“That is the fear she has—the fear
His soul may beat and be beating at her dull sense
Like Blue Mary’s angel, dovelike against a pane
Blinded to all but the grey, spiritless room
It looks in on, and must go on looking in on.
On the 11th of December, 2020 the Indian Navy laid Commander Nishant Singh to rest with full military honours. He was killed in a MiG-29K air crash on the 26th of November. His fighter jet was operating aboard the aircraft carrier INS Vikarmaditya, off Goa. While his co-pilot ejected safely and was rescued shortly thereafter, Commander Nishant Singh lost his life and it took over a week for search and rescue to recover his body from the Arabian Sea.
He was the son of a naval officer, a qualified flying instructor and adept on the MiG-29K aircraft. At the funeral ceremony, his wife received the tricolour and his naval uniform from the Commanding Officer of his squadron.
They had been married for barely 6 months before his tragic death. The letter of leave that he wrote earlier this year to his CO seeking permission to marry his fiancée, recently went viral.
“On successful completion of three years of extensive SCTT (Survivability and Compatibility Testing Trials), Miss Nayaab Randhawa and I have come to a mutual agreement that we might actually be able to get through the rest of our lives together, without killing each other…. I officially seek your approval to willingly sacrifice myself in absolute peacetime, completely outside of the line of duty, and follow you and many other brave men into this graveyard spiral of matrimony”
I am the daughter of a fighter pilot and I’m very familiar with this tongue-in-cheek humour. Tom Cruise’s rendition of ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ (a 60s romantic classic by the Righteous Brothers) which he serenaded Kelly McGillis within Top Gun, was actually quite close to the way pilots expressed their love.
My father served in the Indian Air Force for 33 years, retiring in 2016 and going on to become a ground studies instructor for commercial pilots at a prominent flying training institute. Needless to say, Commander Nishant Singh’s death hit me hard, even though I grew up with the fear of death.
When I was 10, Dad was a newly certified Chief Flying Instructor and would often take me along to work, mainly because I could bunk school and watch fighter jets all day while snacking on chicken sandwiches. One evening, he had to go for a routine sortie (French for ‘military mission’) and he’d left me in the care of another instructor, a Squadron Leader who was married but had no kids of his own.
He took me to the ATC tower (Air Traffic Control) so I could hear Dad speaking from the cockpit to the ATC officers and watch his Iskra get the all-clear for take-off. Words cannot describe how cool it is to watch your father fly, so I’m not going to try.
Later on, the Squadron Leader took me up to the roof, quizzing me with fun facts about the Air Force and entertaining me with urban legends. I remember how surreal it was; watching the sky filled with stars and strewn with planes and feeling grateful to him for the company.
Two days later, he died in an air crash.
I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out: I was walking back home from school with my friends and the afternoon sun was beating down on my back. My mother was waiting at the gate of our bungalow and ushered me in without saying a word. I knew instantly that something was wrong.
It was not until I’d had lunch, taken a nap and gotten ready to go out to play that she gently broke the news to me. I don’t really recall crying, just sitting there blinking stupidly and trying to understand. Of all things, the timeline didn’t make sense to me. How could this man, who had babysat me just two days ago, alive, cheerful and well, be gone?
Children never went to funerals, so I asked my parents what it was like when they got back. They told me that his widow, who was also an officer, had sat there mute, frozen and lost, amidst muffled tears and quiet sobs of his friends and family. There is a quiet dignity to an officer’s death.
There is a quiet dignity to his widow, too.
It was my first experience of death and what it really meant to be a fighter pilot’s daughter. As a kid, I don’t think I’d ever contemplated any risk to flying. It all seemed so perfectly straightforward and streamlined. The chain of command, the flight plan, the blue overalls, the engine checks, the laminated airstrips, the debrief sessions and the protocol. To be honest, the way these fighter pilots flew, it was like they’d found the secret to cheating death. How could anything go wrong when such men were in command?
It wasn’t like I didn’t get it, but children have a baffling way of dealing with war. When my Dad went to Kargil, I was 5 years old. I vaguely remember my deeply devout mother pacing the hallway at night and praying silently but what I can tell you in vivid detail is the makeshift guard post I’d set up in our house right outside the bedroom door.
I’d huddle under a blanket on a rickety old chair with a flashlight and a book and I’d walk back and forth and bang this huge lathi on the floor while making my ‘nightly rounds’ as I’d often seen the chowkidars do. The problem was, anytime anyone wanted to walk into a room I would stand there, all two feet of me, with my hand stretched out and demand a ‘password’ which I kept changing for ‘security reasons’, so obviously nobody had a bloody clue about how to get inside without being harassed.
When my father came back home, he asked me what I’d been up to while he was gone. I told him very proudly, with absolutely no regard to the gravity of his mission, that while he’d been fighting for his country, I’d been keeping my mother safe.
Any fighter pilot’s child will tell you that while there is a glory to this job there is also, absence. I’ve always had a good relationship with my father but we are not close. Officers are often sent off on temporary duty or military exercise or combat mission and you know that if anything happens at home, you’re going to have to learn to deal with it yourself. There’s only so much your mother can do.
An old friend of mine got married this year to a fighter pilot right before the pandemic. Commander Nishant Singh’s tragic death made me reach out to her. She was a chef before she got married to her childhood friend and her husband is currently posted at an airbase up north. I wanted to know what it’s like to be married to a fighter pilot knowing that one phone call could utterly destroy your life.
Tejaswini Deodhar* and her husband Kshitij Pandey* first met when they were three and they were like chalk and cheese. Their fathers were posted to the National Defense Academy around the same time. Later, they would again be posted at the Air Force Academy, where Kshitij’s cricket ball would frequently hit Tejaswini’s bedroom window and she’d grow furious and complain to her mother. These are her earliest memories of him. They did not get along.
In 2010, they reconnected through a mutual friend on Facebook. She was doing her training in hotel management and he was doing his training as a cadet at NDA. They were seeing other people at the time but at least the childish squabbles had stopped so they could be cordial. In 2014, Tejaswini was working at a hotel in Hyderabad while Kshitij was at the Air Force Academy. By the time he got commissioned she had moved to Mumbai and they had started going out. It was all very serendipitous the way life kept throwing them at each other until they finally stuck.
“It happened naturally,” Tejaswini said during her interview. “He would come over to my place from time to time or take me out to dinner, whenever he got some time off. He now claims that it was love at first sight but for me, it was more of a slow burn.” A friendship that fermented into a relationship much to their incredulity, possibly because they realised they had a lot more in common than not.
They had to really commit though because they both kept crazy hours. Some days she would be coming back home after pulling a night shift while he would be heading out early to start his day. During breaks, when they somehow found a way to stay in sync, they’d do a quick phone call or grab lunch or just send a text. What stands out here is the way they were both old-fashioned, traditional and faithful even if it meant going through a long and arduous courtship ritual.
“We got married right before COVID-19 so we did not know what we were in for. When he got posted to Punjab, it meant moving lock, stock and barrel from Delhi and following him wherever he would go. It sounds romantic but I basically uprooted myself to head off into the unknown. To a quarantined airbase which was more airtight than a ziploc bag. In the middle of a pandemic. Where the ration truck only brought okra”.
Out of 11 months as a newly-married couple, Tejaswini and Kshitij have spent barely 3 months together. On top of that, Tejaswini has been having trouble with her in-laws, a rather rambunctious couple who have taken it upon themselves to coerce, control and bully her whenever they can. On the eve of her wedding, she recalls how they ruefully remarked to her “Ab toh beta haath se gaya” (Our son is out of our hands now). With Kshitij flying all the time, going on TDs, giving exams and attending sessions, she barely gets the weekend to be with him where they can drink tea, make dinner, watch a movie or go out for a stroll.
“We are very conscious of the way we communicate with each other.” She says, when I ask her how they’ve gotten through such a difficult first year. “Sometimes we’ll be visiting another couple and they’ll snap at each other or be rude to one another and we’ll share this look like ‘Did you see that?’. No matter how much we fight, we always maintain a united front outside. We don’t fight to entertain the public, it’s not a gag.”
But when they fight at home, they fight. No holds barred, no punches pulled, all bets are off. “I let him have it if I feel I’m being ignored. Anything can set me off, it might be his parents or because he left his shoes in the wrong place, or because he has to go out of station again. I make it very clear that I did not sign up for this. That this is not what I had planned for us. He listens patiently. He waits for me to calm down. Then we try and talk about what went wrong here and what can he do to make it easier for me”
Compromise is integral to every marriage but for military wives, compromise is at a whole another level. She admits that she has had to sacrifice something vital: time. “I know his job comes first. I’m not competing with that. But being separated all the time puts a strain on the relationship. When we’re apart we tend to bicker about little things, but when he’s home I know he’s there and I feel secure. I miss that when he’s away.”
Her husband is abroad right now, doing a fighter’s course in France. Before the walls could start closing in on her, Tejaswini moved back in with her family. When I asked her what it was like to love someone when you know that one accident could take that all away, she grows thoughtful.
“It’s a subconscious fear. I know it could happen and there’s nothing I can do about it. But I really believe in positive thinking so I never say it out loud. I don’t even entertain the idea. I always tell myself, he’ll be OK. I can’t let fear micromanage me. So I do self-care which means just vent! Call up my husband, or mother, or a friend and let it all out. Don’t spend each day thinking that the worst will happen. What we try to do is live in the moment because this is what makes our relationship so beautiful, knowing that our time together is precious”
I will say this, it isn’t easy being a military wife. Your intuition is always ‘on’ and never ‘off’. You get this gut feeling, like something bad is going to happen, yet you have to continue as if everything is alright. You didn’t choose this life for yourself, but someone you love did. In fact, there will be days when you will be mad at them.
They won’t be there when you need them and your problems will always seem small in comparison to the dangers they face on a daily basis. But if I’ve learnt one thing from the armed forces, it is this: bravery comes in all shapes and sizes.
It could be a soldier; summiting a mountain and defending our borders through treacherous terrain. It could be his wife; taking care of home and hearth, raising his children and being there for him when he’s battle-worn and world-weary.
Because you can’t stay mad at a soldier who loves his country.
Deep down you know if it weren’t for him, you and I wouldn’t be here.
*Names changed to protect identities