Last Monday morning, back from a weekend sojourn the previous night, I sit along with my kid at the dining table, the day’s TOI splayed beside our is-there-nothing-better-today breakfast of omelette and toast. As the crust crumbles under a bite, I notice a small news article about a Mirage 2000 crashing in Bangalore shortly after takeoff, killing both the pilots Squadron Leaders Samir Abrol and Siddharth Negi, one, on his own birthday.

The article, squeezed between the screaming headlines of political witch-hunting, is so small that it almost looks like the coverage of someone losing his dog. Because my 10-year old is crazy about planes, especially the fighter-kind, I narrate the depressing story to him and then try to answer his rapid-fire questions.

How did it crash? Did they eject? Is it the parachute that did not open? Did they not know how to handle? Was it a good fighter plane? Who made it?

I tell him as much I know. That it was French, Dassault-made fighter plane of the 1970s, now ageing and being upgraded by our own HAL through a license from Dassault. However, I find the entire episode incredible. A supposedly sophisticated plane fails to take off! One man is burnt beyond recognition, the other lands on the flaming debris. Why? How on earth!

In the evening, I take a rare stroll around the society along with wifey dear. Rare because our walking speeds are so different that we actually end up chasing each other. On our return, as we climb the stairs, we meet a suave retired army-man and his effervescent wife who invite us home, offer wine (which we politely refuse) and narrate little anecdotes surrounding the beautiful collectables and antiques that decorate the tasteful house.

After a while, the talk expectedly veers towards the crash. He sheds his usual reticent demeanour and tells me with restraint anger that sometimes he is ashamed of fighting for people who do not deserve to be fought for. He shows me a photograph of a pilot’s coffin wrapped in tricolour, being saluted by only men in blue. “See, not a single man from HAL. How shameless!”

I do not tell him that I am always skeptical of such WhatsApp forwards and will rather reserve my judgement of HAL.

They were no ordinary pilots, he says in a voice weighed down by grief. They were test pilots, the best amongst the best, on whose young shoulders lies the battle-readiness of an entire air force. These men are so good that they could fly all sorts of air-rippers and test these screaming, flying bullets to their absolute limits. These talented men, only a handful of whom the air force has, put their lives before their colleagues’ and always run a far greater risk of death. The Kargil veteran then goes on to explain how the ejection system works, and how it failed in this case, smashing the pilot’s head against the bullet-proof glass of the canopy that failed to fly off in time. “Oh, it’s so painful to hear.” Though I am unsure about the veracity of his ejection claim or his derision of the PSU, I begin to understand his anger. Their lives should never have been lost. We should have probably taken far more precautions. We should have done better.

For a country, that rolls in the symbolism mud, I wonder what happened. There is hardly any mention of this — it’s as if we are so used to pilots falling off from the sky; remember MIG planes? — including from the twitter-machine of a Prime Minister who does not forget to record and upload even the most banal of his routine (this time it was scores of photographs of his rally in J&K, showcasing how well-attended it was!). Could we not show a little more empathy? More respect? Do they not deserve more of the nation’s attention than what was accorded?

Image result for siddharth negi
Squadron Leader Siddharth Negi (image credit: telegraph india)

Here is a touching poem written by Samir’s brother, who was overcome by grief while returning with his brother’s funeral ashes:

And as he fell from the sky onto the ground,
With broken
bones; all but a black box was found.
His ejection was safe but parachute caught fire,
Shattered the family and all that he desired
Never had he breathed so heavy, as for the last time,
While the bureaucracy enjoyed its corrupt cheese and wine.
We give our warriors outdated machines to fight,
They still deliver it with all their prowess and might.
Once again a martyr was killed,
As he fell from the sky onto the ground.
Unforgiving is the
job of a test pilot
Someone has to risk it to show others the light.

So, if you care, it’s time to let others know that these men will never be forgotten, even as age clouds the momery and the ever-busy history blows the dusts of time to obscure their story. That still there any many, who feel indebted to their contribution towards the pride and honour of this nation.

Life, as they say, will always go back to being normal, the same ‘normal’ some people die every day to maintain!

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