I fly, therefore I am
Flying is a singular boon bestowed by the Prime Mover on birds and only birds – to hell with the nasty bats. If we the homo sapiens attempt to do a bird act, there we land pathetically, on a quagmire of miseries; and there is no doubt about that. Yet, we do fly and pay for it.
My flying related worries would commence while I am on land, at office coordinates to be precise. A typical cryptic instruction like ‘Proceed forthwith to the Travel Desk’, would be conveyed to me asynchronously on email, landline, mobile phone and to be sure, on the office address system which is heard loud and clear, of all places, in the restroom. Having been sufficiently corporate-domesticated, I would dash to the travel desk to be handed over the air ticket for the next flight proceeding through Bangalore, Colombo, Maldives, Dubai, Frankfurt, London Heathrow and Belfast, reaching the destination a full twenty-four hours after journey commencement, being the cheapest flight available. In the true tradition of the Magellan circumnavigators of the Earth of the sixteenth century and their ilk, I would snatch the ticket in all enthusiasm and proceed to the Accounts to be fortified with the necessary foreign currency to see me through a week at the maximum in an alien land. There would always be a lurking fear of going broke thereafter, with an imminent next world war breaking out or hurricane of category 5 severity hitting the nearby coast or Fujiyama erupting, throwing fresh piping hot lava, effectively disrupting communication and financial channels throughout. That would dry up my inward funds flow rendering me work famished all along or force me into wearing a broad-rimmed hat and removing it immediately thirty times a minute at the passersby at a marketplace, after office hours, collecting alms for sustenance.
‘Now run to catch the flight’, someone would then give me an emphatic push towards the cab waiting to take me to the airport, cutting down the train of my disturbing thought. It would be time then to reach the right air terminal to take the flight.
Air service providers are a quirky lot. If you are to fly out of a country, you would always assume the aircraft would await you at an international flights terminal. Not so. Some international flights take off from the domestic terminals as well. To compensate for the absurdity, a few domestic flights expect their passengers to board at the international terminal. This would often occur in the case of late night international flights hopping through more than one domestic touch point while flying abroad or flying in.
I once had to fly within India taking an international flight and was instructed at the airport to fill up the embarkation card before boarding the flight, like the international passengers. The form had an array of questions as meaningful as, ‘Are you carrying more than Rs.213 in cash?’, ‘Are you above 3 feet tall?’, ‘Did you have an acne vulgar is attack in the last 7 years?’ requiring a yes or no for an answer. When I politely pointed out to the airlines' staff they were plain stupid to ask me to fill that form up, they handed me over the de-embarkation form too, with the same questionnaire arranged in the reverse order.
On my duly completing the assignment and handing over to those in dire necessity of them, a huge rubber stamp was affixed on the forms with immense force enough to make the airport departure hall vibrate violently as caught in a mini earthquake. Walking to board the flight, I looked out of the corner of the eye to observe all the stamped forms being carried in a dirty blue plastic bucket, into the men’s toilet.
The next ritual to be undergone before being airborne is frisking for security clearance. Generally, you may have to remove your blazer, wristwatch, and your wallet before you are searched thoroughly for any concealed weapon. At times, when the security threat is perceived to be on the increase, you may have to remove your waist belt, necktie, socks and shoes as well and walk barefoot to the clearance gate with trousers sliding down dangerously without the support of the belt. As you stand with outstretched arms and with a vacant look of a grown-up orphan for your turn to be frisked, you often would momentarily worry whether you had slipped a gun inadvertently into your trouser pocket while starting from home, only to be relieved the next second, you don’t have a gun or a home to write to, or both. The security personnel at their own will may ask you to do anything like turn a quick somersault or still worse, recite the multiplication table of thirteen, merely to satisfy themselves you are sober enough and are not going to act funny while in flight. At one of my glorious departures from the picturesque Mangalore, I was asked by the security officer to switch on my mobile phone and try calling my own number, like God men communicating with the inner self. A few days after, passing through the same port of call, I kept my mobile phone switched on, awaiting the order for mystic self-discourse when I was curtly told to keep the mobile switched off like all literates would do. If my ability to remember faces is something worth writing home about, I would vouchsafe, the security guard on both occasions was one and the same.
A colleague of mine travelling with her infant son was informed by the airport security staff that any food she carried for the infant had to be tested by them and the container closely examined, for security clearance, whereupon she told them she always breastfed her child. They hastily waved her off.
As you enter the airplane after patiently submitting yourselves to all such mini ordeals in quick succession, you would faintly but unmistakably detect a streak of resentment behind the veneer of a broad smile worn hastily by the stewardess, being the one reserved for a cattle class passenger, as all economy class travellers are known as. As the hostess would wish you ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’, you would suppress the desire to answer it with a bovine version of the greeting. As you quickly would walk through the Executive Class to your manger, a curtain would come down behind your back, being a metaphorical social class divider between the cattle and the winged angels of the Executive class.
As the plane glides past the runway and gently becomes airborne, the air hostesses would serve hot towels to the passengers for getting refreshed. There lies the problem. There seems to be an unwritten code for airlines to abide by which is to ensure that flying should never be an experience of unmitigated joy. Those flights taking off from a tropical country like India where everyone sweats out for eleven months in a year and enjoys warm days and a tad cold nights in the last month of the calendar, regularly provide their passengers with scented napkins dipped in boiling water. The moment the flyer applies it to the face, he gets a sautéed eggplant appearance which remains through the flight. If the flights originate in the Tundra region, they apparently are provided with glacier-chilled wet towels that could lock the jaws and the eyelids, in a version of frostbite.
The wet towel service is usually conducted with a calculated indifference towards the cattle class. The tray with the towels looking and fuming like a mass of surgical cotton would be thrust up your nose and if you do not pick the towel out before you can say knife, it would be withdrawn for use by another passenger, quite agile and familiar with the knives. In stark contrast, the service down the aisle at the Executive Class would be at God’s own pace that would make the blessed ones seated there to feel as those with royal blue blood in the veins, holding wrong wet towels though.
I hail from a country where the Government competes with private carriers in the air traffic sector. While others have made a major shift towards apparently inexpensive, less-smiles, no-food flight services, the national carrier, while you fly them still provides you with something to eat, reasonably hot and packed in silver foil with a label in Hindi most of us do not understand. The problem is not with the label but in detecting what is being provided as food. It turns out to be nearly the same lump for breakfast or lunch or for dinner. And mind you, this is a country where every region has their own culinary culture. A southern idly-sambhar is distinctly different from a northern parota-chenna. Try out what you get to eat as you fly the national carrier and guess fairly correct, under which regional culinary menu it can be categorized. You would often draw a blank. In parts it would be up north and be digging deep into, it may taste down south. Perhaps the Government had constituted a committee to architect the food item with a national fervour and flavour with an objective to bring about national integration or indigestion.
All right, one more irritant did get past and the empty food trays have been snatched away. Now, it is time to look at all others taking the flight along with you.
The co-passengers would often provide you with a myriad of flying experience. Some of them would incessantly demand of the hostess something or other, be it a glass of water or champagne or an angular toothpick or a wet towel or a pack of cards or a rattle or just anything you could conjure of, till the flight touches down at the destination. I was once astounded by what my aisle mate enquired of the stewardess – “Do you have cockroaches here?” She turned the question around on her lips before replying no. ‘No problem’, said this man, leafing through a magazine in the seat pocket in front, appearing very disappointed.
A subset of these passengers, from the moment they step into the plane, would demand for and receive an additional serving of anything offered, be it boiled sugar sweets or cotton buds or wilted flowers. It may even be a pack containing a tiny toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste offered sometimes during long-distance flights or an occasional souvenir like a keychain. They always can detect what is being given free of cost, demand if it is not provided to them and carefully pack snug what is obtained into their cabin luggage even it would mean pulling out the baggage from the overhead storage and pushing it back for every such hoard, with considerable inconvenience to all seated nearby and those moving up and down the aisle.
Not very long ago, a few airlines in the private sector would provide the passengers with stainless steel cutlery at meal times, appearing brand new and kept in a translucent pouch, with an expectation to return these after food. Not applicable for all, it would appear. A friend of mine was so enamoured of this dazzling cutlery that he would quietly slip it silently into his handbag to co-exist along with hard and soft copies of contracts for millions of sterling pounds. Having accomplished that enviable feat, he would eat out with his fingers as well stir cream, sugar, and coffee with the index finger. This buddy would often encourage me when we flew together on office work to hoard on his behalf the cutlery offered to me as well and use my hands instead. He would look daggers at me when I diligently returned the spoons, knives, and forks like an obedient schoolchild. Whenever I visited him on terra firma, the air cutlery would be found everywhere in his place and any invite to have coffee or snacks would accompany the details of the source of the cutlery and information on the precise date of acquisition. He had a massive obsession with stainless steel forks and besides using himself would offer his guests too these interesting pieces of cutlery to taste thick lentil soup or eat sticky rice pudding with.
Co-passengers never cease to excite me. I was once on a hopping flight originating from Delhi early evening. It touched down at Singapore before taking off again towards the destination, Sydney. A few passengers boarded the flight at Singapore and one of them, an old woman occupied the seat to my right. She was holding an urn like a utensil, on her lap, with both her hands around which was tied a piece of artistically woven flowery silk cloth that also covered the mouth of the urn. I thought she would be an antique dealer or a devotee carrying safe and secure, a relic, on a task being accomplished with all passion and verve, in spite of her advanced age. As she found it somewhat difficult to fasten her seat belt with the huge urn on her lap, I offered to hold it while she tied the safety mechanism in place. To my surprise, she sternly refused to go by the suggestion, with a series of ‘no’s rattled with all benign smiles while being evidently stubborn.
As the airplane rolled down the runway and became airborne, she slowly removed the silk cloth covering the urn she was holding. With eyes closed, she lifted the utensil to her trembling lips perhaps muttering a religious chant in a whisper, I thought. As I watched this ritual with keen interest, she spat into the urn and closed it again with the silk cloth. In the next ninety minutes during flight, the elegantly artistic spittoon was raised to her mouth and lowered at least a hundred times with the exercise gaining pace when the plane was navigating through turbulent air packets. I was looking helpless at the apparently fast filling up spittoon which posed an imminent risk of getting spilled over straight on me. We, fortunately, reached Sydney soon and were thus saved in time of the salivary deluge.
Once when I was about to get the boarding card for a flight at London Heathrow airport, the airline's employee at the counter coaxed me to fly the next day. I would be lodged for the night in a five-star hotel in London and would be given a small reward of around 300 pounds, all in cash for postponing my departure. I immediately understood they had overbooked the flight and had just resorted to weaning away the passengers to fly later to ease the congestion. Thanking them for the offer I pointed out without thumping my chest that my flying delayed by a day would result in my company losing half a million dollars accrued revenue, trying hard to believe it myself though. As I rolled ‘accrued’ on my tongue trying to sound grave, I was issued a boarding pass forthwith, albeit for a seat near the restroom in the jumbo aircraft.
It was an extended ordeal to be. I was wedged between a six-footer, fifteen stone enormous north Indian to my right and a diminutive, incessantly talking East Indian to my left both coming with a common denominator of owning small business, one a corner shop selling all things Indian from Indian sweets to grocery and the other running a fish and chips shop, in London.
Within the next ten minutes, both of them became my bosom pals for decades and vied with one another in sharing their woes and happy moments in their respective business. As my left ear was bombarded with the trials and tribulations of the fish and chip business, the right one served as a dedicated receiver for a lengthy monologue on corner store blues that included possibilities of getting mugged while working late at night. After some time, they ignored me totally and as I sat there as an inert conduit trying without success to catch a few winks, they went on with information sharing till the flight touched down in Chennai.
During another flight, the row of seats immediately in front had a few economically dressed young passengers who enjoyed every minute of flying with their belly laughs and group singing. When I shared my disapproval of what I saw with a swami sitting next to me, the God-man immediately came up with the solution, “Ignore them and join me in a chantathon’. As there was Dr.No, the interesting first ever James Bond movie scheduled to be screened in flight that I was keen to watch and was more inclined to do the chanting on reaching home at a time convenient to me, the swami proceeded on his own. With a faulty earphone adding up to my woes, that was the first time I was watching Ursula Andress walking out of the ocean in a white bikini to the chants of Hare Rama and high octane laughs and off-key singing by a bunch of unputdownable lasses dressed to disturb like Ursula of days bygone.
Maybe on my next flight, I will be enjoying Dr.No without any interruption and have Sir Sean Connery and Ursula Andress as my co-passengers, with Ms.Andress in a business suit and Sir Sean, white bikini-clad. They sure will have their own flight related tales to share.