While I was studying at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok, I received a letter from Capt. Apte of Air India that I should meet him at hotel Rama Tower on Silom Road. He wanted me to collect a food parcel that my parents had sent. Capt. Apte suggested 11 am Sunday to meet. This was in 1981.
I wasn’t familiar about Bangkok and did not know where hotel Rama Tower was located – so I asked a Thai friend. He told me that it was simple –“take AIT bus and at the last stop; get down to take city bus no 15. After few minutes you will hit on Silom road and you will see a 20 storied hotel on your left – that’s Rama Tower” He said. I decided to leave early so that I reach on time.
I took bus no 15 as instructed but couldn’t see a 20 storied building for a while. After 20 minutes of ride, when a tall building appeared on the left, I got down. But to my horror, that tall building was not Rama Tower but a Hospital! When I inquired, I was told that I was almost right (!) but was in the opposite direction (!!). My Thai friend had forgotten to tell me to cross the road first and then take Bus 15! So, I crossed over and queued for Bus no 15 , now in the right direction. I reached Rama Tower 60 minutes late wading through Bangkok’s traffic. It was already drizzling.
I used the house phone of the hotel to reach Capt. Apte. He wasn’t in the room and I realized that he must have stepped out after waiting for me for an hour. I sat waiting at the lounge and left a message at the reception. I knew this was going to be quite some wait.
After another hour a short man approached me and asked “Are you by any chance Prasad Modak? ”and when I nodded, he shook hands with me and said that he was Capt. Apte of Air India. I was expecting a tall person with a handlebar mustache with a bunch of air hostesses around. I was a bit disappointed to see someone “not Captain like” and instead a simple and friendly man.
I went along with him to collect the food parcel. Just then the cockpit crew entered the room. They were all set to play a game of the bridge with Capt. Apte.
In the meanwhile, the rain had paced up and it was showering rather heavily. We looked outside the window as we heard the thunder. There was a clear sign of flooding.
“Prasad, I suggest you wait in the room– let this rain subside, else you will get stuck” said Capt. Apte. He was right. I decided to stay on and instead of playing bridge we all got into conversations. I noticed that his crew called him “Chotu” because he was barely 5ft 4 inches tall. So apt, I said to myself.
I left after two hours as we saw that the buses were now moving on the streets.
I returned to AIT rather late. My friend Narendra Shah, who is now a Professor at IIT Bombay, asked me the reason. I explained the mess, the rain and then about Capt. Chotu Apte.
After some pause I said “Naren, I think I am marrying his daughter”. Naren was surprised. He asked me whether I knew that he had a daughter in the first place. I said I don’t know as we never spoke about family, but something tells me that I am going to be close to this man for the rest of his life. I still remember this strange conversation we had in October,
In the summer of 1982, I got engaged to Kiran Apte, Capt. Chotu Apte’s daughter. We got married in December 1982. The mistake in taking the wrong bus no 15 and the torrential rain thereafter was perhaps a providence and for a purpose. Some things are often pre-decided.
In his suit in Rama Tower (L-R) Mahesh Athavale, Sayona George, Kiran Modak, Capt Apte and me
In the family, Capt. Chotu Apte was known as “Daddy” . He became a Daddy to me after I lost my father in the same very year. He not only supported me financially when most needed but taught me how to live life for others – without saying anything.
I had occasions to fly with Daddy on few sectors of Air India. Sitting in the seat of “check pilot” with he commanding the aircraft was a great experience. I used to think that Captains who fly at 40000 ft must be understanding the “ultimate truth” and hence should live like a sthitapradgyna (detached but yet connected). I don’t know about other Captains, but Daddy was indeed a case of sthitapradgyna. He used to often talk about the vision of northern lights and the “dim fireworks” in the skies while crossing the Atlantic.” You experience and see God in these visions” He said.
Daddy lived in poverty when young, He used to sleep on a footpath on one of the streets of Shivaji Park that I cross even today. But he painstakingly worked hard to become a pilot in Air India from a position of a radio officer. He joined Air India in one of the early batch of pilots in 1950s and became one of the first Commanders. His Air India colleagues used to say that it always used to be a funny sight to see this “chotu” maneuvering the giant Jumbo Jet.
Daddy was not just a popular pilot, but was well known for his smooth landing of the aircraft. No wonder he was a preferred Air India commander (besides the great Capt. Maharaj Godbole, a 6ft 2 inches captain in contrast! ) by all top personalities and politicians. We have in collections, letters written to him by JRD Tata, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Morarji Desai etc. appreciating his flying skills.
Daddy lived and always wanted to live a simple life as compared to many in Air India. He drove Cortina a 1600 cc automatic Ford car. When he would be on the wheel, the car used to glide like an aircraft. He loved playing bridge and play a game of chess with my son Pranav. But more than anything he enjoyed beer and wine sessions with friends. That was the phase post retirement.
With a glass of wine
Whenever I used to return from my travels abroad we used to have a beer and wine session at his house. He had a great collection of beer glasses made out of Pewter with wooden base that he had shopped in Singapore. I used to tell him my travel stories that were many times entertaining and he loved to listen, especially those from Cairo – a city he had fond memories.
In 1992, Daddy suffered a massive heart attack and had to undergo a bye-pass surgery with Dr Nitu Mandke, one of the top cardiac surgeons of those days. Dr Mandke was an extremely busy surgeon and getting a date of surgery from him was very difficult. But when I approached him, he said “tell me Dr Modak, who is this father in law of yours? – Must be a well-known person as I am getting so many phone calls for him from so many important people; I will operate on him asap – don’t worry”. At that time, I realized how much daddy was “connected” and was quietly helping people without talking about it. I have yet to learn and practice his style of helping.
On the day of bye-pass surgery, at 5 am in the morning Dr Mandke asked me to meet Daddy and ask him his last wish. He said the probability of success was just about 60% given the precarious condition of his heart. I remember I stood by him, next to his bed, to explain the situation in Hinduja Hospital. He was about to be “towed” to the Operation Theater. “Oh” he said. “Well then this is just like taking off from the Hong Kong airport during a typhoon”. He had no last wish to express.
The operation was successful and Dr Nitu Mandke was extremely happy. Several years passed by after operation with no major concerns except Daddy’s LV function of the heart gradually reduced and reached close to 22%.
In 2010, I was to fly to Kuala Lumpur for a 3-day meeting and Daddy asked me if we could do a beer session prior my leaving. I was busy in preparation and hence said “well, its just 3 days Daddy; will be back with interesting stories and let us meet the next day I arrive in Mumbai”. “Of course,” he said “Work comes first”
My flight landed from Kuala Lumpur at 1 30 am in the morning. But just as I reached home, we received a frantic call from my mother-in-law to rush as she had found Daddy lying on the floor in the kitchen. We rushed. His house was just 5 minutes away.
By the time we reached, Dr Hemant Shinde, a neighbor and a well-known anesthetist was standing next to Daddy’s body lying on the floor. He looked at me and he didn’t need to say anything as I understood the situation. Daddy had passed away due to a massive heart attack.
While we all were in deep grief, I realized that for Capt. Chotu Apte, it was a final take off –a bit unusual – as this time there was no landing going to be!
The Family (L-R) Prasad, Meera Apte, Pranav, Daddy, Devika and Kiran
Daddy passed away in 2010. I wrote this blog just to cherish memories of a warm and honest person who influenced my life.
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