This is a story based on real life events that I have been fortunate enough to witness firsthand. This is a story about a childhood friend who I have known since 1988. Twenty-eight years (as of 2016)! Now that seems like a long time to have known someone.
We had just graduated to the fifth grade, and were new receivers of the privilege to use fountain pens. The teachers appeared to have become stricter. We had even moved to a new building in the school campus. This new kid joined our school. He used to live in East of Kailash, and until then, his parents had chosen to send him to an elementary school by the name of Tiny Tots, which must have been convenient being closer to his home. He would have probably continued at the same school but for the fact that the school went only until fourth grade. So here he was, braving our bigger and relatively rougher school campus.
Mohit stood out of the crowd, not just because he was new and not just because he was tall, but because he carried himself with a poise that was not very commonly seen in our age group and certainly not in our school. He was a polite young boy with a polished speech, always well-mannered and always well-dressed. Relatively speaking, I was myself a newcomer as I had joined the school in second grade, by when others around me had already forged deeper friendships in the first grade or prior. Partly due to this reason, and partly due to my kindness to help another newcomer, I took it upon me to welcome Mohit to the school, show him around and implicitly offer him my friendship. The fact that we took the same school bus – Route No. 4 – helped. Over the years we became very good friends, sharing everything from excitement for Maggi Club, strategies to be adopted for teenage crushes, high school gossip and physics notes, beers on his rooftop, and on an occasion or two, bunking school.
There are a couple of memories that are very clearly etched in my mind. Ever since I had known Mohit, he knew he wanted to become a pilot and fly planes when he grew up. So much so, that when we had the sports period at school, he would lean by the railings along the basketball court, look up at planes flying high and declare that he will be a pilot when he grew up. While there was no reason for any of us to take a fellow fifth grader making such declarations seriously, there was something about Mohit that made his pronouncements seemed less than a passing fancy of the IFOs (not UFOs). I am sure I was not the only one to have witnessed his proclamations. He was not just infatuated but was indeed in love with airplanes.
Another incident I reminisce from those days took place when school was out between fifth and sixth grades. I had gone to Mohit’s home for a night stay, in spite of the fact that he had a pet dog – Rambo, and later also Ninja – both of who I was shit scared of. We slept in the living room and got up early the next morning, probably to maximize the time we were going to spend together. Mohit’s family used to live in an apartment on the fourth floor. It must have been around 7am. Mohit took me downstairs to the parking lot. He was carrying the keys to their car – an off white Ambassador. He opened the door and sat inside on the driver’s seat. I also sat on the passenger side. I was amused at his act. Being very vocal at the time, I quipped, “Mohit, agreed we are young kids but we are not that young that we are going to do pretend play in the car.” By the time I had completed the sentence, I could hear the car engine and the reverse gear was being engaged. My amusement had immediately turned into fear. Had this yet-to-be-sixth-grader gone out of his mind? I was being used to driven around by parents, uncles, aunties, or drivers – people who looked much older than we did. I had never imagined that someone in my age group – and that age group was 10 years – could be sitting behind the steering wheel of an Ambassador car and actually starting to drive it! Mohit acted as if it was something very normal. He said he had been driving for a while and in fact had been tasked to buy milk from the Mother Dairy store every morning. Off we were, two ten-year-olds, driving around in the narrow lanes of East of Kailash on a Delhi spring morning. Mohit repeated the stunt for me that evening, before our driver came to pick me up. This episode changed my mindset and I started to believe that anyone could drive. Age certainly did not appear to be a barrier! Within two years, even I had learnt to drive. Certainly your experiences shape your beliefs, and you can do whatever you believe you can.
After we passed out of school, I remained in regular touch with Mohit. Those were pre-Internet days and we used to exchange letters. Mohit had joined a flying club in Kanpur and was pursuing his dream of flying. Years went by and he finally acquired his flying license. Now all he needed was his first break. An opportunity presented itself. There was a job advertisement in the front page of newspapers – Air India was looking for pilots. Mohit applied. More ads appeared. He applied again, and again. He even appeared for and cleared the flying tests not once, not twice but three times. Those were the days when you needed political connections for such breakthroughs. In spite of an apparently elusive flying career, Mohit did not waste his time. He joined his family’s outdoor advertising business and got busy decorating Delhi roads with billboards. All this while, he never gave up on his disciplined approach to persistence. They say, when you want something really badly, the universe conspires to make it happen for you. Could that work for Mohit too?
Every year I make an official trip to India, mainly Pune. I combine the work trip with a little vacation to spend some time with my folks, and I was booked on an Air India flight from Pune to Delhi. I fly a lot for work and the excitement of flying has but long vanished in the air. However, this flight was different. I found myself excitedly scurrying towards the aircraft, even peering my gaze through the transparent jetway trying to catch a glimpse of the cockpit. When I entered the plane, I told the flight attendant my name. And the moment of truth dawned when the flight attendant said, “The Captain is waiting for you”. I stepped into the cockpit of the plane and with a sense of belonging there. There was Flight Captain Mohit Saxena reading a newspaper. He turned around with the same poise he has carried for years, and greeted me with a warm smile. This was not an everyday event for either of us. I was there, and my childhood buddy was going to fly me on a real plane! I needed to remember this forever, and I needed to show off! Boastful selfies were shared with the NGFS Lazybones group on WhatsApp. Mohit then showed me some of the key components of the aircraft. I was introduced with his co-pilot Captain Simran, a jovial Sardarji who happened to be his senior. Mohit coordinated with ‘commercial’ and even upgraded me to a business class seat – just a simple perk of being childhood friends with a commercial pilot!
Mohit has now been flying with Air India for more than a decade which clearly exemplifies his loyalty. He is officially ‘Captain Mohit Saxena’ and the title matches with the email id he had created for himself long before becoming a pilot. This year – after two failed attempts previously – Mohit was able to schedule himself on this 7:30pm AI 850. Mohit’s childhood dream of becoming a pilot had finally come true. I never remain short of amazed with how somebody can find their calling at such a young age, and then work towards making it happen. Most people I know are like me…their calling remains gravely elusive.
As the plane was taxiing towards the runway, the flight attendant’s announcement was music to my ears, “Aaj ki udaan mein hamare vimaan ke pilot hain Captain Mohit Saxena” – in their signature flight announcement tone. Then the engines revved up, and the plane sped up on the runway. It was a touching moment as I looked out of the window trying to soak it in. I was on a large airplane – a massive complicated machine – being flown by my childhood friend! The flight to Delhi was as smooth as it could get with only a minor weather related turbulence when our in-house captain turned on the fasten seatbelt signs. The landing was even smoother. Mohit had indeed graduated from being Duggi (the nickname I used to call him) driving an Ambassador to Captain Mohit Saxena flying an Airbus A320.
This summer, Mohit visited us in Seattle along with his loving wife and lovable kids, twins who had just turned one. We spent a great time together as families, which I consider to be a rare treat. I also learnt that there was a pair of small folding scissors that I had gifted him back in the sixth grade which he still used. I was surprised at first, but perhaps that was just another example of his love, loyalty and discipline.