I was on the phone with my mom early in the morning, as soon as the shop opened up. “I mostly might not make it”, I told her,”if I call home again by today evening, it’s over. Hopefully, I stay another day.” We had the remaining group tasks and the conference that day. If I make it in, I would have a whole lot of documents to fill out and an extra day to stay in for the pilot tests. If not, it’s goodbye.
We knew that very few if at all any of us will make it through the next day. So in a way, the fourth night was the last we all would be spending together. A friendship that was four days old, and yet demanded cherishing. We made sure all the curtains were perfectly drawn so that not a speck of light went out. They are quite strict about discipline in the army. Well duh. And our room had an added disadvantage of being the first room on the ground floor right next to the warden’s office. Still not enough to stop us. We stayed up beyond lights out, each of us huddled at the edge of our respective beds, in the beginning. By the end of the night, we would all be in the same bed. #6 had many stories from his time in the national cadet corps and his Telugu descent made for a rather filmy manner of storytelling that had us rolling on the floor with each sentence. The stories moved on from school time fun to the horror genre to crazy things some of our more daring friends attempted in college. We even dabbed a bit into singing and dancing. Which was a big deal for me. I wouldn’t sing in the presence of an audience in a million years. Somehow the fact that none of these people knew me, and that I may never see any of them made me lose my inhibitions. I could be whatever I choose to be. And I sang along.
We were back in the training ground, dressed all in white. The first task of the day was the lecturette. Eleven red strips were placed in front of us, face down. In order of our chest numbers, we would each pick a strip and walk out of the shed we were seated in. On each strip was four topics. We were to pick one, prepare a 3-minute speech in under 3 minutes. A bell would be rung at the 2 and half minute mark, and again when the 3 minutes were up. At which point the person walks back in and begins his speech while the next person picks a strip and walks out to prepare for his. Of course, I was first. I give pretty good speeches, but I need my time. Extempore isn’t my strong suit. My lucky number is 2. Why? Because the blue power ranger in Space Patrol Delta had number 2 on his uniform and ever since, blue has been my favourite colour and 2, my ‘lucky’ number. I picked the second strip and walked out. Written on it were – 1.National Highways. Oh. Crap. 2.Black Hole effect. I can give a lecture on black holes but why would it be on an airforce selection panel? Maybe this black hole effect isn’t scientific at all. This has to mean something else. Vague memories of a black hole effect discussed in the context of all the world’s wealth accumulating within the special 5% came to mind. Or was it that black hole effect about partial blindness during plane landings? Have I actually read these things somewhere or my mind just making up bullshit?! 3.Abortion. Interesting. 4.Something that I don’t remember. But it was definitely something I had no clue about. I decided to go for abortion. There’s a sentence I thought I’d never use. Luckily enough I had recently read an article about a pro-life, pro-choice debate wherein someone had posted a question – would a pro-lifer, who believes life starts at conception, save one helpless child, or thousands of frozen embryos should a fertility clinic catch fire? I find such stuff interesting, okay? So I walked in and threw a full-on ethical debate about abortions, women’s choices and human rights. I ran out of things to say and concluded my speech just near the 2 and half minute mark. I had 30 seconds of unused time but I wasn’t willing to fill it with mindless chatter. I had said all that I had intended to. And the cycle went on. Except just one of us, nobody spoke for the full three minutes allotted to us. Some of the other topics were social service, adoption, waste management, mass transportation and such. Every time someone else spoke, I had some eloquent thoughts flowing in my head regarding the topic and kept cursing under my breath wishing I had gotten that topic instead. Once all nine of us were done, the GTO stepped forward for giving feedback. None of us had even come close to expectations. The GTO had expected views pertaining to India and the government in specific, and most of those topics were chosen to coincide with some specific event in the recent past, to see if we made the connect, if we were aware of the news. None of us were. For instance, he had expected me to talk about abortion laws in India, the recent amendment made to it, up to what age is it legal to do abortions in India and such. At one point in my speech, I had remarked that abortions could be a lifesaver for mistaken teenage pregnancies. The GTO caught on to that and stated that teenage pregnancies aren’t still a common thing in India, even if they were, it’s not widely talked about and I should’ve let it remain that way. Um, I don’t think so? How old is this guy?
Moving on, the next task was the command task. Same rules as the day before. However, each of us is called out, alone, in a random order. Every person can call one or two subordinates. The subordinates will not speak unless spoken to and can not offer any ideas of their own. It’s completely up to the ‘commander’ to solve the task. Called first was #2. The GTO spoke to him, and then each one of us too, for about a minute or so. I was one of the people he had called to help. The order wasn’t random at all. The tasks were in the order of increasing difficulty. It was probably based on the GTO’s observations from the day before. His task was too plain and he was only given two planks to use, which he did with ease. I was called to help one more time before my turn came. As each person was called, I felt a little better. It meant my task was going to be harder. It meant the GTO thought I was capable of more. I was called with two more people left to go, #4 and #9. After some casual banter, a couple of poorly made jokes about my name and some questions about this very blog, the GTO asked me whom I wanted to call. #3 and #4 were my choices. “Why them?”, he asked. “Physical extremes”, I said, “#3 was quick and flexible, a sprinter who does yoga while #4 was huge and strong.” #3 was a little serious and not many had picked him. No one will either if I didn’t. #4 was a senior from college and I genuinely thought his stature would be of help. My task included all three helping materials and looked very rudimentary. Just two platforms at different heights set few feet apart. I couldn’t, for the love of God, figure out what to do. We had 15 minutes each and I spent a good ten minutes just staring. And then it hit me. It’s hard to explain the task itself, but I made it to the other platform very soon and #3 followed too. However, we had walked across using the plank and the rod wedged in position with #4 acting as the counterweight. The problem was how to get #4 now to pass as well. We grabbed the plank from him and formed a cantilever with both of us standing on one end. Hopefully, it could balance his weight. However, it did jut out a bit too far from the edge of the ledge. We were running out of time and #4 didn’t move as we called him on. “Refusing your commander?”, questioned the GTO smiling. He nodded a frantic yes. “I’ll catch you, trust me.”,I said walking a little further along the plank, extending my arm. “Your commander is saying he will risk his life and you still can’t take a leap?”, the GTO nudged on. #4 stepped forward and stepped onto the ledge and down the seesaw went tapping the floor before bouncing back as he made it to the other side. I looked at the GTO with scrunched eyebrows, as the helping material touching the ground was a violation. But the GTO let it pass, saying it would’ve stayed if he had strengthed it more with the rope. #4 was to be the commander next, ending with #9 for which I was called to help again. I was proud. I and #4 were the only people to be called thrice to help. That’s got to get us some additional points. Once again, I could see the solution immediately for this case, when it wasn’t my problem. But I couldn’t say a word and had to patiently follow commands till he figured it out.
The next task was individual obstacles. Normally, there are ten tasks, to be completed in three minutes. But due to recent rains, some of the platforms were too slippery and the jumping tasks were cancelled. So we now had seven obstacles to complete in 2 and half minutes. I could probably dedicate an entire 101-style post just to document my thoughts as I went through each obstacle. This was what I had been cautiously anticipating since day one. Luckily this was done in reverse order, so my turn came last. #9 was to go first. He came back, at the end of his two and half minutes, with his arms all red. He had managed to complete all seven tasks but one of the tasks – ‘monkey climbing’, had left its mark. One by one they all went, most of them finishing not more than four of the seven tasks at most. The tasks were ordered by score, the first and simplest task, a simple high jump, worth one point, with the tenth being the hardest worth ten points, which was rope climbing. Every single one of them began with the rope climb. Which felt like a bit of a wrong move to me. #4 was huge, and though we were seated away in a shed, we could still see outside a bit through the overhead vents and even he went for the rope climb. He did not struggle as much as we thought he would, for someone of his stature. Finally, it was my turn and I decided to do it by the book. Trust in the system. The high jump was basic, simple. Might have even overdone it a little. The next task was even more absurd. You basically had to run up a ramp, a short one and jump into a sand pit, very close to the edge. The only difficulty here was you might slip right before the jump, so a deliberate pause was needed. The third and fourth tasks were removed. Fifth was the screen jump. Another ramp to run up along with a high wall at its end that you’re supposed to catch the top of, pull yourself up and jump off the other side. I have jumped many a wall before to retrieve runaway cricket balls and whatnot from neighbouring houses and this was supposed to be a piece of cake. Supposed to be. I grabbed the top of the wall, ’cause daddy’s tall y’all. Sorry not sorry, and as I pulled myself up my footing slipped and I slid down a little but managed to carry on anyway. It’s okay. Not more than a few seconds wasted. Next was the monkey climb. Nuh-uh. My ex-girlfriend loves the back of my palms and hands. ’cause they veiny and nice. You can get a career in the air force anytime you want but holding onto the admiration of an ex is precious. Also, I was worried it would eat up too much of my time. So I set it aside for the end and went to the next task which had a goal post painted in red with a rubber tyre hanging from the centre, quite tall. It would’ve been cooler if it was set on fire and I had to run over a ramp and leap into the hole in the centre but when is life fair? You had to hold the tyre, get your legs into the hole and then your body and pop out the other side. This was one task that nobody in my batch except #9 even attempted but I had ideas. It was essentially a really wide armed pull-up, right? So I ran up to it and jumped to catch hold of the tyre with my hands as close as possible, rather than at diametrically opposite points, which would leave you to do a pull up with your shoulders literally in a ‘T’. And it worked. I could pull my legs up and through the hole and the rest of my body swiftly followed. Two tasks were left, and then the monkey climb of course. Rope climbing, even though it was the last one was now closer to where I stood, so I went for it. A little secret, I had spent some extra time in the internet booth the previous evening after my email ritual reading up on the fastest ways to climb a rope. Apparently, the way U.S Marines are taught to is the best and requires least effort. Sure, it’s impossible to learn swimming from an instruction manual but a bit of extra knowledge hurt nobody. However, all was forgotten the moment I clutched that rope. Instinct took over and I was suddenly ten feet in the air with the top getting closer and closer. The final two steps required a bit of struggle, and as the adrenaline block lifted, I was regaining my ability to think now. Will bones break if I fall now? How good of a cushion could that sand pit be anyway? Is the GTO noticing my struggle? Woah! Is that an eagle? And suddenly my hands could tap the bar at the top and I climbed down with ease. A bell was rung, which meant there were only 30 seconds remaining on the clock. Screw you monkey climb. Burma bridge it is. I essentially had to climb a telephone pole which had small extensions jutting out of it for foot placement, with shaky hands from the fatigue of the rope climb. And suspended from this pole to another were two horizontal ropes, one for my feet and one overhead to hold onto. All I had to do was walk sideways on this and climb down the other pole. Easy. I had made up my mind that monkey climb was a no go, so I took my time with this one. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. Heights had never bothered me and the rope didn’t seem to swing much as long as I slid my feet along instead of taking steps. I calmly made it to the other side and the bell went off as I stepped off to the ground. Six out of seven, the second best. Not so bad for the kid who up until two years ago couldn’t do more than a single push up. Since I went last, everyone was called out for our final group task and I had no time to catch my breath. This was just another obstacle like those we had been doing for the past two days and by now we were all very familiar with it and figured it out under a minute and a half. The time given was fifteen. Practice makes perfect.
After a short pep talk, we were asked to rush back to our quarters to finish our lunch and be in time for the ‘conference’. We rushed to get into our formal clothes. We were to go to the conference hall with all our luggage packed so that those who aren’t recommended can start to leave right away. Before the conference was another pep talk, this time by the head of the selection committee. I think. Apparently, Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Dr.A.P.J Abdul Kalam were all people who had failed in SSBs. We were told to follow their steps and make something out of our lives even if they rejected us in the next half hour or so. And right after that, they played us a video showing the life of an officer in training, how our routines would be for the next couple years if we were to get recommended. The phrase ‘God please kill me now’ did flash a few times in my head, and I’m guessing in most of our heads. But we managed to look inspired all along anyway. However at the end of the video was the graduation ceremony where the batch marched into the ground in perfect unison, and their ranks were ceremoniously unwrapped and for a moment it felt like if I could make it there, all would be worth it. For a moment, the fear in our heads morphed into admiration and perhaps, even longing.
The conference, the final hurdle was the most puzzling of them all. These were the exact instructions given to us – “Wait for your turn. Watch for the light outside the room to turn green from red. Walk into the room. Sit in the chair in front of you. There will be a few officers seated in front of you in an inverted ‘U’. Someone among them will have a double-crossed flag in front of him. You are to make eye contact only with him and speak only when spoken to.” Yikes! Mr.Me being #01 and everything, of course, had to endure it all first and I stood patiently waiting for the green bulb to turn on. And when I walked in, there were at least fifteen officers seated in that room, fully decked in their complete uniform with all the medals and stripes. ‘A few’ my ass. Also, all of them had flags in front of them and as I frantically scanned for a sign, that’s when the significance of ‘double-crossed’ hit me and there he was. To greet or not to greet? We were asked to speak only when spoken to but do greetings count as ‘speaking’? Would it be disrespectful if I wait for an officer of the Indian air force to greet me first? Do I have to pee? “Hello fessonia, how are you?” , asked the officer with a beaming smile. “Good Morning, Sir. And yes, I am very well.” As I was mentally patting myself for using ‘well’ instead of ‘good’, he looked at his watch and responded with “Good…afternoon. So tell us about your qualifications.” Gulp! It is 12pm goddamit. Afternoon! He casually enquired about the stay and if everything was comfortable the past few weeks. Just as I was beginning to get relaxed, guessing maybe the ‘conference’ was merely a tradition and couldn’t actually affect my selection, he asked me why I wanted to join the air force. Could either pick the patriotic route and proclaim I wanted to protect this honourable country, could tell him a joke sprinkled with some truth, I like to fly and can’t afford pilot school, plus the benefits in the military are great?
“I have always wanted to fly. Now that it’s time for me to start a career, I hold no interest in making some rich CEO richer. I need a way to do what I love while serving a purpose, something noble and the only ways I could think of doing that is in the military or as a teacher. So here I am, I could fly and protect millions in the war front. If I can’t, I will go on to study more and teach millions, perhaps preventing any more wars at all.” , is probably what I should’ve told but see, I panic sometimes. I did manage to say something that was just as poignant and sincere, I even threw in a – ”Do not tell me the sky is the limit when there are footprints on the moon” quote but in retrospect, I guess most of what I said centered around me liking to fly and not saving people. In my defense, it was a stressful situation. Everyone was listening to me speak and nodding and making notes but I was allowed to just look at one person and each time my eyes wavered, it felt like I would be court-martialed.
Three questions, lasted barely four minutes and I was asked to leave. I had no clue if this was normal or not and walked away to have my lunch in silence. It was a moment of relief when others began to follow just as I sat down with my food. It was the same four minutes or less for everybody, with some very similar questions. Nobody had the slightest clue if things had gone well or not. In another 30 minutes or so we were once again seated in the same hall that we took our psych tests in on the very first day and our chest numbers were collected back. “While many of you are extremely talented, there has been only one recommendation this time.” announced the head. Everyone collectively held their breath. We were seated in order of our chest numbers with my batch in the front row and for a fleeting moment, his eyes seemed to follow us. Could it be? Just minutes before we were all discussing if at all anyone from our batch was to get selected it would either be me or #09. All the hope I had lost the day before seemed to surge back and he calmly announced: “Chest number four, please proceed downstairs to begin your document verification process, the rest of you, sorry and better luck next time.” #04 maintained his posture as best as he could and walked out calmly amidst muffled applause. There was no celebration, no time to take a bow. We were soon asked to form a queue, get our travel allowances and head out to the buses.
#4 ? I can’t have been far behind. I made up my mind to give this one more shot. One more try and if that fails too, then I accept defeat. We didn’t even have time to congratulate him. We rushed out to get our phones. After five long days. I turned it on just to have a flood of notifications and as I looked around everyone else was back into their phones too, brains refuelling with the much-needed dopamine hit after the recent rejection. Numbers were exchanged, WhatsApp groups created and we all set out to the bus to head to our respective homes. I didn’t speak the language and managing a bus home turned out to be rather exhausting as well. The very first thing I did, after texting back a few people, was to rush to YouTube to watch the first Infinity war trailer that had released four days ago.
All that was six months ago. Today I have successfully watched Infinity war thrice in the theatre, and Deadpool 2 is about to hit the screens in two days and my second attempt starts the following Monday. Typing this all out has brought everything to the forefront of my memory and I’m really counting on the experience to give me an edge this time. Perhaps last time I was too honest. Perhaps I was carried away in the self-discovery of those psych tests, with image and the story I wrote out for those, I was simultaneously marvelling at how well this simple test was bringing out the core of my personality onto the paper, I was carried away with the hospitality of the man interviewing me, for who wouldn’t be when the president of the air force selection board nags you to spill some more gossip about your college life. This time I know exactly what is to come, and maybe I could walk through it all again with the stoic etiquette of an office in training.
Recommended or rejected, the story will be continued in The AFCAT Story – Epilogue sometime after May 26th. Wish me luck ?