Penance at the Perumal’s

Sundaram's Tale

It was hot and humid, a Sunday with nothing much to do and I was bored. Looking down from the third floor of Ambika Nivas, the humanity teeming below on the Pycrofts road, linking the beach and the Royapettah high road looked incredibly busy. The vegetable market was swarming with people of all types, buying what they wanted and much they really did not need, items a vendor reduced prices for, just to get rid of his final stocks, quickly. Discounts and free offers are irresistible, as we all agree! Up on the third floor, the smells from below wafted by, fanned by the winds from the sea of the Coromandel, aromas alternating between that of fresh banana leaves, rotting vegetables, and sometimes smells from the Taj restaurant – of biryanis and curries getting readied for lunch. The Zambazar police station staff were on their toes, it had been a busy period in the morning as they released a batch of women picked up the previous night for solicitation. Interestingly, I learned some of the choicest cuss words in Tamil, hurled out by these pros at the cops, as they arrived and departed the said station!

The #13 bus which was snaking through Pycrofts at that instant, seemed to be having a lot of difficulties managing the street today, for many vendors had encroached well into the road. The conductor’s threatening retorts had changed to cajoling and pleading if only to let his bus through.

For me, it was indeed a vantage position, high above that Sunday’s microcosm, something I never tired of. Watching all the happenings down below, sipping a strong tea and munching the bun brought up by Mani, the boy from the tea shop below was definitely fun and I have to say that each Sunday was different from the previous one, even if the general pattern remained constant. For example, I could conclude that the Taj hotel was cooking mutton biryani right then and not chicken, that the cabbages on a distress sale had a lot of rot in them, that many of the women in the days Zambazar police release looked distinctly Nepali.

Madras is always Madras, I guess. Just walk a bit more westwards towards Gen Patters road, you will find umpteen automobile spares shops with lots of Punjabi, Sardar, Gujarati and Marwadi or Sindhi shop owners, and listening to their sing song versions of Tamil, is nothing short of amusing. Try slinking into the Amir Mahal, and you will hear a different mix of Tamil and Urdu, with that characteristic Muslim accent. Go on east towards the Presidency college and you will come across an educated set, but around Triplicane, home to many a bachelor, it is cosmopolitan with all types of people from various parts of India living in those mansions or lodges as they were called.

Theepatti Nair came by and stood at the railings with me, toothbrush in hand. He had slept late after the intense cards game with Babu, Thomas, Iyer, Johnson, and a visitor (who went on to become a famous singer), after they had consumed a few units of a relatively potent beer, can’t recall its name, maybe it was Haywards. I had avoided that party, just was not in the mood yesterday. Yeah, Madras in the 80’s was a prohibition state where alcohol was only available if you had a medical permit. Babu and a couple of others possessed these prized chits which allowed them the purchase of limited amounts or quotas of alcohol, for medical sustenance!

These were my friends and we lived at Ambika Nivas, a lodge adjoining the Arcot Raja’s palace, the Amir Mahal, which was the walled area of which I had written about previously. Ambika Nivas was a popular lodge for us young bachelors, difficult to get into and in those days a privileged abode due to its low monthly rent, proximity to Mount road, the Marina beach, Chepauk stadium, the many fabulous cheap eateries - Nair mess included, the many movie theaters, and so much more. Most of us worked in business districts nearby, I myself used to bus it to Easun’s at Parry’s corner.

Most of my friends lazed off on Sunday’s, eating a late lunch at Nair mess or some other nearby place, but I had a full day ahead, though set for the afternoon as I had relatives in town. It was somewhat of a mandatory requirement to visit them and so I alternated between one family – my aunts- located at the railway quarters in Mint - Washermanpet and another, a cousin and her family at Anna Nagar. Today’s afternoon destination was Washermanpet, but the morning was free. I had finished my ablutions and a relaxing bath, rinsed off a few clothes for the week ahead and was rearing to go, but with no definite plans. As I stood at the balcony railings, I could hear Yesudas crooning ‘En iniya pon nilave’, from that fascinating Bal Mahendra movie Moodupani, his mellifluous voice wafting through the open window from my faithful friend, the little Keltron transistor radio.

Now you the reader, must remember this was a period when mobile phones did not exist, in fact the only phone was locked up in the ground floor office area of Ambika Nivas, a device available only sparingly and during emergencies on office days, so meetings and plans had to be made beforehand, sometimes days or weeks in advance.

Finally, I decided to go to Egmore, where Nair worked. Nair lived at Broadway actually, and our friendship - one which was longstanding, stretched through our school and college years. Nair had mentioned to me that he had to go to his office on Sunday and do a couple of hours work. So, I knew he would be there, and so decided to get a hold of him, amble around Egmore and then probably shoot some breeze at the Fountain plaza where one could spot a hep crowd in those days.

On the back of my mind, Egmore was beckoning me for another reason. My friend, the beautiful lass Sarah, lived there. Well, now you should know that it was even more complex because she was engaged to be married to another Anglo-Indian chap, soon headed to England. I must admit I had a little crush on her, and if you had seen her then, you would have instantly agreed with me, film star looks, a lovely disposition and well, to top it all, a North Kerala origin. But she was taken and would fly the coop soon, nevertheless, she was nice to converse with. I had half a mind to drop Nair and call on Sarah at her hostel, but decided against it.

Anyway, after a 30-minute bus journey through Kilpauk, Choola, Pursuwalkam, etc. mostly standing, even though it was a Sunday, I arrived at Egmore. It was sweltering and hot, the month of August was never kind to the inhabitants of Madras and the old timers were eagerly hoping for or for that matter praying for rain, for the year had been terrible for the farmers and the non-farming kind. To get to Nair’s office, after having alighted at Egmore, I had to traverse the ancient Perumal – Vishnu temple. Not something I looked forward to, for in front of the temple there were always a line of beggars. Adding to that, the once holy river Cooum, adjoining the temple, stank to high heavens. Ah! That reminded me, did you know that Cooum was once called the Thames (which also stank before its cleanup) of Madras?

The beggars were there, some were disfigured, a leper or two, some had missing limbs or other issues, and most would pass muster as legit beggars, to a passerby. They all looked about right, and blended into the rotten scene. As I passed by, I could not but notice a disparity in today’s lineup. There was one young man, of course wearing oldish looking clothes, looking quite a Tamilian and bronzed, but there were many things wrong. On a closer look, you could see that his hair was not unkempt, it was recently cut, he looked clean, his nails were cut and his hands were not dirty or gnarled. Still, he did have a forlorn look in his face and he kept muttering the usual repeated endearing requests for a little bit of alms, money or food. Thaye, ethavadu kodungo, thayee, saaar, it went…

I was averse to beggars, just like so many others. Somehow, I could not agree with the concept of begging. Now you may wonder why I called it a concept. Well, it really is that and there is a solid basis for it in our culture and the Hindu religion (also I guess, in other religions). Asking for Bikhsha, is a Hindu tradition of begging for alms. It is considered to be a method to conquer one’s ego and was also practiced by Buddhists in order to attain Mokhsha eventually. Penance or atonement is incidentally akin to Prayaschitta, which they say is a dharma-related term and refers to voluntarily accepting one's errors and misdeeds, a form of confession, repentance, or a means of penance in order to undo or try to reduce karmic consequences. Wow! That is heady philosophy, so no wonder I did not understand all that in those days, as a young lad!

Nevertheless, let’s get back to Egmore. I walked past the line of beggars and the temple, got to Nair’s office near the Egmore station, a magnificent structure whose history and secrets I did not know in those days, stories of its creation, macabre stories of how one Alavander was chopped up, packed in a trunk and sent off to Rameswaram by a fellow Malayali from Palghat who felt Alavander had something going on with his wife and what not,  all stories I had covered in much detail earlier.

I got to my destination, met Nair, in fact pulled him out of the office, and off we went to the Fountain plaza where we ate some Pav Bhaji. Not having much else to do, we then trudged on to my aunt’s place in Mint. The railway quarters was (not sure if it exists anymore) a mini city with so much happening in there, and to top it the Anglo Indian family across the street, especially the daughters made it all so much colorful. My cousins would fill me on the highlights of the week and my aunt would add some masala to the gossip, just like she did in her fabulous cooking. After a lovely meal was consumed, Nair went his way and I took the bus back to Triplicane and Ambika Nivas.

It was just another day – a day that was quickly forgotten. But then, you must be wondering why I talked about a very ordinary day. As it turned out, it was not in the least bit, ordinary.

Forty years of life passed by. I drifted from place to place, country to country, continent to continent, family in tow. Life moved on and Madras was forgotten. Sarah got married and went to England, Nair moved to Delhi and became a big shot. My aunt passed away a long time ago; my cousins made families and went on to live their own lives. The aspiring singer became a well-known singer, my friends in Ambika Nivas had checkered destinies – one turned up in America, one fell off a bus and died, another passed on to a new world after a heart attack, and I lost touch with others. I braved the deserts and the oil culture of the Middle East, spent six years in the exquisite city named Istanbul, lived some years in England near the potteries and finally settled down in America. All of that spanned those 40 years. I made friends and we formed a small group in Raleigh. We met often, we vacationed together, we spent weekends chitchatting and got on to a satisfactory routine.

Until we were slammed by the COVID virus which changed our life, tipping it all over the side. While office work moved to a table and two screens, set up hurriedly in a bedroom, and kept me as busy as before, our social life took a huge hit. No more meetings, no more socializing on weekends, but we managed to keep in touch with meeting apps. On Fridays, we met during an hourly ‘happy hour video session” where over a glass of some choice spirit, we discussed both mundane and fiery matters, the week which had passed by and chitchatted, of course sometimes gossiping on zesty stuff.

Last week, somebody mentioned vagrants and beggars. And then my best friend Sundaram broke in with a little tidbit from his past “you know many years back, I did something like that, I was disgusted with a part of my life and did some begging as a penance, if only to get some mental relief”. He continued on “It was at that stage that I realized that I could forsake everything and live life without any luxury”.

A nagging thought was forming in my mind. I asked Sundaram “so, where did you go to try this experiment”? And he says nonchalantly “Oh! I went to Madras, in fact I begged for three days outside the Perumal temple at Egmore”.

I was aghast! I continued on “when was this?” and he says – “Oh, the summer of 1981”.

It was a stunning coincidence in the making; I simply could not believe it!

Egged on by the others for details, Sundaram went on

Those days I lived in Malaysia but visited India often. So, I went to Madras, and took up residence in a little lodge in Egmore. In the morning, I discarded my normal clothes, got into some old clothes - a dhoti and shirt, or whatever I had, not tattered though, removed my shoes and ventured out of the lodge. The lodge staff found it a bit curious but decided not to question me too much. I went on to the temple and took a position near the other beggars, sitting down among them. They were surely not happy and smelt something fishy, seeing through my guise instantly. Was it an undesirable, a journalist or some snoop? I tried to explain that I was there for a reason, but they did not buy it. Nevertheless, I was tolerated and not driven away.

The first day passed, I was getting into the scheme of things, but that was when I committed my first gaffe. In the afternoon a smart and well-to-do lady passed by the line of beggars caught my eye or perhaps it must have been my perfect pleading for a rupee or some food. Anyway, she stopped and dropped a Rs 1/- coin in my outstretched plate.

Like an idiot – I muttered instinctively ‘thank you’ in English as it was the first time I received and alms.

She looked at me with raised eyebrows for a while, our eyes connected, locked in for a good many seconds. This was after I said “thank you”. There was an inexplicable connection in that look, of that I am sure and then, she walked away. I was afraid to turn and look at her, but something made me do just that, look in the general direction, only to find out that she was standing a good distance away and staring intensely at me, studying me, maybe curious. She walked away when she realized that I was looking at her also.

I must have made about 5 or 6 rupees the first day, the second day was no different. My clothes had picked up an even older look by now, more jaded perhaps and I was blending into the terrain, so to say. After each day’s toil, I would go back to the hotel, have a light dinner, austere perhaps and sleep until the morning only to venture out into the dingy streets with those jaded clothes and an unwashed countenance.

By the third day I was a better beggar in looks and calmer, having had time to think of a number of things. I found that I did not miss much of my previous lifestyle, even at the end of each hot, humid and beggarly day. It must have been the exhilaration of my experiments with penance, but I distinctly felt better.

It was now the third day and I had planned to stop after three days. On this day, only one thing of interest occurred. The very same lady who had given me alms the very first time, passed by, dropped a food packet on my plate, said the words ’good luck’ and went on.

I could never forget that incident. I still remember those three days and I recall that event often. I never saw her again in my life. To this day I don’t know what she meant by her actions – perhaps she understood that it was my penance or whatever, anyway I finished the third day without anything more eventful, and left back for Kuala Lumpur, a better man, calmer in mind, all that inflated ego now thoroughly deflated, and more understanding of life in general.

That was my experience and experiment with penance, Sundaram said and concluded his short story.

All of this conversation took place just three days ago, and I continue to be flabbergasted. I did not tell him of my observation some 40 years back, I did not tell him how our paths may have crossed that many years ago, for I have still not come to terms with it. It could have been some other guy, and I can’t connect the two faces for sure, but it could have been Sundaram, It had to be!

It was all a long time ago, Madras has become Chennai, the roads have been renamed, life in Chennai has changed, everybody is so much more affluent, but the problems remain the same. I doubt if there are beggars in front of the Perumal temple anymore. But people are still dissatisfied, scurrying around, chasing days and a life which cannot be sustained in most cases. What if some of them stepped back, paused and observed their actions, like Sundaram did? Not necessarily at the beggar’s line at a temple, but wherever. Did Sundaram tame his ego? Did he achieve peace by that act of repentance at the Perumal temple? He believes so.

All this made me think of an interesting book I had read some time back – The Monk who sold his Ferrari. In fact, even more curiously, we have hundreds and hundreds of homeless people in America who have stepped away from their wealthy and prosperous lives, only to lead the new life they chose, on the streets, after perhaps getting disgusted with life and their doings.

But all I wonder now, is of that fascinating coincidence, if it was indeed one, just like the fact that the son of the very Judge who ruled on the Alavander case at Egmore, went on to investigate the OJ Simpson case here in Los Angeles, a few decades ago!

Or maybe it is not surprising at all, it is just a small world!


Note: Many parts of this story and many of the characters, are real people from my life, though some parts are fictional, then again, I won’t tell you which, so just consider this a work of creative fiction!

Madras Diary – Some other stories

The Alavander case 

Chennai days Part 1 

Chennai days Part 2 




Oak Tree – Intrigues at Charbatia

Only a few readers would have a decent idea about the CIA airbase in Orissa’s Charbatia, even though it has been talked about on occasion in the Indian press, and the details are at best murky except for a keen academician. As I got into studying the geopolitical involvements of the period during the short 1962 Sino India conflict, I found many an aspect relating to the base intriguing and interconnected, showing that there was so much more leading to it and many an aftermath.

The 1962 conflict between two nations which were somewhat friendly, led to a changed atmosphere in the Indian subcontinent. A deeply wounded India was shocked by the events culminating with the bloody conflicts between the 20th Oct 1962 and 20th Nov 1962. Defense Minister Krishna Menon, held responsible for the calamity, was quickly sent packing. His departure was also a precondition for support from America, and Nehru, chastened after what he always maintained was a Chinese betrayal, had to forego his old ideology of India as a nonaligned nation. Maybe he refused to believe Mao’s ideology that ‘The way to world conquest lies through Havana, Accra, and Calcutta.’

As Nehru appealed for support, Kennedy, prepped by Ambassador Galbraith, provided some of the support requested by Nehru, mainly small arms and aircraft carrier support (if required), stopping short due to his preoccupation with the Cuban missile crisis and the existing US ties with Pakistan. Later on, the Sino Indian conflict was discussed in more detail and Kennedy agreed in May 1963 that "We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India”. There are indications that even nuclear options were considered against China, should it be required.

Up north, the Russians were also seeing a breakup in their relations with China and a Sino Russia split was in the offing. Mao did not consider Khrushchev trustworthy or orthodox enough and the Russians in turn doubted Mao’s mental sanity. As the Sino-Soviet relations went from cool to a freeze during 1958 - 1959, the Russians reneged from a joint Nuclear development project in China and recalled all their personnel. China was also upset due to a lack of Russian support when the Dalai Lama fled to India and when Russia refused to side with China on the 1962 conflict with India. As things turned out, China decided to complete the Chic-1 (later named as Project 596) N bomb project themselves.

It was becoming clear that the Chinese would test their designs soon, perhaps towards the end of 1964. An alarmed America, considered ways and methods to stop this and tried to obtain support from USSR, but the Soviets refused the US offer to participate in a joint Soviet-American pre-emptive attack against the PRC. Kennedy was even mulling the use of “an anonymous airplane to go over there,” and “take out the Chinese facilities.” In the US, studies and ‘what if’ scenarios were quickly conducted. A neutral inclination was the conclusion since it was perceived that Chinese nukes would not be of any direct consequence to America and secondly, getting involved in this matter would only worsen American perception in SE Asia. In Nov 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated and since the election in Nov 1964 was close, President Johnson decided to maintain a dovish stance.

The CIA was tasked to determine as much as they could about China’s nuclear program, and details of where and when China might be ready to conduct a nuclear test. This was how high-altitude U-2 reconnaissance flights which had previously been used to map out USSR’s military might, were diverted to check out on the reality in China. It was a complex task but before we get to that, let’s get a brief overview of the American U-2 program.

The Lockheed U-2, nicknamed "Dragon Lady", was an American single-jet engine, ultra-high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft, usually operated by the CIA. By 1958, The US already had an airbase at Incirlik in Turkey. With Ayub’s agreement, the US established a facility in Badaber, near Peshawar. Badaber enabled the monitoring of missile test sites in the USSR, also providing key infrastructure and communications, and U-2’s could now take off from this airfield thus providing valuable photo intelligence in a pre-satellite era (the U-2 photos provided higher resolution in those days).

On 1st May 1960, however, during his next flight code-named ‘Grand sham’ in order to photograph ICBM and plutonium production sites (information which was needed before the important Paris summit planned a few days later), luck ran out for pilot Gary Powers, for the Soviets were waiting (It appears that one Selmer Nielson, a Norwegian who spied for the Russians had been providing the information about the flight plans and U-2 activity).

The Russians shot down the U-2, Powers ejected, was captured alive and the &^&* hit the fan. America who did not know of Powers’s fate, stalled, not admitting to the spying flights, but when Khrushchev produced proof that Powers was in their hands, the US president had to apologize and the summit meeting at Paris expectedly failed. The Pakistani’s fearing exposure and cornered by Russia, backtracked and stated that they had no idea of such clandestine operations being done in their backyard. Peshawar continued to remain operational even after; the US was now working with Pakistani pilots flying the Droopy RB 57B’s with side-looking cameras which could take photographs at 65,000-80,000 feet and 60 miles away. The Americans had in the meantime established airbases in Thailand as well as near Taiwan for the U-2, but the sites in China were still at the edge of the U-2’s capacities. The years 1960-65 were the years when the high mountains and areas bordering China, Pakistan and India saw much action.

A little recap on the US -Tibet-India involvements would provide a good backdrop to all this. It was in 1956 that the US, more specifically the CIA got involved in the Tibet matter, attempting to support Tibetan freedom from the Chinese, as the Dalai Lama left Lhasa and moved to Kalimpong in protest while the CIA established training camps and provided support to the Khampas of Tibet. The Dalai Lama had expressed his desire to flee to India when he met Nehru in 1957. Nehru was alarmed, and much as he wanted to help Tibet, he was wary of the Chinese reaction if he granted the Dalai Lama asylum. Adding to the tangle was the fact that both Mao from Communist China as well as Chiang Kai-Shek of Nationalist China in Taiwan believed that Tibet was an integral part of Mainland China. Thereafter, both PRC’s Zhou Enlai and US’s Eisenhower pressed Nehru on the Tibet issue, putting him under immense pressure.

Around Jan 1959, the Khampas rose up in revolt, and in March 1959, as the commotion intensified, the Dalai Lama fled south, with some supporters. After his departure, pandemonium broke out in Lhasa. At Chongye, the Dalai Lama, hearing that Lhasa had been taken, repudiated the 17-point agreement previously signed by his team and sped to the Indian border. Meanwhile, Nehru, requested formally to provide asylum to the Tibetan leader confirmed: “Of course”. By mid-April, The Dalai Lama arrived at Bomdilla. He met with PN Menon and AK Dave, but they could not come to an agreement since the Dalai Lama wanted to proclaim independence and form a ‘government in exile’ at India, together with his supporters. The Dalai Lama was welcomed in India but was warned not to talk about starting a local government in exile in India. As matters transpired, he settled down at Dharmashala, did allude to exactly that (independence), putting Nehru in a tough spot with China, from that point onwards.

Nehru in a quandary, faced the flak, all alone. In fact, just as the Dalai Lama was fleeing Lhasa, Nehru had recommitted his intention of maintaining good relations with China. Now with the Dalai Lama wanting to proclaim independence and welcome his followers there, he was in a real fix. China lodged strong protests, insinuating that India had kidnapped the Dalai Lama and was supporting the Lhasa rebellion, while Nehru pointed out that Zhou En-Lai had actually mentioned to him that Tibet was an autonomous region and not a Chinese province, as such. China wanted the Dalai Lama back. At this juncture, while the Soviet leader Khrushchev supported the Chinese, he also found fault with the Chinese authoritarian attitude which caused the rebellion in the first place.

America stayed silent, on the sidelines, ostensibly to insulate India and Tibet from further Chinese wrath. All this was entirely unexpected for the CIA and its Khampa guerillas. Faced with the might of the PLA bearing down on them, they lay low. Taipei signaled that they were not against the Tibetan leader’s aspirations, but did not do much more. The US stated that they could not formally recognize the Tibetan government in exile or an independent Tibet. On top of all that no other Buddhist country wanted to take over the Dalai Lama and his entourage. The Dalai Lama and his brother were miffed that the Americans seemed lukewarm though they had been supporting the Tibetan cause at the UN. In Oct the UN passed a resolution deploring Chinese violation of human rights in Tibet. But the Dalai Lama passed off a golden opportunity to visit the US (he wanted to be received as a head of state, which was a no go) and speak at the UN. Meanwhile, the CIA assisted Tibet Task Force continued with their skirmishes. Through the 1960-61 period, various airdrops were organized from the Thai airbase, and India did not object to any overflights.

All this could have had a direct bearing in the 1962 Sino Indian conflict. While most people dwell on the borderlines and the forward policy, I would tend to believe that the Chinese lashed out at the efforts by the Indians supported by the US in not only supporting the Dalai Lama establish himself in India, but also with a belief that India was coordinating and abetting the guerilla forces, keeping the PLA on their toes. It was a personal affront to Mao, and that I believe was the prime reason in his (in his unstable mind) wanting to teach Nehru, a lesson. The 1962 debacle followed a story we have dealt with previously, and after a 30-day conflict, the Chinese withdrew, leaving Indian morale in shambles and Nehru in a deep depression.

In 1963, Pakistan then went on to conclude a border agreement with China and pulled out of Tibetan covert operations which they had been supporting from East Pakistan. Ayub Khan under relentless Soviet pressure over the U-2 business later visited the Soviet Union in 1965 and gave them an indication that when the ten-year lease of the Badaber base ended in 1969, he would not renew it with the US. The American’s were still not ready with advancements to satellite reconnaissance and so the use of U-2’s was the only open avenue.

Now we get back to the U-2 business. On 11th Nov 1962, Nehru allowed the US to use the U-2 to check out border incursions by the Chinese and permitted its refueling over Indian airspace. The U-2 Detachment G which operated out of Thakhili in Thailand flew over India (overflight above Burma was not permitted) and took the pictures in Dec 62 and Jan 63, and these results were used by Nehru to update the parliament. The US did this for two reasons, first to determine the situation on the Indian border themselves and the second to establish a precedent with the U-2 overflight over India and to come up with the subsequent request of setting up a base in India in order to not only map the Western regions of USSR but also the Chinese nuclear and missile activities. During and after the 1962 border skirmishes, large amounts of small arms and training personnel arrived from the US, so also support in setting up an Indian intelligence network to run covert operations in Tibet (Operation St. Circus). This went on to create the ARC (Aviation Research Center) and the SFF establishment (Est 22) later, a story by itself.

The main person behind the development of all these plans and strategies from the Indian side was Biju Patnaik, a daring pilot (with numerous high-profile exploits to his credit) and Nehru’s friend, working with BN Mullik and the CIA, just as the war in the hills with the Chinese was in full swing. Patnaik was chosen by Nehru to discuss matters with the US concerning China and Tibet. In March 1963, Patnaik, as Nehru’s defense adviser, was sent to Washington. He visited the Pentagon and it is said that he also visited the CIA headquarters at Langley.

The main Chinese targets to be monitored were missile range in Kansu province, the Lanzhou reactor site and the nuclear test site at Lop Nur. The Thai U-2 flights did not quite pan out, and the Taiwan U-2’s were getting hit by Chinese SAM’s, so Galbraith requested a base in India, formally in the spring of 1963. President John F Kennedy reiterated it in his June 1963 meeting with President Radhakrishnan which the latter acceded to in principle.

Patnaik who had created Kalinga airlines had proposed but naturally, the pre-WW II airfield in Orissa named Charbatia. But it took quite a while and many deliberations between Nehru, Mullick, Patnaik and Galbraith before Nehru agreed to it. Detachment G continued to use Takhli when it staged four sorties over Tibet from 29 September to 10 November 1963. In late 1963, India finally resolved matters concerning the use of Charbatia Air Base (Oak tree) as a staging base for U-2s.

A lot of other activities related to the Tibetan tactical forces, also transpired at the Charbatia base meanwhile, under the aegis of what was known as Establishment 22. The Charbatia airbase, now code-named Oak Tree and still in the midst of a reconstruction, was a busy place, with work going on in full swing. Flights came in with equipment from Thakhili, and we get an idea of the situation on the ground from this quote - A relic of World War II, Charbatia had fallen into a severe state of disrepair. More remarkable than its poor condition were the precautions taken to keep the CIA's largesse a secret from the die-hard Soviet supporters among New Delhi's political elite. "We flew the last few miles just fifty feet above the ground to avoid radar," said pilot Neese Hicks. "We would land at dawn, eat a fast breakfast, and be back in the air toward Takhli."

Even though work was on, the strip suitable for the U-2 was completed only by May 1964. Patnaik donated steel furniture from one of his factories, cleared out his Kalinga Air Lines offices to serve as a makeshift officer’s quarters, and even loaned two of his Kalinga captains for the effort.

The first U-2 flight from Charbatia took off in May 1964, but it was not meant to be, for while landing, the flight had difficulties as the brakes failed on landing and the U-2 got stuck in the mud. Getting it unstuck quickly without the press and the leftists knowing, was a harrowing experience for the Americans. Jawaharlal Nehru passed away three days later, and further U-2 operations were postponed.

Detachment H in Taiwan flew over Chinese Nuclear installations in 1963. The Chinese increased their SAM installations and while the US had special jammers, they did not install them in these U-2’s for fear that it would get into Chinese hands if a U-2 was shot down. The situation was dire, precise information was needed badly about the nuclear program, but trained Taiwanese pilots and U-2’s themselves were in short supply and since three of the four U-2’s had been lost already by then. Detachment H’s overflights over the PRC were thus stalled.

It was already August 1964 and Chinese preparations to test their device were ongoing at the Lop Nor nuclear site. In desperation, the US allowed the installation of antimissile jammers on the remaining Detachment H’s U-2. But Lop Nor was 2,000 miles away from Taipei and inflight refueling was not possible. It was 1,650 miles from Takhili, and only 1,200 miles North of Charbatia. By the time the approvals came from Washington for a Taiwanese pilot to fly out from Takhili, the Chinese detonated their device on Oct 10th, 1964. While it is still not clear, it is possible that the Chinese used material from a Soviet-supplied reactor to detonate their test bomb and for the later tests used material from the Lanzhou centrifuges.

Anyway, more flights took off after Oct 64, returning with loads of photos. The next requirement was scanning over Lanzhou and Lop Nor using infrared scanners mounted on the last U-2, which was carried out in Jan 65. The flight went well, information was sent off to the US, but three days later the last U-2 of Detachment H was shot down.  More U-2’s were subsequently deployed and flights continued with the jamming radar switched on throughout the flight, in order to avoid SAM attacks. In Dec 1964, a couple of excellent operations were also carried out from Charbatia, as a forward staging base.

The CIA record states “The pilots and aircraft left Charbatia, but others remained in place to save staging costs. In December 1964, when Sino-Indian tensions increased along the border, Detachment G returned to Charbatia and conducted three highly successful missions, satisfying all requirements for the Sino-Indian border region. By this time, however, Takhli had become the main base for Detachment G's Asian operations, and Charbatia served merely as a forward staging base. In all Charbatia staged 4 flight operations, one in May 64 and three in Dec 1964. Charbatia was closed out in July 1967.

Then came 1965 and the 17-day Indian border war with Pakistan, following Pak’s botched ‘Operation Gibraltar’. China hinted at nuclear retaliation to support Pakistan, but harsh warnings from the Americans and Russians resulted in their earning a rebuke even from Pakistan. As years passed by and Pakistan warmed up to the Chinese, India cemented military ties with Russia and intelligence ties with the CIA. The Charbatia ARC communications center continued its operations.

Seeing that a lot of equipment and aid provided to Pakistan was used for the war effort against India, the Americans placed sanctions on both India and Pakistan. The furious Pakistanis retaliated by refusing the extension of the expiring 10-year lease and this resulted in the shutting down of the Badaber base and the immensely successful Earthling radar system. The CIA then established the Checkrote system in Taiwan. That was how and why the next CIA plot, Operation Hat at the Nandadevi monitoring station was hatched, which I had written about, earlier.

In 1969, the USSR planned to make a pre-emptive atomic-bomb attack on China, and asked the United States to stay neutral. The Nixon administration warned that such an attack on the PRC would provoke a Third World War. The US viewed the Soviets as a greater threat and wanted China to counterbalance the USSR, still annoyed by the earlier Soviet rejection of the American proposal of a joint attack on China.

As time passed by, equations changed again - China and the United States entered a tacit anti-Soviet alliance in 1972, just eight years after the PRC acquired a nuclear weapons capability. The US government pulled out CIA from the Charbatia program as relations with India soured in the early 1970s and with Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China in order to improve US-China bilateral relationship

The ARC unit constructed by the CIA together with Patnaik still remained, and RAW - Research and Analysis Wing, India's primary foreign intelligence agency, operated its ariel intelligence collection center at the ARC. Soon enough, satellite reconnaissance took over with ISRO managing most of it. Thus, by the late 1980s, Charbatia’s importance had considerably diminished. The Indian government didn't seem to know what to do with it. I read that the plant was even considered to produce bullet-proof government cars for politicians.

Two questions can be reviewed with the 62 war as a backdrop. Was the 62-conflict meant to teach India a lesson due Mao’s irritation about India’s perceived interference in Tibetan affairs. Was it an affront to the PLA’s attempts to create a stronghold on Tibet, something they had been trying since 1950? Was it due to the Indian support for the Dalia Lama, his formation of a government in exile, the support for CIA involvement, the Khampa revolts and especially the Tibet monitoring and training set up at Charbatia? I am starting to feel so, and that it was not really at all about the borders.

Or was it a ploy by the Chinese to draw world attention away from Lop Nor and the U-265 enrichment at Lanzhou as they raced to complete their preparation for an A-bomb test? The U-2’s were flying about, the Russians wanted to nuke China, the Americans wanted to nuke China, the underground shelters were still not ready, so perhaps a diversion was in order?  A quick in and out of NEFA as a shocked world watched?

Just a thought…

Meanwhile, the U-2’s continue to be in service.


Spying from the Sky: At the Controls of US Cold War Aerial Intelligence - Robert L Richardson

The CIAs Secret War in Tibet - Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison

Maddy's Ramblings- The Nanda Devi Episode

Directorate of Science and Technology History – CIA declassified documents

The U-2 and OXCART Programs, 1954-1974- Gregory W. Pedlow, Donald E. Welzenbach