THREE RAFALES

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When the media reported French aircraft manufacturer Dassault as preferred bidder for the multi-billion dollar contract supplying fighter jets to the Indian Air Force (IAF), my mind was on a doctor then managing a large hospital in Cairo.

Many years ago, Harish Pillai was a medical student in Mangalore when he bought a 100cc, two-stroke TVS Supra motorcycle. It cost him Rs 25,000 and came in factory-painted livery of red and white.

Further back in time, the aspiring doctor had wanted to be a fighter pilot. Like many youngsters, he had surrounded his life with the subject that fascinated him – pocket books from the Observer series on the world’s fighter planes, Jane’s publications, aviation magazines and hard bound volumes covering planes to tanks and foot soldiers. One book from his collection that still survives on my shelf is a Jane’s analysing the armies of the world. It was probably during a visit to Mangalore (or was it later in Thiruvananthapuram?) that I first met his newly acquired steed.

Post-acquisition it had been repainted all-red and pasted prominently in black were the letters – RAFALE. This was somewhere around the late eighties, early nineties. The bike was purchased in 1989. 

Those days the IAF’s flagship fighter aircraft and which nobody spared an opportunity to see, was the Mirage 2000. The IAF began inducting these aircraft in the mid eighties, which was around the time the first technology demonstrator version of the Rafale made its debut overseas. In an Asterix sort of predicament, I had not heard of the French Rafale; the closest I knew was the Raphael of Italian art. Not quite the right name to know for in that classic comic book, Gaul and Caesar were the stuff of punches traded, egos smashed and plenty of flying soldiers. The two-wheeler belonging to my fighter aircraft-obsessed medical student-friend was my first introduction to the aircraft that would, over two decades later, emerge front runner to bag India’s biggest fighter aircraft deal. That’s what the news reports said although nothing should be believed till it actually happens. For the purpose of this article, we stick to the published news.

When TV channels flashed the news of Rafale leading the field in the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) acquisition process, I couldn’t resist dashing off a mail to my friend asking what had happened to perhaps the only Rafale on two wheels to grace the planet. We hadn’t mailed each other in a very long while and going by the time difference, he must have been still at work when he got it.

With the right bait, I suppose, even the most hard baked-professional relapses to the boy in him.

Reply was quick.

The bike had served its owner loyally for ten years from 1989 to 1999, tracking the progress from medical student to doctor to hospital administrator. In 1999, in Hyderabad where he had moved to after studies, my friend rode into a showroom and sold off Rafale for Rs 10,000. The price of the red Rafale was adjusted into the cost of the new bike that he acquired from the stables of the same manufacturer.  It was again a red bike and my friend, never one to forget his craze for fighter aircraft called it Rafale-II. He wrapped up his replies to me remembering yet another aspect exclusive to two wheeled Rafales (and which the IAF would never get to do with their flying ones) – memories of negotiating Hyderabad’s traffic on monsoon days with wife and son seated behind. Going by Wikipedia, same time in far off France, the real Rafale was close to formal introduction. According to the online encyclopaedia, Rafale was “introduced’’ in 2000.

Rafale-II was sold off when my friend shifted to Dubai to manage a hospital there.

Life comes full circle.

While there is still a lot between the cup and the lip in terms of whether the fighter aircraft will make it to India, my friend recently shifted to Kochi.

I am tempted to wonder – will there be a Rafale-III?

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is a slightly altered and updated version of a piece by him, previously published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper. )

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