Chennai: A bad attitude. That is what Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman said in an eight-year-old video when asked what it takes to make a good fighting pilot.
A brave mother too, should perhaps be added to that list of attributes, going by the accounts of those who know the pilot’s family well.
Retired Group Captain Tarun K Singha, who has known the family for decades, said that the image of a calm, composed Abhinandan that many saw after his capture by the Pakistani Army just shows the genes that Abhinandan inherited from his mother, Dr Shobha Varthaman, who has worked in many conflict zones all through her career as a doctor with Medicine Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders).
“She epitomises the quintessential woman of substance. She has served humanity amidst cataclysmic violence, healed the wounded in some of the worst conflict zones around the world, ensured mothers and their newborn survive post-delivery complications in Haiti,” Gp Capt Singha told News18 about Dr Shobha.
He emailed Dr Shobha to offer solidarity, but did not expect an answer in these stressful times.
“But she replied with such composure within 15 minutes, even so late in the night. It just shows her character, her mental strength and tenacity,” Singha says about the mother of this braveheart soldier who found himself in enemy territory on Wednesday.
A woman toughened by serving in war-ravaged countries, Dr Shobha has also been an activist for healthcare and education. More recently, she launched an online campaign to increase punishment for child sexual abuse convicts two years ago.
“She was very bold from her childhood days. Both father and mother are bold, but she in particular, perhaps because she has faced tough times. She and her siblings grew up losing their father early,” said her cousin C Kundanadhan.
What Singha writes in an earlier article about her, however, is something that gives a closer look at the dangerous places her work at Doctors Without Borders took her to.
“In the northern terriroty of Ivory Coast in 2005, only AK-47s and machetes ruled. She went into rebel country, 300 km from the peace-keeping corridor of the UN,” Singha recounted in the article, the extract of which he shared with News18.
Liberia and Nigeria, post-civil wars in both places, were other places she was deployed in, “amidst perennial conflicts between the villages and the oil companies, government and the villages, oil thefts, intra and inter-tribal fights.”
She has encountered life-threatening experiences during the second Gulf War, in Iraq, where she was the only anaesthesiologist serving at the time. “For security reasons, those outside the blast area were radioed to remain indoors. But since I was the only anaesthesiologist, somehow or the other, they thought utilising me for work is more important than security. Even the surgeons were inside their hotels,” she told Singha about her experience.
She has seen the worst of the Iran-Iraq stand-off, and later served in Papua New Guinea in 2009 where she treated tribals who were injured with arrow heads and primitive weapons.
Her mercy mission in Haiti, after more than 300,000 people died in an earthquake, saw her running an orthopaedic hospital, a paediatric hospital in one of the most dangerous areas wrought by crime groups, Dr Singha recounts.