We live in terribly dark times of 'doom scrolling' when each day brings sinking news of hate, bigotry, supremacism, politicisation, and societal polarisation. Even the occasional news of purported 'achievement' is a barely masked attempt at some form of partisan chest-thumping, jingoism or at the cost of someone, somewhere. In such times, to belong to a socio-economically disadvantaged and diminished section, is vulnerability at its worst.

We too had seen a struggling India in our childhood, but it was still full of hope, possibilities, and high spirits. There was palpable excitement and unity, though we made many mistakes as a nation. But even in our sparse days, we always held the moral high ground. India earned that respect, despite faltering occasionally. The air wasn't bitter or full of suspicion, as it is today.

In the summer heat of June of 1965, I along with my joshiley batchmates from the Military Academies NDA/IMA (we call ourselves 'Dambusters') had taken the 'Antim Pag' (Last Step) of transforming into Soldiers to our nation, and above all, as unflinching Constitutionalists who would uphold its lofty values and dignity.

We were soon baptised with the call to fight the just battle on behalf of the nation when the war broke out in September 1965. There was one thing we were sure of then, the 'enemy' was always in front of us and not behind, or one amongst us, ever.

The time spent in NDA/IMA, instilled a sense of fraternity amongst the rambunctious 'Dambusters', which even if we disagree on any matter today, the intent is never in question. The same spirit was later extended to our sense of 'Regimentation' and 'Paltan' loyalties that come naturally and only to faujis, the colour of the 'Uniform' is immaterial.

Any other societal 'identity' is completely irrelevant. However, post hanging the boots after 40 years in the Olive Greens, India and Indians had seemingly changed. Certainly so, outside the 'cantonments'.

Sometimes for the better, sometimes not. But perhaps never had the agenda of 'identities' and personal denominations been so discussed, as perhaps now. We are increasingly becoming revisionists and reimagining things, before just being 'Indians'. The 'doom scrolling' is only consequential.

Amidst this gloomy backdrop, comes the heart-tugging news of a precocious young girl, Sania Mirza, who unknowingly scripts a refreshing counter-narrative, in so many inadvertent and unclaimed ways. Daughter of a TV mechanic from the mofussil district of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh, 'cracks' the entrance exam of the National Defence Academy (NDA) to aspire and become a fighter pilot, like her hero, Lt Avani Chaturvedi, before her. The consistent school topper from Hindi medium education is our equivalent of 'Indian Dream', coming true.

There was a moving moment of forgotten and sacred 'Indianness' as one read the news clipping, "Sania Mirza did her 10th in Hindi Medium at Pandit Chintamani Dubey Inter College, and passed 12th from Guru Nanak Girls Inter College in Mirzapur"! The words reflected an innocence, civilisational normalcy and harmonious secularity that ought to be India but is becoming so fleeting.

Her mother's statement, "Our daughter had made us and the entire village proud" and that, "She inspired every girl in the village to follow their dreams", is a subtle peek into the convivial community culture of the 'unseen' Bharat, as also the unbelievable odds that the girl child faces beyond sloganeering and platitudes, seventy-five years after independence.

Perhaps it is only befitting, that with such a serendipitous journey, our girl is headed towards India's finest (and perhaps the only) expression of retained Constitutionality i.e., Indian Armed Forces!

Sania ('brilliant' in Urdu) Mirza's illustrious namesake had flown the 'Tiranga' with much success and aplomb for her nation, albeit, on a tennis court. This Sania Mirza seeks to 'Touch the Sky with Glory' (Nabhah Sparsham Deeptam), as done by trailblazers like Lt Avani Chaturvedi or Squadron Leader Namrita Chandi Naidu (daughter-in-law of a distinguished brother Regimental officer, hence to all of us).

Such is the spirit of this institution, that even this Sania Mirza is already one of us, and we will goad her to shatter even more glass ceilings on the way!

Sania's personal story offers an alternative imagination to her hometown of 'Mirzapur', as not of some cuss laden Puruvanchali potboiler on Netflix, but of one which stands tall for its nation i.e. Mirzapur of freedom fighter Ramniranjan Singh, of exquisite carpets and brasswares, of Kajri and birha music etc.

It is a region that gave Brigadier Mohammad Usman MVC ('Lion of Nowshera') of neighbouring Mau district – a man who chose to repose faith in India as opposed to moving to Pakistan, immediately after independence. Brig Usman had spurned the offer to be Pakistan's Chief and fought valiantly till his death and whose last words were: "I am dying but let not the territory we were fighting for fall for the enemy".

The other neighbouring district of Ghazipur had given India's highest gallantry decoration, Param Vir Chakra, to Havildar Abdul Hamid, who destroyed Pakistani tanks with impunity and complete disregard to his own personal safety. Abdul Hamid's heroics along with that of other combatants of 4 Grenadiers in the Battle of Asal Uttar, is a testimony to the hardy and fiercely patriotic folks from these 'one-horse towns' who are far away from the maddening and petty winds of politics and extremism in any form.

To this geographical and cultural fount, does the precious Sania Mirza belong, who will now continue that proud legacy, regardless.

In the blue Air warriors' uniform, Sania Mirza will find a comforting space where solidarity is based on the unique combination of recognition, respect, and celebration of differences of each Indian, as a dignified equal, no one would be more or less 'Indian' than the other.

The cockpits and squadrons that Sania will find herself may have earned their laurels with the likes of Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon, the famous Keelor brothers i.e. Denzil and Trevor, Wing Commander Amar Jit Singh Sandhu, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja or Wing Commander Vinod Kumar Neb (his daredevilry earned him Vir Chakra in 1965 and 1971). Each represents the very best of the greater 'Idea of India'.

Those in the 'Blue Uniform' live with a certain code with virtues that brings incalculable nobility, strength and purpose to their lives, and to India itself. Recently, 'Our boy who flew beyond the blue', Group Captain Varun Singh had earlier displayed exceptional courage in handling a rare mid-air emergency of his Tejas (LCA) fighter plane and landed, even though he was authorized to bail-out.

Varun Singh, from a thoroughbred Military family from yet another dust-bowl district of Deoria in Purvanchal, had put his own life in peril to avoid a catastrophic cost onto civilian lives below, as also affording invaluable analysis against the technical recurrence. Such is the cloth of patriotism and basic decency from which the simple folks of provincial India, which populates the Armed Forces, are cut!

When Sania does push the throttle into afterburner of her fighter jet, she will not be the first but amongst the few who did dare and triumph, she must remain conscious and equally unconcerned with the macho if not misogynistic innuendoes, that sadly accompanies any ceiling-breakers. She must persevere with honesty and sincerity, as this trail of fighter planes was shattered by the trio of Avani Chaturvedi, Mohana Singh and Bhawana Kanth, first (who too incidentally hail from the wonderfully quaint townships of Satna, Jhunjhunu and Dharbhanga, respectively).

As Sania's mother had gently shared the stakes on Sania fulfilling her calling in life i.e., "every girl in the village to follow their dreams"! True to the moment, Sania Mirza will march to the Indian Air Force's Desh Pukare Jab Sab Ko (When the nation calls, everyone). The operative word being, everyone – including every little girl in any village, with dreams in her eyes.

Finally, as Henry Ford once said, "When everything seems to be against you, remember that an airplane takes off against the wind, not with it", it is so true literally and metaphorically in the case of our girl, Sania Mirza, who too is destined to soar against odds. Well done and welcome to the fraternity, the fraternity of the Constitutionalists who proudly put their service and the nation before self, and not some cheap rhetoric of usurpers and pretenders.

Lt General. BHOPINDER SINGH (Retd), is the Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. Views expressed are the writer's own.

Cover Photograph: Sania Mirza in her modest home (ANI)