Four Miles to Freedom is a true story that I first heard from my husband, who, like Dilip Parulkar, the hero of the story, was once a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force. Then in 2011 I met Dilip and discovered that he was a charming fellow with a great story to tell. It was easy to imagine him as a young man, obsessed with becoming a fighter pilot, and then, after his plane was shot down in the 1971 war, equally determined to escape from the POW camp in Rawalpindi.
And so I began to work with Dilip, recording his memories. My main problem at that point was that he lived on one side of Pune and we lived on the other, and the traffic is crazy. After a few trips back and forth we settled on long phone calls.
Over the next few months I was able to get in touch with most of the other men who’d spent a year in the same POW camp, including Grewal, who’d escaped with Dilip. I also discovered that the third escapee, Harish Sinjhi, had written a detailed account of the escape early on. With every man came more details of ejections, interrogations, and the day-to-day challenges of spending a year in prison. Thus the story expanded. It was no longer the simple tale of one man’s adventure.
My main challenges were getting specific details and establishing a chronology. Each man had some very vivid memories, but many blanks too. I wanted to know everything about day-to-day life in the POW camp. I wanted to know how they washed their clothes, what they ate, what they received in their Red Cross packages. And I needed to know when things happened. You can’t write a narrative without establishing some sort of chronology.
To help establish a time frame, I read though the Times of India for 1972, but found little there except at the beginning and end of the POW’s year-long ordeal. Then, after I had finished the first draft of the book, Dilip handed me a package of the letters he had written to his good friend, Inder Khana. Two of the letters had been written from the POW camp. These were a great find. In each letter, Dilip described his life at a specific time. He wrote about the arrival of mail, waiting for parcels, the lack of news, and how he and the other inmates passed their time.
As for other details, I just kept asking questions. My having lived in northern India 1967-69 was a help in some ways. I had experienced the cold in winter and the dust and extreme heat just before the rains. And because my husband was also a fighter pilot, I had some understanding of the comradeship of these men. Actually, the title I first had in mind for the book was This Band of Brothers.
The book releases on 3rd December and you can pre-order it here: http://bit.ly/IvsUUA
About the Author
Faith Johnston is a Canadian writer and former teacher. She worked in Chandigarh for two years and now lives in Winnipeg, Canada, and in Pune. She is married to Air Commodore Manbir Singh Vr.C, VM. (Retd). Her biography of one of Canada’s first women parliamentarians, A Great Restlessness, was shortlisted for six awards and won five. Four Miles to Freedom is her third book.