Over the last few years or so of flying, I have stopped requesting a window seat. I prefer the aisle seat now. It’s practical. In a 747 the window seat tends to get warmer, what with most airlines believing that they can decide the ambient temperature for all of us. Oh well! Many things have changed about flying, why am I brooding over the vanishing of a personalized air conditioning screw over my head? Anyways, it’s relatively cooler in an aisle seat and it’s easier to get up and walk around. If you need, you can even let your feet out onto the gangway.
I miss seeing Mumbai from the skies at night, however. I like to see the hangar at an airport coming slowly towards me, the feeling of touchdown, like waking you up with a thud – bringing you down to earth! Of all the cities I have seen from a few thousand metres above mean sea level, Mumbai is the prettiest of them all. (Sure, go ahead and say I haven’t been to many places; I haven’t). This is the only place where I ever feel welcome. Mind you, I am not born-brought-up here. Gregory David Roberts, who wrote Shantaram, said that this city had a unique smell (or something to that effect) that he experienced when he first landed here. He goes ahead and justifies the smell somewhere ahead in the book. It’s not about the smell. And it is not about Mumbai. It is about India.
A young tourist asks me at the boarding gate at Heathrow, why everybody is scrambling to get into the aircraft. I am waiting for my row number to be called out, looking at the majority of the Indian population vying to get into the aircraft. Men and women, young and old; everybody seems to be desperate to get into the craft. I shrug and smile back at him – he gets the feeling that I am as clueless as he is. It’s easy to assume that behaviour is predictable given a set of circumstances. Predictable here, means that the rest behave the same as you do. At the gates, the ground staff are shooing off the passengers who are not yet invited. Their frustration is making the staff behave rudely. My struggling Indian brethren are crowded in a semicircle, enclosing the gate, obstructing the way for first class passengers who have been invited to board ‘at their convenience’.
There is another young man standing beside me, obviously disgusted. He seems well to do with his expensive suit and obviously a seasoned flyer, what with frequent flyer plastics dangling from the handle of his designer leather briefcase. “This is the standard scene to any Indian destination,” he says to no one in particular. The “r” is rolled enough to be indistinctive. I agree, but don’t acknowledge. He has betrayed my respectful silence at the crowd’s misdemeanour. How could he say that out loud, in that racially laced tone, in the presence of a foreigner, tapping away his Indian passport on the side of his legs? My deep-seated patriotic emotions are slightly stirred.
Eventually my row number is called out; I proceed to explore an opening in the encircling. I get closer to the eager, nearly desperate crowd. Most of my co-passengers are old enough to be my grandparents. A few don’t speak English, few have bags heavier than their frail bodies can afford. An old couple seems to be frightened of the accent of the ground staff; all the English they learnt at the village school seems useless here. They are returning from a country on the other side of the world. Their struggles have borne fruit. Their children are doing well. I stoically make my way to the aircraft.
Most achievements, in my country, will be the result of an enduring struggle. Things are not so easy. This country precariously balances its resources and population. If you have ever taken the intra-state transport bus in peak times, you will know what I mean. We have reservations for jobs and education – most travel, however, is ‘unreserved’. If you want a seat for your eight-hour journey, well, you have to be creative to get in there. Children are shoved through the human tangle of torsos and limbs to get in and hoard seats for the family. Seats are ‘reserved’ by placing handkerchiefs and newspapers. If you have travelled between cities in a train, the scene is no different. A berth, which usually is for a single person to sleep on, allows for three people to sit for the duration of the journey. I have walked to the train yard to ‘reserve’ a place before the train even comes to the platform. Comfort, you see, follows distinct suffering. If you want a good education, only your good percentage won’t guarantee you anything. You will have to queue up there early in the morning with your application form and a bank challan in triplicate. Hell, people used to get into the line for a US visa at 3AM.
Things can be better, but, this is real. It is the in-your-face variety of reality. This is the social conditioning that generations have gone through. By default, most things will be a struggle. Hopefully subsequent generations may find things easier. Some of my own generation seem to be doing fine. I didn’t have this comprehensive answer for the curious and nearly stupefied tourist.
It’s such a hard conditioning that we sometimes forget that a struggle is over. We continue the struggle – by default. We forget that it’s all right to enjoy a flight, once in a while; to sit back and relax and feel proud of yourself.
And just strengthen yourself, for the next one.