The chap sitting next to me on a flight recently wore a saffron gown. His head was covered in a saffron scarf; he had rings on almost all fingers and an Omega watch on his wrist. He carried two phones, which rang non-stop with a bhajan for a ring-tone—even while the flight took off and when it landed. He wore his seat belt only when pointed out by the stewardess and unbuckled it as soon as she passed by.
When I told him my touristy plans for Amritsar, he quickly gave me numbers for people who could arrange a “VIP” pass to Wagah border and take me in past the serpentine queues at the Golden Temple.
He was chatty, smiled often and enjoyed overhearing the conversation of the women seated ahead of us who were discussing dining options in Amritsar. He giggled and quickly whipped out one of his phones and told me where to eat—in case I was in the same predicament. The best kulchas in town, he assured me.
His eagerness to help—to show off perhaps—was endearing and he shared stories about his travels and the people he knows, their beliefs and a little bit of philosophy. He made the more-than-three-hour journey slightly more entertaining than the magazine I was carrying would have.
Travellers share much in common¬—the anxiety of the journey, sometimes the suspense of the destination, looking forward to something, not looking forward to something, feeling trapped, feeling free... A journey supplements the destination and airports—like bus and train stations¬—are great places to watch people and make acquaintances, friends even.
For example, this couple we met while waiting for our luggage at the airport, many years ago. We ended up sharing a cab into the city; they invited us over to their home the next evening, and a few years later, they attended my wedding.
On flights, you see and meet all kinds. The overly anxious ones who push, shove and shout, the ones with a large bag that just will not fit in the overhead luggage rack, the unhappy children, the really calm adults who have popped in a Restyl, the sleepy ones, the happy ones and the grumpy ones who hate you for sitting next to them.
If you are bored during the four hours since you entered the airport—which is a given in Mumbai since all flights are always delayed—you can guess what a person’s profession could be, where she could be headed, why a couple may be fighting, why that child may be whining and how famous people manage to get into a plane without being spotted any where else at the airport etc. Over the years, some of my journeys have had better stories than the destinations.
You remember people for the strangest of reasons. During my first international flight many years ago, I was already unwell, due to also the stress of the travel. Plus the flight was in the middle of the night. Result: I fell asleep as soon as I got on and woke up nearly eight hours later before we landed—getting up neither for food nor to use the facilities during the journey.
It was then that I noticed the significantly older gentleman next to me in the window seat. He told me sympathetically that he had to jump over me every time he needed to step out because he just couldn’t wake me up.
It was quite funny really, he said in hindsight, because everyone thought he was crazy to do this acrobatic leap and he was pleased to note that he was still flexible enough to do it.
On another flight, a passenger got so drunk—this was in the days when airlines were generous—that he got boorish, and had to be strapped to his seat. Upon landing, he was ushered out by uniformed men.
The destination has an influence on the mood of the traveller too. On flights to Goa, for example, you can see people are already more susegad—relaxed and happier¬—though we assume that everyone headed to Goa is on vacation. You will find at least one person wearing sunglasses throughout the journey and at least one person with the big tourist hat.
On one journey, a bunch of young lads headed to the casino decided to start a game of poker on the flight and started playing across the aisle.
A restless travelling companion of mine once was in such a hurry that he opened the overhead cabin locker while the plane was still taxiing after landing—like many people do. Unfortunately, a bag popped out, landing on the head of a lady sitting on the row in front. Despite his profuse apologies, the lady was not forgiving, more so because she turned out to be a famous regional actress from another era.
To my friend’s horror, on the return trip that same evening, who should be on the flight, but the same actress, this time sporting a not-so-pretty bump on her head. He hid behind people and suitcases to avoid being seen by the actress while she kept whipping her hair in order to cover the bump.
Over the years, with increased air traffic and passengers, flying has become a more tedious experience. The stressful journey to the airport, the seven security checks, the man who would invariably throw his bag on top of yours at the X-ray machine, the person in the queue who pushes before you remind him that seats are numbered and assigned, the long delays, the waiting, eating food that’s lived longer than you have, buying water more expensive than the flight ticket... the list can go on.
But two things to remember are: There are hundreds of other people who are going through the same troubles and therefore deserve empathy. Secondly, one or more of them could make your journey a little bit more pleasant or entertaining with their company.
Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend.
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