The Meeting, Short and Fleeting

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Sheela Jaywant


It wasn’t a knock, more like a single, strong thud on the door. It startled him terribly, reminded him of… what? He couldn’t remember. His pulse raced, though, for there was something amiss: he’d just stepped outside a second or two ago, to check his mailbox and hadn’t seen anyone at all. He hadn’t heard the lift stop either. Nor had he heard any footsteps. The old tiles gave away the slightest movement. Of course, the bell hadn’t been working and he’d been postponing getting it repaired. Friends who dropped by didn’t need it anyway. They merely called out his name. But no one ever came in the afternoon. The temperature outside must have been around 38 degrees C. He unlatched the door. A young woman stood there. Saleswoman?

“I’m doing a project on birdhits and flight safety,” she said even before he fully opened the door. He wasn’t used to being thus disturbed in his routine. A most unusual thing to say, he thought. No salesperson, this.

“A project? You could have called,” he said, still blocking her way, “and made an appointment.” She seemed to ignore his words. Ignored even him, then climbed over the inch-high threshold and almost forced her way in. Good manners gave way to good sense, and he let her in.

“There was no time,” she said. Her voice was shrill, whiny, and there was something about her that made him suspicious, uncomfortable. She seemed to know her way around, appeared to be familiar with him, treated him as an acquaintance.

Long years of training had honed his instincts to danger. This person alerted his nerves.

Of course, it had been almost five years since he’d hung up his uniform, but the basic qualities of a fighter pilot remained. He wanted to be proactive, to be prepared, to know his ‘adversary’. Could one call a chit of a girl an adversary? Couldn’t say how old she was, could be twelve or twenty. She was slight, but with broad, stooping shoulders. Long fingers, short legs, short hair, darting eyes. Expressionless. She wore a furry poncho-like blouse over her jeans that flapped as she walked. She seemed to skip rather than walk. She looked like a foreigner. Or perhaps she was from the North East, though their noses weren’t so long. Slight, but sturdy. Those people did have complexions like these, specially the tribals. But for a tribal to have come all this way to Goa on the southwest coast… didn’t seem feasible. He was curious, rather than suspicious. Something was bothering him. It wasn’t just the element of surprise of her visit that made him uncomfortable.

“What is this project, who are you doing it for, how did you trace me, what do you need from me?” When Rajkumar got irritated, he always talked fast and he was annoyed at himself for having allowed her in, for not being able to figure out why he was so uncomfortable with her.

“May I introduce myself?” she asked calmly, eyeing him intently.

He nodded, surprised at the confidence of this stranger. “Yeah. I’m Rajkumar, retired, Wing Commander, Indian Air Force…”

“I know. I’m Cheel,” she said.

He shook her hand.

She clutched his tightly for a moment, just a moment.

“So, Cheel, sit down here. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Just water, thanks.”

She took short, quick sips of the liquid, enjoying it as if it were a rare wine, raising her little chin up as she swallowed it. He could almost see the liquid travel down her throat.

“How can I help you, ma’am?” She was staring at the Air Force mementos displayed on the wall, the shelves, engrossed.

Quickly, but in clear tones and words, still staring at the photographs and the statuettes, she told him she was from the University of Ambar, West Bengal, a zoologist, doing her Ph.D. on birds and their impact on humans, in her state. It was much later, after she’d gone, that he wondered who was paying for her fare, her stay… Indeed, where was she staying; there wasn’t a hotel for miles near here, nor any public transport. Was there really an Ambar in West Bengal? In retrospect, another revelation: Ambar meant ‘sky’ in Hindi.

“You,” it sounded more like an accusation than an enquiry, “had had a birdhit in April 2004, over Ghaziabad. You were flying a Mig 23. Here (and she thrust out a file at him) are all the details.”

“How did you… where did you…?” He didn’t read it. He should have.

“Got it from the Net.”

The Air Force put these details up on the Net? Weren’t they secret? But that, too, he thought of after she’d gone.

“Besides,” she continued, “It was all over the papers, and I have the cuttings.”

How could he have been so slack… How could he not have asked to see those cuttings… Ah, he learned the hard way that some moments couldn’t be rewound.

“Here, I’m going to switch on my tape recorder, so I can go through what you’ve said and be sure there’s no mistake.” She then walked across the small drawing room and went straight… as if she knew… towards the corridor. There she stood before an ugly chair, a folding one, made of green metal pipes, rusty hinges and faded brown canvas.

“That,” said Rajkumar, “was my ejection seat.”

“Tell me,” she said facing him directly. “What happened?”

“It was an early morning sortie. I was about 3 kilometers up when I had a birdhit. I ejected.”

“Then?”

“I landed in a field; the chopper came to rescue me; I was in hospital for a week.”

“Then?”

“I was back to flying after a month’s rest.”

“Then?”

When Rajkumar got angry, he roared. Lady or no lady, this was getting a bit too much. “Then nothing.” She wasn’t fazed by his volume or tone.

“Did you see the bird you hit?”

“Haven’t you done your homework? There’s never any time to see or even blink, dammit. The damage is done and within seconds you’re out. Or dead.”

“That was true for the bird. It didn’t see you.”

“That’s life.”

“That’s death.”

“What kind of research is this?”

“What bird was it?”

“A vulture, maybe eagle, I don’t know. They’d sent the feathers and flesh that they found in the crash debris to the Bombay Natural History Society for identification. No, it was a kite, I remember… I forget the scientific name… They said it was rare in that area, very unusual. Must have weighed about five to eight kilos, rather big, too, they said… You’re looking pale, can I get you some water?”

“Rare in the area… It was hungry, searching for food.”

“Yeah, perhaps. Plenty of cattle dying out there those days, with the drought.”

“No place to live… ” Had he heard right? She seemed a bit ill, now, this girl, he thought. What was she mumbling under her breath? He tried to guide her back to the drawing room where they could sit comfortably on the sofa, but she insisted on standing before that ejection seat.

“What did you feel?”

“To my bad luck, I’d lost some speed, and the aircraft went into a spin as well. Which meant it was yawing, pitching, and rolling at the same time.”

“What does that mean?”

“You haven’t done your homework. You’re doing research, eh? It means the aircraft’s nose and tail were see-sawing, the wings were see-sawing and moving sideways, too, all at the same time, whilst hurtling down to the earth.”

“You didn’t get the handle the first time, did you?”

“No, I was lucky the second time. The first time, nothing happened. Then the seat fired.”

“Then?”

“I tumbled upwards, unconscious with the blood flow and everything till the parachute jerked me awake once more. I saw the plane go down, down. There was a sharp pain in my back. But I was more worried about where I’d land.”

She interrupted him. “All birds worry about that. All their lives.”

He was now enjoying the narration, remembering an episode that none but those who’d been through it would understand. (And none were interested in hearing about.) Those words, ‘eject-eject-eject’, the sudden gush of adrenalin, that fear, the overcoming of it, the lessons he’d learnt as a pupil, the blessings of his ancestors, the holding of the breath as he faced unknown danger, the surge of blood… and the catapulting, up and away, defying gravity, forced out into space, not knowing whether he’d be dead or alive… not knowing whether he was dead or alive till the parachute opened, floating down earthwards, seeing the site of the crash below him, realizing it wasn’t even a couple of seconds since he’d been hit and he was already safe on the ground… Later, in the hospital, he read a lot of books about religion, near-death experiences, life after death, he was rambling now, soliloquizing, opening his heart to her.

He heard her interrupt: “…yes, the body does move slower than the soul, doesn’t it?”—and ignored it.

“…Ah, what was interesting to my children, though, was the ejection kit.”

“Hmm?”

“I’ll show you.” He dragged a small bag out from under the ejection seat. The girl watched, fascinated. “This is the survival kit. The knife—see the three edges? They’re sharp and tough, can slice through the neck of a grown buffalo with a swipe. Two kilos of solid steel. (He almost handed it over to her to feel it, then withdrew, for giving a weapon to a stranger would be stupid. Years of military conditioning at work!) Made in Russia. There were chocolates in this metal box. And this is the water bottle. The medicines, of course, weren’t needed in my case. Nor the flares. I discarded those. There was a compass, too, I think it’s lost now.”

“Did you keep something of the bird?”

“Why, no. There isn’t anything to keep in a crash. Everything gets incinerated. Very tiny bits of feather or bone or flesh or a smattering of blood is what we scrape off and put into plastic bottles to send for identification. The canopy pieces may have a little hair or something stuck to it.”

“Didn’t you ever wonder why such a rare bird hit you? I mean, why was it there at all?” She seemed on the verge of tears. Perhaps he was imagining it. Perhaps she was one of those very involved activists fighting for the rights of birds of prey. She was difficult to read. So far she hadn’t asked him any technical questions, though the tape-recorder was on.

“Nope. Some stupid bird came in my way, caused a loss of 22 crore rupees to the country. Such a lovely machine reduced to ashes.”

She seemed to be shivering.

“Are you ill?” he asked, now concerned.

“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s just that… You’re talking about money, about a machine. Wonder what the bird felt.”

He was convinced: she had to be an animal rights’ lawyer.

“Birds feel? In any case, there wasn’t any time to think or anything; it all happened so quickly.”

“Are birds usually found at 3 kilometers up in the air?”

“Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, maybe not. Didn’t think about that. We’d learnt about it, but can’t remember now. It’s been a long time ago.”

“Adventurous bird.”

“Yeah, maybe it came to see the planes.” He was sarcastic.

She mumbled something again. It sounded like “It did,” but Wing Commander (Ret’d.) Raj Kumar couldn’t be certain. He offered her some tea, biscuits. She didn’t want any.

“Birds are curious,” she said softly. “They can see, they want to see closely, any stranger in the sky.”

Silence. Wacko, thought Rajkumar. He wished he wasn’t alone. Who knew what this woman’s intentions were. He was certain she wasn’t into research or anything, but couldn’t make out what she wanted. If her objective was theft, she was wasting her time; he owned nothing of value. Did she have an accomplice outside? To break the silence, he spoke. “My wife makes excellent tea. You could wait till she comes. She’ll be home soon.”

“I know, by five,” she said confidently.

“Yeah, five,” he echoed. Vaguely, he wondered, how did she know that? They disturbed him, her words. He decided to distract her.

From the ejection kit bag, he took out the folded parachute. She felt it with her fingers. Then she swung around and draped it around herself. The action twirled it in the air. It floated up above her head, up to the ceiling, then fell upon her and to the ground. She stepped out.

He said, “This is what saved me. The guys who packed it, who checked the ejection seat, they did a good job. I’m here because of them. I was lucky I could eject in time. Some pilots are unlucky. They go down. There’s no time to eject. Bang and it’s over.”

“No time, quite right,” she whispered. “So quick, no time.”

He began to put away the kit. “What about the questions you wanted to ask me?” he said, guiding her from the corridor to the drawing room again.

She stroked the ejection seat, the small kit-bag, then followed him.

“Afterwards, what did you think about, in hospital, at home?”

“Initially about the pain I had in the back. I couldn’t move my neck, or sit or walk without wincing. I took medicines for the pain. Then, after ten days or so, I began to walk around in the house. Took me about a month to really feel normal again. I was lucky, didn’t have a compression fracture or anything.”

“What about the bird, did you think about it?”

“No.”

“Never?”

“Never. Why?”

“It must’ve suffered, too. Broken wings, crushed back.”

“Nope, it was dead before it knew it was hit.”

“You think so?”

“Sure.”

“But at the moment of impact? It might have felt something? Pain, perhaps fright?”

“Perhaps, I don’t know. Never gave it a thought. Is that part of your research? Birds and flight safety?”

“The safety of birds also ought to be a consideration, right?”

Yes, he thought, this nut is a bird lover all right. Maybe a vegan. Better change the topic. Didn’t want any tears or scenes.

“…right?” She was waiting for her answer.

“Absolutely,” he said diplomatically, wondering if her tape-recorder was working and what material she was going to get from it.

“You flew for a living…”

“Birds fly for a living, too,” he joked, trying to dilute the seriousness.

“It’s not the same thing.” The veins in her neck were getting turgid; lines of tension were visible on her forehead.

“Ma’am, Cheel, Ma’am,” he said cautiously, comfortingly, in a ‘there-there’ manner. “Are you sure you won’t have something to drink?”

She shook her head so vigorously, even her shoulders moved, and her poncho flapped around her. When she stretched her elbows out, they actually looked like wings. What lengths these activists go to, he thought, wearing these funny outfits.

As suddenly as she’d come, she packed her things into her sling bag and headed for the door.

“You’re going?” he asked.

“Yes.” She was abrupt.

“Wait. In a few moments, my wife will be here. She’d like to meet you, I’m sure.” He could clearly hear the rumble of his wife’s car in the distance.

“I’m going,” she said, opened the door, and with a quick look at him, stepped out. He watched her trot away, briskly, puzzled at the intensity with which she saw him. Her eyes seemed to pierce him, through him. Her glance was brief, but intense. He didn’t know what to make of this encounter. Was she planning to return?

He put his hand on his chest… What was that? A sharp, sudden, agonizing pain in his chest. As he fell, he saw his wife’s car come into view.

It was in the ICU, when he was stable, that he told his wife about her.

“You were hallucinating,” she said. Happens, sometimes, when the oxygen supply to the brain is hampered, the doctor explained.

No, he insisted. She was real. No one believed him. It was whilst he was recuperating, in the peace and solitude of the ward that he tried to make sense of the incident. All that he could remember of her was her hooked nose. Like a beak, he thought.

It was on the third day that two things occurred to him: cheel means ‘kite’ in Hindi and how did she know that he’d pulled the handle twice before he ejected? He hadn’t told anyone. How did she know? He sat up, shocked.

The pain in his chest was overwhelming, as if it had been hit by a tractor. Is this what it feels like to be hit by an aircraft, he thought before he passed out.

The Cardiac Pulmonary Resuscitation team was by his side in minutes.

“Strange,” said the intensive care doctor who attended to him. “The ECG is normal, but this patient showed all the classical signs of a cardiac arrest.”

Stranger still was the single feather that his wife found stuck to the ejection seat. She’d never seen it before. It belonged, said an ornithologist friend, to a tropical bird of prey.
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“I’m a 48-year-old freelance writer from India. My work, mainly features and interviews, has been published in several national newspapers. In 2003, my book Quilted, Stories of Middle Class India was published (reviewed on www.SAWNET.com). I do a weekly column for a local newspaper. On the Net, my work can be read on www.chowk.com.” E-mail: sheelajaywant[at]yahoo.co.in.

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