When my sister and I were 9 and 12 respectively, we were sent forth to our grandmother’s place in Calcutta, while my parents embarked upon a much-needed (or so they claimed) vacation to the far-east. I don’t recall harbouring any indignation at having been forgotten under the humid, heavy skies of Calcutta; if anything, I ran up and down the stairs of the old, creaking house reveling in some forgotten sense of freedom while my sister sat in her red polka-dotted dress and refused to ever come out of it. Eventually, when I was summoned by my grandmother for an intervention (the dress must come off, darling. It needs to be washed!) I felt that I had come of age. An adult who was adult-er than my own parents (my grandmother was my mum’s mum of course) had sought my facilitation for crisis control. There was a deep import to the proceedings while I cajoled and cooed at my sister’s bright red face. The polka-dotted dress was traded in for a shiny pair of ballets and my grandmother heaved a sigh of relief.
A few weeks later when my sister and I were strapped in on the flight back to New Delhi, I hadn’t forgotten that I was older and wiser. So when a moment of profound mystery presented itself to us, I took charge and deliberated. Halfway through the flight, my sister had looked out of the window and was presented by a most spectacular view. The golden, shimmering sands of a distant, melancholic desert stretched on forever. But why are we flying over Rajasthan to go from Calcutta to Delhi, my little sister in her polka-dotted dress and shiny ballets wondered. They must be taking a longer way to avoid some problems in the regular route, I clarified. I wasn’t sure, but I knew that as an adult I could not let my little, baby sister know that. We landed without a bump, were greeted by an airline representative who promptly handed us over to our gleeful parents. I think my mother started at the sight of the scruffy dress that used to be a polka-dotted delight only weeks before.
It was very many years later that I looked out of a flight window and noticed the incandescent rays of the sun lighting up the boundless puffs of clouds. They almost resembled the vast sands of the desert. I chuckled to myself as the memory from all those years ago resolved itself in my mind. This was the beginning of my capricious relationship with airplanes. My first memories of flying were full of magic and wonder. At some point, this settled into a more blasé response to the speeding up of the aircraft, the near soundless resonance of the wheels being withdrawn, the upward slight, and then hitting cruising altitude far above the white, the ample clouds. The thud of the wheels hitting solid ground again would be accompanied by the anticipation of new lands, old friends, possibly the culmination of an interminable separation, or the beginning of one. But otherwise, the routine of boarding, settling in, disembarkation was about as exciting as measuring just the right amount of milk for my cereal (too little and you are noisily chewing away at tiny little pieces of cereal, too much and you are left with only milk and no cereal).
Still, airplanes are confounding contraptions. I may board a plane in New Delhi nestling in the smell of winter, the warmth of home, the waft of memories from the deeper parts of the city, but disembark a few hours later onto a land so far away, that nothing feels familiar again. Trains offer a visual contrivance; as you move from New Delhi to Calcutta, the landscape undulates, the flora and fauna evolve, the scenery becomes more languid, that when you finally arrive in the frantic hub of Howrah station, you have expected the transformation that awaits you all along. The glass window in your train compartment has shown you that when you move, the world moves with you. The glass porthole on your flight, on the other hand, has shown you that you can move from point A to B, and nothing but everything would have changed. What awaits you, therefore, when you get off a plane may be more dramatic, more strident, more elusive than you could have ever imagined, having left behind something more intimate far, far away.
One time on my way to Bangalore, we got stuck in a thunderstorm. The plane dipped, swayed, and struggled to keep its wings aligned as the rain battered down with an unrelenting ferocity. I became aware suddenly, for the first time, of the speed at which the plane flies (if you close your eyes, grip your seat, and really focus, you can hear the tell-tale hum of an immense machine flying straight ahead, while defying gravity). It was a disquieting awareness, something that alerted me to the inevitable perils of flying like a bird, thwarting the laws of nature. That was the year of the Air France and the Yemenia flight disasters, which did little to stem my growing fears. I spent the next few years nursing a morbid fear of flying, and for somebody who flies fairly frequently this was, if nothing else, a trifling inconvenience. I had friends who understood planes, who flew planes, who regaled me with their intimate knowledge of the functioning of planes (can I please just say, wow!). I had friends who plied me with documentation on the safety of flying (you, in your car, are more at risk). I had friends who said that for the millions of flights that reached their destinations safely round the year, it was but alright for one or two to come down every now and then (gee, thanks). I had friends who would start blabbering about fashion or politics or the weather when the plane took off or landed in a failed bid to distract me (if there is a disaster, I need to be vigilant!) It was all very reassuring, but I did still need my friend to hold my hand through a rocky flight over Missouri. But I did still grab a stranger’s hand on an especially turbulent flight to San Francisco.
I think I am better now. I still suffer minor panic attacks when there is turbulence (All hot beverages will now be suspended), but I am better. I distract myself with movies, or I just find my corner, and drift off. But on the last flight that I took from Singapore to New Delhi, I happened to peek out of my window and the nightsky was alight with a million stars. I felt like I was flying through the deepest recesses of the universe. It was surreal, it was a secret that I shared with something bigger, something grander, something eroticized. At that moment, the magic of flying became a vivid reality. And I smiled to myself as the flight began its final descent towards home.