Now his safe return to India is helping defuse one of the worst crises to erupt in decades between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
Late Friday, Varthaman crossed into India on foot at the Wagah border crossing with Pakistan. Under bright floodlights, he stepped through the towering metal gate that separates the two countries and shook hands with security officials on the Indian side.
It was a hero’s welcome: Hundreds of Indians awaited Varthaman’s arrival all day, waving the national flag and holding garlands of flowers they hoped to drape around his neck. Television anchors choked with emotion as they described the scene. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed the pilot home on Twitter, saluting his “exemplary courage.”
Varthaman’s plane was hit Wednesday morning in the first aerial dogfight between India and Pakistan in nearly 50 years. He was subsequently captured by the Pakistani military, a particularly dramatic development in an already volatile conflict between the two nations. Countries around the world, including the United States, worked to ease the tensions.
In a scene that could have come from a movie, Varthaman parachuted out of his flaming plane, according to several media outlets, including the BBC and Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English newspaper. Upon discovering he was in Pakistan, Varthaman ran backward, the reports said, firing his pistol in the air to ward off angry locals.
When they got too close, he jumped into a pond and destroyed sensitive documents and maps by swallowing some and soaking others before he was captured.
On Thursday afternoon, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that his country would return Varthaman to India as a “peace gesture.” The move immediately lowered tensions between India and Pakistan after two days of hostilities that began when India launched an airstrike on Tuesday on what it said was a terrorist training camp within Pakistan.
The atmosphere of anxiety eased further on Friday. Pakistan partially reopened its airspace after two days of closures to allow travel to four major cities. Indian authorities affirmed that national elections due in April and May would be held on schedule.
Experts said Varthaman, a 38-year-old from the South Indian city of Chennai, will undergo a detailed debrief and medical checkup.
Indians have closely followed every twist and turn in Varthaman’s saga this week. An alleged video of his initial capture shows him being dragged from the crash site as enraged locals attempt to hit him. A Pakistani soldier is heard asking people to stop.
A second, more controversial video that may run afoul of Geneva Conventions was tweeted by Pakistan’s Information Ministry. The clip showed the blindfolded pilot with a bloodied face, answering questions calmly while in Pakistani custody.
After the Foreign Ministry in India “strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel,” the Pakistan military posted a fresh video saying the pilot was being treated “as per norms of military ethics.”
Seen sipping a cup of tea, Varthaman declines to answer any question on his operation or aircraft details, while praising his treatment by the Pakistani army. Spoken like a “true soldier,” his father Simhakutty Varthaman said in a statement.
Flying runs in the family: Varthaman’s father, now retired, was a decorated senior officer in the Indian air force who reached the rank of air marshal. In an ironic twist, Simhakutty Varthaman once advised a filmmaker who made a movie about a pilot jailed in Pakistan after being captured in war. In the movie, the hero is ultimately reunited with his family.
After the capture, his father had expressed hope for his son’s safe return and said the family was praying that he “does not get tortured.” On Thursday night, the pilot’s parents flew to Delhi ahead of their son’s release. As passengers on the flight realized who the couple was, they burst out in applause and cheers.
Varthaman, the son, appeared on a popular Indian television show eight years ago with several other fighter pilots. The hosts asked the guests what the main prerequisite was to be a fighter pilot. “Attitude,” said one. “Bad attitude,” added Varthaman with a smile.
Even as India and Pakistan traded charges over the last two days, Varthaman’s behavior in captivity united people from both sides of the border, mostly in praise. Videos of his capture and questioning were shared by thousands on social media. Pakistani citizens joined the chorus asking their government to return Varthaman as a gesture of peace.
This is not the first time that an Indian pilot has been captured by Pakistan. In 1999, the rivals fought a brief but intense conflict high in the Himalayas. In that clash, known as the Kargil conflict, India deployed fighter jets but Pakistan did not.
During the fighting, an Indian fighter pilot named Kambampati Nachiketa was captured by Pakistani forces. Nachiketa said he was tortured during his eight days of captivity, after which he was released.
Joanna Slater contributed reporting.