eat.  It is most effective when it is washed down with fragrant, high elevation, single-estate tea.    Jude, though, recommends a glass of red wine with the Varkey.