Silence Under The Blue Sky by Rajalakshmi Prithviraj

“Flight Cadet AM Nair, you are next,” announced Sergeant Joshi.

I went and stood outside the room. I was nervous. I was not in a position to anticipate what the outcome was going to be. I had heard from many, that the Trifurcation Board members were very strict when it came to allotting streams in the Flying Branch of the Indian Air Force. This unnerved me further.
Silence Under The Blue Sky
Silence Under The Blue Sky by Rajalakshmi Prithviraj
I took a deep breath and knocked at the door. “May I come in sir?” I queried aloud, my heart pounding faster by the minute. “Come in,” was the crisp response. I entered the room. I had my own apprehensions. I saluted the members of the Trifurcation Board and stood waiting till I was permitted to sit down. It is needless to that the fact that I was nervous was very well written on my face. One of the three Board members motioned me to sit. As I sat down, I noticed the members exchanging glances with each other. ‘It must be my choice of stream, a selection that has probably come as a shocker to them, I guess,’ I thought to myself. Finally, after a long silence, the senior most amongst them spoke. “Well Flight Cadet, you have listed Helicopters as your first, second and third choice in stream. Why?” a Board member queried. My instincts were right. It was my choices of stream. I knew this was coming, and I, had mentally rehearsed my answer a thousand times. “Sir, my passion lies in flying helicopters,” I answered. “But, I believe you have never been exposed to Helicopter flying till date,” he said. There was a second’s pause. He asked, “Or, have you flown them in civil street?” “Sir, I have never flown helicopters till date,” I replied. “In that case, why have you not mentioned Fighters and Transports amongst your choices? You should have mentioned the other two streams too,” a second member queried. I understood now, that the Board members were really curious. I replied. “Sir, Fighter flying is like a dream come true for women cadets, after all, women fighter pilots are only a handful. Similarly, transport flying is challenging too, thanks to the latest aircraft in our inventory. Yet sir, opting for helicopters is more of a personal choice,” I answered. “Young Lady, the Indian Air Force does not work on whims and fancies of individuals. Stream allocation in the flying branch is based on professional aspects and not personal choices,” a third member quipped. I knew I had to be really convincing, else it was a losing battle. “In that case sir, May I humbly submit, that I know where I stand amongst my course mates. I know I am performing well in both ground subjects as well as the flying subjects. I can also proudly say that my technical knowledge is higher than the above averages in my course. Besides, the fact that I have the height and meet the required parameters, also make me eligible for fighter flying, but my heart, is in helicopters,” I blurted out on an impulse. There was utter silence. All the Board members were looking at me. At that point, I felt a sudden surge of confidence running through me. I continued speaking. “Sir, my father was a Helicopter pilot in his hey days, and I sincerely want to follow his footsteps. I have always aspired to be a Flying Pilot and that too in the Helicopter stream, because my father has been my inspiration. My parents have taught me that the true joy of working is in the passion associated with it. The very reason why I strived hard to join this glorious organization is to try and make constructive contributions. I admire the Indian Air Force for everything that it does for its air warriors. And I sincerely wish to do so with a willing heart. Besides, though flying fighters or transports will no doubt be challenging, however, helicopters will bring me a step closer to my dad,” I said thereby resting my case. A brief pause and the first board member spoke. “You sure have the ability to convince Lady,” he remarked. “Sir, it runs in her genes,” the second member quipped with a smile before I could answer. “Well then Flight Cadet AM Nair, get ready to pack your bags to the Helicopter Training School. It is Helicopter stream for you,” the third member announced in continuum. I was elated. “Thank you very much sir. I am honoured to be a part of this organization. I will strive to never bring disrepute to it,” I managed to mumble. “Well, you cannot afford to, because, there is a lot of expectation from you, young lady. Do thank your genes for that,” the second member said. I nodded my head in agreement. I saluted and exited as smartly as possible. When I opened the door, I saw my course mate Flight Cadet Animesh standing outside nervously. It was his turn to go in. “It is Helicopters for me!!” I announced with a beaming smile. “Good for you Maltam,” he said. “I am not Maltam,” I retorted angrily shrugging my shoulders. “Listen Maltam, a half Malayalee and half Tamil Brahmin like you can have no other nickname. So learn to accept it. Now, better wish me luck before I enter,” he answered back. “OK, fine, I accept the nickname with all the grace I have. Are you happy now? Anyways, best of luck Animesh. I hope you get what you are sincerely wishing for,” I said. ‘People definitely are innovative when giving nicknames,’ I thought to myself with a smile, as I walked towards the phone booth to call up home. A quick call and I ran towards my room in the Flight Cadets’ Mess. I went straight to my cupboard to take out my lucky charm. The box lay in one corner of the cupboard. I opened the cover with the utmost care. After all, it had my auspicious overall, my Papa’s overall. As luck would have it, the overall was a perfect fit for me too. Papa had worn this when he was with the Indian Air Force as a youngster. It may be my superstition, but wearing it during crucial periods of my training had helped me perform well. I hoped it would stand by me during my stint in the Air Force too. I held my lucky charm close to my heart. ‘Papa, I am on my way to become like you. Trust me, I really want to be like you,’ I sent a silent telepathic message to my father. CHAPTER 1: VISITOR I was in the cockpit flying a sortie with my Commanding Officer as the Captain. True, the weather gods were benevolent, but I was sweating badly. It was my dual check sortie and I really had to perform well. I had done my bit by following the checklists to the ‘T’; still, as it is said, man proposes but God disposes. I was nervous. It was while I was busy concentrating on my flying skills, that, my Captain spoke to me. “Well co-pilot, it is time for us to land. You are to execute a smooth landing. Confirm you have the controls now,” the Captain gave instructions in rapid succession. “Roger Sir. I affirm I have the controls,” I said like any confident Co-pilot. However, deep inside my heart, I was nervous. I really had to perform well. I did not want to let my parents down. I sent out a telepathic message to my dad. ‘Papa, please be there by my side in the cockpit today and take over whenever I err. I cannot afford to make mistakes from this moment on. You know how it is!!! Please help me out.’ I muttered. “Did you say something?” the Captain queried. “No sir,” I replied and proceeded to give a call to the Air Traffic Control Tower. “Controller, this is Victor Alpha Charlie calling. How do you read me?” “Victor Alpha Charlie, I can read you loud and clear,” replied the controller. “I need permission to land,” I conveyed. “Please stand by,” informed the controller. “Roger,” I replied. There was a few seconds of pause, during which the Captain was busy looking out for visual signs of stress. I kept a poker face and pretended to be oblivious to his observations. I saw he was happy to find none. “Victor Alpha Charlie cleared to land at Runway Zero Six. After landing, follow the taxi track number four, dispersal number three, look for Marshall,” “Message is monitored. Victor Alpha Charlie is ready to land on Runway Zero Six,” I announced. “Roger,” replied the controller. From the Air Traffic Controlling Tower, the Controller saw Victor Alpha Charlie, a mighty Mi-17 V5 helicopter, landing smoothly on Runway Zero Six. Thereafter, the helicopter taxied out towards its designated parking place. The Marshall was available on the dispersal and guided the helicopter to parking. The helicopter came to a halt. Slowly, the rotors had ceased to rotate. It was now time for us, the pilots, to disembark. By the time I got down, I found my Captain already walking ahead. I quietly followed suit and walked to match his pace. It was, while we both walked towards the Helicopter Unit Headquarters that the Captain of my aircraft spoke to me. “That was a good job done, Flying Officer Nair. A very well executed landing I must say,” he praised. “Thank you sir,” I replied, humbled by the unexpected compliment. “Make the relevant log entries and come to my office for your post flight de-brief,” the Captain instructed. “Yes sir, I will be there shortly” I answered. I was really happy with the positive comments I had just received, more so because the Captain was none other than Wing Commander Shukla, my Commanding Officer. In fact, this was the first time my Commanding Officer had verbally complimented me since the day I had reported to the unit. We both reached the headquarters, hence, I saluted my Commanding Officer and waited for him to walk ahead, as he took a turn towards his office. It was after his departure that, I turned to move towards the Aircrew Room. It was then that I heard someone calling me from behind. I stopped and turned around. I found that it was Sergeant Anil, the Assistant Adjutant of my unit. “Jai Hind Madam, please wait. I have a message to convey,” he said aloud, as he walked towards me. “Jai Hind Sergeant Anil, What is the message?” I asked, as I waited for him to catch up. “Madam, one of your course mates is waiting in your office,” he answered. None of my course mate had ever made a mention in the past week of coming to meet me. I was curious. “Who is it?” I queried. “He said his name was Flying Officer Animesh,” he responded. ‘Animesh!!! What is he doing here? It is a pleasant surprise!!’ I thought to myself. “OK, I will meet him right away,” I said, concealing my happiness. Sergeant Anil went back towards the Orderly Room. ‘Oh no!! I have a briefing to attend. I think, I will go and get my log book, say a quick hello and go for my briefing,’ I thought to myself. I was about to resume my walk towards the Aircrew Room when my course mate, Flying Officer Animesh, waved at me from the Unit Adjutant’s office to stop me in my tracks. “Where are you hurrying off to Maltam? Do you not know, it is bad manners to keep course mates waiting?” he commented winking at me. I smiled sheepishly. “Stop pulling my leg Animesh!!! I was about to come to meet you after collecting my log book. By the way, thanks to you, I am known as Maltam in the unit too. Maltam!!! What a stupid name? Couldn’t you have thought of something better? It gets pretty embarrassing at times,” I replied. Walking up to me, he said, “Listen Maltam, you are half Mallu and half Tambrahm. A Malayalee Tamil Brahmin like you can have no other nickname. You know that!!! You have been called as Maltam since our training days,” Animesh retorted back. I smiled yet again. I knew I had lost the argument. He continued to speak. “So I guess you are doubling up as Unit Adjutant too?” he queried. “Yes I am. Tell me, what are you doing here? I thought you were busy flying your hot and happening fighter aircraft,” I said. He laughed. “Well, the weather has definitely turned hot now in my place of posting, and you know, my aircraft has always been a newsmaker, like always. So as far as a poor soul like me is concerned, well, I am here on a temporary duty for two days, and like a good course mate, I thought of coming and meeting you,” he answered. “That is so kind of you sir, I am privileged to have your highness visiting me. Jokes apart, Animesh, I have to go to the Commanding Officer’s office for my post flight de-brief right now. Is it okay if you wait in the Adjutant’s office? It will hardly take me fifteen minutes to get over with my de-brief,” I said Animesh smiled with a twinkle in his eyes. I knew what was coming next. There was nothing that I could do about it except to listen. “Oh my God, that is what I refer to as breaking news!! Just imagine what a headline it will be!! Madam Maltam is on her way to de-brief her Commanding Officer. And she wants me to wait,” he remarked. He saw my exasperated face. Letting out a guffaw, he continued to speak. “Of course, I will wait your highness. On a lighter note, in any case, my job for the day is done. I only have a sortie in the evening now,” he said “Shut up and stop pulling my leg,” I retorted, unable to control my exasperation. “Well, do not blame me. Your performance in the Trifurcation Board is still famous,” he remarked. I turned pink. I was embarrassed. “I did not do anything wrong. I spoke my heart out,” I said. “Maltam, I did not know you carried your heart up in your sleeves!!! Be careful, lest it falls down somewhere and falls into wrong hands” he quipped. I was about to respond when I noticed Sergeant Anil come walking towards me. He had a piece of paper in his hand. I knew it was probably something important. “Madam, there was a call from the office of Air Commodore Srinivasan. The Personal Assistant wanted to know whether you have finalized your travel plans. I informed him that you had gone for your de-brief. He will be calling again after some time. Is there a message to be conveyed or should I remind you to call back after your return?” he asked. “Sergeant Anil, actually I am on my way to the Commanding Officer’s office for my post flight de-brief. Hence, please do me a favour. When he calls up again, please ask him to inform Air Commodore Srinivasan that everything has been finalized. Also, I will definitely be reaching on the thirtieth of this month. And yes, my flight ticket has been booked,” I replied. “Yes Madam. I will do so,” he said and walked away. “Well, well, Madam Maltam knows officers from the higher echelons of the organization,” Animesh commented. “For your kind information, I have known Air Commodore Srinivasan from her Flight Lieutenant days,” I replied. “Really, how is it so?” he probed. He was now sounding genuinely curious. “Mr. Curious Cat, you know what, I had always heard that the Indian Air Force is as committed towards looking after its people as it is towards its missions, but I witnessed the same in real life through the treatment meted out to her during the worst phase of her life. Air Commodore Srinivasan was a Squadron Leader then. By the way, the best thing about this senior officer of ours is that, I have never seen her succumb to any kind of pressure. No matter how stressful the situation is, she always has a smile on her face. In fact, she was one of the reasons why I joined the Indian Air Force,” I replied with nostalgia. “Tell me more about her, Maltam,” he pestered. “Animesh, stop pestering me now. You know very well that I really have to go for my de- brief right now. Why don’t you sit in my office while I finish and come?” I said, trying to dissuade him. “For your information, your Commanding Officer is about to go for a meeting at the Station Headquarters. This means, we can continue our conversation,” he informed with the expression of a Mr. Know All. I thought Animesh was trying to pull a fast one on me. “I do not trust you. How is it that you know about it and I don’t? After all, I am the Adjutant of this unit and not you,” I said. Animesh never missed an opportunity to try to pull my leg. He knew it too. “Do not trust me, but I overhead your Assistant Adjutant take down a message and pass on the same to your Commanding Officer’s Personal Assistant. One need not be a rocket scientist to put two and two together!!! By the way, look behind, somebody is desperately trying to reach out for you,” he said. From the corner of my eye I saw Wing Commander Shukla’s lascar come running towards us in my direction. Huffing and puffing, he spoke looking at me. “Jai Hind Ma’am, Shukla sir has to go to the Station Headquarters for a meeting. He has called you for the briefing after his return. So the briefing will be held afterwards, Jai Hind Ma’am” he informed in a non-stop manner. Without waiting for a reply from me, he ran off. I looked at Animesh who had a victorious ‘I told you so’ look on his face. “OK. Mr. I Told You So, I am sorry. Come on, I will treat you for this in our unit cafeteria. In any case, I am famished,” I said. “I will accept the treat only if you tell me all that you know about this Air Commodore Srinivasan of yours,” he challenged. “It is a deal. I will tell you her story over brunch. Is it alright?” I answered. “Of course it is fine with me. Let’s go. Besides, I truly want to hear more about this favourite Air Commodore Srinivasan of yours,” he said with a smile. “Stop being rude and show some respect, she is far too senior to us. But I must say, you are one true blue curious cat,” I commented. “I appreciate your kindness in complimenting me,” he replied with a wink. “You are impossible,” I retorted, exasperated. “I know it, tell me something new,” he retorted back. I smiled. I knew I could never win an argument with him. “By the way, how is aunty?” He asked. “Ma is fine. However, I got a mouthful from her this morning,” I said in response. “Why, what happened?” he queried. “Actually, I was lost in the world of dreams, when the sound of a phone ringing incessantly woke me up in the wee hours of the morning. I sat with a jolt and checked the time, as my eyes adjusted themselves to the darkness. It was four thirty. It was my mother, who was calling up to wish me luck. The moment I answered the call, I heard her voice on the other end. She was surprised that I was still sleeping and politely gave me a dressing down. I really started feeling a bit guilty as I did not want to be ticked off early in the morning. But by then, the damage was done,” I narrated. “Then what happened?” He prodded. “I told her that I had slept a bit late last night because I was busy preparing the maps and revising my checklists for today’s sortie. She reprimanded me saying that she hoped I do not make it a routine affair to sleep late,” I replied. “Aunty is a sweetheart. She would have mellowed down after some time,” Animesh said. “Yes, luckily she did, but only after I assured her that I had not flouted any rules and have really had my forty winks, simply put, adequate sleep. It was only then did she wish me luck for my sortie and instructed me to give her a call once my post flight de-brief is over,” I answered.

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