Monday, November 20, 2006

Living life, kingsize!

Heart bypass patient Reza Beg, a former pilot, has hair-raising adventures all over the world

Shevlin Sebastian

M. Reza Beg kneels down on the floor of his apartment in Bandra and spreads out a large map of Asia. With a black felt pen, he has already marked out the route for the Autocar India-China Silk Road expedition, a distance of 18,000 kms. This expedition, which will take place in June 2007 and will cost over Rs 50 lakh, starts in Kathmandu, goes all the way west to Mount Kailash, around the great Taklamakan Desert, and down into the hellish depths of Turfan, hundreds of feet below sea level, where the maximum summer temperature exceeds 50 degrees Celsius. Most of the journey is at altitudes of 18,000 feet or more, and the team will return via Tibet to India. Around six motorcycles, a few cars and SUVs will form part of the expedition. “My teammates are half and one third of my age,” he says.
That is the charm of Beg. He is young at heart, even though he is 67 years old. In 1988, a massive heart attack nearly killed him. But this former Air India pilot, who flew for 33 years, (he retired in 1999), did not miss a step when retirement loomed up. He has run in marathon races all over the world; sky-dived from 14,000 ft in the USA; climbed Mount Fuji solo at night; has participated regularly in the Dubai Desert Fun Drives; and done the world’s highest bungee jump in New Zealand. I ask how he did all this after his by-pass surgery and he says, “Always have a positive attitude and a sense of humour.”
Bouncing back
This positive attitude resulted in an extraordinary achievement. After his heart attack, he was immediately grounded and made Assistant Director (In Flight Service, Air India). “I am not a desk person and hated the job,” he says. So he read up on the aviation rules in the UK, USA and Australia, where they have allowed heart bypass pilots to renew their licences if they could pass a series of strict medical tests. Armed with this information, Beg was able to persuade aviation medical authorities to allow him to do a complete blood profile, stress thallium, a treadmill and an angiogram, among other tests. In February, 1992, he passed all the tests and was declared fit to fly as a co-pilot, the first person in Asia to be back in the cockpit after a bypass surgery. But he persisted with his desire to become a full-fledged pilot and won his spurs in January 1997, again, after passing a series of tough medical tests. Later, he would be the first in the world to fly the Boeing 747-400, after a heart by-pass.
Now the story gets interesting. Two years ago, former Pakistani cricketer Zaheer Abbas and Anis Ahmed, a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) pilot dropped into scriptwriter Salim Khan’s apartment at Bandra. During the course of the conversation, Khan heard the story of how Ahmed suffered a heart attack and was grounded. A friend in Canada, who, co-incidentally, was a friend of Beg’s, got the necessary medical papers from India and forwarded it to Ahmed in Pakistan. The Pakistani used Beg’s example to get himself reinstated in PIA, after passing the necessary tests.
When Salim Khan heard this story, he said, “Do you want to meet Beg?” Ahmed replied, “Of course, I would love to meet him. I regard him as my hero.” So Khan, who has been a friend of the former Air India pilot for 20 years, and calls him “an extraordinary person,” invited Beg for lunch. The fitness freak that Beg is, he arrived on a cycle. And there was a tumultuous exchange of hugs and an intense conversation about flying that lasted several hours.
Flying is something Beg has thoroughly enjoyed. “You are playing the world’s biggest video game and getting paid for it,” he says. “It is an addiction.” But he does not envy today’s pilots at all. “There are so many gadgets which do the navigation for you,” he says. “Pilots are just flight managers.”
And not heroes like Beg.

Real life hero
Apart from Ahmed, Beg has been an inspiration for several people all over the world. The New-York based clinical psychiatrist, Beverly Anderson, who is originally from Bandra and was known to Beg, works at Premier Health Care, an organisation that serves individuals with developmental and learning disabilities. “I have discussed, with my colleagues, with disbelief and admiration, Beg's medical condition and accomplishments, as an example of a man who pushes the proverbial ‘limit’ to fathomless heights.”
Dr Hemant Telkar, a radiologist, says that whenever patients are told they have a heart block, they tend to step back and slow down their activities. “That is when I give them Beg’s number,” he says. “Because he can tell them there is no need to feel crippled. Nature has given many collaterals to a heart, that in spite of a block, a person can still continue carefully with his normal activities, under medical supervision.” As for Captain Beg, he is ready for takeoff all the time.

1 comment:

  1. Deb Mookerjee2:26 AM

    I am an airline pilot as well, albeit a lot younger than our 'young' Capt. Beg. I happened to have met up with him on Facebook, since he seemed familiar. He was indeed the hero of my late uncle (Capt. Sunil Kumar Mukherjea of Indian Airlines used to mention), who always felt that people like Capt. Beg should be the hero(s) of young Indian pilots and not some political wannabe's such as a former Prime Minister who become a pilot just because his mother could support the cause. Capt. Beg is a true Indian hero and an Indian to the core.