In his latest book, ‘My Journey: Transforming Dreams into Actions,’ former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam writes touchingly about his failed attempt to become an air force pilot. After graduating in engineering, he appeared before the selection board in Dehradun but failed to realise his “dearest dream” by a whisker.
It reminds me of my son Akhilesh’s failed attempt to become an air force pilot, a dream he had nourished since childhood. He spent his early childhood in Pune in an apartment building close to the Lohegaon airport, which is also an air force base. Along with other children, Akhilesh used to go to the terrace of the four-storeyed building to watch MiGs and Sukhois landing and taking off from the air base.
On special occasions such as Independence Day and Air Force Day, there were scintillating performances by the IAF acrobatic team which captivated him. He used to ask probing questions as to how to become a fighter pilot. I told him the easiest route was through the NDA at nearby Khadakwasla.
We had a relative working at NDA, whom we used to visit often. Akhilesh was impressed by the sprawling campus and imposing structures there and vowed to become a cadet there.
Then we left Pune and he did his early schooling in Chennai but the dream of becoming an air force pilot was not forgotten. When he was in the fifth standard, I told him that it would be easier for him to get into the NDA if he studied in a Sainik School. He readily appeared for the written test and interview at Sainik School, Kazhakootam near Thiruvananthapuram, and was selected.
He studied there for four years. When I came on transfer to Thriuvananthapuram in 2009, he said he wanted to be with me. He was confident of getting into the NDA after Plus Two anyway. So I withdrew him from the Sainik School and put him in a regular school.
In August 2011, Akhilesh appeared for the UPSC written test for NDA entry. He was still in Plus Two and large portions of his syllabus had not been covered at school. So he could not answer many questions in math and science subjects. I told him not to worry as he could appear again after six months.
However, when the results came, he was in. In January 2012, he was called to 2 AFSB (Air Force Selection Board), Mysore, for the week-long selection process. He did really well there and was selected. Then he cleared the PABT (pilot aptitude battery test) and was sent to the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Bangalore, for medical check-up. After various tests that lasted for over a week, he was declared fit to fly all aircraft and helicopters.
It was a heady moment. The realisation of his life-long dream seemed imminent. I distributed sweets in office and waited for the final rank list. We were certain that if not air force, he would be selected for the naval air wing, which was his second preference.
In May, his Plus Two results came. He had scored a little over 85 per cent. Not a bad score, as he had diverted a lot of time and attention to the NDA pursuit. But it was not wise to depend entirely on it and I advised him to have a second option. He did not want to take engineering entrance exams so we decided to apply for a B Arch seat. He draws fairly well and scored 106 in the NATA test. He was allotted a merit seat at College of Architecture Trivandrum (CAT).
In June, UPSC published the NDA rank list. It was disheartening to learn that Akhilesh was among the last hundred candidates, apparently because of his poor score in the written exams. Still there was hope as all the candidates in the previous batch had been admitted. Besides, NDA was planning to increase its intake capacity during that time.
Then something very unfortunate happened. The CBI unearthed a scam in the recruitment of subordinate staff at the NDA and arrested a dozen people, including its civilian administrative officer and a Colonel. The Commandant, a Lt General, was asked to go on leave. That put paid to its capacity addition plans and the last 110 candidates in the merit list were not called.
Akhilesh was distraught. He had not appeared for the UPSC written test in April.
I consoled him and got him admitted to CAT. He again sat for the UPSC exams in August and did really well. He was confident that he would make it this time.
Barely two weeks after the exams, a couple of IAF helicopters collided in Jamnagar, killing nine on board, including five officers. I began to doubt the wisdom of sending my son to such a risky career and started looking for an alternative.
Soon, the army invited applications for its technical entry course. It seemed an attractive proposition and I urged Akhilesh to apply. He was reluctant but I convinced him that there was no harm in applying.
The call letter from the army came first. He was to appear before the SSB (Services Selection Board) in Bangalore in the third week of January. A few days later he got a letter from AFSB, Allahabad, too. I persuaded him to go to Bangalore. He was unwilling but I used all my persuasive skills to convince him and accompanied him to Bangalore.
The interview process was a disaster. Two boys in his group, one from Hyderabad and another from Pune, were quite unruly and disruptive. They kept picking on each other and disrupting the others. None of the group tasks could be completed and the entire group of 10 boys was disqualified.
Akhilesh was crestfallen. Throughout the return journey, he spoke very little and hardly ate anything. By then, the Allahabad date had passed.
In hindsight, I think I had made two mistakes. The first was to withdraw him from the Sainik School. Had he been a Sainik School student, he would have got more marks at SSB in Mysore which could have made up for the low score in written tests.
The second mistake was to forcibly take him to Bangalore instead of sending him to Allahabad. Having been selected once, there was no reason to believe that he would not have been selected again for air force. If something untoward were to happen to him in later life, we should accept it as our fate and as a sacrifice for our motherland.
Anyway, Akhilesh again took the UPSC exam last April and has cleared it. This is his last chance at NDA but he is not keen on attending the SSB. If selected, he will be two years junior to his Sainik School batch mates and he dreads the prospect of having to salute them!
He says he will try again after graduation so that he can be with his batch mates. I hope he makes it then. I also hope that the failures do not leave a permanent scar on his psyche.
Kalam writes that having failed to realise his dream, he walked around for a while till he reached the edge of a cliff. Then he decided to go to Rishikesh and “seek a new way forward.” He visited an ashram there for solace.
“It is only when we are faced with failure do we realise that these resources were always there within us. We only need to find them and move on with our lives,” writes Kalam.