Idris and Bilkees Latif - The Fragrance Lingers on

Their sepia toned photograph on the hardback cover is predictive of what lies inside; a stirring waft of two lives lived in service, a story of which the reader will be proud. This commemorative volume is a testimonial of love to the finest there is in the Indian Air Force. Collated by Ushi Kak, who by her own admission is, “an unabashed admirer of the Indian Air Force” the book weaves two tales in one. There is the main account of the charmed lives Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif and Begum Bilkees Latif led but there is also a constant subtext, an underlying note on a certain gracious way of being. The crisp compilation of forty four firsthand accounts from the who’s who of Indian polity is symbolic of the enduring culture of community the Indian Air Force has inherited from the likes of the Latifs.

There are delightful facets that wink at you from the reminiscent pages. This is an eloquent paean from the memoir genre. It is an astonishing repertoire of life lessons. If one were to hand a manual to the Armed Forces incumbents on what an affirmative life in the uniform and beyond might look like, this compilation would be the one. A tenacious care with the editing, the tone of an esprit-de-corps in the contributions, evocative snapshots…there is a muted air of affection and admiration bordering on an awe of this iconic couple in the painstaking recollections.

Neerja Singh is a teacher, published author, and a blogger with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising,
public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism.

“Every Chief cannot be an icon” the leaves of the book emit several such memorable motes. “They were a couple extraordinaire!” recounts another. At one place “they radiated decency”.  And then “they were brilliant in the world of diplomacy and always came across as very humane and kind.” One contributor muses over a cultural pageant organised by Mrs Latif, “the icing on the cake was when my wife’s photograph wearing a nine-yard sari appeared in the issue of Vogue magazine!” An eager host at an Air Force Base in the eastern sector remembers receiving several calls of gratitude the morning after a party in their honor and he writes of the guests, “they never believed that anyone in uniform could be so accomplished and polished.” The illustrious ACM finds reference at one point as the, “Hyderabadi Latif who was never late!” Poignantly enough, an illustrious family member concludes, “I can’t quite fly in his footsteps, but I will try.”

The contributions capture a long and crucial epoch in the Indian history and society. There are heartwarming little details, telling personal experiences, and a ringside view to the eventful, influential and exceptional lives of this couple for whom religion and country did not necessarily link. The IAF’s golden era they straddled was flung across India’s wrestle with civil disobedience, the economic revolution as also the eventual call for a singular identity.  

Memory is powerful. It gives us signposts and reference points. The collective recall of those fortunate to have brushed past the Latifs is tinged with conscience. The book is a lest-we-forget call. Bilkees, the perfect Air Force wife-- elegance personified, charming, and gracious to the core and Idris, the legend and hero of the Indian Air Force, they don’t make them like that anymore. This couple discharged the great power they wielded with a stellar sense of responsibility and here is your testimony.

Much has changed since. There is a rising arc of fascism around the globe today. In that air of climatic fears and political uncertainties and wary cynicism, Ushi Kak’s book is an anthology of hope.  --       Neerja Singh