Once upon a time, a little girl was told that women shouldn’t fly airplanes …
I grew up knowing ‘mum flew planes’. This was one of a series of simple facts in my childhood: my sister and I were born in London; our parents came from India; dad sang; mum flew.
She told us stories about her teenage flying days ‘looping the loop’ above the clouds and performing steep dives towards the ground. She’d show us her album filled with old sepia photos of her standing proudly next to a small airplane.
The logbook pages had rows of handwritten entries of all her flights, each a flying adventure and she spoke about them with excitement and emotion, tinged with a hint of longing to be up amongst the clouds again.
Our mum, Dhira Chaliha, got her flying wings in 1961, at the age of 21, in India and to us as children, it held no amazement because we had grown up with the fact. But clearly for a woman at that time in that place, it wasn’t ordinary.
It was exceptional.
Not just because flying required formidable courage in small planes without parachutes or radio contact, but the courage to break the mould and trail-blaze – in the 1960s, when women had barely made it out of the home in to an office and many people held the belief that the skies were no workplace for a woman.
Mum was born in 1940 in Assam, British India, and as a child, would climb trees to get a closer look at the warplanes that made bombing runs to and from the Burma battlefront. I can’t help thinking, it was perhaps high up in those branches of a backyard tree, while her three sisters played on the ground, that the seeds of her dream were first planted.
Too often the sands of time scratch away at the dreams of youth – reality sucks the air out of them, and detractors burn away the oxygen. Perhaps her dream would have died but for one winter’s evening at home in 1959, in the light of a paraffin lamp, she came across an announcement in a newspaper:
The youth of the region are invited to apply
for 6 fully funded training scholarships
to become pilots within two years.
Apply for interview.
Assam Flying Club, Gauhati Airport, Jalukbari
Her father agreed at once, her mother wasn’t happy. I never fault my grandma for having those thoughts. They were the thoughts of their time, not before. She was born in the late 1800s when women in India got married to men arranged by parents, to look after the home and when women around the world didn’t even have a say or a vote. My grandma must have thought, how did airplanes fit in to their life? Flying was bizarre. Untraditional. What would people think? This could affect her marriage chances. She just wanted the best for her loved daughter in the way she had always known.
My grandfather, Kamaleshwar Chaliha, was a man years ahead of his time, a Gandhi-ite of simple living and high thinking, a professional writer and poet, an egalitarian who invited so-called ‘untouchables’ in the neighbourhood for meals in his house. His was the final say and it was strangely poetic and a tad paradoxical that patriarchy had liberated my mum to fly.
Two weeks after the interview, the postman handed her a letter. Out of thousands of applicants, she had won a flying scholarship and she was elated.
On the enrolment day, at 4 am, an Assam Flying Club jeep arrived to pick her up with the other trainees and so started a routine that would happen twice a week for the next two years.
The flying lessons took place at sunrise before her college classes, on small two-seater propeller airplanes, the legendary Tiger Moth and the native Pushpak. Her log book lists all the training manoeuvres; ‘loop the loops’; ascents; forced landings in paddy fields that made the plane bump along in clouds of dust; diving towards the ground before pulling level; ‘figures-of-eight’ and low flying.
Although the lessons were exhilarating, college classes and going home must have paled in to the mundane in comparison. Her mother was still not happy about her daughter taking flying lessons and would lock the front door every evening and hide the key, but my mum would listen carefully from her bed for the tell-tale sound, the slight tap of a key on wood, so she would know exactly on which shelf or door-frame it was hidden.
One morning the flying instructor told her she was ready for her first solo flight. “Just watch your descent angle when you land,” he advised before wishing her luck and hopping out of the cockpit. She was taken aback for a few moments but then ran through the training in her head.
A hangar-hand pushed downwards sharply on the front propellors which whizzed in to life; the engine spluttered then roared at the touch of the throttle; the plane hummed; the chocks were pulled away; the plane taxied forward.
She picked up speed and pulled on the joystick, the grass verges on the runway started to blur. Gradually, the plane became airborne and climbed as she sank deeper into her seat. And that was it. Her very first solo flight.
Now there was only her, the aircraft the early orange sun in a sapphire blue sky and the intense lightness of being free. Exaltation. Elation. Joy.
Assam has many small airstrips most of them created during the Second World War and her solo flights took her zig-zagging across the skies, from Gauhati to Tezpur, Jorhat or Shillong, and back just in time for college classes.
Air traffic control was rudimentary to say the least: without radios to communicate, gaining permission to land was simply a case of circling the airstrip until the light at the control tower turned green.
During one notable solo flight, her airplane was caught in a violent monsoon thunderstorm, buffeted in dark clouds, with deafening thunder claps that made her ear drums sing and hurt. She describes the incident as if it there was some power outside the plane who was determined to counter her every manoeuvre to see her perish – every time she pushed to level the plane, heavy turbulence would try to push the plane the opposite way, taking it out of control. She eventually managed to ascend the monsoon storm in to tranquil blue sky.
It’s evident from her stories that mum had a rebellious-teen streak too – in the early 1960s, a huge bridge was being constructed over the Brahmaputra River at Saraighat in Gauhati and construction had started with huge pillars rising from the river bed. She dared to fly between the pillars nearly getting the undercarriage wet – this clearly wasn’t part of the training.
In March 1961, hundreds of people gathered in the village of Azara by the airport to spot a small buzzing dot in the sky, to catch a glimpse of the Assamese girl who flew.
After 60 hours of solo flight, Dhira Chaliha, became north east India’s first female pilot. She was aged just 21.
If she had been a man, she could have perhaps pursued her career further and gone on to earn her commercial pilot’s licence, to fly airliners, but things are more complex for a woman, especially in India.
Two years later she got married to my dad and came to London, where she continued to fly in Biggin Hill in Kent – each time, my dad would have to explain that he wasn’t the pilot, but the diminutive woman in a sari by his side. Soon, she had to choose between family and career. Her dream beckoned further, but she chose her family.
Nevertheless, those years, when she soared above eagles, between jealous clouds, gave her an unshakeable self-belief. Today she helps inspire young women in north-east India, a role model for women to achieve their dreams no matter the odds.
Today, nearly half a century later, when boarding a flight she still feels an urge to turn towards the cockpit not the cabin. She still harbours a desire to go up in a small plane once more and take its controls. Her eyes light up at the very thought.
It won’t surprise me if she does one day, for she’s my mum… the pilot.