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Even if she floundered, she needed to know she had failed on her terms, after doing the best she could.
The fourth winner of our February 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Shalini Mullick.
“Squadron Leader Ananya Shah, the committee officially informs you that you have failed to complete the operational syllabus for night combat flying’’, the chairperson said. “According to rules, if you wish to make another attempt, you may do so after 4 weeks.”
Not allowing herself to show her disappointment, she saluted and left the board room. She was surprised to see Group Captain Rajendran catch up with her in the corridor. He had flown with her on the ominous sortie and had been called to place his observations on record.
“It is okay if you decide not to make another attempt. You have already achieved a lot by becoming a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force. Fear is natural, and not everyone can complete the moon and dark phases of the training. It takes a huge drive and will to overcome that fear.”
She stopped in her tracks. “Thank you sir, for your thoughts. If you don’t mind, I will leave now.”
As she showered, she felt flustered. She had flown with Rajendran on many occasions and he had always been an encouraging senior. With his vast experience and skill, he was highly regarded in the Air Force. What had he sensed in the cockpit that made him mention fear? she wondered.
Her restlessness continued as she went over the events of that day. In the air, on the very last leg of night combat training, things had seemed to be in her control. Suddenly, she had faltered for just a fraction of a second. As she lost her concentration, Rajendran had to take control of the aircraft. He had been obviously surprised, and had tried to ask her about the momentary slip after they landed, but she had shrugged it off.
She found herself wondering if he was right. After all, she herself would never have thought that she would succeed in becoming a fighter pilot, one of the toughest career options possible. Coming from a background of teachers and academicians, her decision to join the Indian Air force after her engineering degree, had taken everyone by surprise. She had always been a committed and competitive student. Her parents, professors in the University, had encouraged their children to pursue their interests. Emphasis on studies, sport and values had been the norm while growing up for Adhir and her.
Having secured admission to a prestigious engineering college, her campus life had been the usual mix of hanging out, studies and relationships.
Or had it? She had never allowed anyone to realize that she had her little secret too; and that the little secret had grown bigger and bigger over the years, at times seeming to replace her very core with a void. She had been terribly afraid of heights all through her childhood and adult life. It started out as a natural fear, but developed into a phobia that could be very limiting and debilitating. She would go to extreme lengths to avoid heights. Refusal to join friends on roller coasters, changing venues picnics planned to Qutab Minar, and falling sick on a college trip to Dubai to see the Burj Khalifa were some instances. Avoidance of this fear had become second nature, just like a reflex, as she had lived her otherwise usual life peppered with many academic and social achievements.
As she grew older, she began to realize that these fears had imprisoned her; but any efforts to face these demons would make her physically sick and set off a loop of unbearable nightmares, which would haunt her for many days. This complex cycle would end only by her burying the fears deeper within and simply avoid heights.
A severe anxiety attack at a terrace party she had to attend with her friends had been the catalyst for her beginning to overcome acrophobia. Pushing the borders of her comfort zone had been challenging and her inherent determination along with support from her therapist had helped immensely. Months of setting and increasing her goals, self discipline, working on herself, visualization of overcoming fears had finally borne fruit. When she finished her Engineering degree, it seemed that the abyss inside her could only be closed by taking a step of major consequence. Rejecting all other possible career options and joining the Indian Air Force was the ultimate challenge for her and a fitting testimony to the struggle.
The regimen at the Air Force Training Academy was grueling for even the best of the candidates, and an exceptional level of physical and mental strength was a prerequisite. She soon realized that she would need to put in a lot more than her course mates if she wanted to succeed in this venture. As always, her desire to win and emerge at the top ensured that she worked hard in the training. She also realized the importance of working upon her psyche to keep her fear at arm’s length. Having aced her courses, she moved on to the next challenge, combat training. Self motivation and her strong drive to achieve her goals had helped, and her nightmares had almost disappeared.
Group Captain Rajendran didn’t know any of this, but maybe he had a point. Hadn’t she come a long way already? Was it not enough that the girl who would need to vomit at the thought of attending a meeting in a high rise building was now a fighter pilot? Why should she even desire anything beyond this?
Trouble was, she did.
But, after months, the dreams had returned, and disturbed her the night before the sortie. She sometimes wondered if she would be able to carry through even with the day time combat, leave alone the tougher night training. Was the fear winning over the rest of her?
She set out for her usual run, and found visions of the nightmares accompanying her.
Once more, she saw them playing.
A young girl all of 8 years, was chasing a 6 year old boy on the roof.
The parapet was broken.
She saw him fall.
“Ananya, help!”, Adhir screamed
“Adhir” she shrieked, as she rushed to the edge but it was too late.
She couldn’t catch him and saw him fall on the road below.
The memory made her break into a sweat.
Would this reminder of that innocent day never leave her?
Adhir’s spine had been damaged, leaving him confined to a wheelchair.
Sorrow had cast a shadow on their happiness, but gradually the family had reconciled to the development. The tragedy would continue to influence each choice they would make in the future, yet, they understood that they couldn’t let it define them.
Adhir now had a successful career in gaming and animation which was his childhood passion, but Ananya was still haunted by the events of many years ago. She hadn’t been able to move on, and her fear of heights was a manifestation of her blaming herself for what happened to him.
In spite of being able to face heights, the nightmares would still pop up when she least expected them; and then persist as unannounced and unwelcome visitors at the most crucial of times, like during the sortie. Perhaps, it was time to give up her desire and be content with all that she had accomplished?
After a week of conflict, she had her decision. She couldn’t make peace with giving up on her desire. Her fear was obviously deeper within than she had realized, and might rear its ugly head again. She owed it to herself to take this further and see which side would emerge victorious. Whatever the outcome, it would surely be better than the week of self doubt she had gone through. She began her required hours of training again.
Rajendran had mentored Ananya in her training and was confident that she was one of the best pilots he had ever seen. The Ananya he had flown with on multiple occasions had always been focused and driven; but she was now inscrutable. It seemed like she had built an imaginary wall around her and he simply couldn’t connect with her. He had seen many officers crack under the immense pressure and he perceived a shift in her. It was disturbing because he couldn’t quite figure which way things would go. Neither did Ananya.
Worried, he wondered if he should insist on a higher grade of psychological evaluation before she appeared for the final round, but then decided to hold space for her and give her the time that he thought she needed.
On her part, she was resorting to everything under her power to conquer the last, and deepest of the fears, but she would often find herself troubled by her memories. She felt herself slipping on simple maneuvers and exercises, but she persisted. Even if she floundered, she needed to know she had failed on her terms, after doing the best she could.
The day of the final evaluation dawned and the sortie was again assigned to Rajendran.
A brief thumbs up from him, as she entered the cockpit of the MIg-21 Bison, and she was ready to take off.
He had flown with her before, but today was different.
The sortie was flawless, a level beyond perfect if it could exist.
The high five on landing left no ambiguity about the outcome this time.
“I am glad you were able to make it go away” he said, as they embarked from the aircraft.
“Make what go away?” she asked
“Whatever it was that had distracted you last time.”
As they shook hands, she simply smiled.
Does anything ever go away? She wondered.
Just last night, the dreams had recurred. Maybe they would never disappear.
But the visions had changed
Yesterday night, she had seen the children play, just like before. She had seen herself run on the roof. Then the roof seemed to transform into a runaway, and she was in a fighter aircraft, cruising, dog fighting, tailing.
She had released herself of her guilt, and the fear had disappeared, leaving her light and free to soar. Her crippling fear was finally rendered defenceless by her indomitable will and desire to succeed.
Editor’s note: It’s the new decade of the new millennium, and here’s a fresh theme for our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month. In 2020, we bring to you quotes feminist women achievers around the world – we hope to bring you some food for thought, and look forward to the same engaging short stories that are a hallmark of our Muse of the Month contests.
Here’s the woman for February 2020 – 38 year old tennis wiz Serena Williams has 39 Grand Slam titles under her belt. She has gone through much in her life, not the least of it was racism in a high profile game, making her the perfect pick for Black History Month as a black woman mover & shaker world over. She has since then worked her way to the top after injury, pregnancy, and childbirth too. In January 2020, she has won her first singles title since her maternity break, in the 2020 Auckland Open, showing that she is indeed one of the best.
The cue is this quote by her: “Whatever fear I have inside me, my desire to win is always stronger.”
Shalini Mullick wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: shutterstock
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