He may have gone to battle as one among many in uniform, but is set to return home as a hero of the one of the biggest conflicts of modern times.
Relief for Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman—cheering millions who prayed for his safe return—came after Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on Thursday that the captured Indian pilot will be released on Friday as “a gesture of peace".
Varthaman was captured on Wednesday after his MiG-21 Bison went down in Pakistani territory amid a spiralling conflict between the two nuclear-powered nations.
As the fate of the pilot dominated headlines at home and abroad, thousands of Indians offered prayers for his return.
His return topped the agenda of the country’s political and military establishment.
Further evidence of the soldier’s valour came on Friday morning when Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported how he fired shots and tried to escape from a mob after his plane crashed. As the locals attacked, he jumped into a small pond and tried to swallow some documents and maps in order to save crucial data going into the enemy’s hands, the report said.
Hundreds of people marched into a temple near the Western Ghats, Chikmagalur in south Karnataka on Thursday, to offer “special poojas" at Sri Durga Parameshwari and Ganapathi temple, for the safe release of Varthaman. Further south, fans rushed to offer similar prayers in Kodagu district, possibly one of the biggest supply grounds of soldiers to the Indian armed forces.
Large numbers of Buddhist monks also convened in Mumbai’s Buddha Vihar, praying for his return.
The pilot was shaped by his upbringing in a family that has “seen the world", said a person who is close to the family but requested not to be named.
“His father was an ace test pilot of IAF and a Wing Commander (retired as an Air Marshal) himself. His mother was in charge of ‘Doctors without Borders’, a voluntary aid organization that reaches out to places where normal medical help would be hard to come by. They have seen the world," said the person.
“Right from when he was a small boy, Abhinandan wanted to be only a fighter pilot, not even a normal pilot. And he achieved that."
His father, a highly decorated officer, Air Marshal (Retd.) Simhakutty Varthaman, said in a statement, “We are so proud of him. I thank God for his blessings, Abhi is alive, not injured, sound in mind, just look at the way he talked so bravely...a true soldier... we are so proud of him."
“I am sure all your hands and blessings are on his head, prayers for his safe return, I pray that he does not get tortured, and comes home safe and sound in body and mind. Thank you all for being with us in this hour of need. We draw our strengths from your support and energy," he added about his son—easily the most recognizable face of the conflict.