Diary of a daredevil

INSPIRING OTHERS H.S. Malik's daughter Harji Malik in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: photo: S. Subramanium

The first Sikh fighter pilot-turned-diplomat Hardit Singh Malik's memoirs hit the stands after a four decade wait, writes RAKESH RAO

The glint in the eyes of Harsimran Malik is hard to miss as she reflects on the life of her illustrious father Hardit Singh Malik, the first Sikh fighter pilot-turned-diplomat. Recently, after nearly four decades of remarkable patience and perseverance, the octogenarian Harsimran, better known as ‘Harji', managed to get the memoirs of her father published.

Titled “A Little Work, A Little Play”, (taken from the opening lines of George de Maurier's poem that Malik so loved), this well-written autobiography of H.S. Malik presents a fascinating journey into the life of a man who loved adventure and sports. He played cricket for Sussex and later golf in the company of the legendary Ben Hogan.

“We (Harji and her brother Harmala) wanted to publish this book. He had a sense of adventure as a young man and I felt that nowadays, the younger generation is not as keen on adventure as it is on making money. I would like the young people to read about him. We are keen to have it read.” That explains the fairly low price (Rs.395) for the hardbound edition.

It was at the insistence of his wife and children that H.S. Malik decided to write about his life. Once persuaded, in the late 1960s, he finished writing it in 1972. Thereafter, until he died in late 1985, he refused to touch it. In the words of Harji, “He tells his story simply, with a touch of humour, in the elegant language of his times.”

Malik's life was a witness to the great change the country went through in the first half of the last century. Born on 23 November, 1894, Malik went to England at the age of 14 to study. When the First World War broke out in 1914, a blissfully unaware Malik was busy playing cricket. Malik, like many other Indian boys in England at that time, tried to join the Army. “It was in 1916, after graduating from Oxford, he found that most of the people he knew had joined up. The war, he thought was a very, very big thing. With the Sikh tradition, this was something he had to do,” says Harji.

Indeed, in Malik's words, “I felt like taking part in such a historic event and made every effort to join the war. Those days, the Government was very suspicious that Indian students in England were nationalists. That's why it was very difficult for me to join the British Army.”

“Those days, Indians could not become officers in the Army. Malik tried to join the Army but was rejected,” remembers aviation historian Somath Sapru. He continues, “Then, one of Malik's tutors at Oxford suggested to join the French Red Cross. They need ambulance drivers. So Malik quickly went through a crash course in driving. He earned the uniform of the French Red Cross and was sent to France and his job was to transport the wounded men.”

Turning point

It was during this time that he saw aeroplanes flying all over the place and wished he could be pilot. Malik's determination saw him overcome all obstacles and he realised his dream of flying a fighter plane and joined the Royal Flying Corps.

On 26 October, 1917, the Germans surrounded two planes, including one piloted by Malik and this was the brave Sikh's first brush with death. In the words of Malik, “Four German fighters came after me. They started firing and I was helpless. Around 400 bullets hit my plane, yet not a single bullet hit me or my plane in a terminal spot. This was a miracle.”

The only Sikh to survive the First World War, Malik spent the next decade as the district officer in the ICS, in rural Punjab. He was also the Prime Minister of Patiala during the transfer of power. As it turned out, he was the first High Commissioner of Independent India to Canada and later the Ambassador to France.

Through the eyes and words of Malik, one gets a fascinating account of a life so rich and enlightening. But Harji, having played her part in editing the manuscript, wanted more. “I wish, he had mentioned more about his love for golf,” says Harji with a tinge of regret. In fact, this avid golfer shot a score of 79 on his 79th birthday!

Malik has left behind a rich legacy. This well groomed, articulate Sikh led a life that is not just educating and but also hugely inspiring. Much before Milkha Singh, it was Malik who showed the world what a ‘Flying Sikh' looked like.