In 1984, Group Captain Balwant Singh of the Indian Air Force’s Western Air Command had dangled his then three-year-old son Vir off the edge of the uppermost tier of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, nearly giving his gentle and hirsute wife, Santosh Kaur, a heart attack in the process. With the mixture of casual confidence and lunacy that is the hallmark of every true fighter pilot, Captain Singh had tossed his son up, caught him in mid-air and held him over the railing for a while, before setting him down safely.
His son’s future thus secured, Balwant had turned to shut off his wife’s uncanny impersonation of a police siren with the wise words, “Nonsense, foolish woman. See, my tiger is not afraid at all. He is born for the sky, just like me. Vir, say ‘Nabha Sparsham Deeptam’.”
Vir had not been in the mood for the Indian Air Force motto at that point, his exact words had been, “MAA!”
All these years later, Vir still remembers that first flight with astonishing clarity: the sudden weightlessness, the deafening sound of his own heart beating, the blur of the world tilting around him, the slow-motion appearance of first the white dome of Sacré Coeur and then a wispy white cloud shaped like Indira Gandhi’s hair behind his flailing red Bata Bubble-Gummers shoes. His father had said that moment had shaped his destiny, given him wings.
But his father isn’t here now. Flight Lieutenant Vir Singh is all alone in the sky.
And had Balwant Singh not prepared Vir for flight, this day would probably have been a lot more difficult. As he descends from the clouds, his breath steaming from the cold, Vir looks at his shoes, ready to see a new world reveal itself slowly behind them, zooming slowly into focus from high above. Pakistan. North Pakistan. Rawalpindi District. Kahuta. He looks far beyond his shoes, to the ground, where the sprawl of the AQ Khan Research Laboratories complex lies below him like scattered Lego bricks.
Vir stands several hundred feet up in the air above a highly guarded nuclear research centre, the heart of the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme, named after a man most famous for allegedly selling nuclear tech to North Korea, Libya and Iran. Not really the sort of place where Indian Air Force officers are welcome guests. And he hasn’t brought his fighter jet, his trusty Jaguar, with him. It’s not that he has forgotten it in his hurry to get dressed; he simply doesn’t need it any more.
Vir can fly. He stands tall, legs slightly apart, a wingless angel swaying slightly in the wind, rivulets of icy water running down his body. A young man of great presence, of power and dignity, which is only very slightly diminished by a passing migratory bird’s recent use of his shoulder as a pit-stop.
The sun is harsh above the clouds, Pakistan is sweltering in the grip of summer, from the microwave that is Lahore to the steamer that is Karachi. Vir is grateful for Rawalpindi District’s notoriously unpredictable weather: storm clouds are gathering around him, providing him both a degree of shade and an appropriately dramatic background, given his current circumstances. He’s wearing a light-blue grey costume, the closest approximation of sky camouflage that his commanding officer has been able to procure for him. His squadron leader has asked him to put a mask on as well, like Zorro or Spider- Man, but Vir is flouting orders; men who can fly need to feel wind and sky-ice on their faces.
Storms are gathering everywhere in the region. To the west, Taliban and other tribal warlords hold sway over vast tracts of land, and constantly threaten the stability of the nation. Every day, young men blow themselves up near schools, markets and embassies. In the cities, parents complain about insane vegetable prices and worry about sending their children to school.
Halfway across the world, American leaders shiver at the prospect of mad-eyed Taliban fanatics seizing control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Washington sends billions of dollars to help Pakistan fight its demons; this money is not used, Pakistani leaders swear, never-ever pinkie swear, for the constant expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. And yet this arsenal continues to grow, and the Kahuta project is where uranium is enriched. This is where Pakistan’s first seventy nuclear weapons came from. This is where thousands of centrifuges spin out missile-ready uranium, and hundreds of scientists design missiles to put it in. Clearly a destination of choice for flying Indian Air Force soldiers with destructive ambitions.
One swift, devastating strike, he has been told. The sooner the world’s nuclear weapons are history, the sooner we can all stop living in fear. Vir had wanted to start with North Korea, but understood what his squadron leader had explained: the moment a single attack happened, other nuclear sites would be savagely guarded. Some scientist would figure out how to defend buildings against him. When beginning a noble anti-nuclear mission, where better to start than in your own neighbourhood?
Extracted from Turbulence by Samit Basu, published by Titan, out now.