The recent Netflix movie ‘Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl’ has brought into focus Indian female pilots in combat. However, the life of Sreevidya Rajan, a Keralite who retired as Flight Lieutenant and was the first woman pilot of the Indian Air Force (IAF) to fly in a warzone, is more dramatic.
Sreevidya belongs to Thathamangalam in Palakkad district, a rural area. When she joined Government College, Chittur in Palakkad for a degree course in Chemistry, becoming a pilot was a distant dream. At that time, Sreevidya was proud of her long hair and liked to adorn it with jasmine flowers. However, hard work and perseverance transformed Sreevidya, making her the first helicopter pilot to fly to a battlefield in India, during the Kargil war of 1999. Before earning glory, Sreevidya faced several failures, but each of them strengthened her resolve to become a pilot. Incidentally, Sreevidya’s life reveals many incidents that the film ‘Gunjan Saxena’ ignores.
Sreevidya’s father was in the Indian Army and retired as Subedar Major, while her mother worked as a teacher in Thathamangalam. “Even though Daddy was in the Army and served at various places, mother and we four siblings lived and studied at Thathamangalam. During vacations, we travelled to Daddy’s workplace and I wished to serve the country by joining the armed forces. However, at that time, the Army allowed women to serve only in the medical corps. I wasn’t interested in that profession and wanted to be a pilot,” says the path-breaking IAF veteran.
Sreevidya’s family did not have the financial resources to send her to a flying school and she joined a regular degree course. During her final year, defence wings in the country began inviting women to join as pilots and Sreevidya too applied.
“Though I cleared the preliminary tests, the second-level screening lasting four days was too tough for me. I returned home in despair,” she recalls.
But Sreevidya did not lose hope. Instead, she identified her shortcomings and worked towards overcoming them. “Those days, I was too thin, weighing a mere 49 kg. Thathamangalam was a real rustic place where girls didn’t engage in any sports activity after a certain age. So, I was not physically tough. Moreover, having studied in Malayalam medium, my English conversation skills were poor,” she says.
She made another attempt at the defence pilots test after training hard. However, she couldn’t succeed again.
By that time, Sreevidya had completed her degree course and joined the post-graduate course. She also worked part-time as academic counsellor at firm called Brilliant Computers in Palakkad. This job helped Sreevidya to polish her language skills. Meanwhile, many people told her to abandon her flying dreams and look for another job. But Sreevidya knew that she couldn’t settle for anything else and trained still harder for the defence test.
On the third attempt, all her toil paid off and Sreevidya was selected. “It was a great feeling. I received the call letter within two months and on joining, I realized that I was placed first on all-India basis. There were three selection centres in India and coming first was indeed a big surprise,” says the brave officer.
Sreevidya also learnt a valuable lesson in life. “We should learn from our failures and work harder. Success will certainly be ours,” she says.
Sreevidya belonged to the fourth pilot batch of the IAF. “The first two batches were of transport pilots. Our training was at Air Force Academy at Dundigal in Andhra Pradesh. I was so excited and happy, but the first couple of months were tough. Training started early in the morning and lasted till night. We didn’t have time even for a bath. Moreover, lights had to be switched off at 10 pm sharp. With no other option, I took a bath in the darkness as we all were covered with dust and grime after a day’s training. But, when I came out of the bathroom, the seniors were waiting for me. I received suitable punishment,” she says.
During training, Sreevidya realized that her long tresses were a bother and trimmed them. Her long nails and shampoo on hair too were gone. “Soon, the new look became a habit,” she reveals.
On her training, Sreevidya says that there were no gender disparities at the academy. “Even the punishments were equal for men and women. I’ve seen boys crying and recognized that I was tougher than them. I never shed tears,” she says.
The difficult training was intended to make the trainees tough, she adds.
Receiving her commission after one-and-a-half years, Sreevidya was posted at Udhampur in Jammu-Kashmir sector. “An extreme climate prevailed there and I received special training for flying there. A total of 22 pilots were there, including Gunjan Saxena and myself. Soon, the Kargil War of 1999 broke out and IAF too joined the combat. As the nearest helicopter unit was ours, we were sent to Srinagar for battle duty. Having flown in Udhampur since 1996, we were familiar with the area. However, we had no idea that we would be the first women pilots to engage in combat duty in India,” she explains.
At Srinagar, Sreevidya was poised, feeling neither fear nor mental tension. “I was tasked with rushing injured soldiers from the battlefield in Kargil to the Army Base Hospital at Srinagar and only the mission remained in my mind. Apart from casualty evacuation, we also carried out communication sorties and air maintenance. I spent two weeks on duty there and Gunjan Saxena
came along with the next batch,” says the veteran.
During a casualty evacuation, Sreevidya had to take an injured soldier whose leg had been crushed below the knee to hospital. “Even though he had been given first aid, the soldier was in agony. He was in unbearable pain till we reached the Base Hospital,” she says.
Film vs reality
There were rumours that the film ‘Gunjan Saxena’ had affected Sreevidya’s friendship with Gunjan. “This is not true. We regularly speak over the phone and we are still friends. We were very close while at Udhampur and tackled many problems together,” says Sreevidya.
But, the Bollywood movie disappointed Sreevidya. “The real Gunjan is a very positive person and not weak as shown in the movie. In fact, only a person who is tough can succeed in this field. If the filmmakers had been faithful to the real incidents, the movie would have been an inspiration for many young girls,” says Sreevidya.