12:00 AM, January 31, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:50 AM, May 29, 2015

Damayanti's war

Damayanti's war

Wide Angle Desk

India's national badminton champion for three straight years -- 1968, '69 and '70 -- Damayanti Tambay quit playing in 1971, about 18 months after she got married. She had a more important job to do -- search for her husband.
She last saw her husband Flight Lieutenant Vijay Vasant Tambay on December 3, 1971, in the Ambala Cantonment Area, where the family lived. Ambala was bombarded in the war.
The same evening Tambay's squadron moved to a forward area. The first few nights she spent in the bunkers and later moved to her parents' place. Subsequently they heard on the radio that his plane had been shot down and that he was missing.
Damyanti's constant companion since the war has been a yellow, crumbly copy of the December 5, 1971 issue of the Pakistan Sunday Observer. It tells her that her husband, a Sukhoi pilot whose name in the report is wrongly spelt as “Flight Lieutenant Tombay”, was one of five pilots captured alive.
Her hope flickered in 1979, as a minister told parliament that 40 Indian defence personnel were still in Pakistan jails. RS Suri, whose son was among those missing, formed a group, later called the Missing Defence Personnel Relatives Association.
Damayanti has made several trips to Pakistan.  She was particularly convinced after visiting the Faisalabad jail. A Bangladeshi naval officer, in India on training, told her he had seen Flt Lt Tambay and other Indians in that jail during his own incarceration as an East Pakistan naval cadet during the war.
The pilot had scrawled his name all over the walls of his cell, the Bangladeshi officer told her, adding that it was the first time he had seen a Sikh man.
But when 14 people -- wives, brothers and one daughter of the missing men – visited Pakistan, they found no records of the imprisonment of the East Pakistan cadets in the jail, and those of the earliest Indian prisoners in the jail dated to 1976.
"You have to start with the conviction that you're dealing with human beings, that this isn't just another file sitting on the table," Damayanti once told BBC.  
"If you're destined to be alive, you're alive."


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