Bengaluru: Bruised, battered and bleeding from his face as he gave his name and service code to his Pakistani captors, Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, stood out by his calmness in the midst of an escalating India-Pakistan conflict.
The cool composure and politeness of the blindfolded IAF pilot was all the more astonishing as it came after he had been beaten up by villagers just after his MiG-21 crashed in Pakistani territory on Wednesday morning.
Rescued by a Pakistani Army captain (Varthaman thanked him with unfailing courtesy), the 38-year-old Indian with a handlebar moustache resurfaced in a second video later in the day, looking relaxed as he sat and sipped tea from a mug, his blindfold removed and face cleaned up by now.
Asked by an off-screen Pakistani Army officer if he had been treated well, Abhinandan replied: “Yes, I have and I’d like to put this on record. And I will not change my statement if I go back to my country also: the officers of the Pakistani Army have looked after me very well—they’re thorough gentlemen, starting from the captain who rescued me from the mob, and from his soldiers and thereafter the officers in the unit that I was taken into. This is what I would expect my army to behave as."
None of this came as a surprise to Satish Gopalan, an IT employee in Bengaluru, who had been shocked hours earlier to see images of his junior at school injured and bleeding. Like millions of people across India, he takes consolation in the belief that the IAF pilot will return to India before long.
The first video clip, which started circulating on Twitter after being shared by handles such as Radio Pakistan as evidence of the Pakistani government’s claim to have captured an Indian pilot, prompted a cry for the soldier’s safe return home.
Mint spoke to two people, who studied at the Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) near the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in Bengaluru, where Abhinandan went to school.
Gopalan recalls that Abhinandan—the son of a highly decorated officer, Air Marshal (Retd.) Simhakutty Varthaman, according to The New Indian Express—was “a real calm guy" in school. Another person, who did not want to be named, said that he was a batchmate. The two people said Abhinandan studied in Bengaluru’s DRDO KV until Class X and then went to the Kendriya Vidyalaya near the National Aeronautics Laboratory in Bengaluru, where he met and fell in love with the woman who was to become his wife, also an IAF pilot.
“We had heard that his father got posted to France, probably after retirement. His one sister was also in France," said Gopalan.
The second person met Abhinandan “sometime in the late 2000s for his wedding", but has little knowledge of where the family is located currently.
Some of that coolness that his batchmates spoke about was evident as the ex-Surya Kiran pilot fielded questions from his Pakistani captors. Surya Kiran is the aerobatics demonstration team of the Indian Air Force.
He clearly knew his rules too.
Asked where in India he hailed from, he replied: “Am I supposed to tell you this? Major, I’m sorry." And then as an afterthought of consideration, “I’m from down South."
Are you married? “Yes, I am."
There’s also the tiniest hint of wit. When asked which aircraft he was flying, Varthaman said: “I’m sorry major, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I’m sure you’ve found the wreckage."
“I hope you like the tea," said a Pakistani officer.
“The tea is fantastic, thank you," replied the wing commander, who has won his nation’s heart.