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The other half of Biju legend dies

Everyone knew her as the low-profile wife of the iconic Biju Patnaik.

New Delhi | Bhubaneswar | Published: February 18, 2009 1:17 am

Everyone knew her as the low-profile wife of the iconic Biju Patnaik. But Gyan Patnaik was much more than that. She was one of India’s earliest women aviators,who had a thirst for adventure and a willpower matching that of her politician husband.

The former Orissa chief minister’s wife passed away in New Delhi on Tuesday,aged 89. She is survived by two sons,Prem and Naveen,the current CM of Orissa,and daughter Geeta Mehta,an acclaimed author.

Gyan was one of the first women in the country to get a commercial pilot’s licence in the 1930s and co-piloted her husband’s aircraft on several adventurous trips around the world.

But the one that stood out,and remains one of the historic chapters of modern India,was the daring flight to Dutch-besieged Jakarta in 1947 to rescue Indonesian leaders Dr Sultan Sjharir and Sukarno for a secret meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi.

Gyan co-piloted an ageing Dakota aircraft from Delhi with her husband in the dead of night to fly out the Indonesian leaders despite orders to the Dutch forces to shoot down any aircraft entering Jakarta. “She was a personal witness to history. She was very adventurous herself and even took part in the underground movement during the freedom struggle,” says BJD MP from Orissa,B J Panda,who was close to Gyan.

The former Orissa CM was an avid aviator and was a pilot with the Royal Indian Air Force during WW II before starting his own airline. One of the many aviation-related anecdotes about their life was that the flamboyant Biju took his baraat by plane to Lahore for his wedding with Gyan Sethi,a Punjabi based in that city,after a brief courtship in 1938.

Gyan was anything but the ordinary housewife that she was thought to be. She was a member of the Kalinga Foundation that awards the International Kalinga prize for popularisation of science. She was also a member of all the entrepreneurial ventures of Biju. Though she stayed in Orissa for some time,Gyan later preferred to stay at the couple’s Aurangzeb Road house in Delhi. She would go to Orissa only during winter. This led Biju to describe her in jest as “my winter wife”.

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