In High Spirits!

June 9, 2024by Rajeev Hora1

 Everyone knew that Rathore’s sweatband would come off only when the job was finally completed. A Kamikaze like Hachimaki bandana, with a commitment to match!

“Stop, stop the car!”, I instructed my driver. The car came to an abrupt and squeaky halt. I queried from my open car window, “Rathore Saab, what are you doing here?” Making sure that I had recognized the right person, I stepped out of my car. Totally taken aback by surprise, MWO Rathore exclaimed, “Oh my God! It’s you Sir! Fancy meeting you here.”

This was the last place we expected to run into each other. Meeting an old colleague is always a pleasure. In this case, it was more so for a reason. I had come to Jodhpur on some official work with the AOC. Having finished my meeting, I was on my way back to the Officers’ mess when this encounter took place.

Rathore earnestly requested, “How about a cup of tea Sir? It will be nice to catch up. I will take you to my squadron cafeteria.” I had the afternoon free and yielded without ado. As we sat down together in the car, Rathore gave directions to the driver. Within minutes, we arrived at the squadron complex and ambled across to the cafeteria by the side.

The place was not quite bustling as it was well past the lunch hour. Only a few airmen were having a cuppa tea. We made ourselves comfortable on a corner table and ordered some tea as well. I looked at Rathore with reminiscing affection as the sound of aircraft taxing out filled the room. The same grit and tan as ever before. But the inevitable wrinkly troughs and white hair told a story of their own.

Rathore said with a despondent smile, “Sir, I am in-charge of this cafeteria. And by the way, that is the only duty that I have now.”

“That is tragic indeed. How come a person like you is not tinkering with aeroengines anymore Rathore Saab?”, I asked inquisitively.

Rathore, a JWO with me in the squadron some ten years back was then the last word on Jaguar Adour engines. He was a master tradesman in his craft. What he did not know about the engines was probably not worth knowing.

Having an ultra-skilled technician like Rathore in the squadron was a huge plus for us. Especially, given the fact that the Adour engines were giving a lot of maintenance problems in those days. He would recall an aircraft taxing out just because he was not quite happy with the sound of the engine. And no STO would challenge his judgement on such counts.

Rathore explained his situation, “Sir, I am retiring in another six months. I had asked for a home posting to build a house before casting anchor. The Record Office was kind enough to post me here in the Mig 27 squadron. Since I was not qualified on type, I could not contribute much on the technical/ ops side. That’s how this cafeteria missive.”

 “Ah, I understand”, I said empathetically though I felt extremely sorry to see a legend being reduced to this state. But such is life, I told myself. I asked him, “Rathore Saab, do these youngsters around know anything about you or your exploits?”

Humble as ever, Rathore bowed his head a bit and replied, “Oh it’s okay Sir. Somehow, it is better this way. I just want these last six months to pass off peacefully.”

While no one in his new setup knew about him, I for one, could not forget what a solid customer he used to be. My thoughts went back to an unforgettable day, the memories of which we fondly shared. I asked, “Rathore Saab, do you remember that evening?”

Rathore smiled with a gleam in his eyes and then nostalgia took over.

It had been a long summer day in Gorakhpur. The squadron had finished flying and the evening debriefs were going on. Suddenly my phone rang. Command HQ was online. An unexpected critical mission had come up and six aircraft had to be ferried out next day morning. Simply put, ‘No’ was not an option, neither was a shortfall.

The Flight Cdr and the STO were quickly beckoned to explore options. Aircraft serviceability had been low because of the engine issues. We were literally scraping the barrel and putting together six aircraft was looking improbable. I was also not taking ‘No’ for an answer.

Brainstorming in a frenzy, the STO said, “Sir, two refurbished engines have been delivered today itself. If we work through the night, we can probably get two additional aircraft on line. That will see us through.”

“Possible?”, I queried, as an engine change is really a 2nd line maintenance job. Normally this hectic activity is not undertaken at the squadron level. “One I can understand, but would two not be asking for too much?”

The STO replied, “Sir, I can speak to the C Eng O for the permissions. But let’s call JWO Rathore because ‘He is the man’. If he commits, we can probably hack it.” That found Rathore in my office although he was just finishing the last of the rectifications for the day.

The poser I made to a rather weary Rathore was, “Rathore Saab, ‘Ek Raat, Do Engine’?” Meaning, “Can you hack two engine changes in a single night?”

Rathore thought for a moment. A cheeky smile appeared on his face as he said “Sir, it will be done. But it will be, ‘Ek Raat, Do Engine and Chaar botal.”  Interpreted as “It will be done Sir but you will have to tip the Engine section a few bottles of liquor.”

I smiled back with relief and replied, “Done Rathore Saab.” An unusual never-before deal was struck! All of us went our ways.

Rathore put together the rest of his team for the night adventure. He just wanted a couple of hours to go home for a bite and a wash. The STO meanwhile made the arrangements for additional lighting, fans and some victuals in the hangar. Dot at 10 PM, everything was in place. Rathore and his boys were not going to waste any time.

I also packed up late that night. On the way out, I dropped into the hangar to check if everything was fine. I could see Rathore from a distance with his trademark ‘Red sweatband’ on the forehead. Working fervently in unison with his boys, he was totally ‘in the zone’. Everyone in the Squadron knew that Rathore’s sweatband would come off only when the job was finally completed. A Kamikaze like Hachimaki bandana, with a commitment to match!

Next day morning as I reached the squadron, I could see both the aircraft being towed out to the flight line. I could only imagine what must have transpired through the night. My STO came across smilingly, “Sir, Rathore’s bandana finally came off at 6AM. The entire team has now gone home to rest.”

The six-ac formation took off on time. Mission achieved. True to promise, I called for a case of distilled spirits for the Engine section. Rathore came down in the afternoon to meet me. I gave him a hug of appreciation and presented him the pack. With pride in his eyes, Rathore vehemently refused the gift with words I can never forget, “Sir, we don’t need this spirit to boost our squadron spirit!”

Shaken back to reality in the cafeteria, I suddenly realized that the tea had gone cold but our hearts had certainly been warmed. We parted with moist eyes as I told him,

“Rathore Saab, people like you truly represent the real spirit of the IAF!”

With respect and admiration,
Horax (Casper)

 Postscript: The usage of the word ‘Sahib’ or ‘Saab’ is a legacy of the British Raj. It is however still used to respectfully address Senior NCOs in the Indian armed forces.

First published at seekmediation.com on 09/06/24
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One comment

  • AVM C N Ranganath

    June 10, 2024 at 1:35 pm

    Air warriors like Rathore are the backbone of the air force. I have also had the privilege of having worked with many such selfless, highly dedicated and committed men and learnt many life’s lessons from them. I have always wondered when as a superior I had very little to give them in return what is it that made them so loyal not only to the service but also to me personally. The only reason I can think of is that I treated them with respect and made them feel that their sterling qualities were sincerely appreciated. Above all, it was the mutual professional respect free from typical hierarchical barriers that was the magic mantra. Sadly, not much in sight these days.

    Reply

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