M D Riti

Colonel (retd) Jayant Pooviah popped the question at me in midair, over a static-filled headphone.

"Do you," he asked, "know why politicians hire helicopters for election campaigns?"

I did not. At that point, I didn't really want to know either. I was concentrating on spotting a Very Important Landmark from the air -- my home.

The good colonel and I were flying over Bangalore in his helicopter, with a close relative of the Maratha strongman Sharad Pawar with us. My fellow passenger's headphone was off, so he could not hear our conversation.

I had gone to the Jakkur airport outside Bangalore to take a look around one of India's premier helicopter charter companies, only to find the colonel, who is its flying vice-president, about to take off. Of course, I jumped in nimbly beside him.

"Do you think villagers gather to gawk at the politicians coming to address them, or the helicopters they arrive in?" continued the colonel, impervious to my disinterest. "When they are faced with a choice between the two, there is actually no competition. That's what I found when I was hired to fly A [then Uttar Pradesh's chief minister] around during an election."

I continued looking for my landmark; the colonel, with his tale.

"To start with, we simply could not get along. The man does not have basic [flying] etiquette! He does things like eat dhoklas from leaf plates just as the helicopter is about to lift off!

"Not only that, on one occasion, he threw the plates, one after another, out on to the runway! I had to radio the air controller and warn him to get the area cleared before it attracted birds!"

That was not the end. After the dhoklas, the colonel went on, A decided to eat paan. "And all through the journey, he sat there and spat bright red streams on my floor!"

Colonel Pooviah did not take that lying down. He chewed out A's unfortunate secretary, who arranged for spittoons the next time his boss came to fly.

"That's why I was quite happy to get my own back when A alighted at a public meeting," continued the colonel. "The chopper needed to be refuelled, so I flew off for it. When I returned, I brought it down a few hundred metres from where the meeting was."

The result was excellent: the crowd, till then listening to the politician, left him high and dry and rushed to the chopper! Whereupon A's aides ran up to the pilot and asked him to bring the bird closer.

"I did that, the crowd returned... all was well again!" Colonel Pooviah smiled.

"Now for my landmarks," I said.

"There's the Vidhana Soudha!" he said, pointing out Bangalore's grand secretariat building.

"Who's interested in that?" I asked.

"But you said..."

"I meant my home!"

Gentleman that he is, he promptly veered towards my neighbourhood. "S M Krishna, whom I fly regularly, is so different," he continued. "As chief minister of Karnataka, he has access to a government helicopter. Still, he uses us very often.

"And he is such a gentleman! He always says 'hello' and shakes hands before we set off. After we touch ground, he never forgets to thank the pilot for a pleasant journey."

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu is another of the colonel's favourites. That story dates back to 1998, when his company had just leased its second helicopter and was wondering what to do with it.

Naidu was then in Bangalore and gave one of his usual speeches, offering businessmen every kind of encouragement in his home state. The colonel and his managing director, Captain Gopinath, took him to his word.

"We flew into Hyderabad and took a taxi to Naidu's office," he said. "We found ourselves in his office within minutes! And he promised to use our helicopter regularly if we left it in Hyderabad with a pilot."

We flew on for a few minutes in silence. Soon the colonel said, "Let me tell you about the time...."

"First, another landmark!" I told him sternly.

"Don't tell me, let me guess," he said resignedly. "Your daughter's nursery school?"

"Right!" I said.

"Do you know I have flown both Sonia Gandhi and Sushma Swaraj?" he continued, banking the helicopter again. "I was on standby with Swaraj at that crucial time during the 1999 general election, waiting to fly her to whichever constituency Sonia finally filed her papers from!"

"Oh!" I said distractedly. "Hey, I think that's my daughter Amala down there."

"Don't be silly, you cannot identify individuals at this height!" said Colonel Pooviah. "And did I tell you about the time I flew [Union Minister for Sports] Uma Bharti around for a whole week? I even found myself featuring in her campaign speech on one occasion!

"You see, we were running very late one day. I always insist we finish our flying before dark. Our last touchdown was a key constituency. The public meeting that Bharti was to address was a 10-minute drive from the helipad.

"When I looked at my watch and the darkening sky, I realised we simply had to take off again in 15 minutes. So I said, look, you can make a speech from the helipad, that's about all. 'How?' she asked. I pointed to a Tata Sumo waiting to drive her to her destination. Why don't you just clamber on to that vehicle?

She did that, beginning her speech by saying: 'My pilot says I do not have the time to go to the venue of the public meeting, and that I must make my speech right here!'"

"And then?" I asked.

The poor man suddenly blushed, and muttered something under his breath. I gathered that Bharti was so happy with the chivalrous colonel that she said goodbye with a big kiss!

Not surprising, then, that Colonel Pooviah is now in Uttar Pradesh, flying a cross-section of his favourite and not-so-favourite politicians around.

M D Riti is waiting for Colonel Pooviah's return -- for more Very Important Landmarks.

Illustration: Lynette Menezes

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