Real life incidents becoming fodder for fiction is not new. The challenge lies in capturing the nuances and intricacies of the incident with a pinch of fiction. In that sense, Four Miles to Freedom by Canadian writer Faith Johnston fits the bill.
It is the tale of three Indian fighter pilots who tried to escape from a prison in Rawalpindi during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, one that had changed the political geography of the subcontinent.
There were many books that give a sweeping account of the deadly war, but this intriguing novel tells how 12 fighter pilots from different ranks and backgrounds coped with deprivation and the pervasive uncertainty of a year in captivity.
Indians are on cloud nine having decimated Pakistan, but flight lieutenant Dilip Parulkar’s family in Pune is in a tricky situation; they do not know if their son is alive or dead. On the other side, Dilip and two of his colleagues turn the catastrophe into a greatest adventure of their lives.
Dilip is like any ordinary middle-class youth who does not have any military connection. His participation in the celebration of India’s first independence day in 1947 becomes a life changer. He decides to become a fighter pilot, much to the opposition of his parents. They consider it as a dangerous career. The birth of his younger brother prompts the parents to give him their reluctant permission; there starts his successful air force life.
War is not a new thing for him, his experience in 1969 war with Pakistan earns him the much-needed confidence. But this time he is shot down over Pakistani territory on December 10 and later captured and handed over to the army by villagers. Six days later, the war is formally ended and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman takes up his post as provisional president of Bangladesh. Twelve Indian fighter pilots are captured by the rival army.
Though the war has ended, they have to wait for their release till newly elected president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto takes charge.
But Dilip and his friends Malvinder Singh Grewal and Harish Sinhji have some other plans. Days of planning leads to their escape from the prison and their journey to freedom, a saga of bravery and determination.
The book’s clever and innovative narrative that is structured in parts with the sprinkling of humour and suspense makes it impossible to put down. The tale of grit and courage that never trembles is probably the high point of the novel.
In the initial days, the war prisoners are subjected to intense interrogation by the Pakistani army to gain insights into Indian strategies, military gear and fighter planes.
We read about Americans’ tacit support to Pakistan during the war. The book also throws light into the interrogation of Indian pilots by high ranking US air force officials to unravel the secrets of Soviet Union’s war planes. Though the pilots are caught near the Afghan border, they are unilaterally released by Bhutto later. Some chapters portray the good behaviour of Pakistani officers with Indian prisoners.
The author is married to retired Air Commodore Manbir Singh and the tale is based on interviews with eight fighter pilots and intense research into other sources.
The novel is supported by photographs and maps. Her biography on one of Canada’s first women parliamentarians, A Great Restlessness, won five awards.
The book has the suspense of an escape and is not based on a sagging plot. Faith Johnston has given a moving account of prisoners and a gripping story of their escapade.
She articulates their anxieties, despair, courage and tenacity brilliantly. “It is not a pompous story of battles fought and demons conquered, but a true account of unpredictable moments in the lives of some men.”