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I care about people who do not come from a background like mine. I care about people who are worthy, who belong, but are not afforded the same opportunities as me. And you know what? This is precious to me, Maahi.
“What are you smiling about?” he asked, squinting in the bright morning sunlight.
“It is always nice to see you peel away from your bodyguards and walk towards me, as a mere test pilot – not the scion of the biggest business house of India, not the precious son of the richest man in the country – but just as Squadron Leader Abir Kumar, my wild Abir,” she responded.
“Ah… In a mood today, are we?” he smiled, as they walked towards the waiting aircraft.
“Ms. Singh…? Can you hear me? Ms. Singh…?”
With an effort, Maahi slowly opened her eyes. The harsh light of the room was blinding! For a moment, she was disoriented. Then, slowly, a pockmarked face came into focus – wide jowls, slight stubble, bushy moustache, a bulbous nose, and clear, sharp eyes.
The man was saying something, but concentrating made her head hurt.
“Ms. Singh, would you sign it, then?” she heard this last bit.
“Sign what?” Maahi croaked. Speaking was an effort; and her throat was parched.
“Your statement,” the man said matter-of-factly.
“Statement?” Maahi was puzzled.
The man made a gesture of impatience, and was about to say something, when they were interrupted by a doctor and a nurse walking into the room. The nurse pointing to jowls.
“Oh, Mr. Sivakumar,” said the doctor, a kindly looking man, “you need to come back later. Ms. Singh isn’t ready to talk to you yet…”
“But the matter is under investigation, Doctor. We don’t have time to lose! I have to give in my report…”
This Sivakumar wasn’t clearly, a man of much finesse – or patience – Maahi concluded. Although, she shared his urgency somewhat, as she had questions herself – why was she in a hospital, for one? And what report was he talking about? And the one question that topped them all –
“Where is Abir… er, Mr. Kumar?” she asked the doctor, drawing strength from his sympathetic face.
Jowls, she noticed, was licking his lips in anticipation. As if, were it not for the doctor, he would continue to pester her! Shuddering, she directed her attention back to the doctor.
“Many happy returns of the day!”
“I have a birthday gift for you.”
“Yes. I am going to talk to Dad today.”
“Oh, Abir!” she smiled.
“Well, I think it is time for my family to know about us now. You are everything they can wish for, and then some … and I have immense respect for how bravely you have built your life after the death of your parents… in an air crash, no less…I want Dad to meet you Maahi, to see for himself how amazing you are!”
“You know, becoming a pilot was my promise to Mum. And after my parents’ death, this seemed like just the best way to deal with the loss…I am not brave or anything, Abir… just, trying to survive.”
“You see, that’s what I love about you Maahi. No pretence. And honestly, I just don’t want to wait any longer, for us to be officially together! And as for Dad, well, he may not be my biggest fan right now, but I am sure once he meets you, Maahi, he will definitely give us his blessings.”
The kind doctor looked at Maahi almost apologetically. “What is the last thing you remember, Ms. Singh?” he asked.
Maahi frowned. How long had she been in this hospital? Was it days? Or weeks?
She tried to concentrate. The first thing to come to her mind was the image of a smiling Abir sitting next to her in the pilot’s seat. That was how she always saw him. Was that why this image came to her now too? She wasn’t sure. But she saw him clearly. Smiling at her – he was saying something to her… But then, something had gone wrong. And she could suddenly see Abir’s worried face… he was struggling to stay in control… There was something wrong with the aircraft they’d been testing… And before she had time to comprehend what was happening, they heard a loud banging, and the plane suddenly careened. ‘EJECT!’ she heard Abir shout… ‘EJECT!’ But the plane hit the barricades, taxiing at a dangerous speed…. And…. And then the fire… and blood! So much blood! And Abir! ABIR!!!
Then everything went dark.
Maahi was breathing hard. Struggling to draw air in. It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t…
“Where is Abir? How is he?!” she asked shakily to the doctor, who had clearly seen the horrific realisation of the accident on her face.
“You need to rest a bit now, Ms. Singh,” he said gently patting her hand. “We’ll speak in the morning.”
“What can I say? The man’s right. You are precious, you know… You shouldn’t really be up here, in the air, ‘risking your life’ as your father says…”
“Ah, teasing, are we? ’Risking my life!’ So you read that newsbyte, huh? Seriously Maahi, my Dad’s got some really twisted ideas about the meaning of the word ‘precious,’ I’ll tell you that. And I’ll also have you know, that I am exactly where I want to be! I love flying. Period.”
“Oh, I know. I mean, look at this,” she said spreading her hands, “what’s not to like? I get it.”
“What I don’t get, though, is why you keep your other interests hidden from your father, while you let him stew about your being a test pilot. Seriously Abir, what father wouldn’t be happy to know about the charity his son is so keen on? All the volunteering you do, for example, and all the good work you do for the women, and the military families …”
“All the ‘good work’ I do Maahi, is because I care. That’s all. I care about people who do not come from a background like mine. I care about people who are worthy, who belong, but are not afforded the same opportunities as me. And you know what? This is precious to me, Maahi. This work, these charities, this volunteering… This is my thing. Dad, of course, doesn’t understand. And with that newsbyte yesterday, he has also made it clear that he doesn’t understand why I want to be a test pilot either.”
“Hmm… but I don’t know why, Abir, I feel… I somehow… don’t see you being a pilot for life. Don’t ask me why I say that. I won’t be able to explain… I just feel, you know… call it a gut feeling, if you will,” Maahi shrugged.
“How do you mean?” Abir asked.
“Why, clearly your interest is more in the charities that you run. The volunteer work that you do. Anyone can see that.”
Abir smiled sheepishly. “You know, you are right, Maahi. And what can I say – I just can’t help myself! The way I see it, I have resources at my disposal. I have contacts. And if I can put them to good use, for the betterment of the society, why shouldn’t I?”
“See? Now that’s my precious and wild Abir!” Maahi said proudly.
But Abir seemed suddenly distracted.
“… What is that… Abir?!… “
And then a loud banging noise was heard, that drowned out the rest of his words. They were losing control of the aircraft. It was now a monstrous bird of metal running towards the barricades at a breakneck speed!
And the only thing Maahi could hear over the din, was the word, ‘EJECT!’ shouted by Abir over and over again. ‘EJECT!’
Maahi was nudged back to the present by jowls, who was sitting on a metal chair to one side, while two officers interrogated her.
“No.” She answered them truthfully. “I don’t think Mr. Kumar had anything serious weighing on his mind. He was as sound and as relaxed as he always was.”
Maahi couldn’t wait for this nightmare to end. She’d had enough of the interrogation. She just wanted to be left alone with her grief. And she didn’t like jowls any more now, than when she had first laid her disoriented eyes on him all those months ago.
“Mr. Abir Kumar was brought in along with you,” the good doctor had told her eventually. “But his injuries were just too serious. I am very sorry Ms. Singh… his injuries were… fatal. We didn’t even have a chance…”
It felt surreal. Even after all this time. Even after asking and answering the same questions months after months as part of the investigation of the accident, it still seemed impossible.
It was just a routine sortie, her mind kept repeating. A regular test run. Just a regular day.
Until it wasn’t.
“Will that be all Ms. Singh?”
Maahi nodded and the officer left, saying, “I will leave you to it, then, Miss.”
Maahi looked around the stage. Everything was ready. She then peeked through the curtains to see the audience that was already gathering in the vast training ground.
It was a big day today. Abir Kumar Charitable Trust was ready to open its doors to the public. Abir’s senior officer, who had treated him like a brother, was doing the honours of cutting the ceremonial ribbon. Mahi had been worried that Abir’s father might create problems or bring in a politician for the role, but Abir had already seemed to have anticipated something like that; and had left express wishes as to who he wished to handle what in case anything ever happened to him.
For the past couple of years, Maahi had been Abir’s partner in many of his charitable interests; to which he had left most of his belongings and savings. He had also, to his father’s apparent chagrin, nominated Maahi to manage his charitable affairs after him. And although none of this was a surprise, Maahi was still overwhelmed.
For the better part of the year since the accident, Maahi had thought long and hard. And while her personal loss was still too crushing, she now had a clear view of her future. She was going to dedicate herself whole-heartedly to the many training and aid programmes that she and Abir had been part of together.
She had been right, she thought with a wry smile now, when she had told Abir that he was not going to be a pilot all his life. Well now, neither was she.
Author’s Note: This story is inspired by the events of February 2, 2019, when two IAF test pilots lost their lives when a Mirage aircraft crashed during routine testing at the HAL airport. I had written this story as a homage to the test pilots who unfortunately lost their lives that day; but before I could share the story, events involving the CRPF and the IAF took place, which were beyond anyone’s control. The matter then went on escalating, and I decided to withhold the story.
I am sharing it now, with a disclaimer that the characters and the events in this story are merely fictional and products of my imagination, with no connection, real or imagined, to any person living or otherwise.
Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the Muse of the Month February 2019, but not one of the winners.
Image source: YouTube
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With over 200 published stories, Rashmi is a lawyer-turned-writer, who has always given
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