India: the land that prides itself on the advent of the rail revolution. We are essentially train travellers, irrespective of our economic and social backgrounds. The hot tomato soup alongside dripping-in-oil samosas, some cold-drinks and milky, overtly sweetened chai are what we live for.
Suddenly flying became cheap in 2005. Everybody was taking flights for their annual sojourns to their parents’ place. It became easy for the new middle-class Indian to get on a plane to visit, say his wife’s mother’s sister’s mother-in-law. A new world for us. We used to look at planes fly by from our balconies while our clothes dried. Suddenly we were in this daunting large place that was nothing like the railway stations we had been at.
How do we adapt? What line are we supposed to follow? There are so many of them. Perhaps there is no such thing as a queue.
We are lucky to cross ahead of that loud family with four kids and ten bags. But not lucky enough; this 60-something-year-old lady keeps asking the airline crew if she can check-in the large bottles of pickle for her son who is studying “business” there. The whiffs of that pickle are so strong, they make us feel like we are in our favourite Indian restaurant.
Boarding passes: check. They must all be surrendered to the head of the family. Upon reaching security check, the officials ensure that all our very expensive (read, gold) jewellery goes in that little plastic tray. Are we supposed to remove our shoes too? Turns out we have to keep all our important belongings in that little tray, including that sapphire ring that guides the“stars”above.
The officials seem to have a problem with the massive coke bottle we just bought, it has no sharp edges, but they still refuse to let it in. We stand there, sharing that aerated drink amongst the family.
The boarding gate is surprisingly busy. Phones charge everywhere. Most people are fast asleep with their legs across two-three seats, creating a comfortable airport bed as others stand. There are few empty seats in that corner, and we run pretty quick. Reaching there, a bag is placed on one, a phone on the next and a boarding pass on the third. The seats must be guarded until the rest of the family arrives.
Boarding won’t begin until after an hour. But there seems to be a line(s) already. We fear to miss out and stand in one of the three queues at the gate. There are some announcements made, but we choose to ignore it. Walking ahead, some people push forward, jolting us. Now we are sure we must rush, lest we miss our flight that is scheduled to take off an hour later.
A struggle later, on reaching our row, we realise another group is already occupying our seats. Of course, we know we are right and prove it by pointing at our tattered boarding passes. The bags don’t fit in the compartment above, but we must try to make them fit. And we push hard enough, with a little help and manage to almost fit the bags inside.Victory.
We fasten our seat-belts tight. The air hostess isn’t too happy about our little photo session. Phones must be switched off and she insists we put the window shades up. There is a baby on one side who is obviously uncomfortable but her mother yells loud enough to camouflage the cries. Two men who have met for the first time discuss business prospects as we take off. We look at that little light on the seat-belt sign and wait for it to go off. And as soon as it goes off, we spring up — let’s visit the washroom or stroll to our friend five rows ahead for a quick (loud) chat.
We’re asked whether we would like to pay for those seemingly cold and rather small portions of food. We decline because we have packed food from home. We raise an eyebrow at anyone who would “waste”money on something that costs 1.5 times cheaper on ground.
There is sudden turbulence mid-air and this is it. Perhaps this is how we will die. We stay strong, panic in our hearts as we fear death, but we keep our courage. It is over soon enough and the same ruckus repeats: baby cries, the light of the washroom turns red and sneering laughter is heard over business plans.
As we land, everyone un-fastens their seat-belts like clockwork. Never mind what the air hostess is screaming. There is a race: who pulls out his luggage first from the squeezed compartment. No penalty for dropping other bags. We stand in perfect order in the aisle keenly waiting for the doors to open; these saved few seconds matter.
Our bags don’t show up at the baggage belt for the longest time, and there’s more panic. But again, we stay strong. They arrive soon and we breathe a sigh of relief.
Long goodbyes follow as we take the names of the gods for keeping us safe through all of that. ■