For Anjali Lobo, her father was her hero. Wing Commander Karun Krishna Majumdar was not an ordinary man. He was the first Indian Air Force pilot to be honoured with the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) by the Royal Air Force not once, but twice for his daring leadership during World War II. In 1945, when Majumdar was awarded a second Bar to his DFC, The London Gazette praised him for his operational skills and LIFE magazine listed him as one of the 12 best pilots in the allied air forces for his work in Burma and Europe.
Born on September 6, 1913, in a landlord family in Kolkata, Majumdar went to England in 1932 to join the Royal Air Force Flying College at Cranwell, where he impressed the instructors with his exceptional flying skills. After graduation, he returned to India and joined the newly established No1 Squadron of Indian Air Force. His skills won him many fans and friends who gave him the nickname Jumbo. “The sheer breadth of his personality, courage and forthrightness was the reason why he was given the nickname Jumbo,” says Lobo, who lives in Pune with her husband, Commander Noel Lobo, a retired naval officer.
Whether it was flying a Lysander and dropping bombs on enemy targets with accuracy or taking off on risky test flights with indigenous modifications, Majumdar was always at the forefront, leading every mission.
When he was posted at the Tuogoo Airfield in Burma, the Japanese attacked the airfield and damaged several aircraft. Only the IAF’s Lysanders remained untouched. Majumdar planned a retaliatory attack and flew out in a Lysander with two 250lb bombs. Flying at treetop level, he entered the Japanese base and dropped the bombs with precision, destroying the hangar and the aircraft in it.
In September 1941, when No1 IAF Squadron and No 28 RAF Squadron were grounded on account of a technical snag, Majumdar dared to go for a test flight with a modification of wooden tail wheels, as suggested by a colleague, despite being aware of the risks involved. “Courage was one of the qualities that my father valued most in life, and truthfulness. In his diary, he has made an entry saying courage pays greater dividends than timidity,” says Lobo. Majumdar played a crucial role in building the IAF, establishing several training centres across India and increasing the number of squadrons from one to nine by 1944.
On February 17, 1945, Majumdar crashed to his death during an air show at Lyallpur, now in Pakistan. Lobo was four at that time, but has fond memories of her father. “I remember him with his horses,” says Lobo. “There was a provision in the railways for service officers to take their horses wherever they were transferred. So his horses went everywhere, to Ambala and later when he was fighting in Europe, they were in Jalandhar. So that’s one memory.”
Another memory is about his typewriter. “It had his name painted on it, which my mother gave to me,” says Lobo. “It was here [in Pune] for some time, then we decided to send it to the Air Force museum.”
While Lobo was trying to preserve her father's legacy, her brother Sailen K. Majumdar decided to sell their father's war medals. Sailen is a chartered accountant settled in the UK. Says Lobo: “Four years ago, he telephoned me from the UK and said that a Punjabi-speaking gentleman got in touch with the family saying he had our father’s medals and wanted to sell them. Then, through a very complicated route, he [Sailen] acquired them.”
It was done without meeting or speaking with the Punjabi gentleman. “When asked why he didn’t meet or speak with him, my brother said he didn't understand Punjabi,” says Lobo. “The medals then were with him. In October 2014, he telephoned me and said, 'I don’t want my children and grandchildren to squabble over these things, so I am going to sell them.' He went on to say, 'Our father would have been very happy and proud that I am doing this. To which I replied, 'I am sorry, I don’t think our father would have been happy or proud that you are selling his medals. He died for the Air Force and for the country.” That was the last conversation Lobo had with her brother.
When THE WEEK contacted Sailen over the phone, he said: “I have been completely honest with my sister. When I told her about the medals, she didn’t express any particular interest in them. In fact, her exact words were, 'If I were you, I wouldn’t bother. Everybody knew our father had a DFC and Bar.' I even asked her if she wanted to be part of the reacquiring process but now, my sister says, she doesn't remember any of the conversations.”
But why did Sailen acquire the medals in the first place if he didn't want to keep them? “Because he [Majumdar] was the founder of IAF, a war hero and a legend,” says Sailen. “I went through a rough and torturous journey to find and reacquire them because the person who had them did not approach me directly but approached my wife [they are now divorced].”
And, how did the medals reach the Punjabi gentleman? “After my father died, my mother had her beautiful saris, photographs, and other objects of value in two tin trunks in Jalandhar,” says Lobo. “We were living in Jalandhar and in summer, as you know, people used to sleep outdoors in those days. So we were sleeping outside. One night, there was a burglary and the trunks were stolen. I remember the police coming and so I can only surmise that the medals were in one of the trunks. Maybe, the person who stole them, after decades, decided to find out where my brother was.”
In November 2014, the auction house Morton and Eden announced that the medals were up for sale. “The auction, for which my brother had given a cutoff price of 20,000 pounds, didn’t get an offer beyond 15,000 pounds. So they were not sold,” says Lobo. “After the media put pressure, the Air Force paid more than 30,000 pounds for the medals. I have no negative feelings that the medals have been given to the Air Force. It is what my father would have wanted but the fact that the Air Force had to pay to acquire them, I don’t think that is very nice.”
In a statement Sailen faxed to THE WEEK, he said: "I am delighted that the medals are now in the safe custody of the IAF Museum. This will be for the benefit of posterity and all those who are interested in the history of the Indian Air Force and the founder."
People often ask Lobo if her brother was facing any financial constraints. “The last time I saw him, he was driving a lilac colour Mercedes with a customised number plate. I don’t think he needs it,” says Lobo. “I see his point and I would have happily said, 'Give them to the Air Force', but I don’t think he should have asked for payment. That is my point.”