The author recalls the time she spent in an idyllic town in Odisha that harboured big secrets.
When the Central Intelligence Agency recently revealed that Pandit Nehru had allowed American planes to use the airbase in Charbatia (Odisha) in the 1960s, I wondered if I could finally write about the time I spent in that place. I lived there as a teenager in the 1980s, when my father — who was in the Indian Police Service — was posted there. It seemed a place so unknown that nothing happened and yet so secretive that, even years after I left it, I could hardly mention it.
The biggest excitement was the open-air weekly movie that unfolded on a white cloth screen to show us Hindi movies already a decade old. Even this was surpassed one evening when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Charbatia; rather when his plane landed in the Air Force Base. I asked my father if he could ask for the Prime Minister’s autograph. He refused; no one was even supposed to know he was there. In the end, the Prime Minister’s visit lasted little more than half an hour.
Charbatia was a 35-minute drive from Cuttack, the main city of Odisha. Postcards marked the place as the Aviation Research Centre, though there didn’t seem to be anything like a research establishment around. The town seemed idyllic, a total contrast to the chaos of Cuttack with its cacophonic streets, mismatched houses, the smell of urine and low-hanging dust clouds. Everything in Charbatia was orderly. Regular streets cut apartment blocks into perfect squares and it had a club, a park, even a library where I made my first acquaintance with the genre called the ‘American adventure novel’.
We travelled in a bus to school in Cuttack. The vehicle, I learnt later, was designed just like American school buses, with the engine in a smaller square box in front, so that it looked like a beetle on the road. But it was the American connection that was, of course, the best-kept secret of all.
Some afternoons, I rode my bicycle, with my sister sitting behind, up to a patch of eucalyptus trees at one end of the airbase. These were totally unusual for that part of Odisha and planted in a far too orderly manner. All we could see behind the fence were the tail ends of planes: the AN-32s and the Lear jets. The former, of course, were Russian-made and used as transport planes. The American Lear jets, we were told, were used for training purposes.
The planes flew everywhere on their strangely hush-hush missions, not just to Delhi. However, by this time the surveillance operations on the Indo-China border were a thing of the past. But the stories lived on: of the pilot who had flown 11 hours non-stop from a U.S. base and then was so terribly exhausted that he lost the will to return home.
Nevertheless Charbatia had had a life even before the 1960s. This area had witnessed action during World War II. At that time, there were a string of airbases all along the coastline. Besides Charbatia, there was Amarda in Odisha that served as a Royal Air Force base and one at Jharsaguda, in the north. Now, in the 1980s, there were flights to other smaller, and perhaps equally secretive, air bases; places we knew as Kakardooma up in the north and Doomdooma in Assam. The former was where the Special Frontier Force, set up as a special unit with China in mind, had its base.
The 1000-odd families that lived in Charbatia mainly comprised defence and administration personnel. And the scientists: a group of greying men, as secretive as the work they did. They worked on special surveillance cameras that recorded images that could be reinterpreted and re-imaged in labs where grainy fuzzy aspects emerged to become clear features of landscape. I remember one expert with cameras who had an old-fashioned gold Edwardian pocket watch with a double Albert watch chain on his waistcoat.
My father was in charge of the administration and it seemed a fairly manageable place. There was hardly anyone in the streets in mid-afternoons or late evenings; it resembled a dead city at these times. Once, a rape was hushed up in the quarters of the junior staff. On another occasion, our household help turned up wailing after she was put in custody for one night on charges of ‘vandalism’ and public rioting.
By the late 1980s, however, Charbatia had considerably diminished. The government didn't seem to know what to do with it, yet the secrecy remained. We learnt that it would be used to make bullet-proof government cars as security concerns suddenly became important around that time. Most families from there moved to Delhi. And my friends became batch-mates or juniors at one of the many colleges that made up Delhi University. We learnt again that the houses were to be sold off to private developers and owners.
But, of course, Charbatia continued to live on. Even as threats of war in the Kargil sector loomed in 1999, planes flew from there to report on movements of Pakistan forces on the border. In more recent years, there has been news of the Indian Air Force reviving its old airbases, including Charbatia. With the release of archival papers, and an acknowledgement of its history, Charbatia’s story can have new beginnings.