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Boiling points in kitchen and sky

Spilt milk reminds a brilliant pilot of human fallibility
Last Updated : 19 June 2024, 00:30 IST

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My wife doesn’t resent my love for the fresh newspaper along with my morning cuppa. But she resents my getting too absorbed in it. Unfortunately, it happened on a recent morning too.

As she put the pan on the stove to boil milk, she remembered she had to order some groceries, went looking for her mobile, and asked me to switch off the stove as soon as the milk started boiling. Unfortunately, I got lost in the headlines, and what she dreaded happened in a jiffy.

The milk boiled and spilled all over the stove and kitchen slab. While bracing myself for her dressing down, I decided to remind her how I had come to her rescue the other day when she had left her bag containing her valet and mobile in a cab. I had noticed that she was without her bag and quickly retrieved it before the cab left. 

When my wife came back, I asked her before she could enter the kitchen, “What is it that makes a brilliant fighter pilot underperform at times? Can’t he even put up an occasional slipshod performance?” Before she could think of a suitable answer, I answered myself. “Yes, he can. But it cannot be used as a tool to downplay his professional competence. All soldiers give the last ounce of their energy and skill with dedication, but at times the mind strays and gets the better of their actions. They are but humans.”

Then I told her the incident that had just flashed into my memory. My late friend Neb was a gentle soul, a brilliant pilot, and a disciplined soldier. But even he was forced once to spell out the truth to his flight commander when he was riled for deviating from his usual competence. The incident didn’t happen under public glare but had become the crew room buzz. 

It happened when the Squadron came back to its base after a ground attack exercise in a firing range in the dusty plains of Punjab. Neb was as brilliant and professional a fighter pilot as ever sat in the cockpit of the amazing Hunter aircraft. He never boasted about being twice decorated with the Vir Chakra for shooting down Pakistan’s F-86 fighters in the 1971 war. And yet, this brilliant record faded against his failure to knock down the targets during that peacetime exercise.

Naturally, the flight commander did not mince his words while debriefing Neb, who took the verbal thrashing patiently for as long as he could. Ultimately, his patience wore off. Pointing at the ribbons on his chest, he said, looking straight into the eyes of the flight commander, “Sir, I can rise to the occasion and hit the bull’s eye when the right moment comes. Isn’t that what really matters?”

The lady of the house smiled as I finished my mémoire and quietly started mopping up the kitchen slab.

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Published 19 June 2024, 00:30 IST

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