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The Race – An Excerpt From #TataStories by Harish Bhat

The following is an excerpt from Harish Bhat’s book ‘#TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales To Inspire You’

We now turn our eyes to the third competitor in the flying race, J.R.D. Tata. Where was he? J.R.D. had taken off from Karachi on 3 May 1930 in a Gypsy Moth G-AAGI plane. He faced significant headwinds as he flew towards Jask, a small, hot and dusty town on the coast of Iran. There he stayed overnight and then took off towards Basra in Iraq. He drifted a little and had to double back from the salt marshes, north of Lingah, to reach Basra. From Basra, he flew towards Baghdad, and then towards Cairo.

En route, his faulty compass led him to drift out again and land in an old, disused World War I airstrip covered in anthills at Haifa. But he recovered quickly from this error and reached Cairo, where he was redirected to land at the Aboukir airstrip. In other words, he had reached the same airport near Alexandria where Aspy Engineer had parked his plane for some

time now, searching for the elusive spark plugs which would enable him to resume his race.

What happened at Aboukir that day is beautifully chronicled by J.R.D. Tata’s biographer, R.M. Lala. Here is what J.R.D. told Lala:

At Alexandria, at 7 a.m., I saw another Moth parked there and realized it must be Aspy Engineer (my competitor) . . . When he heard that I had landed, he came out to the aerodrome to meet me. I asked him what he was doing there. He told me he was waiting for some spare plugs, since he had not taken an extra set of them. This was not very good planning! Since mine was a four-cylinder aeroplane, and I had eight spare plugs, I gave him four of them. He was so pleased and grateful that he insisted I take something from him, and he gave me his Mae West life jacket. He had a Mae West, but no spark plugs!

So the stranded Aspy Engineer got his spark plugs from his competitor J.R.D., set his aircraft right, and took off towards India. J.R.D. too got moving quickly but eventually lost further time in Naples, where he landed late evening at a military airfield. Here, because of strict army rules, he had to wait for the military commandant to permit him to take off, for which he lost four valuable hours. Thereafter, he flew uneventfully towards Rome and Paris, and then the final leg from Paris to Croydon in England.

However, by the time J.R.D. landed in Paris, Aspy Engineer had already reached Karachi in India, and had won the Aga Khan Prize. J.R.D. Tata had lost the flying competition by just two hours and thirty minutes. The race was over. But wait a moment . . . this is not the end of this story (as we say in India, kahaani abhi baaki hai, mere dost). Twenty-seven years later, in 1957, both men had grown significantly in their careers and lives. J.R.D. Tata had become chairman of the Tata Group and Aspy Engineer had joined the Indian Air Force, where he had risen to become air vice marshal. A few years later, Aspy would go on to become the second Indian to

head the Indian Air Force. Aspy Engineer now wrote to J.R.D. Tata to greet him on the twenty-fifth anniversary of India’s first airline, which J.R.D. had founded way back in 1932. J.R.D. was greatly moved by his letter, and here is an extract from his reply to Aspy, dated 19 October 1957:

Of all the letters and messages I have received . . . none pleased me more or brought back more pleasant memories than yours . . . Those days were fun, weren’t they? We were both so much younger, particularly yourself . . . Although you were only seventeen or eighteen at the time, I at least did not underestimate you in the Aga Khan competition . . . I took you so seriously as a competitor that I spent at least a day more in checking everything on the plane and everything else connected with the trip.

J.R.D. goes on to say:

Our friendship ever since has been much more worthwhile than winning the competition would have been. I must say I enjoyed every moment of that adventure as I am sure you did too.

And then J.R.D. adds the concluding part of the story:

Incidentally, one of the highlights that remains imprinted on my memory was my arrival at Karachi by Imperial Airways, on my return to India (from England, after the race). When, to my embarrassment, you met me with a platoon of scouts and presented me with a medal. That was terribly nice of you, and so undeserved.

So, Aspy Engineer actually met his competitor J.R.D. on his return at Karachi airport and gave him a ceremonial welcome with a platoon, and a special medal too, for helping him win the race. What a graceful gesture, and one that must have surely brought a smile to J.R.D.’s face—and perhaps some tears too.

We all run and fly so many races in our lives. Winning some of them is important to us, but is this all that matters? And is it worthwhile to win them at any cost? Or is it far more important and meaningful, to help someone, to bring a smile to someone’s face, whenever we can, along the way? And to nurture friendships that stand the test of time, which make our lives all the more fulfilling? As we search for our own answers, perhaps we can reflect on this beautiful old story of J.R.D. Tata and Aspy Engineer, both great men of our nation.

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