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Dhira Chaliha – Assam’s First Lady Pilot

Dhira Chaliha – Assam’s First Lady Pilot

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Dhira Chaliha

Step back in time to 1961, when Dhira Chaliha, the first lady pilot from Assam, made history. Explore her journey from childhood curiosity to defying societal norms, and her triumphs as a pilot. Join us in a captivating conversation about her life’s untold tales for the first time in a magazine.

Way back in the year 1961, when the grass was greener and the sky was blue, hundreds of men and women assembled on the outskirts of Guwahati. They were watching the landing of a plane, the landing which was destined to etch its mark upon the annals of time. While the act of a plane landing was a common affair in Ajra, the unique allure of this particular occurrence captivated their imaginations. For, you see, this plane was being flown by a lady- a lady named Dhira Chaliha, the first lady pilot from Assam.

More than six decades later, on the day I write this narrative, Dhira Chaliha settles down on a cozy couch in her exquisitely decorated living room, sipping her freshly brewed Assam tea as I join her in a conversation trying to find the untold tales about her life.

Dhira Chaliha Hazarika now

When I asked her what ignited the flames to be a pilot, with a nostalgic gleam in her eyes, she replied “As a young girl with unyielding curiosity, I used to climb up the tallest tree in the backyard of our house in Jorhat. From the tree, I could see the war plains resonating from the Burma battlefield, while my sisters were busy playing on the ground. Perhaps it was then that the seeds of my destiny sprouted, intertwining with my cherished dreams.”

“So you were born in Jorhat?” I asked

“Yes, on the 7th of January 1940,” she continued with a smile on her face “I remember my first school was Gitarthi in Jorhat. But when I was eight, the family shifted to Guwahati where I joined the TC School to complete my intermediate.” She went on to inform me that she completed her education at Hendique College Guwahati.

She added, “During all this time amid a world ensnared by conformity’s grip, my father, Kamaleshwar Chaliha, was always encouraging me to live freely, despite the pervasive undercurrents of societal opposition.”

“Of course, times were different then, and without your father’s support, it must have been impossible. So when did you join the flying club?” I asked.

“It was during the winter in the year 1959 when my father came across an announcement in Assam Tribune and asked me to apply. It read…

The youth of the region are invited to apply for 6 fully funded training scholarships to become pilots within two years. Apply for an interview.

Assam Flying Club, Gauhati Airport, Jalukbari”

Young Dhira Chaliha at the Flying Cub

She continued “My mother Anamika Chaliha was not happy though. For it was the era of the 1950s, an age in India when matrimony beckoned young women to forsake their aspirations and preside over domestic affairs.”

I could relate as I read about those bygone times when the feminine voice was shrouded, bereft of agency, unable to resonate with the winds of change or sway the tides of fate. However the next day she found herself on her way for the interview with the support of her father.

Two weeks later the postman emerged, bearing a letter that would forever alter the course of her life. Within its delicate folds lay a proclamation, a testament to her triumph. Amidst a sea of countless aspirants, her name emerged victorious, a beacon of distinction – the scholarship, a coveted treasure, was hers to claim, a testament to her indomitable spirit that soared high above a thousand competing souls.

Young Dhira ChalihaShe went on narrating the day of her enrolment. “It was 4 in the morning when a jeep bearing the emblem of the Assam Flying Club transported me and my fellow trainees to Borjhar. Thus commenced a ritual that would repeat itself twice a week over the next two years.”

She went on to inform the training was on two-seater propeller planes, namely the legendary Tiger Moth and the homegrown Pushpak. She showed me the pages of her log book, an intricate tapestry of accomplishments, documenting an array of training maneuvers—loop the loops that intertwined her path with the sky; exhilarating ascents reaching for celestial heights; forced landings amidst verdant paddy fields, the aircraft jolting along in billows of swirling dust; daring descents towards the earth before the deft hand of control restored equilibrium; elegant figures-of-eight etched in the boundless expanse; and audacious low flying, where the world became an intimate tapestry beneath her wings.

Then came the big day, the day for her solo flight. She narrated “I was a bit surprised when the instructor declared my readiness for a solo flight. I started the engine and as the securing blocks were removed I moved forward. Gradually the plane defeated gravity, soaring upwards into the sky, and there it was my very first solo flight.”

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Young Dhira Chaliha with kids

She went on to narrate how she used to fly from Gauhati to Tezpur, Jorhat, or Shillong, and back just in time for her college classes. During one of her flights, she was caught in a turbulence. She describes the incident and recalls “It was as if some unknown power was determined to put me down that day. Every time I tried to level the plane I was pushed the opposite way. Finally, after much effort, I landed. You see those days landing the flight was a task as there was no radio communication.”

The tales of Dhira Chaliha bear witness to her rebellious spirit, even during her teenage years. In the early 1960s, as a massive bridge took shape over the Brahmaputra River at Saraighat in Gauhati, she embraced audacity. Construction work had commenced, with colossal pillars emerging from the riverbed. Against all expectations, she fearlessly soared between those very pillars, coming perilously close to dampening the undercarriage of her aircraft. Undoubtedly, this daring maneuver was far from being part of any conventional training regimen.

Then arrived the juncture of verity, the moment of truth, the day she completed her 60 hours of solo flight, thus heralding the metamorphosis of Dhira Chaliha into the first lady pilot from Assam.

Dhira Chaliha's Pilot Licence

Two years later she got married to singer-composer and lyricist Karnal Hazarika and moved to London. Her wish to fly after marriage was honored by her husband who used to take her to Biggin Hill in Kent. She narrated a funny incident on her first visit to the flying club.

“I went to a flying club with my husband in a mekhla chador. I thought they would just ask me to fill up the forms that day and not let me fly. Well, when we both reached the flying club, the officer asked my husband to come along to try out the aircraft. My husband had to make them clear that it was me, his wife, who had come to fly. The officer was surprised to see someone wanting to fly in a sari.”

Dhira Chaliha Hazarika with herPilot Licence

As the conversation reached its culmination on this day, I find myself compelled to express a sentiment that resonates deeply within the heart of a journalist. In the course of our vocation, we encounter individuals whose presence lingers eternally, leaving an indelible mark upon our souls. In contemplating these profound connections, there arises a single word that encapsulates the essence of such remarkable individuals—Respect. Madam Dhira Chaliha, embodying grace and strength, stands as a shining exemplar among them, forever cherished and held in the highest regard. My salute to you madam.

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