A Friend and a Spark on 75th Independence Day

He’s my colleague. A junior colleague, and a friend too. I’ve known him for years.

He’s Puneet Sharma. Captain Sharma, an airline Captain who is also Wing Commander Sharma, an IAF veteran.

He’s from Punjab, but is now settled in Pune, after the IAF brought him here. He retired, and found an airline job here itself.

He’s affable, friendly, polite and always respectful.

But I had noticed some odd behaviour in him long ago.

He didn’t fly on Sundays.

We pilots don’t have weekends off. In fact, we get a weekly rest of 36 hours, after working 168 hours, which is 7 days. So, we get an off on different days of the week every week, and that too not always at home. Sometimes, one could get an off day at another base too.

So interestingly irregular is our routine that when people ask me about it, I say, “I’m out three days, home three days, and my wife is happy three days, but don’t ask me which three days!”

In such a job, Puneet had privately made a request to our scheduling people, and he didn’t fly on Sundays.

I thought he was uncharacteristically acting selfish, adjusting his off days to be with his family on Sundays, at the cost of others.

Then, slowly, over time, I learnt of Puneet’s activities on Sundays. First through a few Facebook posts, then through some gushing admirers, and finally in his TED Talk.

This man, born in Punjab, and having served all over the country in the IAF, had made Pune his home, and was now cleaning, greening, and beautifying it through his ‘Swachh Pune, Swachh Bharat’ initiative every Sunday morning.

Sunday mornings only, because that’s when his volunteers, students and working professionals, could find time after slogging the entire week, to step out of their comfy beds and homes, to clean our city.

My city, where I was born in 1961. A city which I had never thought of improving or doing anything about, except to occasionally curse the local government and administration for not doing their jobs well.

Puneet and his team would gather at public places, like Pune Railway Station, and clean the surroundings. Then they also painted public walls and the flyovers.

All that hard work was in return for nothing, knowing well that the ungrateful public will spit and soil the walls, or throw muck and ruin the roads soon enough, anyway.

And with no monetary returns or political patronage, working tirelessly and thanklessly.

But his biggest achievement, I observed, was inspiring thousands of youngsters to give time and effort for a public cause. That is a sign of true leadership.

I was too busy with my job, my life, and my hobbies, to ever join any of his activities, but did appreciate and admire him on social media and personally, whenever we met.

Yesterday, I joined a tree plantation drive by the Green Hill Group, under Puneet’s many initiatives, for the 75th Independence Day today.

He had planned 75 events, but that number blew up to 108 events.

He couldn’t, of course, attend them all, but visited a few, including the Chaturshringi Hill where we were.

When I heard, “Puneetji is himself coming to meet us,” I realised the reverence in which they all hold him.

Like the moon, I too shone briefly in his reflected glory when someone announced that we fly in the same airline, SpiceJet.

We, some 200 of us, planted 750 saplings on a single hill, thanks to the preparations (ditches, saplings and tools) by the Green Hill Group and inspiration by Puneet Sharma, pardon me, Puneetji.

He came there and spent only a few minutes, as he had to visit a few more such sites and then go home to get ready and go for a flight.

“Why the flight today?” I asked, not only because it was a Sunday, but because he had so much on his hands.

“I had requested them to give me off today, but they probably forgot,” he said, without a touch of bitterness.

“Why don’t you apply for sick leave?” someone said.

“Oh, that wouldn’t be ethical,” he simply said. “Anyway, we have great teams who will continue without me, too.”

I suddenly noticed a spark of extraordinary idealism there.

Yes, after waking up at 5 am, travelling through the city, encouraging and directing thousands of volunteers by talk and action, he went and flew his flight to Delhi safely and efficiently.

That, as I’ve written before about my meeting with Mr Azim Premji, reminded me of a Marathi poem by BB Borkar, which, loosely translated, means:

Wherever a sign of divinity I behold,
There my hands, by themselves, fold.

Now all my busy-ness with my selfish activities seems trivial as compared to his mammoth undertaking, without expecting or getting anything in return. 

His wife, Meenakshi, and children Avin and Ramya, also help him in his endeavours.

He’s my colleague. A junior colleague, and a friend too. I’ve known him for years.

No, that’s not quite right, let me rephrase that.

I’m his colleague. An older colleague and a friend too—and I’m proud of that.

I thought I’ve known him for years, but realised his true worth only yesterday.

He’s Puneet Sharma. Captain Sharma, an airline Captain who is also Wing Commander Sharma, an IAF veteran.

He’s Puneetji, an inspiration.

©Avinash Chikte

Note: I’ve stolen all the photos from Puneet’s social media posts without permission because I’ve written this without telling him. 😊

12 thoughts on “A Friend and a Spark on 75th Independence Day”

  1. Very well penned down. Some of our Ajinkyans too work for soil conservation in Pune area.

  2. Wg Cdr Puneet Sharma

    Thank you, sir. This is truly humbling experience. Your write up and the comments from readers are the words, which would motivate and inspire me to do more. Alone, it would not have been possible for me to sustain this action for eight long years. Credit to our team for believing in my dream and making it their own. #SwachhPuneSwachhBharat
    मैं अकेला ही चला था जानिब ए मंजिल मगर,
    लोग साथ आते गए और कारवां बढ़ता गया 🙏

  3. Vinayak Deodhar

    Wow! Really most commendable work, with no fanfare, nil expectation of any returns. Hats off to this Captain Sharma.

  4. The need of the hour, Chikte, is hundreds of Puneetjis.
    In 2007 we took up tree plantation in our street…and in 2012 our City Corporation took up road-widening project! 😔

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