I let my eyes travel downwards to ensure for twenty second time if everything was perfect. The blue gypsy whiz past. By my watch, it was sharp nine in the morning.
I recall every other details of that day. It was 15th July, the year 2013. I was then at the Uttarlai Air Base waiting to meet Tejas. He was a fighter pilot at the Indian Air Force and was then posted at the Uttarlai Air Base in Rajasthan. We met a couple of years ago at one of the CCD outlets in Pune. He was then a 6th term cadet at the NDA. It was one of the odd weekends and I entered the cafe with Shivani. The coffee shop teemed with NDA cadets with their typical-yet-so-smart hair cut and the blazers with the NDA ensign embossed on it. I walked up to him for a change to my thousand rupee note. He looked up from his cold coffee and love bloomed. He joined this Air Base after he was over with his two year course at the Air Force Academy, Hyderabad.
“Hey Sunidhi!” A summon from somewhere close by. I looked over my shoulder. It was Pravin’s. He was approaching me with a slight jog.
“So…where’s Tejas?” I asked as I extended my hand for a shake. My alter-ego chided me for having been so rude. But how could somebody stick on to formal ‘hi-hello’s when she’s there to meet her beau??
“Oh, him? Well he has gone off for a routine sortie.” Pravin replied casually. His casual reply and my heart sank into a pool of regret, guilt, impatience and what not! I cursed myself a zillion times for consuming so much time to dress up and come to the Air Base. I cursed my typical feminine coy nature for all that had happened. ‘Regret’ was writ large on my face and my ever enthusiastic eyes projected impatience. Pravin, on noticing my plightful state tried to cheer me up. “Hey! Don’t worry girl! He has gone off for a sortie and will circumnavigate the aerodrome. He’ll be back soon, maybe within…” Pravin glanced at his Ulysses Nardin. “…say around fifteen to twenty minutes.” For Pravin it was just the matter of a few minutes, but those ‘few minutes’ meant a lot to me. Our conversation was interrupted by a loud unearthly sound that was fast approaching. Both of us looked up. A jet was approaching and even before I could batter an eyelid, it flew overhead. There was thunder in the sky. The jet seemed to rip open the flesh of the sky.
“Whoa!” Pravin exclaimed with a smirk. “There’s he! Flight Lieutenant Tejas Tanwar!!” A coy yet genuine smile played on my lips. There was palpitation. It took me seconds to realize that Pravin was grinning at my innocence which was, an epitomized version of stupidity iced with crazy love.
“Which jet is he flying?” I interrupted the eerie environ. “It’s the MiG-21 Bison fighter.” Pravin replied with an air of superiority.
“Hey, look up!! Your man is into something different!” Pravin said, his index pointing the clear sky. I looked at the direction he had been pointing. The aircraft got higher and higher. It scaled the altitude and then, to my horror, got into freefall whirling mid-air. “Oh my God! Is he…is he…” I was petrified. What was going on? Did the radar fail to respond? Did he loose contact with the ATC? What would happen next? Numerous questions clouded my mind within a split second.
“Watch out!!” Pravin laughed hysterically as the aircraft regained its normal course. Once again severing the sky and making a noise that was sure to awake the dead. I closed my eyes to overcome the shock or surprise or whatsoever it was!! I opened and continued, “Has he gone crazy?! What the hell is he doing mid-air? Is he nuts?” This time a look of vexation replaced the gentle-girl look on my face and my voice got a bit louder. Pravin, however pooh-poohed my frown and continued, “Ah! Never mind. That was his favourite Vertical Charlie. Fingers crossed. Just hope that the squadron leader hasn’t seen him doing this.”
“Why? What’ll happen?” I asked bringing about numerous wrinkles on my tiny nose. Pravin laughed a care-less one. “The Squadron Leader will have him for dinner tonight. Vertical Charlie during routine sorties? Uh-huh!” ‘Then I’ll chop your Squadron Leader into soya nuggets.’ I said to myself, my eyes narrowed.
“Anyway…he’s flying really well!” I said as patriotism and my love for Tejas rolled my heart.
“He isn’t just flying. He’s hovering… That’s the divine stuff, lady.” I nodded to Pravin’s words. Patriotism was, by then, taking on a new meaning. “Hey! Let’s go.” The ever gracious Pravin told out of the blues. “Go? Where to go?” Baffled, I raised an eye-brow.
“The flying area!” Would you not like to witness your man land?” Pravin curved a smile. I smiled as well and nodded back in affirmation. After much nagging and a dozen of security checks and frisking, we were FINALLY allowed into the flying area for the gala moment. A few yards away from where we anxiously awaited Tejas’ return, there was another jet. The ground duty staffs were working on it. Aware of my alien presence, they looked up from their work. Famished faces, dull eyes, pot bellies were something I took a special note of. “They must go off to NDA and learn something from the brats o’er there.” A hyperbolic yet solicitous comment on my behalf, which was answered by Pravin’s short laugh and “Hey! He’s approaching!”
I shifted my gaze from them to the aircraft that was finally closing in. It seemed to be quite a few kilometres away. Gradually from a tiny speck, it was growing into size. I basked under glory. There he was! My knight in his shining armour. What would he do after he got down from his jet? Did he get to see me from the cockpit? Should I run into his arms? Or should I await his arrival? What if he locks me in his arms and get into kissing? I blushed and felt the warmth of my cheeks. My cheeks were freakin’ hot!!
The aircraft was a few feet above the ground. It had a thick black smoke trailing behind.
“Tejas…” Pravin drew his brows closer and moved ahead of a step. A look of uncertainty on his happy-go-lucky face. Oblivious to his weird behaviour, I just could not stop smiling. I eagerly waited to whisper the words ‘I love you Tejas’ in my Prince Charming’s ears……
“TEJAS!!!!!” Pravin yelled at the top of his voice which was followed by a loud, a very loud bang. I was deafened and almost lost my balance. Pravin just held me for a second or two and then furiously ran forward. It seemed somebody had pushed me into a well of bleakness and dark. For the rest of the India, it was half-past nine. But for me the day had come to an end. With a zillion words left untold, a zillion feelings left unshared, a zillion sensations of love left in my heart to be expressed; the jet crashed allowing my love to slumber in peace. That’s it. Nothing much.
…… “Phase out hone se pehle, agar MIG 21 nai chalayi, toh kya fayda yaar pilot banke (If I can’t fly a MiG-21 before it’s phased out, what’s the point of becoming a pilot),” Flt Shikhar had once told a classmate from school…Flt Shikhar Kulshrestha died at around 9:30 am on the morning of 15th of July, the year 2013 when his 40 year-old MiG-21 Bison crashed near the Uttarlai Air Base in Rajasthan’s Barmer district.
The Sunidhi-Tejas love story mentioned in my debut is just a WORK OF FICTION. Flt Shikhar’s death was a pedestal to my story. Maybe be one such love story did exist and was suppressed by Destiny amidst a cloud of smoke and the siren of the rescue squad’s fire engine… One never knows.
Flight Lieutenant Shikhar, whom his batch-mates recall as ‘a fair, lanky, soft-spoken boy in a class full of ruffians’, had had his dream of flying the MiG-21 fulfilled. However… the dream’s fulfilment came along with a penalty. With 482 MiG aircraft accidents that took place between the years 1971-1972 and April 2012, and with over 171 pilots dead, the MiG-21 was FINALLY phased out in the year 2013. But a lot had happened by then……
REST IN PEACE, MY BROTHERS-IN-ARM.