Thursday 17 November 2011

The Stranger

Through the flat windscreen before me, the runway stretches like two lines of jewels into the night.

The front cockpit of the TS-11 is narrow, and in my bulky flying suit my shoulders nearly touch the side rails. It’s hot in the suit, but it will be cold up there in the sky tonight, and I’ll be grateful for the warmth then. I shift my body slightly, settling in, waiting for the clearance for take-off. It’s been a while since I’ve flown, and though I’m strapped in and plugged into its systems, I’m not yet a part of this aeroplane.

Waiting, I look up through the canopy at the sky overhead. Through scattered cloud, the moon and a couple of stars are visible. According to the meteorologists, the sky should clear up in half an hour. I’m not so sure I believe that, but then I’ve served at this airport for over two years now, and I know the local weather. They don’t.

Far off to the right, I can see the lights of the control tower, and the blinking red dot that marks the radar dish atop it. Half an hour earlier, I’d been up there, looking down at the runway and going over the details of the mission with the flight supervisor.

“You’ll be missing the dinner,” he’d said. “Too bad, huh? Think of all that food, not to mention the booze.”

“Too bad,” I’d replied absently, my mind on the mission. Although I’ve been flying for years now, and been a qualified flight instructor for two years, I always get nervous before a flight. It’s something I’ve never confessed to anyone, and even convinced myself is a good thing, that it keeps me alert and stops me becoming complacent. “You have a nice time at the dinner.”

“You bet I will.” He’d be on duty all night, not at the party the base commandant’s throwing, and he and I both knew it, but the teasing came naturally. “I’ll eat and drink enough for you too.”

“Get fat,” I’d said, picking up my map case. “Get hungover. Enjoy.”

Once I’m in the cockpit, the tension usually magically drains away. Not tonight, though, not yet. I’ve been away from flying too long, on a technical course and then a long leave. I can’t say I haven’t earned the leave, but not flying always carries a price. The aeroplane knows, somehow, that you haven’t been in the air a while, and reacts suspiciously, giving you its trust only little by little. I’d known it would happen.

My call sign crackles in the earphones of my inner helmet. It’s the tower. “You are cleared for takeoff.”

“Roger.” I pull the thick throttle back, gently, and we begin to roll. I’ve already taxied to the end of the runway, and the jewel-paths of the lights begin to whip past, and melt into a blur. I keep the nosewheel aligned equally between the two blurred lines of light and watch the groundspeed indicator, awaiting the moment to pull back on the stick.

Here it comes, we’re flying fast enough now, and as I ease back on the control column, suddenly the rumble of the concrete under the wheels is gone, and we’re no longer creatures of the ground. We’re flying.

Into the darkness, the runway still whipping by below, and we’re off and climbing, the lights falling behind and away. And the TS-11 and I, we’re coming together again. Not all at once; she hasn’t accepted me yet, but it’s coming. Glancing at the compass, I bank into the current heading. Now, apart from the dim red glow of the cockpit instrument lights, I’m surrounded by velvety blackness.

Scant centimetres away from me, the air whips by at five hundred kilometres an hour, cleaved apart by the blunt nose of the TS-11. The air is a torrent of darkness, drawn roaring into the twin intakes at the base of my wings, twisted and torn in the blades of my turbojet engine, and spat out behind in a white-hot stream of gas, pushing us along high over the earth, a metal bird of the night.

This is what I live for, what I’ve dreamt of since I first saw a plane. To fly through the air on wings, like a bird – who could ever want more? From the moment I first saw that aeroplane, a tiny dot high overhead trailing a white feathery contrail behind it, I’d wanted nothing more.

I bank the plane, automatically settling her into the new heading. I’ve been flying from this airport for two years now, and even without looking at the instruments I can estimate where to turn and where I am in reference to the ground.

If it was daytime, I’d have seen the sprawling mass of the hill called 731, named after its height in metres, below my starboard wing. From the air, 731 looks like a loaf of bread from a corner of which a giant has taken a stupendous bite. At night, 731 is shrouded in darkness, like everything else.

Far below and to the left, a tiny cluster of lights drifts by. It will be the village from where the civilian employees at the airport mostly come, and where the airmen go when they want to buy something not available at the base shop. It’s a noisome, ugly place, full of open drains and fly-blown market stalls. but from up here at night it looks beautiful.

From the air, everything looks beautiful. I remember a poem I’d read a long time ago, about a Nigerian city;

Running splash of rust and glitter
Flung and scattered
Across streams and hilltops in the sun.

From the air, the rust disappears, and the towns are jewels glittering in the sun’s light, the earth a crumpled sheet of green and brown. I’d known that was how it would be before I ever got into a cockpit, from the moment I’d seen that first aeroplane, a speck trailing a line of cloud behind it. And I knew that I would never be able to rest until I’d known it for myself.

I ease the column forward, flattening out from the climb, and pull back on the throttle. The engine note deepens, a low growl felt more than heard through the body of the plane and the howling torrent of air outside, through my outer helmet and inner helmet. I’ve grown to be able to listen subconsciously to that noise, parsing it for a false note, a tremor or missed beat.

I scan the dials on the board before me, illuminated in their dull red glow. There aren’t many of them. The TS-11 avionics are primitive by modern standards, little more than an altimeter, compass, variometer and ground and airspeed indicators apart from the gauges relating to the plane itself. But it’s an old plane, so old that it shouldn’t even be flying any longer. Theoretically, the air force has retired it, but the crippling shortage of modern trainers means it’s still flying from tiny airbases like ours. And, besides, I love this plane. Old or not, she’s still a joy to fly, far more than any of the more modern aircraft I’ve piloted over these last years. It’s going to be a shame when she kisses the runway with her wheels for the last time.       

My parents hadn’t understood my desire to fly. There never had been a member of the family in uniform, and they’d automatically assumed that I’d go into the family business, a prospect that had filled me with horror. There wasn’t a chance in hell that they’d ever pay for flying training, not they; so there had been only one option open for someone in my position.

“Join the Air Force,” the advertisement in the paper had shouted, and I’d sent in my application without saying anything to anyone. To my own astonishment, I’d been accepted. To my even greater astonishment, my father had actually relented at the last and decided to accept my choice of career, though he hadn’t been able to quite conceal his disappointment. And when I’d passed my pilot aptitude test, my cup of happiness had brimmed over.

I bank again, glancing at the instruments but anticipating the readouts, knowing precisely where I’d be, because I’ve flown this route so many times. Most of the time I’ve been sitting in the rear cockpit, with a nervous trainee sweating in the seat before me, far more afraid of what I might say to him than of what he might do to screw up. I try and go easy on them, except when they make stupid errors. There’s no room for idiocy in the air, or for carelessness.

Tonight, I’m alone, and in the front cockpit. I’ve been off flying for too long, and I need to go through the process again, proving my ability, before I can be allowed back into the regular training routine. By rights, there should have been another instructor in the back cockpit, supervising me; but there’s nobody else available at the moment for the duty. I’m on my own.

It’s a relatively simple mission, along a route I’ve flown a hundred times before, into the hills, a dogleg round a peak that’s part of the lower Himalayas, and back to base. I have fuel for an hour and a half in my tanks, more than enough, but I’ve taken a little extra along. I’ll be flying on instruments alone all the way, and it’s simple prudence to cater for emergencies.

I still remember the time I’d gone solo, flown on my own for the first time. The instructor had looked at me lugubriously, and given the go-ahead with obvious reluctance; but when I’d landed, he’d stood me dinner and told me how flawless my first time had been, and that I’d been a credit to him. You don’t forget moments like that. That was the moment I’d accepted, to myself, that I’d made the right choice to be a pilot.

I’d been right to have doubts about the weather forecast. The clouds haven’t cleared up, they’ve grown even thicker, and the few stars and the moon have all been swallowed up. Except for the red glow of the instrument panel, the world is shrouded in darkness. It’s perfect weather, actually, for genuine instruments-only flying, where one doesn’t have to pretend one can’t see outside, just fly entirely according to the readouts on the instrument panel.

This time, when I’d gone home on leave, my mother had urged me to stop flying. No girl, she’d told me, would want to marry someone who always “carried his life in his hand,” as she said. Hadn’t I had enough? I realised once again that she hadn’t understood, after all these years, just what flying meant to me. It was a communication gap that couldn’t ever be bridged.

Some things you just have to learn to live with.

“Base,” I say into my throat microphone. “This is...”

A sudden flash turns my world white, so bright that I flinch involuntarily, my eyes filled with pinwheeling afterimages. It’s followed almost instantly by another, only slightly further away, and the aeroplane is buffeted by a hammer-blow of superheated expanding air. I can hear the crack of it right through the canopy and both my helmets.

I’ve been in lightning storms before, a couple of times, and found the experience intensely unpleasant and unsettling. This is, however, the first time at night, and all the worse for having been entirely unexpected. Cursing the weather people, I pull back on the throttle, and call on the radio again.

At that moment I realise something’s badly wrong.

Not only does the tower not respond, I can’t even hear my own voice in my earphones. All that comes to me is a vague murmur inside my oxygen mask, no more. I try again, and the same thing happens.

The radio’s gone. Something has burned out, somewhere, maybe because of the electricity in the air. I’m cut off from the world below.

A moment later there’s another terrific flash of lightning, so close that it almost touches my port wingtip, and the displaced air throws the jet over on her starboard wing, the thunder so loud that it sounds like an explosion. I can smell ozone even through my oxygen mask.

It’s time to get out of here.

I pull back the control column, striving for height, to climb above the storm, but the lightning is blazing all around, as many forked tongues of it above me as there are to the sides, and the rain is coming down now, hard bullets of water smashing into my wings and fuselage and streaming down the canopy.

Steepening my rate of climb, I turn towards port, where the lightning seems slightly less.

It’s like flying up into the throat of a vortex of electricity, sheets of lightning and water slashing down past us as we rise together, my little trainer jet and I, together now, battering our way through the storm.

Again, and again, jagged tongues of electricity lick at me, and the thunder of their passing shudders through us both, shaking us like a leaf in a gale. But my old jet’s got a big heart, and she will hold on. I will not, cannot, fail her either.

Suddenly, the rain stops, as though someone has turned off a tap, and the lightning disappears. I’m flying on through unrelieved and complete darkness.

And then I realise something: I’m lost.

The realisation of this fact comes slowly. I’ve just tried, once more, to raise the control tower on the radio, with nothing to show for it but the mutter of my own voice in the oxygen mask, when I notice that the compass isn’t reading as it should – if my understanding of my position is anywhere close to accurate. I don’t know if I’ve been blown off course by the storm, or whether the compass has been wrecked along with the radio. This ancient cockpit has nothing like a GPS. Nor can I call base to ask for a radio check of my position.

Depending on which way the storm took me, and on whether my compass is working, I could be anywhere. If I’ve flown west, I might well be over Bhutanese territory, where more than one of our planes has lost its way, crashed, and never been found again. If I’ve been driven north, I’d be perilously close to the Chinese border. And to the east –

I don’t even have the faintest idea which direction’s east. And without knowing which way I’m heading, I can’t begin to think about finding my way back. If only I could hang on until dawn, I might have a chance, but I’ll have run out of fuel long before then. I check my watch and the fuel gauge. Assuming the latter is working, it and my watch both agree; I can stay in the air for just half an hour more.

By now, I should by rights have made the dogleg and turned back towards base, and checked in by radio. There will be, probably, the beginnings of concern, not yet worry; my friend who was joking about the dinner will be trying to contact me on the radio, but will not get an answer. The radar might, or might not, show them where I am. Theoretically, I should be on a radar scope at this very moment, but I know enough of the actual state of the radar network not to harbour much hope on that account. And even if they know where I am, it’s of little use to me if they can’t contact me and guide me home.

But that’s not an insurmountable problem, is it? If I just climb up above the clouds, I can navigate the stars, and fly in the general direction of the airport. And once I’m far enough south, someone will guide me, by flares if necessary, or maybe another plane will be sent up. All I have to do is climb above the –

And then I realise something else, with a sense of utter physical shock: I don’t know which way is up.

Spatial disorientation, they call it. It’s a peculiar danger inherent in flying through cloud or darkness. It’s extremely easy to get fatally disoriented, until one can no longer say even whether one’s flying level or diving or climbing or even flying upside down. One’s spatial orientation sense – the “seat of the pants” sense – betrays one, and the body insists, for instance, that one is flying straight and level when one is actually in a lethal power dive.

Many good, experienced airmen have piloted their planes into the ground while believing they were flying perfectly straight, despite all the evidence of their instrument panel gauges. “Controlled Flight into Terrain,” they call it, or CFT in short, a nice little acronym for a screaming descent into the earth at maximum speed. We’ve all seen the statistics and heard the horror stories. I don’t want to be one of those statistics, but it would be so easy to slam into one of the hills that must lie below me. The TS-11 doesn’t have the luxury of a radar set, so I’d never see it coming. They might not even find the wreckage and the fragments of my body in the thick jungle for weeks, if ever.

And my problem is far worse than just spatial disorientation, because I can’t even trust the gauges. After what's happened to the radio and the compass, I can’t trust a damned thing.

Suddenly, I’m scared. I feel the sweat crawling down my face and along the small of my back. I pull back on the column, hard, and my body tells me I’m climbing – but the altimeter remains stubbornly stationary, and the variometer seems to say that I’m slewing crabwise across the sky.

Where the hell am I, where on earth am I going? Once, long ago, I’d stumbled through a blackout, trying to find my way back to my hotel in a town where the streets were strange to me and where I didn’t speak a word of the language. I feel the same sense of frustration and helplessness, only now the stakes are rather higher than they were then. Now, my life hangs in the balance.

Pushing over the column until it feels to my body as though the jet’s flying straight and level, I consider ejecting. Theoretically, it should be simple – blow the canopy, pull the ejection lever, and the cartridge below my seat will propel me, seat and all, a safe distance from the plane until I can operate my parachute. The problem is, though, that I might well be flying too low to eject safely, or, if I’m not going straight and level, the seat may actually fire me towards the ground rather than away from it. And even if it does work, there’s no guarantee that everything else will go according to plan. There was the TS-11 crash where the instructor ejected but still died because his release mechanism failed, and he went down still strapped to his seat, crashing to earth like a bomb made of blood, bone, fat and muscle. I’d read that the skin of his fingers had been stripped away from the force with which he had been pulling at the ripcord of his parachute until the moment of impact.  

And legion are the pilots who have ejected successfully from all manner of planes, and survived – but broken their necks, legs and backs, condemning themselves sometimes to life in a wheelchair. Smashing into a hillside would be kinder than that.

Not that I’ll have much longer to choose my fate – I have less than ten minutes of fuel left. Ten minutes from now, I’ll be crippled, or dead. That’s not a choice one should ever be forced to make.

I’m beyond scared now – I’m terrified.

There are many kinds of fear of death. There’s the fear that comes in the last split second when one knows one’s going to die, but gives no time for the mind and body to react. There’s the one where death steals up slowly, as with a terminal disease or capital punishment, where one has time to adjust one’s thinking and prepare oneself. And there’s the fear when death announces its imminence, but leaves no time or opportunity for adjustment; the kind of situation I’m in.

My mind begins to swim in a sea of panic, my gut wrenching. I turn my head helplessly, aimlessly staring round the cockpit, at the meaningless instruments, and at the darkness outside. The treacherous darkness that –

What’s that, up there through the canopy, right overhead?

For a long moment, I stare up stupidly at the twin rows of tiny yellow lights, flickering dots in the gloom. They aren’t far away, and slip past even as I’m looking at them, so that I have to turn my head to keep them in view. What on earth are they – lights in the sky?

Only they aren’t lights in the sky.

The realisation comes to me at the same moment that my body reacts automatically, training finally kicking in, my feet working at the rudder pedals, my hands at the controls, turning the jet and rolling her over. I’d been flying upside down, and hadn’t even realised it.

I swing the jet round, and there they are again, right below me and only a little to starboard, two lines of yellow lights in the gloom, flickering below. What airport is it? Where on earth am I?

There’s no time to think of that now, just react. There’s an airport, and that’s all I need to know. I’ll get down first and sort out the rest.

Here we go then, back on the throttle, speed falling away as I turn my nose to the centre of those wonderful double lines of light. Undercarriage down, nose up slightly, and we’re going in, the ground rushing up, visible now, the lights no longer far away but rising up below the wings, and we’re touching, we’re touching down.

The tyres hit the ground, the plane bounces, and we’re back down again, rolling now, and I hold the nose down firmly, hitting the brakes. The lights are flashing by on either side, then slowing, slowing to a stop.

We’re down. We’re safe.

Switching off the engine, I lean back in my seat, eyes closed, trying to control the shaking in my hands, to get my breathing under control. I’m alive, and down – that’s so incredible that I’m still trying to assimilate it. I haven’t yet reached the state of relief.

There’s a sharp tap on the canopy by my left shoulder.

Taking a deep breath, I open my eyes. The ground crew will be here by now, and I’ll have to taxi to the parking apron. The emergency might be over, but I have work to do.

But there is no ground crew.

The man outside is dressed in a woollen cap and a shabby old coat. He’s quite old, the skin of his face deeply seamed and wrinkled, the long hair escaping from under his cap streaked with grey. He taps on the canopy and gestures, motioning for me to open it.

Utterly mystified, I slip the catch and push up on the curved Perspex. The canopy pops open.

The elderly man steps back as I begin the process of separating myself from the cockpit of the TS-11, to make myself independent of the plane, I again instead of we. There are others behind him now, and they are all like him, in rough civilian clothes, young men and old. They gather round the plane, talking animatedly to each other. Through the two helmets I’m wearing, I can’t hear what they’re saying.

For the first time in two hours, I stand up in the cockpit, lift the heavy outer flight helmet off my head, put it down on the seat, and unbuckle the leather inner helmet. Sound is suddenly distinct, the voices of the people around, all talking at once. Someone calls out loudly, and another voice answers from further away beyond the lights. I can’t understand the language.

The elderly man who’d tapped on the canopy comes up again as I climb out of the cockpit. He’s short, scarcely up to my shoulder, but carries himself with immense dignity.

“Are you all right?” he asks in Hindi. “You aren’t hurt?”

“No, I’m fine.” I look around. Beyond the growing crowd around the plane, the lights are flickering and dying down. For the first time, I realise that they aren’t really landing lights, merely old drums stuffed with oil soaked rags and charcoal and set on fire. The ground beneath my feet isn’t concrete either, just hard-packed earth, and the TS-11’s tyres have sunk partly into it. Where on earth am I?

“Arunachal,” the elderly man answers when I ask the question, as though the state’s name was sufficient in itself. “You must be tired. Come along to the village and rest.”

“My plane –“

“The boys will guard it. Don’t worry.” The man snaps something in his language, his tones bearing the unmistakable stamp of authority. “Nothing will happen to it,” he tells me. “Come.”

The crowd parts for us, the people looking at me with open curiosity. Some of them are just children, and they reach out to touch, their fingertips brushing my dark blue flying suit with the pilot’s wings and the rank stripes on my shoulders. The older man, who I’ve realised is the chief, snaps at them and they scuttle back.

The village isn’t far away, but in the darkness, with only a dim torch with a dying battery to guide our steps, it seems a long walk. The path is steep and stony, and the chief indicates patches where I should be careful, holding the torch close to the ground so I have no problem. He’s the only one with a torch, and I think that it’s being used only for my benefit.

There’s no electricity in the village, the dim light from a few oil lamps making it impossible for me to tell how large it is. The chief lights my way to his own house, which is at a short distance from the others, and somewhat better lit. A few women are waiting outside, and they set up an excited chatter when they see me.

“Come in,” the chief says, ignoring the women. “You look exhausted. Sit down, and we’ll eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” I begin to protest, but a young woman with a round face has already brought in a couple of dishes on a tray and put them down on the low table in front of me.

“My granddaughter, Kesang,” the chief says.

“Thanks,” I tell the girl. She smiles, bowing her head and briefly touches her palms together. She can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen, and almost beautiful when she smiles.

“Eat,” the chief orders, indicating the dishes. It’s a stew of rice and pork, the flavour overlaid with the sharp tangy taste of bamboo shoot. It’s not my favourite food, and I suddenly feel sick as the reaction from my narrow escape sinks in, but I force myself to eat, less to please the chief than not to disappoint the girl standing at the corner, watching.

“I have to telephone,” I tell the chief. “The Air Force needs to know that I’m here. I need to call them and...”

The chief shakes his grizzled head, popping a chunk of pork fat into his mouth. “There’s no telephone in the village. No telephone, no school, no hospital, no police. Don’t worry though. There’s a police station down in the town in the valley, and first thing tomorrow, I’ll send someone to tell them that you’ve come. They’ll contact your people.”

“How did you know to set those lights up?” I ask, swallowing the last of the food on my plate, and suddenly realising that I’ve enjoyed it after all. “You know, up there?”

The chief looks at me strangely. “You were flying round and round over our heads. It was obvious that you were in trouble. Besides...”

“Round and round?”

“Yes, for almost half an hour. I was afraid you’d hit a hill.” The chief waits while the girl gathers up our plates and disappears. “You came low down over the village two or three times, so low that we could see the light from your engine.”

It’s perfectly possible. Disoriented, in the darkness, and without instruments I could have easily been flying round and round in circles. It’s a minor miracle that I hadn’t crashed. Suddenly, the reaction catches up with me again, and my entire body begins to shake. I close my eyes, trying to hold on.

“Here. Drink this.” The taste of alcohol in my mouth, rough, burning my throat as it goes down. I cough, convulsively, and feel the warmth spreading out from my midsection.

“I’ll show you to bed,” the chief says. “You look all in. We’ll talk again tomorrow morning.”

I scarcely notice what the bed is like, managing only to pull off my boots and flying suit before collapsing into it. My last conscious thought is that though my friend back at the base had teased me about the meal I was missing, it was I, not he, who’d ended up stuffing myself with meat and booze.

Things are funny the way they work out.


In the morning the chief and I walk up to the plane.

We’ve had breakfast, the shyly smiling Kesang in attendance, looking fresh and lovely though she probably hasn’t had more than three or four hours’ sleep. I’ve tried to talk to her, but she didn’t reply. Probably she doesn’t know any Hindi.

We’d still been eating when a short, broad young man had arrived. The chief introduced him as Tada, and said he would take my message down to the police station. If he left right away, he’d reach the town by midday. On a piece of paper, I’d scribbled down the relevant details – my name, rank, the airbase’s duty phone number, and the insignia of my plane, and handed it to Tada, who’d promptly departed.

“He’s the best runner in the village,” the chief had told me. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

In the morning light the village is tiny, the houses lightweight and blending into the landscape, with terraces cut into the hillside for rice. Small chickens scrabble around between the huts, while a black sow snuffles her way along, leading a line of tiny piglets. On all sides the hills rise like jagged teeth, and I’m amazed even more than earlier that I didn’t hit one of them in the darkness.

“You came from that way,” the chief points. “Down between those hills, and then this way, over the village, and round again. Each time you came you were getting lower, and it was obviously just a matter of time before you crashed.”

I look up and swallow, my throat dry. “How did you manage to set up the drums and the fire in that short time?”

The chief looks at me. “We didn’t,” he says. “The things were all there already – we just had to set fire to them.”

“They were?” His words surprise me. “Why?”

“Well, you know...” He pauses, perhaps to catch his breath, and at that moment we come to the top of the path, and the field where I had landed the previous night lies before me.

It’s an old landing strip. I realise that instantly, looking at the flat strip of land between the two rows of oil drums, blackened and still smoking here and there. My plane, looking tiny in this setting, sits where I’d left it, the canopy still open. A few teenagers sitting nearby get up at our approach.

“See?” the chief says. “They guarded your plane the whole night. Nobody will harm it.”

“This is an airport, isn’t it?” I ask the chief. “It’s a runway, and those are landing lights. How do you have a runway here? But then there must be a radio or something?”

The chief is shaking his head even before I finish speaking. “It isn’t an airport,” he says. “But it was, a long time ago.”

“A long time ago?” A memory stirs sluggishly, something I had read, somewhere. “When?”

“Long ago,” the chief repeats. “During the war, the big war.”

The Hump. The memory is awake now. The Hump, of course! How could I have missed it?

Back during the Second World War, when the Japanese had captured Burma, the only route between British occupied India and its Chinese allies was over these hills, which the airmen of the day called the Hump.

They had flown it, day in and day out, through the long weary months and years, in all kinds of weather. I could picture them, in their old DC3s and C47s, struggling valiantly over the Himalayas, running a supply lifeline to the Chinese. The weather and the landscape were even more of a threat than Japanese fighter planes, and many of these intrepid aviators vanished and never were seen again.

“This was an emergency landing strip?” I ask, already knowing the answer.

“Yes. It was set up by the sahibs, British sahibs, for planes that had trouble. I was very young then, of course, only a boy.”

“And did any plane use it?”

“Three or four, during the war.” The chief shrugs. “Shall we go back down? You can come again later whenever you want.”

“One moment.” I kick at the hard-packed dirt of the runway, and look into one of the oil drums which had served for lights. “All this has been maintained,” I point out. “The war’s been over for more than sixty years, so how come you’ve kept it in working order? It must be an awful amount of work to keep it this way.”

The chief looks suddenly embarrassed. “It was the Stranger,” he mutters.

“The stranger?” I stare at him. “What stranger?”

“Come down,” the chief replies, reluctantly. “I’ll tell you all about him.”


I told you three or four planes came here during the war,” the chief says.

We’re sitting in his house sipping steaming cups of tea. Kesang, as usual, had brought them, but hasn’t waited around to watch us drink. Maybe she has other duties. I haven’t seen anyone else in the chief’s family, and I think the girl looks after him.

“Yes.” The tea is milky and too sweet, and I put it down after a token sip or two. “What about them?”

“Three planes landed during the war,” the chief says. “They all arrived around midday, waited until help came, and then they flew off again. We gave the crew food and water and shelter, because the sahibs had ordered us to. I really don’t remember much about them.

“Then there was the fourth one. This was the one which came at night, and it was a dark cloudy night like yesterday, with no moon. We heard it flying over, and it was flying in circles, like you. We knew it was looking to land, but we couldn’t do anything.

“There were no fires then,” the chief continues. He looks down into his cup, and swirls it around a little. “We couldn’t do anything, though I and some of the other boys ran up there and waved our shirts around, hoping the pilot could see.

“The plane hit that hill, up there.” The chief points, through the little window. “I saw it crash. There was a flash of flame, like a flower, and a boom like thunder. It had been raining hard earlier, though, so at least the fire didn’t spread far.

“The chief at that time was Kigum. He was very old already, much older than I am now, and frail, but he personally led the rescue party. I was there too, of course, but there was little enough to be done.

“We found what was left of the plane. Parts of it were scattered all over, and some of them were still smouldering. They’re still there – if you like you can walk up there and you’ll still find pieces buried in the forest. We found the bodies, too, what was left of them. They were charred black, and we buried them up on the hill, because they’d likely have fallen to pieces if we’d tried to haul them down here to the village.

“It was only the next morning that the Stranger came into the village. I hadn’t been able to sleep from the excitement – you’ll realise that I was very young then, and it was all an adventure for me – and I saw him from the door of the house. Not this door, of course, the place has been rebuilt since then. He was staggering, and as I watched, he tripped over and fell, right about there, by that big tree.

“Old Kigum had him brought into this house. I don’t know why, exactly, except that it was the nearest, and probably he thought that the man should have the least pain in what time he had before dying. None of us had the least doubt that he’d die within the day.

“We knew, of course, that he was a survivor of the crash. He’d been dreadfully burned, but what was left of his uniform was the same as those worn by the British sahibs who had come on the other planes earlier. He wasn’t conscious, and so we couldn’t ask his name, even supposing he could understand us. My mother washed his wounds as best she could, and fed him a little soup, and we waited for him to die.

“He didn’t die. Even now, after so many years, I’m astonished that he didn’t. By midday his breathing had settled down and he was sleeping properly. By evening, when we’d all assumed he’d be long dead, he was even partly conscious and muttering. The whole village came to see, and my mother fed him again. But during the night he began to run a high fever, and it was obvious he would die, after all, if something wasn’t done, and quickly.

“Jumdo was the greatest healer any of us had ever known. Nowadays you have the big doctors in the city – I’ve been to Itanagar, and I’ve seen how they are – but, believe me, none of them could hold a candle to Jumdo. What he could do with those plasters and potions of his, you’d never believe it unless you’d seen it for yourself.

“Jumdo lived in the village down in the valley, the one which is now a town and where Tada’s gone with your letter to the police. Kigum sent someone that very night for him. As he said, it would be a shame if the Stranger died after going through all this.

“Jumdo arrived late that afternoon. I’d never seen him before, but heard a lot about him, so I was interested in seeing what he looked like. I don’t know what I was expecting – a giant perhaps, with fire in his eyes? But he was only a small man with a wispy beard and a large wart on his face.

“The Stranger was still alive, but just barely. His face was flushed with the fever, and his breathing again weak and ragged. My mother had put wet cloth on his forehead and chest to cool him down, but Jumdo had them removed at once.

“All that night Jumdo sat up with the Stranger. I saw a little of what he did, though without understanding anything. He crushed leaves into a paste and tied them to the airman’s burned face and chest, and asked me to hold his head up while he poured a whitish milky liquid down the Stranger’s throat. At intervals he pricked one of the sick man’s fingers, squeezed out a drop of blood and tasted it. Around midnight he burned some flat cakes of incense which filled the room with an acrid smoke, which made all of us cough and our eyes water. And when the smoke had dispersed slightly we saw the Stranger had opened his eyes and was looking around.

“He lived. The fever left as though it had never been. He was still extremely weak, and had to be fed like a baby, but he lived, and as time passed, he began to recover. But there was just one thing – he could not tell us anything, not even who he was.

“At first we thought it was because he and we had no language in common, but after a while we understood that he could not say anything at all. His body had survived the fever, but his mind had been wiped clean.

“We had expected that the sahibs would send up someone to look for the plane, and they would take away the Stranger, but time passed and nobody came. No more planes ever landed, and it seemed everyone had completely forgotten us. It was only much later that we heard that the war had ended.

“And during these months the Stranger’s wounds healed. His face and arms were still terribly scarred, but the flesh grew back over his bones, and he began to move around on his own and do things for himself, after a fashion. And yet we knew nothing about him, not even who he was.

“Did we try to find out who he was? Yes, we did. There were partly burned papers in what was left of his uniform, and when someone went down to the next village, we sent them along, with instruction that they were to be reached to the British sahibs. But nothing ever happened, and to this day I have no idea if those papers ever got through, and what happened to them.

“Once or twice a month, Jumdo would come up to look at the Stranger, and it was he who began to teach the man to speak our language. At first it was not easy, but Jumdo had patience, and ordered us all to help. As time passed, we succeeded. The Stranger never became particularly fluent, but he learned our language, like a child, picking up words and phrases and knitting them together.

“We never gave him a name. He came as the Stranger, and he lived among us as the Stranger. When he recovered his health we built him a house, and eventually a young woman of the village – it was Kigum’s grandniece, as it happens – married him. They had a happy life, I think, until he died a few years ago, and she soon after. The boy who took your letter – Tada – he’s the Stranger’s grandson. He’s supposed to marry my Kesang next year, and they’ll live in this house so she can look after me. I don’t have anyone else, after all.”

We sit in silence for a long moment, as I think about the story he’s just finished. “But,” I feel constrained to object, “if the Stranger never recovered his memory, what’s the connection between his arrival and your keeping the old emergency strip going? It’s not as though he asked you to maintain it, is it?”

The old chief peers at me over his empty cup of tea. “It’s all about him,” he says. “It was not a good thing to keep him here, so far from his people. If we’d had fires to light that night, if the plane had landed, he would have gone back home to them. He may have had old parents somewhere, a wife and children perhaps, friends and family who never knew what happened to him. They may have waited the rest of their lives hoping he would still come back.

“You understand what I’m saying, young man? We saved his body, but he still lost his life, all he’d had, and had to start over again. We don’t want that to happen, ever again, and that’s why we keep that place up there in working order.

“The Stranger was happy among us, so far as we could tell; but if he could have his own memories back, I still wonder what he would have thought of us. Sometimes I wake at night and think of it, and I have no answer.”


So, how were the headhunters?” the wing commander asks.

It’s three days later, and I’m back at the base. Helicopters had brought in fuel, spare parts and technicians, and I’ve flown my doughty old TS-11 back to base. It’s for the last time, though – I’ve already been informed that she’s to be retired with immediate effect in favour of more modern trainers. At least she’s headed to a museum, not scattered in fragments over a hillside like the Stranger’s plane.

Headhunters?” I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s on about. “What headhunters?”

“You know.” The wing commander leans back in his chair in the officer’s mess and gestures vaguely. “The savages. The ones you spent the last few days with.”

“Who says they were savages? They took good care of me, and not of me alone.”

“My dear boy.” The wing commander has a moustache strongly reminiscent of a caricature RAF pilot from the Second War, and he rubs its waxed tips with a forefinger. “Just two generations ago they were hunting heads. These people are just above the monkeys, you know. Civilisation means nothing to them.”

I stare at the moustachioed fool who outranks me, and think about the old chief and his shyly smiling granddaughter. “You’re right,” I tell him. “If this is civilisation, it means nothing to them. But maybe the Stranger could tell you what does have meaning for them.”

“What stranger?” he asks, raising his glass of beer to his lips. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, nothing,” I tell him. “Don’t mind me. It’s just someone who found love and kinship, a long time ago. You know, things that don’t exist in civilisation as we know it.”

“You’re tired,” the wing commander says kindly. “Go have a good sleep, and you’ll be fine.”

“Thanks so much for the advice,” I tell him, and walk out into the night.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2011     

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