WWI Flying Ace Shaped My FaithT. SHER SINGH
Wednesday, June 20, 2012
My first contact with Malik Hardit Singh was when I called him long-distance, out of the blue, with an invitation to be key-note speaker at a university students’ annual gala dinner.
I was close to 17; he, I knew, would be well into his 70s.
I had come across his name in history books. He was the one who, in the early days of the First World War, applied for an officer’s commission in the British Army, having only recently graduated from the Eastbourne and Balliol Colleges at Oxford.
Some bright soul somewhere processed his application and summarily rejected him on the basis that an Indian could not be made an officer with British soldiers as subordinates.
Hardit Singh, itching to serve in the war, hopped over into France, was readily enlisted by the French army, and served as an ambulance driver on the front.
Shortly thereafter, chomping at the bit to get into ‘action’, he applied for and was enlisted by Aviation Francaise.
When an old Oxford tutor heard of all of this, he was outraged that a loyal British subject had been compelled to fly with the French, and complained of the bigotry.
Before long, young Hardit Singh was invited to re-enlist in Britains’s Royal Flying Corps.
He soon became a British pilot and, in September 1917, began a spectacular flying career, first with No. 28 Squadron and then with Nos. 78 and 11.
After the war, he became a leading civil servant with the elite Indian Civil Service.
Later, he became Prime Minister to the Sikh Kingdom of Patiala.
As an elder statesman and diplomat - long before he actually turned old - he served with both British and Indian governments in key assignments around the world.
At one point, he was India’s Ambassador to France. At another, India’s High Commissioner to Canada.
Yet, he found time to write, to bring up a family, and to become a world-class golfer!
So, when I finally got through to him on the telephone, I was delighted when he graciously accepted my invitation.
However, a few months later, when he was due to fly from New Delhi to our provincial city for the scheduled event, I learnt that he had fallen ill from a bout of flu.
His wife called and apologized that he couldn’t make it. The doctors wouldn’t let him go.
The next morning, he bowled us off our feet when he called, and over loud protestations from his wife - which I could hear in the background - he said he was coming nevertheless!
“I can’t let you students down,“ he said. “After all, you’ve been preparing for this for months! I know what that entails.”
His wife, frustrated to no end, grabbed the phone and asked if, as a compromise, we’d promise to host him at home instead of billeting him at a hotel. He was frail and needed tender care, she said.
Spic and span, in a pin-striped, dark suit, a tie as wide as my out-stretched palm - those were the days of stringy ties! - he limped off the airplane.
He looked like he had stepped straight out of Victorian England. Even his turban and beard somehow looked turn-of-the-century-style.
The limp, he would explain later, was from wounds he received when he was shot down behind enemy lines half-a-century earlier.
My parents offered to put him up. He graciously accepted, adding it was the least he could do to assuage his wife’s concerns.
We were, as a result, rewarded with an extraordinary feast of stories over the course of the next couple of days, as he reminisced from his eventful life, over meals or while relaxing at home between engagements.
On one such occasion, while we sat in the drawing room, a servant interrupted us. He had been making our guest’s bed and had found a small package under his pillow.
Hardit Singh took it from him, thanked him, and smiled as the latter left the room.
The package consisted of a small object neatly wrapped in a square of richly brocaded silk. He noted the obvious curiosity in my face, hesitated for a few moments, but decided he owed an explanation.
“It’s a gutka (Sikh prayer book). I carry it with me wherever I go, and have done so almost all of my life.”
He gently unfolded the silk and showed us an old, much-used and falling-apart, three-by-four hard-cover book I easily recognized as the Nitnem - the daily liturgy.
“I’ve had it since I was in my teens. I met a pious soul who gave it to me and said I should read it every day, or as often as I can, and think about what I have read whenever I have the time to do so. Even if it was only a few stanzas at a time. And I have done so for as long as I can remember. The words give me solace at times of trouble, they guide me in times of need.”
He looked at me, and added: “I carry it with me wherever I go. I had it with me when I was flying on a sortie during the War - the First World War! - and I was hit. I was pinned down in my cockpit. Mercifully, I was able to bail out - landed safe, but became a prisoner-of-war. This gutka has accompanied me through thick and thin!“
He flipped through the loose pages, and stopped at a page entitled “Jaap” - Meditations.
“This one is my favourite,“ he said, and began to read at random, as he flitted from page to page.
“Eternal. Merciful. Beautiful. Sinless. Birthless. Deathless. Imperishable. Indestructible. Immeasurable. Nameless. Abodeless. Beyond deeds. Beyond creeds. Unconquerable. Boundless. Absolute. Devoid of superstition. Free of affliction. Cannot be installed. Self-sufficient. Uncaused. All-Pervading. Incomprehensible. Immortal …”
“Do you know what these are?”
I shrugged my shoulders, because the original words then made little sense to me.
He went on: “They are traits of God, the Lord of all creation. Because we are human, we can only think of God in human terms. It‘s the best we can do, considering our limitations. But we must remember, they are merely a handful out of infinitely innumerable traits.
“We sing them not because God is sitting up there somewhere, waiting and hungering for tribute, for praise and obeisance. We sing them because they remind us of the qualities we are to strive for in our own lives. They remind us of the nature of the eternity we hope to become part of when we die …”
I pestered him every chance I got, and he never tired to oblige, for stories from his war years. He talked of his escape from the Germans - twice! - each time after he’d been shot down, and had been taken prisoner.
Everything he described was a miracle, yet he never used the word once.
The bullet in his leg, being pinned in his cockpit, jumping from the plummeting and burning plane, escape from the Germans, rescue … and back in action!
The French gave him the Legion of Honour. The Brits and the Indians showered him with more honours and medals.
But here he was, emphasising at every juncture, every twist and turn in his stories, that it was all His bakshish - His gifts, His blessings!
Not once during those two days did he ever claim credit for any of the things I knew he had done for his community, his country, for history, and for the world.
I knew then, as I know now … “This was a man!”
Conversation about this article
1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 20, 2012, 8:47 AM.
The pious soul that presented him the gutka was no other than Bhai Vir Singh who was very close to the family, and in particular with Sir Teja Singh, his elder brother. In Bhai Vir Singh's book, 'Veer Patravali,' a whole section contains a set of letters written to the family when Sir Teja Singh passed away. Malik Hardit Singh was also very close to Bhai Vir Singh and never missed an opportunity to sit at his feet.
2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), June 20, 2012, 11:31 AM.
Awesome role model, he was! Like so many Sikhs, I am only just finding out with pride such stories of our heroes.
3: Satpal Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), June 21, 2012, 1:04 AM.
Thank you, Sher Sahib, for putting colour into our luminaries.
4: G.C. Singh (U.S.A.), June 21, 2012, 7:19 PM.
I had the privilege of meeting Sardar Hardit Singh Malik, his wonderful wife Parkash Kaur and their daughter Harji Malik a couple of times in their house in Vasant Vihar in New Delhi. He was the epitome of class, grace, humility and a gursikh to the core. Since he was posted as Prime Minister of Patiala in 1947, he was responsible for allotting us a house in that city when my parents moved from Sargodha during the Partition of Punjab. He was deeply hurt and felt betrayed when the Government he had served in many capacities attacked Harmandar Sahib and killed tens of thousands of innocent Sikhs in a brutal crackdown under the manufactured pretense of unity and integrity of the country. Here is a link to a small movie produced by The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom on "Flying Sikhs," in which you can hear his interview also. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2010/sep/29/world-war
5: Ari Singh (Burgas, Bulgaria), June 23, 2012, 6:11 AM.
A hero's hero.