A Black Swan at Balakot

Black Swan: Rarity, impact & predictability

A Black Swan event has three attributes. First, it is (most) unexpected; cognition excludes any likelihood (at all) of its occurrence. Second, its outcome is spectacular. And the third, despite its unexpectedness, people get down to concocting explanations to justify its occurrence. These can be summed as rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective predictability. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book, The Black Swan explains the concept.

Air raid on the terror camps in Balakot (Pakistan) by IAF fighters in the wee hours of February 26, 2019 displays these three attributes of a Black Swan event. The event was unexpected, keeping the feeble Indian response to similar provocations in the past: the Parliament Attack (2001), the Mumbai Terror Attack (2008), and the Pathankot Terror Strike (2016)… the list is long. And, even after the recent terror attack on the CRPF convoy in Pulwama, there was a view that India lacked the will to respond to such provocations. On that occasion, as always, whether India had a Strategic Culture to respond to provocations became a point of intellectual debate. I too had contributed my anna bit to the discourse (Read Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture).

The Balakot Air Strike

Let alone the outcome, which is being questioned by Pakistan, the very act of the IAF fighters crossing the border and releasing ordnance over the terror camps is a spectacular act. It was unimaginable until it happened; how it stunned everyone needs no further elucidation.

Volumes can be written on the third attribute––on the retrospective predictability. People attribute the happening of Balakot Air Strike to so many reasons: The political will, the pressure from the people, the moral high ground, the economic and military power that India wields today, and its recent diplomatic achievement in isolating Pakistan…. There are as many explanations as the number of armchair strategists.

In retrospect, the surgical strike by the Indian Army after the Uri Attack was a Black Swan event too.  

In the immediate present and now, Uri and Balakot are a thing of the past. The success of those raids/ attacks has raised the bar for India––several notches in one go. Now, a stage has been reached when perhaps even a Neptune Spear type raid (killing of Osama Bin Laden) by the Indian Special Forces to eliminate any of the terror leaders hiding in Pakistan will not come as a surprise, not even for the Pakistan’s military. Thus, even if it were to come to pass, a raid to eliminate the terror leaders, it would not qualify to be a Black Swan event. By implication, its success might be iffy.

For sure, Uri and Balakot are a thing of the past. The return gift from Pakistan for India’s Black Swan––another Black Swan––is a much anticipated and awaited thing. And, for sure, no amount of preparedness would be enough to fully absorb a true Black Swan event.

So?

Let the political and the military leadership and the diplomatic corps of the day have their way. They have pulled it this far; they definitely have plans for the future. While they are doing their bit to restore some semblance of normalcy in the region, they are also prepared, to the extent possible, to meet the retaliation on all fronts. The noise and din in the streets and in the media can only distract them.

Prudence demands that they be allowed to concentrate.

Chocolates, Child & An Attractive Offer

Jim studies in a school. All children do. But his school is a school with a difference, where four R’s (the fourth ‘R’ being learning by rote) are not a part of a curriculum. Education is imparted in a rather unique way. When a child sees an aeroplane and asks a question, he is told about the flying machine and is waylaid (“waylaid,” seems to be an inappropriate word; “encouraged,” might be a better choice) to ask more questions. Sometimes the learning that starts from an aeroplane covers gliders, helicopters, fighter aircraft, sky, clouds, eagles, butterflies, flowers, colours, Wright Brothers, parachutes… literally everything that possibly strikes a child’s imagination in any direction. The teacher makes use of every tool in her bag to kindle the child’s imagination. Like in this case, she resorts to origami to make a paper aircraft, and she makes use of drawing to sketch a colourful butterfly.

Origami

The parents get educated too, and take charge at home. “Never say, NO to a child,” is the one thing they bear in mind always.

The other day, Jim received some chocolates from his uncle, forty of them in a box, and wanted to eat all of them instantly. An interesting conversation ensued. A lifetime of education is sandwiched between two of Jim’s utterances to William, his father: ‘Dad I want to eat all the chocolates now’ and ‘Dad, I don’t want to eat all the chocolates now.’ Here goes the conversation:

Jim: “Dad, I want to eat all the chocolates now. I like them so much. Please, Dad.”

William: “Can you eat them all? How many are there? Count!”

“One, two, three, … 39.” [Jim’s counting skill gets exercised.]

“Good! You ate one at noon. What’s the time now?”

“The hour hand is between five and six and the minute hand is at six,” Jim scratches his chin. “Hmm! It’s half past five.” [Jim gets practice in reading the hands of a clock and telling time.]

“Very good, indeed! I like that. I am so happy, you can now tell me the time. Here’s another chocolate for you.” [Jim feels victorious. He feels proud of his achievement. Happily he removes the wrapper and pops the chocolate in his mouth.]

“Is it sticky,” asks William, and without waiting for an answer, continues, “You know Jim, chocolate sticking between the teeth can cause tooth decay. Do you remember Tom (Jim’s friend) visiting the clinic with toothache?”

“But I brush my teeth twice everyday, and I’ll do it without fail even today.” [Jim re-commits himself to good hygiene.]

“How many chocolates would be left if I give you two more?”

“Thirty-six.” [Arithmetic again.]

“Do you know how many days would thirty-six chocolates last if you eat four chocolates every day,” William asked Jim raising his hands and gesturing as if the remaining stock of chocolates would last an eternity.

“Hmm! I don’t know?” [Jim concedes ground but is lured by William’s gesture into finding out: “How many days?”]

“Let’s see.”

Chocolates & Arithmetic

William gets a sheet of drawing paper and nudges Jim to draw several coloured boxes using sketch pens and a ruler. He makes Jim number them too. [Jim is excited getting to use his Dad’s sketch pens and ruler. He learns to draw squares using the ruler. Then William makes Jim place four chocolates in the area marked by each coloured box on the drawing sheet. He makes the little one count the boxes that are filled with chocolates––each box signifying a day.]

“Those chocolates will last me nine days if I have four a day.” [It was a ‘Eureka’ moment for Jim. He was excited at arriving at that mathematical conclusion. William cheered the little boy, “Oh my God! Those chocolates will last you nine days!” There was extra emphasis on, “N-I-N-E.”]

Doll for Ann

“Besides, you’ll have sufficient chocolates to share with Ann (Jim’s cousin) when she visits us over the weekend. I’ll also make some dolls for Ann using the chocolate wrappers. Do you want to enjoy the chocolates for N-I-N-E (even more emphasis) days, share them with Ann and present her some dolls too,” William proposed. [The offer was too attractive for Jim to decline.]

“Dad, I don’t want to eat all those chocolates now.”

[Jim’s chocolates lasted more than a week. More importantly, he was mighty happy sharing some with Ann.]

[Note: This story was narrated to me by my nephew, Abhinav Goyal.] [For Abhinav: Thanks dear, for sharing that story. Please excuse the shortcomings in narration.]

Nuclear Terrorism: Need to Tweak the Way We Think

In December 1980, the US President received a recorded message from Muammar Al-Qadafi the President of Libya threatening to detonate a nuclear device that had been smuggled into New York unless his conditions with regards to Palestine were met within a stipulated time. There was an adjunct: In case the US President made that communication public, or made any effort whatsoever, to evacuate New York City, Qadafi would be obliged to detonate the device instantly. The recorded message was accompanied with enough documentary evidence (a blueprint and four pages of mathematical formulae) to remove any doubt about the ability of the sender of the message to execute his threat. The intelligence agencies confirmed that the voice was that of Qadafi. The threat was R-E-A-L.

Nuclear Terrorism

That was fiction: “The Fifth Horseman” by the duo of Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre (1980). But what President Gerald Ford experienced earlier, in 1974, was not fiction. A group of Palestinians had threatened to detonate an atomic device in the heart of Boston unless eleven of their men in Israeli prisons were released. Notwithstanding the threat, Ford did work on an evacuation plan. Meanwhile, the blackmailers were caught and the threat turned out to be a hoax.

After that incident the US came up with a secret organisation to deal with such threats, real or hoax. Fiction and fact, this issue of nuclear blackmail did not end just there.

After the publication of the book (The Fifth Horseman), two journalists interviewed Qadafi and asked him what he thought of the book by Collins and Lapierre in which he had been projected as one terrorising the US with a nuclear device. Until then Qadafi had not known about the book, or the plot. He responded mysteriously, “In (any) case if ever that were to happen (Qadafi were to smuggle a nuclear device into a US city), it would be your fault because you gave me the idea.”

Fast forward to today and now. Nuclear Terrorism is no longer a figment of imagination; it is a reality. A news item published in an obscure corner of The Times of India (of Friday, February 22, 2019) reports a man being interrogated by the IB and the sleuths. He had confided that a girl he was communicating with on a dating app was talking about a nuclear attack on Delhi and that Rashtrapati Bhawan would be blown up.

Real threat, or hoax!?

There are reasons to believe that India, like the US and others, has plans and machinery to handle such threats and crises. The architects of India’s Nuclear Doctrine have crafted some of the most well defined guidelines (on nuclear issues). There is much substance in the “No First Use” policy that India professes.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine, the command and control structure etc. etc. are not the subject matter of this post––they have been very well articulated. Of concern today––in the post Pulwama rhetoric on both sides of India’s western border––is the ability of the Indian military apparatus to respond to a possible nuclear misadventure by an adversary or its proxy.

Are we prepared for a prompt (read “lightning”) and befitting response?

Hmm!!! Well, with the nuclear arsenal that it possesses, India can turn a prospective adversary into rubble (even after absorbing the first strike). There is no iota of doubt about that. What about the will to do just that? Read on…

When the balloon goes up, it will be the armed forces personnel who would be taking the physical actions to launch nuclear weapons––missiles, aircraft, warships or submarines.  Generations of those very officers, who would be expected to act with great alacrity, have been fed on the idea that: “Nuclear weapons are not the weapons for fighting; they are meant for deterrence.” Although this is an undeniable fact, at times the stress laid on it, is far too much. Anyone who even appears to tow a different line even in theory or for the sake of an argument, does not find favour with the directing staff and senior officers who conduct war games. Officers with divergent views are sometimes ridiculed by their superiors/ colleagues.

An officer who has been groomed and trained for years to treat nuclear weapons as meant “ONLY FOR DETERRENCE” if, and when, ordered to fire a nuclear missile, would pause and have second thoughts. He would be inclined to verify the authenticity of the order. In a war involving use of nuclear weapons, a delay of a few seconds to respond to first use by an adversary might result in considerable degradation of the capability to cause unacceptable damage to the attacker.

So? Those who wear military uniforms need not be told that the weapons in their charge are not meant for use; they only need to be apprised––loudly, clearly and publicly, “These are weapons of mass destruction, use them only under the explicit orders of the leadership. This small change in approach will certainly not turn our fine men into trigger-happy warmongers. If at all, it will improve the response and make the deterrence more effective.

Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture

A couple of years ago, I was at a seminar where many eminent people from different walks of Indian life had gathered to share their thoughts on India’s Strategic Culture. The discussion, which began with great bonhomie, metamorphosed into an animated debate. There were those who eulogised all great Indians from Manu to Manmohan Singh. They recalled with reverence Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Rani Laxmibai and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. They spoke in praise of Ashoka and Chandragupta Maurya; Mohanjodaro and Harappa; Nalanda and Takshila…. They were convinced that Chanakya and his Arthashatra were as great (read, “greater”) than Sun Tzu and his Art of War. They talked of the wars India has won against Pakistan including the surrender of 93,000 Pakistanis (1971). They skipped the Sino-India War (1962) and went gaga over India’s Space and Nuclear capabilities and its rich and varied culture and heritage…. “Wow! What a Strategic Culture!”

Chanakya

People on the opposite bench spoke of the so many times India has been invaded. They recalled some names with a lot of venom––Genghis Khan, Timur, Ghazni, Ghauri and the East India Company…. They argued that the Kashmir issue was poorly handled in 1947; we are still paying the cost of bad decisions. They held Prime Minister Nehru responsible for the debacle in 1962. They argued that the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 shouldn’t have been allowed to leave India; there was no question of releasing Masood Azhar. On the issue of the rescue of President MA Gayoom of the Maldives (Operation Cactus, November 1988), they were sure that India (like the US, the UK, and Pakistan etc.) shouldn’t have extended military assistance––the returns were not commensurate with the risk involved. For sure, India was the proverbial cat’s paw that pulled the chestnuts out of the fire for the Maldivians. In Kargil, India was caught napping…. “Does India have a Strategic Culture at all?”

In the Q&A hour, intellectuals raised doubts, asked questions and commented. I kept mum for I didn’t want to prove my ignorance. I felt relieved when the learned chair concluded that it was important to define the term “Strategic Culture” before one could talk about “India’s” Strategic Culture and there was no clear definition of that term. My relief knew no bounds when, during the high tea after the event I interacted with people and discovered that most of us (if not all) were sailing in the same boat.

Discussion, and the debate over, I consigned “Strategic Culture” to some far recesses of my mind for I had more pressing issues to turn to; we all have pressing issues, including children. Publication of my book was top on my list of priorities at that time.

Until Pulwama…

Rummaging Pulwama

Today everyone, literally everyone, is talking (on television, texting, tweeting, whatsapping…) about India’s Strategic Culture, or some such thing––the same debate and the same arguments have resurfaced. Only the discussants are more vociferous, more clamorous and very aggressive.

I wonder: “At this point in time, is a definition of Strategic Culture or a knowledge of India’s Strategic Culture important? Is it going to help in any way? Is this the time to think of doctrines, recall principles of war, military strategy––the theory?”

I am reminded of a young cricketer at the nets a day before a major game. Just when he hit the ball over the boundary, his coach came to him and said that that was not the way to hit the ball. He reprimanded him for his wrong technique and started teaching him the ‘textbook’ way of doing what he was doing.

“But where’s the ball, coach?” the player asked as he looked at the ball being recovered from the spectator stand.

In tune with what I said the other day, I add:“The time to learn theory has long gone; it is time to act. Rummaging Pulwama for India’s Strategic Culture will be an exercise in futility. Let those on the stage perform unhindered. Let others just W-A-T-C-H. Those of us who have performed our acts really well (when we were on the stage) will be approached for direction, if deemed necessary.”

Kandahar Hijack: A Revisit in the Aftermath of Pulwama

Among others, a phoenix that rises after almost every terror strike is the issue of hijack of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 (Airbus A300) en route from Kathmandu to Delhi on December 24, 1999. The crisis ended after India agreed to release Masood Azhar, along with some other terrorists. The released terrorists were later implicated in other acts of terror, like the gruesome murder of Daniel Pearl (2002) and the Mumbai Terror Strike (2008).

Hijacked Indian Airlines Airbus 300 at Kandahar

Therefore, after Pulwama, a recall of Kandahar appears to be a natural public impulse. The decision of the Bajpai Government to barter Masood Azhar for the passengers and the crew is being criticised yet again. Many are suggesting that India should not have let go of Masood; it is being lamented that India is paying the cost for that ‘wrong’ decision. It is fashionable to cite the example of Israel in dealing with terror strikes and their policy of never-succumbing-to-the-demand of the terrorists to release their brethren in return for Israeli hostages.

The fact is that Israel does have a rigid policy on the subject. Israel has dealt with situations on case-to-case basis. Kozo Okamoto, a member of the Japanese Red Army fighting for the PLO was caught alive by the Israeli security forces after the Lod Airport Massacre in 1972 (17 killed; 22 injured). Although sentenced to life imprisonment he (along with some PLO members) was bartered for a few Israeli soldiers held by the PLO.

In another case, Israel had almost agreed to release PLO men in its jails in return for the hundred odd Air France passengers (mostly Israeli) held hostage at Entebbe Airport (Uganda 1976). But the delay in the return of Idi Amin (the Ugandan dictator who was away) to Kampala gave them an opportunity to plan and carry out the daring raid to rescue the hostages (the daring Entebbe Raid). The Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was supported by the entire parliament.

The Israeli leadership decides when, and when not, it is in Israel’s interest to accede to the demands of the terrorists and acts accordingly. The public and the opposition parties do not question the wisdom of the leadership––they do not pester the leadership either way.

Returning to Kandahar, the Indian leadership did what it considered best under those circumstances. Post Pulwama, it is unfair to criticise the then government and the security forces for their actions. Kandahar is past––lessons have been learnt and ways of dealing with similar situations in the future have been worked out.

In the current situation, all political parties have shown remarkable maturity by extending support to the government. It would be best to leave the government and the military leadership (who are in the know of things) to decide the best course of action.

Pulwama Terror Strike

A parting thought.

For Israeli state, it is a question of survival; they have reason to respond to situations the way they do. They also have full support of major world powers in everything they do. Our leadership and military has to go it alone. We’ll do well not to breathe down their necks as they plan and execute an appropriate response. Let’s not indulge in candlelight marches, burn tyres, and block roads to pressurise those who need to remain calm at this juncture. Think of it: such actions only cause global warming, traffic snarls and loss of productivity. Still worse, they might force a knee-jerk reaction. Let’s give the government and the military the elbowroom to act freely.

WeTwo & Valentine’s Day at 60

Look around, and you find romantic feelings and relations accoutred by expensive cars, precious diamond rings, nice clothes and fashionable restaurants, and sometimes, even by cruises in the Caribbean. Besides, the expression of love, affection and care is generally confined to a day in a year, the Valentine’s Day.

Doesn’t really appeal, at least, to me.   

Is it a case of sour grapes? Is it because I can’t afford all of those material things to express my feelings? May be. But do I envy those who can? No, certainly not.

Valentine’s Day for Chhaya and I…

My memory goes back to the period of nine months for which we were engaged before we got married––some people use the term courtship to describe that period. We used to (actually) pen a letter almost daily, for in those days, there were no mobile (smart) phones, no WhatsApp; STD calls were costly. On Sundays––because on Sundays the call tariffs were less––we would book a call through the Telephone Exchange and wait for a greater part of the day to speak for just about three minutes (with people waiting in queue, giving smiles that made one feel uneasy). There was no Internet, no Skype or FaceTime. It wasn’t possible to shuttle often between Agra and Ujjain––600 kms plied by some very slow moving trains. And although seniors always cooperated, leave was a privilege, not a right. These periods of temporary separation were a norm even later, when I was posted in the exotic east (Tezpur, Assam) and still later, in Bangalore and in Chandinagar.

So, for Chhaya and I, Valentine’s Day used to be any day of the year we were together––any number of times. I remember, once during our courtship I had taken a small (brass) mirror for her tote bag. It was not the mirror but the message that I wrote for her that she fell for; and still treasures it. It read: “It’s my heart; you’ll always find yourself in it.

To Chhaya with Love

I am nearing my 60th birthday (Chhaya? She is still young)…

We still do not wait for the Valentine’s Day to express our feelings of love and care for each other. A small thing that I do in return for everything (“everything” just cannot convey the feeling) she does to make our humble abode a sweet home is to prepare the bed tea/ coffee every morning. She loves coffee; I am fond of tea and we have it with biscuits. Lately we have been eating cream biscuits.

She is still half asleep when she kisses me, “Good Morning.” When she does open her eyes, she finds what I call ‘a-refreshing-cup-of-coffee’ because she seldom complains about the coffee. And, if and when she does have something adverse to talk about, she blames the brand or the vintage of the coffee, or even the quality of the milk, rather than my preparation. But, early last week, she started complaining about the cream in the biscuits. Saying that there was something bad about it, she would claw it away with her nails before eating them. This had gone on for about a week––a not too pleasant beginning of her day. Until yesterday…

While getting the tray laden with coffee/ tea and biscuits, I realised that the cream in the biscuit would again be the irritant to start her day with. “How can I change that,” I thought, as I headed towards the bedroom. Then I turned back, scraped the cream of the biscuits neatly with a knife and placed red hearts (drawn with a sketch pen on small bits of paper) between the biscuits (in place of the cream) and headed back to the bedroom. After the usual Good Morning hug, still in half sleep, she picked up a biscuit and tried to claw away the cream. In its stead in her nails came a little heart. Surprised, she opened her eyes, rubbed them to see that small piece of paper. Then she looked at me wide-eyed.

WeTwo at 60

I have no words to describe the expression of love in those eyes. Suffice it to say that the love she expressed in her eyes was far greater and more intense than the one she expressed when I got her an exclusive diamond ring on her birthday a few years ago.

WeTwo celebrated our last Valentine’s Day at 6 am on February the 13th, 2019.

The next? Anytime soon!

To all you there: “Happy Valentine’s Day!”

When the Parachute Fails…

Two questions often asked of me relate to: First, my maiden parachute descent and second, a possible parachuting emergency––a parachute failure, to be precise––that I might have faced. I have written about my first jump from an aircraft, in an earlier post.

The question relating to parachute emergency is put in interesting ways: “What if your main parachute doesn’t open? What if your reserve parachute also does not open? Has your parachute ever failed? How did it feel like to be in that situation?” Questions of that ilk take me back to a sunny October morning nearly thirty years ago. The memory is still vivid because it was a matter of my life and I had but a few seconds to decide and act.

It was a Skydiving Demonstration at Air Force Station, Ambala. The AN-32 aircraft with Akashganga, the Skydiving Team of the IAF on board, was cruising at 225 kmph 6000 feet above the ground level. I was a member of the team. The team leader gave thumbs up––the universal sign conveying readiness when the aircraft was overhead the spectator stand. Then he opened the barrier at the aft end of the aircraft and roared, “Go!” On that command, the team members jumped out of the aircraft one after the other in quick succession. I, being the lightest, was the last to exit the aircraft. Within seconds, we reached our terminal velocities and were falling at 120-200 feet per second. We had been assigned different (staggered) parachute opening heights to avoid a melee at the time of landing on the target––a circle of 15 metres diameter in front of the enthusiastic crowd.

The Strato Cloud parachute that I was jumping with had a canopy shaped like the wing of an aircraft. Once deployed, it behaved like a glider. Rather than descending vertically, it could glide (with a good glide ratio of 3) and speed, 40-50kmph. Its high manoeuvrability and high sensitivity to controls enabled experienced jumpers to execute pinpoint landings. At the same time, mishandling of the controls could lead to serious injuries at the time of landing.

The spectators looked skywards and counted the jumpers who appeared like tiny specks falling from the aircraft. They held their breaths waiting for the parachutes to open. The jumpers falling below me deployed their parachutes at their assigned heights. I too threw away the pilot chute (a small parachute which initiates the opening sequence of a parachute). In a second and a half, my parachute was filled with air. And then…began an ordeal, the memory of which, even today sends a chill down my spine.

The suspension lines on one side of my parachute were jumbled up and the canopy was badly distorted. The partially deployed parachute began turning to the right. My effort to recover the situation by tugging at the suspension lines was in vain; I could not untangle them. Soon the turns became vicious and I felt like a stone at the end of a sling spiralling down at a tremendous speed. In a last-ditch effort I pulled the suspension lines down to stop the turns. Thanks to the gruelling training under Sergeant R Singh, I had developed strong muscles to deal with such situations. My effort met with partial success. The turns slowed down to a stop (almost) but now the parachute headed for an incipient stall––a condition in which there could be a sudden loss of height (40 to 50 feet). Holding on to the lines could result in a stall. I was still at 4500 feet above the ground level. A stall close to the ground would be disastrous. I recalled with horror, an accident involving Warrant Officer Augustine who had been sentenced to the confines of a wheel chair due to a heavy landing in a similar situation.

There was a surge of adrenaline and yet my mind went on some quick errands. I was reminded of our son eliciting a promise from me while bidding me bye that morning to make a paper bird for him that could flap its wings. I wondered whether I would see him ever again, let alone teach him origami. Then I recalled Squadron Leader Ajgaonkar’s ordeal a year or so ago. He had promptly deployed his reserve parachute and landed safely. “Never Say Die” was the gospel he had passed on to us. “Am I in the same situation?” I asked myself. “His was a high-speed emergency––a total failure, no parachute at all. Mine was a slow speed emergency; I had at least a partially functioning canopy over my head. What if I jettisoned the malfunctioning main parachute and the reserve parachute also had a problem?” That silly thought had a numbing effect.

Mudit…origami…Augustine in wheelchair…Ajgaonkar…. All those thoughts whizzed past in a jiffy as I struggled to revive the parachute to a fully inflated state as per the Standard Operating Procedure.

There was an eerie feeling of stillness. Had time coagulated? No, it was just an illusion. Time, and height above the ground–the two most precious things for me at that instant–was fast running out. The impartiality of the earth’s gravity was evident in the rate at which the (unwinding) needle of my altimeter was sweeping the face of the instrument.

“Should I risk a stall with a jumbled main canopy, or jettison it and go for the reserve parachute?” The reserve parachute was smaller in size and low on performance. We used to joke: “The main parachute is meant for a safe landing; the reserve–to ensure survivability with possible disability.” The dilemma was damning. I was a mere 2500 feet above the ground and approaching it at a breakneck speed. I was left with a few precious seconds in which, to decide, and cram deliberate action on which, would depend my life and safety of my limbs. I pulled down my goggles, which had become foggy due to excessive sweating.

Suddenly everything became tranquil. Reason elbowed away the silly thoughts from my mind. There was every reason to rely on the reserve parachute that had been packed by the most proficient hands and overseen by the most careful eyes; those of the Safety Equipment Workers of the Paratroopers’ Training School. There was every reason to rely on the training I had undergone and feel in control of the situation.

And then…

I took the most vital decision in that situation––the decision to jettison the main parachute and pull open the reserve parachute. A tug at the cutaway handle got me rid of the malfunctioning main canopy.  With the Newton’s Law of Gravitation at work I went hurtling down, as I got detached from the malfunctioning parachute. Again I was approaching Mother Earth at a very high speed, and accelerating. Then, without further delay, I pulled the ripcord handle of the reserve parachute. Sight of a fully deployed reserve parachute was a great relief.

I was now just about 2000 feet above the ground level. Joy rioted in my heart; the wind with prankish flurry caused the stabilisers of the parachute to flap rhythmically. Their flutter was music to my ears. Since I had lost a lot of height, I executed a tight circuit and headed for the landing area. I felt victorious and exhausted as I landed on the target.

As I removed my helmet and unfastened the parachute harness, I realised that the enthusiasm, and the frolicking associated with a skydiving demonstration by the Akashganga Team was conspicuously missing among the spectators. In its place was a lingering melancholy. The main canopy that I had jettisoned a while ago had fallen a mile away from the spectators. They took it to be a total failure of the parachute and perhaps a fatal accident. Concern for the safety of the unknown skydiver had cast a shadow of gloom. They heaved a sigh of relief when they came to know the fact.

In the flight back from Ambala, I went through the day’s events. Mind flew ahead of the aircraft and I wanted to be with my family soon. “How would I disclose the incident to my wife without causing anxiety?” I wondered.

Never say die

Chhaya was awaiting me at home at lunch with a plate of Russian Salad and a smile. Being a parachute jumper herself, she took the incident in a stride. I devoured the Russian Salad and was soon off for another Skydiving Demonstration in Agra.

And now, the answer to the interesting question: “What if the reserve parachute also does not open?” Wing Commander AK Singh, a colleague parachute Jump Instructor has an answer: “If your main parachute fails and the reserve also does not open then you are jumping to C-O-N-C-L-U-S-I-O-N.