Jumping… definitely not to conclusion

“If your main parachute fails and the reserve also does not open… …then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.

A skydiving demonstration in September 1988 was a humbling experience for me as a member of Akashganga, the Skydiving Team of the Indian Air Force. It was a matter of rare honour to have been tasked to jump and land into the Nehru Stadium, New Delhi during the Pre-Olympic Trial Games to cheer up our sportspersons headed for the Seoul Games later that month. On bailing out of a MI-17 helicopter, the Stadium—with its maroon race track, brightly coloured PVC seats, fluttering flags, ribbons, and buntings—looked like a bouquet of bloomed flowers. It was packed to capacity with euphoric spectators. We, the jumpers could hear their cheering a thousand feet above the ground as we manoeuvred our parachutes to land in their midst. The gaiety of the occasion was an integral part of Akashganga demonstrations—a given. But what followed that day was something unprecedented for me.

I was bundling up my parachute after landing on a predesignated part of the track when a young mother—with a child she was barely able to lift, and an older boy in tow—managed to slip past the security cordon, and staggered towards me. “Sir, please… my son wants to touch you,” she urged and, before I could realise what was happening, put the little one down and stretched his hand to enable him to touch me, and feel my parachute.

Soar like an eagle; land like a feather…

“You said you wanted to touch the uncle who jumped from the helicopter… here he is…,” she said to the child as she pulled the elder boy who was a bit hesitant, and made him follow suit. “See uncle is like us… he is not different,” she added excitedly as she encouraged the two youngsters to feel my overall clad arms and shoulders. Then pointing at the younger boy, she said to me, “My little one thought you people are gods descending from heaven… he wanted to touch you and have a close look at your parachute. It’s indeed a big day for my kids. This event will remain etched in their minds forever.”

I was overwhelmed.

All this happened in less than a minute. The mother didn’t argue with the security personnel who had followed her to shepherd the family away. Having accomplished their mission, the three prepared to leave. And, even as the lady took the boys away, the older one managed to say with all the confidence he had mustered in the minute gone by: “Uncle, what if, your parachute had not opened?” Although I told the curious child that I was carrying a reserve parachute to provide for that contingency, his question kept ringing in my mind for a few days before it was consigned to the less accessed recesses of my brain.

Whipping open a reserve parachute in case of a total failure of the main parachute, is a standard drill all jumpers practice before emplaning an aircraft for a jump. I had gone through that mock exercise before each of the hundreds of jumps I had carried out. In the process I had begun believing that opening a reserve parachute if, and when need arose, would be a reflex action. It’s a different matter though, that the thought of my parachute really failing never crossed my mind.

Not too far in the future, I would recall my interaction with the boy, and his innocent question, with a sense of déjà vu.

It happened about a month and a half later when I had almost forgotten the Nehru Stadium incident. It was yet another Akashganga demonstration; this time on, at Air Force Station Ambala. An AN-32 aircraft with our team on board, was cruising at 225 kmph, 6,000 feet above the ground. The team leader gave thumbs up––the universal sign conveying readiness––when the aircraft was over the spectator-stand. He opened the barrier at the aft end of the aircraft and roared, “Go!” On that command, the team members jumped out of the aircraft one after the other in quick succession. I, being the lightest, was detailed to exit the aircraft last. Within seconds, we reached our terminal velocities and were falling at 120-200 feet per second. We had been assigned different (staggered) parachute opening heights to avoid a melee at the time of landing on the target––a circle of 15 metres diameter facing the enthusiastic crowd.

The Strato Cloud parachute I was jumping with, had an aerofoil-shaped canopy. Once deployed, it behaved like a glider. Rather than descending vertically, it glided with a good glide ratio of 1:3. Simply put, it moved forward three feet for every foot of descent. It could reach airspeeds of 40-50 kmph. Its manoeuvrability and high sensitivity to controls enabled experienced jumpers to execute pinpoint landings. They used to say: “With deft handling of the control lines, one can land on a target as small as a lady’s kerchief.” Miscalculation, on the other hand, could lead to serious injuries.

The spectators looked skywards and counted the jumpers who popped out of the aircraft like tiny pebbles. They held their breath waiting for the parachutes to open. The jumpers falling below me deployed their parachutes at their assigned heights. I too threw away my pilot chute—a small parachute which initiates the opening sequence of the main parachute. In a second and a half, my parachute was filled with air. And then began an ordeal, the memory of which, even today, sends a chill down my spine.

Akashganga days…

The suspension lines on one side of my parachute were jumbled up and the canopy was badly deformed. The partially deployed parachute began turning to the right. My efforts to untangle the suspension lines were in vain. In a few seconds, the turns became vicious; I was hurled like a stone at the end of a sling and spiralling down at a tremendous speed. I pulled down the lines to stop the turns. Thanks to the gruelling training sessions under Sergeant R Singh, I had developed strong arms to deal with such situations. My effort met with partial success. The turns slowed down to a stop (almost) but now the parachute headed for an incipient stall––a condition in which there could be a sudden loss of height (40 to 50 feet). Holding on to the lines would certainly result in a stall. I was still at 4,500 feet above the ground; a stall at that height would cause me no harm. But a stall close to the ground would be disastrous. I recalled with horror, an accident involving Warrant Officer Augustine who had been sentenced to the confines of a wheel chair for life due to a heavy landing.

There was a surge of adrenaline and yet my mind went on several quick errands. I was reminded of Mudit, my son, eliciting a promise from me while bidding me bye that morning to make a paper bird for him that could flap its wings. Let alone giving him lessons in origami, I wondered if I would live to see him again. Then I recalled Squadron Leader (later Air Vice Marshal) Ajgaonkar’s ordeal a year or so ago. In a similar emergency, he had promptly deployed his reserve parachute and landed safely. “Never Say Die” was the gospel he had passed on to us. “Am I in the same situation?” I began comparing. “His was a high-speed emergency––total failure of the main parachute. I was faced with a slow speed emergency; I had, at least, a partially functioning parachute over my head. What if I jettisoned the malfunctioning main parachute and the reserve parachute did not open?”

That must-be-avoided-at-all-costs conversation with my own self had a numbing effect.

Mudit… origami… Augustine in wheelchair… Ajgaonkar…. Had time coagulated? No, it was an illusion. Time, and height above the ground, the two most precious commodities for me were fast running out. The impartiality of the earth’s gravity was evident in the rate at which the unwinding needle of my altimeter was sweeping the face of the instrument.

“Should I risk a stall with a deformed main canopy, or jettison it and depend on the reserve parachute for a safe landing?” The dilemma was damning. I was a mere 2,500 feet above the ground and approaching it at a breakneck speed. I was left with a few precious seconds in which, to decide, and cram deliberate action on which, would depend my survival, and the safety of my limbs. I pulled down my goggles, which had got fogged due to excessive sweating.

Suddenly everything became tranquil, and clear. Reason booted out all the silly thoughts from my head. There was no basis for assuming the possibility of failure of the reserve parachute. It had been packed by the most proficient hands and overseen by the most careful eyes; those of the skilled and conscientious Safety Equipment Workers of the Paratroopers’ Training School.

And then…

I took the most vital decision––the decision to jettison the main parachute and go for the reserve parachute. A tug at the cutaway handle got me rid of the malfunctioning main canopy. With the Newton’s Law of Gravitation at work, I went hurtling down approaching Mother Earth at a very high speed, and accelerating. Then, without further delay, I pulled the ripcord handle of the reserve parachute. Sight of a fully deployed white canopy was a great relief. 

When the parachute opened, I was 2,000 feet above the ground level—just about sufficient height to manage an accurate landing. Joy rioted in my heart; the wind with prankish flurry caused the stabiliser of the parachute to flap rhythmically. Its flutter was music to my ears. Since I had lost sufficient height, I executed a tight circuit and homed on to the landing area. I felt victorious and exhausted when I touched down softly on the target.

As I removed my helmet and unfastened the parachute harness, I realised that the usual enthusiasm, and the frolicking associated with an Akashganga display, was conspicuously missing. In its place was a lingering melancholy. The main canopy that I had jettisoned a while ago had fallen a mile away from the spectators. They had taken it to be a case of a total failure of the parachute and had feared a fatal accident. Concern for the safety of the unknown skydiver had cast a shadow of gloom. They heaved a sigh of relief when they came to know the fact.

In the flight back from Ambala, I went through the day’s events. I also recalled my interaction with the little boy in Nehru Stadium: “Uncle, what if, your parachute had not opened?” Even in solitude, that thought registered a smile on my face. Then, mind, as is its wont, began wandering further. It flew way ahead of the aircraft, to my family in Agra. “How would I disclose the incident to my wife without causing anxiety?” I began contemplating.

At home, Chhaya was awaiting me at lunch with a plate of Russian Salad and her usual welcome hug. Having been a parachute jumper herself, she took the incident in a stride. I devoured the sumptuous lunch and was off for another Skydiving Demonstration in Agra that very afternoon.

That much to answer my little fan’s question about parachute failure. Parachuting today, is indeed as safe as safe can be—it is safer than crossing roads in Delhi. But then, there’s another curious question people sometimes pose: “What if the reserve parachute also fails?” Wing Commander AK Singh, a colleague veteran parachute Jump Instructor has an answer: “If your main parachute fails and the reserve parachute also does not open, then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.

The ODESSA’s Revenge

The ODESSA resurfaces after years of hibernation; this time on, in Sweden. Will the Police Department of Gothenburg be able to contain the onslaught of the infamous underground German organisation that now seeks to go beyond its mission of rehabilitating ex Nazis?

The number of people in Sweden who were privy to the real identity of Karl Gustavsson could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Gothenburg, only the Police Commissioner Johan Walin and the Chief Superintendent of Police, Erik Lindberg knew who he was. According to the information contained in the confidential file marked, “FOR THE EYES OF THE COMMISSIONER ONLY,” locked in the archive of the Police Headquarters, the Englishman, Mr John Brown was given that Swedish name, and an identity, when he arrived in the city in the winter of 1952 to help him evade the ODESSA (the German: Organisation der ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, meaning Organisation of Former SS Members).

The ODESSA—whose raison d’être was to facilitate the rehabilitation and survival of the ex-Nazis by providing them fake identity documents and asylum in sympathiser countries—had, as an exception, decided to go after one individual. To eliminate John Brown was an important bullet-point on their agenda. The Englishman had gotten on the wrong side of the underground organisation for collaborating with the Norwegian Resistance against the Nazis in the German occupied Nordic Region during the Second World War.

On February 20, 1944, John Brown, still in his teens, had smuggled and planted plastic explosives with alarm clock fuses on board DF Hydro, a steamship ferry on Lake Linn to sabotage the effort of the Germans trying to ship away a consignment of heavy water from a hydroelectric plant in Vemork to a safe location in Germany. Heavy water was a by-product of the Vermork plant. The facility had become the target of incessant air raids by the Allied bombers wanting to destroy the stockpile of heavy water stored on its premises.

Collateral damage in the form of fourteen Norwegian civilians, four German soldiers and seventy bags of charcoal and rations couldn’t be avoided as the sinking of the ferry served a much higher purpose—it thwarted Hitler’s ambitious plan of making an atomic bomb using the reserves of Vemork’s heavy water. Brown’s daring act withered the lingering possibility of the Fuhrer’s use of nuclear bombs in Europe well before Nagasaki and Hiroshima happened.

It was no wonder then, that John Brown alias Karl Gustavsson became a much-wanted man by the ODESSA. His security became Lindberg’s concern when the Police Commissioner entrusted him with the responsibility four years ago. Lindberg became the one-man-Swedish-contact for Brown. For understandable reasons, Lindberg and Brown avoided personal meetings but they remained connected anyhow. Once in a while, Brown scribbled cryptic messages on useless bits of paper and left them under a discarded bin kept in a corner of the unused bomb-shelter in the basement of his apartment in 9, Barytongatan. Messages meant for Brown—there were hardly any—were placed discreetly in the confessional of the Kaverös Church which he visited every Sunday. Those used to be mostly routine messages conveying normalcy at both ends. One of the housekeeping staff working in the complex was the pigeon who shuttled the messages between Brown and Lindberg. The messenger was oblivious and, to an extent, indifferent to the importance of those communications. He didn’t care as long as he was paid a few Swedish Kronas every month for those errands.

One November day in 2022, Lindberg received a badly smudged message from Brown that read, “202211091321.” It was signed hurriedly in red ink with a trembling hand and the bottom left corner of the paper was torn. In a mutually understood code, the message signed at 1:21 pm on November 9, 2022 was, in effect, an SOS from Brown. The Police Superintendent got the import of it instantly: “They have found me!” The use of red ink and the torn corner indicated that Brown felt extremely threatened—the ODESSA could strike any moment.

Lindberg looked at his watch. It was 4:30 pm. More than three precious hours had gone by since Brown signed the message. The pigeon, had taken his own sweet time to deliver the message. Unmindful of the urgency, he had indulged in Fika—a customary coffee break with friends—on his way to the Police Station. For Lindberg, the receipt of the piece of paper had sounded an alarm bell.

John Brown had to be saved at all costs.

The Police Commissioner was informed, and within minutes, the area around 9, Barytongatan was infiltrated by Lindberg’s men—they were inconspicuously attired; but well-armed to deal with any situation. Lindberg himself was in the guise of an old professor sporting a grey beard and round-rimmed glasses. The hearing aid he wore, was actually an earphone on which he was receiving updates from his team as he walked slowly with a deliberate limp. His alert eyes scanned the foyer for possible snoopers or eavesdroppers before he began climbing the flight of stairs to Brown’s second-floor flat. The only other flat on the floor was locked; the name plate on the door read: “Rukhsana & Salman Khurshid.” Lindberg had got them verified long ago—Salman was a Pakistani research scholar studying renewable energy at the KTH; Rukhsana was a conservative Karachi housewife who had still not got used to moving around the city without a burka or a hijab—the two were harmless.

Lindberg didn’t ring Brown’s doorbell; instead, he dropped his walking stick—deliberately and noisily. Then he cleared his throat and tapped Brown’s door with the brass handle of his stick—three short taps in quick succession followed by two with a little pause. As if he were waiting for the special knock, Brown whispered from behind the door, “Grouse!”

Gunnerside!” hissed back Lindberg.

Grouse and Gunnerside were two of the several operations undertaken to sabotage the hydroelectric plant at Vemork in the War years. They were also the chosen code words used by Brown and Lindberg to distinguish friends from foes.

Brown shut the door the moment Lindberg stepped in; he almost slammed it. “Good afternoon, Superintendent Lindberg! You are rather late,” he accused the visitor raising a frail finger which didn’t exactly point in Lindberg’s direction. “Coffee? Or, wine? Help yourself. The bottle is on the table.” Brown said, gesturing towards a side of the table where there was nothing. A bottle of Chambertin was kept on the other side of the table; it wasn’t even in Brown’s peripheral vision.

“We didn’t want to raise an alarm… had to be discreet. Besides, the area around here had to be sanitised for your sake.” Lindberg said as he poured himself some wine and sat down on a stool by the window. Brown put his hands in the pockets of his waistcoat and paced slowly in the restricted space surrounded by sofas and chairs. For a man who’d seen 92 summers, he walked erect; spoke slowly, and clearly, with emphasis.

“There’s a weird guy in the apartment yonder,” Brown came straight to the point. He gestured at the window of the flat opposite his and continued, “Hmm… …maybe he’s a mulatto… paints his forehead sometimes…. I’ve crossed him at Wily’s on two occasions in the past. Also, saw him through my binocs just yesterday. He drinks from a mug bearing a SWASTIKA. Every evening, for the last few days, he’s been sending coded messages using his bathroom light; kind of Morse Code. I understand very little of it… learnt it long ago, when I was supporting the Allied war effort in Norway. I have tried noting down his messages… but the guy is too fast. Perhaps he has accomplices in the flats nearby or, they stand in the street and take down notes,” Brown groped for something on the mantlepiece as he continued. He found his spectacles and put them on. His moist greyish green eyes appeared much enlarged, owl-like, behind the thick cylindrical lenses.    

He took out an old leather-bound diary from the drawer of his study table and flipped open a dog-eared page. “Here’s the code—the dahs and the dits… and below it… I have tried deciphering it… might not be too accurate,” he proffered. For Lindberg, the illegibly decoded message was as difficult to read, as the coded one. He couldn’t make sense of either. He too had forgotten all of the Morse Code he had learnt as a boy scout; and the Police Department didn’t use the Morse Code anymore.

“May I take your diary to get the messages analysed by experts? I cannot spend time on it now. At this moment my priority is to move you to a safe location elsewhere…”

Brown declined to handover his diary to Lindberg. “I regret I can’t hand over my personal diary to you. You can, discuss it with me later. And, how will you move me out? Those guys must be all around. They won’t let me go.” Brown was skeptical; tad paranoid.

“I have got something to steer clear of that situation,” said Lindberg as he pulled out a black burka from his handbag. “I suggest you wear this and depart in the guise of Ms Rukhsana, your neighbour. That’s a sure way you can leave without people getting suspicious,” he told a reluctant Brown. “I want you to go straight to Nymilsgatan Station and take the first tram to Haga. Two of my men will shadow you all along. A cab waiting at Haga will take you to your final destination where you’ll be as safe as in an oyster. The taxi driver will be a police sergeant. Grouse and Gunnerside will continue to be your passwords in your interaction with my men. You needn’t bother about your belongings in this flat. They will be delivered to you in due course of time. I’ll leave your flat in an hour, after watching the target flat for some time.”

While Brown inveigled himself into the Burka, Lindberg telephoned one of his deputies, and instructed him to post a team to observe and report any suspicious activity in the target flat. “Inspector Anders, I want you to personally follow anyone who leaves that accommodation,” he was categorical. After Brown’s departure, Lindberg stood behind the venetian blinds in the balcony and studied the target flat. There was no perceptible activity.

It was dark at 5:30 pm in Gothenburg; none noticed a lady in burka enter and leave the Kaverös Church. As an afterthought, Brown’s prudence had nudged him to tear a page of his diary—on which, he’d jotted the coded messages and which was of special interest to Lindberg—and to leave it in the confessional. He’d brief Lindberg about the messages later, he thought.

Ten minutes later, it was Anders on the line: “Chief, there has been no activity or movement in the flat you directed me to put under surveillance. The caretaker of the building, says that the flat has been vacant since Dr Klaus Schmidt, a research scholar at the KTH vacated it and returned to Berlin more than six months ago.”

“Then, who on earth has been sending those messages from the bathroom of that vacant flat over the last few days,” a stunned Lindberg got concerned.

“Stay put and await my instructions,” he told Anders and disconnected; only to receive another telephone call and a damning bit of information.

“Hello Chief! Sergeant Lundin here. I had picked up Mr Karl Gustavsson from Haga and was driving him to Nordin Villa in Tuve District when he suffered a bout of hiccups and was gone even before I could pull up by the roadside…. Just a few hiccups and…, and he was no more. I tried reviving him but my effort was in vain. Dunno what happened….”

“Dammit! Are you sure he is dead! Rush him to the City Hospital… see if he can be revived. Ask them to conduct an immediate post mortem, if he’s really gone. Secure his diary and other belongings, and get them over to my office,” directed Lindberg.

First, the light signals from an unoccupied flat. Then, Brown’s death under strange circumstances. Was it a natural death? Or, had the ODESSA gotten him? Had they infiltrated the Police Department to get Brown? Would they be content with killing the Brit? Or, they would also inflict punishment on the Swedes for sheltering Brown? How would one account for the coincidences?

Questions! And, more questions!

Lindberg needed some time to organise his thoughts and plan further course of action. He slumped in the nearest sofa and swallowed the last swig of the wine. Even though his mind was badly cluttered, and he was preparing to leave, he kept surveying Brown’s flat to find answers to the many questions swirling in his mind.

In those moments of confusion, his fleeting gaze returned to a document that had been lying on the table ever since he entered Brown’s flat. It was a Test Report—Brown’s eye test report. He scanned the page mechanically; re-read a line which declared that Brown was suffering from extreme myopic astigmatism. It was a vision defect because of which he couldn’t see far or straight. For Lindberg, that accounted for Brown’s thick cylindrical lenses. The sleuth also concluded that, with a vision defect of that nature, Brown was perhaps pointing at a different flat than construed by Lindberg earlier in the evening. It had to be the flat next to the one under surveillance by his team.

“Oh my God! We are on the wrong track,” he said to himself and stood up to and took a second look at the flats opposite Brown’s. There were two of them—no light or activity in either. “Observe and report on the neighbouring flat and its occupants as well.” Lindberg ordered Inspector Anders to widen the span of his surveillance.

At the City Hospital.

It was difficult for Lindberg to trust an expeditiously prepared and presented post mortem report which concluded that nonagenarian Karl Gustavsson’s death was natural. “There is more to the death of this man, Gustavsson, than discovered and reported by the medics,” a suspicious Lindberg told the Police Commissioner, “We might need to brace up for a follow up by the ODESSA. I am trying to get at the bottom of the case… will update you, soon.”

Back in his office, Lindberg opened Brown’s diary with extreme anxiety. He was aghast when he saw the most relevant page missing. He rechecked the diary but to no avail. That page was just not there. Were his men siding with the ODESSA? “Lundin! Sergeant Lundin! Where’s he? Get him here, instantly,” he yelled at no one in particular.

“Sergeant Lundin, one page of this diary is torn… and… and missing. Who tore it? Where is it? Where are Gustavsson’s other belongings? Where’s his waist pouch? See if that page is there in the pouch. And, see if it is in the pocket of the burka he had discarded after boarding your car.” Lindberg fired a volley of questions and orders when Lundin reported to him.

“I really don’t know, Sir. I got everything that belonged to Mr Gustavsson as it was.”

“Did you leave the car any time? Do you think someone might have had access to things in your car?” Lindberg tried to calm himself down. He felt miserable doubting the integrity of his most trusted aide.

“I had left the car for a good thirty minutes to complete the documentation to handover Mr Gustavsson’s body to the Hospital staff. I wonder if during that time someone managed to open the door and took away something of importance?” Sergeant Lundin sounded innocently confused and clueless.

“How can you be so callous?” Lindberg withdrew. “I’ll call you later. Dismiss for now.”

Lindberg’s hope of cracking the case now hinged on finding the guy who had been flashing messages from the flat under surveillance. He doubled the strength of his team on the watch. At any cost, he didn’t want the mulatto to slip out of his hands. Lindberg himself patrolled the area several times through the night. But there was no trace of the man.

The news of the death of Mr Alfonso Clement came as another bolt. The registered occupant of the flat was found dead on a bench in the park in Tynnered under mysterious circumstances. “HEART SEIZURE,” was the cause, declared the post mortem report. The preliminary report submitted by Inspector Anders to Lindberg brought out the fact that several objects in Mr Alfonso’s flat bore the SWASTIKA.

Lindberg visited the flat to establish a possible ODESSA link. But the case took a U-turn when it was discovered that Mr Clement was a Keralite from India. A worshipper of Ganesha, he displayed faith in the religious Indian symbol of SWASTIKA as different from the Nazi SWASTIKA. The symbol appeared on everything from Alfonso’s table-cloth to bedsheets and pillow slips; from covers of notebooks and diaries to his bedside lamp; from items of crockery to his cufflinks and tiepin. His colleagues in VOLVO’s Sales Department, where he worked said that sometimes he even painted different symbols on his forehead with sandalwood paste.

On the Police Commissioner’s insistence, Lindberg closed the file and the case of the death of John Brown alias Karl Gustavsson, but some questions continued to baffle him: Why, and to whom did Alfonso Clement send those coded messages by flashing the bathroom lights? How did that page with the coded messages disappear from Brown’s diary?

Lindberg would go to his grave with those questions.

Postscript.

December 1, 2022. Kaverös Church was being spruced up for Christmas. A conscientious Ms Eva Holm was cleaning every nook and corner of the complex when she saw a shabbily folded paper wedged between the partition wall of the confessional and the wooden floor. Her curiosity wasn’t aroused by what she thought was doodling and artwork of a confused teenager whiling away time in the church. She shredded and consigned that paper to the bin marked ‘RECYCLE.’ Around the same time, a Dr Kurt Waldheim, an expert on life cycle assessment of electric car batteries, rented the apartment in which Mr Alfonso Clement had spent his last days. Before moving into the apartment, he thanked the housekeeper, “Thank you Mr David, I am glad everything has been done up nicely… to my satisfaction. I am particularly happy about the replacement of the faulty switch in the bathroom. That light, coming ON and going OFF on its own repeatedly, was quite distracting; nagging at times.”