Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Air Turbulence (Part II of my journey home)

The second leg of my flight from Phoenix to Hyderabad on board British Airways was from London to Hyderabad. Going by the first leg's boarding calls I knew leech uncle and I would be called at different times again. Also, looking at the number of Indians crowding at the boarding entrance(unlike the last flight, this flight was almost entirely Indians so it was the natural thing for everyone to crowd at the boarding line) I was more hopeful that all the seats would be full. So I had a less anxious wait for boarding. In fact, once leech uncle was called for boarding and disappeared down the passageway, I just stepped back and sat on the benches seeing how terribly anxious everyone else was to board. I hate the notion of standing in a line to board a flight when I have a reserved and confirmed seat. So I usually tend to wait for the line to clear out before boarding. So that meant I was the very last passenger to get on board.

When I climbed on board the aircraft and went to take my seat(window), I found that some uncle was already sitting there! I said it was my seat to which he replied that he was with family(the usual!) and wanted to be with them. He did have his wife and mum/mum-in-law beside him. But I insisted that I wanted my seat. At this point, he continued to sit and asked his wife to get up and go take their 'actual' seat which was the middle seat in the row in front of where they were presently sitting. At this point, the old grandmum on the aisle seat started to make an effort to get up. Just seeing that effort I realised it would be a nightmare for both her and me if I wanted to go to the loo! So I said I would take their seat in stead. Two unfortunate things happened as a consequence of this change of seat: 1) I had requested vegetarian meals on the BA website beforehand and he ended up taking one of them. (I had informed him of this but for some reason he just dug into the food in stead of passing it on to me). 2) The reading light on his seat wasn't working! This was painful. I was actually reading furiously in the US-London leg and wished desperately to continue. In stead, I ended up watching some shitty movie (rab ne bana di jodi). Anyway, while the aircraft was still at the aerobridge waiting for the check in baggage to finish loading, there was an old grandma who started clamouring urgently for headphones the moment she sat on her seat, while the stewards and stewardesses were still assisting other passengers and tucking in the carry on baggage. She made fuss in spite of each stewardess taking the trouble to explain "The headphones haven't arrived yet!" I think she was under the impression the headphones were for radio communication and that she was the pilot! :| Then a lady immediately beside her opened up some pudina biryani or similar variant and the entire flight was now smelling like Hyderabad House(the famous Biryani store). With most of the Indians failing to understand the proper british accent, every steward/stewardess had to repeat each request 10 times. When the lady beside me was asked 'tea or coffee?' She nodded her head in approval. And when I went to the loo I discovered the entire rear half of the aircraft was smelling like a Sulabh complex. So much so that when the stewardess was going in to the aircraft's rear kitchen, I actually overheard her tell her colleague 'Oh god! It stinks SO BAD in there!' Then there was one uncle(very well-dressed) who got up when the captain had the seat belt sign on when there was perceptible turbulence! A steward had to come rushing in from where he was seated and warned the uncle to sit down. The uncle shows his little finger(the Indian male's notation for wanting to urinate) to the steward. The steward says, "Sir, please sit down now!!" and the uncle still lingers around. Then the steward says, "Sir, you are going to sit down right now! We cannot permit you to risk your life and so I am going to have to force you to sit down if you don't!!" And then he sits down! :| And, in general, when the seat belt sign was not on, people were just ambling about and socialising like they were at some get-together! I noticed one uncle pair standing in the aisle and conversing for a whole half-hour!! And as if all this wasn't enough, during landing there were two young couples with infants who happily fastened themselves to their seatbelts while the kids were on their highly protective torsos! :| When the steward came by checking if everyone had fastened their belts he requested both couples to fasten their infants also under the belt. While returning from the inspection he found they still hadn't done it. This time he gave them an annoyed warning. Then when he came by for a final collection of trash, he found they still hadn't fastened the infant to the belt! By the time the steward gave his third warning, he was just nodding his head in disbelief and disgust at our whole race I think. He was just constantly nodding with this "I can't believe you people!" expression because the poor fellow said multiple times, "Sir, this is for your own safety and the safety of your child. In case of a rough landing your child's life is in severe risk. Please try to understand!" I saw him nodding vehemently in incredulity as he forcibly strapped the child and dad onto the seat! What had me nodding in horror was that the dad removed the child from under the belt as soon as the steward left.

Most people on the flight were either people taking the second leg after a flight in from US or people who were in UK! That nothing can seem to civilise us is so heart-breaking. Almost all of them were educated too! That grandma clamouring for headphones was speaking English the whole time! The best part was, one stewardess had such a good humour in spite of all this. When she got the headphones to the clamouring grandma, she said, "Here you go my love, we haven't forgotten your headphones!! :)" She was the same one who complained about the stink. But she tried to keep up her spirits. When she was serving water and orange juice. Some lady looked at the glass of water and said, "Is this water?" to which she took on the exact same accent that the lady had for 'wat' in water and said "This is wat-ka!" It was fun to see the lady's eyes bulge up in horror. Then she immediately corrected and said, "I was joking. This is water sweetheart!" :)

Acknowledgement: Encouragement courtesy Silverine.

Flight . ( Part I of my journey home)

My flight on board British Airways from Phoenix to Hyderabad was an odd mix of amusement, bemusement and despair.

After clearing security at phoenix, I reached my gate from where I was to board for the first leg of my journey, from Phoenix to London. Since I had a good 50 minutes to kill before boarding, I tried to find myself a place to sit and read. Unfortunately, all the seats directly under lights were taken except for one spot quite far away from the gate. So I took that lone spot. As I was pulling out my book from my bag I heard someone say, "Meeru kooda Hyderabad ki pothunaara andi?" ("Are you going to Hyderabad as well sir?") I looked up to see an old Indian uncle in a safari suit.(In my dad's generation, the typical telugu's notion of being well-dressed is the safari suit and a bright gold painted watch. Anyone who has any intention of showing status in this community dresses in it.) I was filled with shock and despair. Shock because I couldn't believe that the uncle could make the assumption that I must be a Telugu just because I might be flying to Hyderabad(the US-London and London-Hyd legs were different flights and hence independent of each other - to the extent that we had to go through security again at London). Despair because I was well aware of the average Indian's oblivion to the notion of individual privacy. I was certain he would initiate conversation that would kill my precious 1 hour's reading time. And so he did! :) In response to his question I replied in English that I was going to Hyderabad. (I know telugu very well though I'm not one myself. However, I was making an attempt at keeping some distance to see if he might get the hint.)He started with a very frank declaration, "I have been desperately looking for one of our people. I am so glad I found you." (From this point on, I will report all conversation with this uncle in English for convenience though it actually alternated between the two languages when I found out that it made no difference whatsoever which language I spoke!) I felt sorry for the old man. But I felt sorry for myself too. He felt alone. I wished to be alone :)

During the next 50 minutes I made occasional attempts to give myself some reading time by quickly peering deep into my book whenever there was a lull in conversation. But I found that made no difference either because he would ask his questions anyway. I even made a desperate phone call to my US cousin and tried to kill time in talking mundane stuff but I am not a very good phone conversationalist and the call lasted all of 5 minutes(and that because I spent 2 and a half minutes laughing at my own joke). Anyway, early in the conversation I learnt that his green card holding doctor son had dropped him off at the airport at 2 pm for a 7 pm departure flight because he was off to buy a new benz car :). On learning this I felt really sorry for the old man. So I gave in to his desire to leech on to me. During the course of the conversation I learnt that his daughter and son were both married and settled in the US and fairly well-to-do. He is a retired professor and his loneliness back home was obvious. Somehow, he kept up the conversation, mostly by making enquiries into my personal life, my educational qualifications, my family, their educational qualifications, etc: Later, he asked me my seat number and said we should find adjacent seats. This really scared me because I wasn't really prepared for 9 hours of conversation although I was willing to humour him for 50 minutes. Somehow, he didn't really seem to care what I thought. He never asked me if I desire it. He must have thought it was the natural thing that two people going to Hyderabad must want to be together? (There weren't many other Indians in this leg because, like I said, this was an independent Phoenix-London flight). I didn't know how to say "NO!" to the old man. So I remained silent on the issue. A good 20 minutes before the start of boarding the anxious old uncle dragged me to the boarding line with him. At that point, there was no line. Just an empty pathway with hand rails on either side, and a board at the end of it reading 'entrance for boarding gate A23'. I was terribly embarrassed. People all around were looking at the curious pair(presumably father son?) who were guarding the boarding entrance so furiously. Besides, most flights nowadays are very systematic and board in 'zones', i.e., they call a small set of numbers at a time, so that people don't have to form long haphazard queues. I tried hinting that it was still early and that we should probably go sit. He said that we needed to be at the front of the line so that we can make our seat change request. I failed to see the correlation but I didn't know how to argue. So I tried to amble around a few feet away from him and the entrance as if I wasn't really waiting to board. Then when it did come to boarding time, something curious happened. As he and I were standing in the line, someone came up from behind and gave a huge slap on my back! I turned around in tremendous surprise, and so did a lot of the other people in line. "Aapko finally ticket mil gaya??" ("So you finally got a ticket??") a middle-aged bearded north indian with mehndi dyed hair said loudly as the curious americans watched on. . "Ji?" ("Sorry?") I responded, completely baffled. "Oh, I"m sorry. Were you not the one who was still looking to get a confirmed ticket?" "NO!?!?" I said, still feeling the pinch of the slap. Meantime, the old uncle beside me interjects "He is over there(pointing in the direction of some Indian standing near the boarding counter)". Then, as if that slap on the back was a stamp of friendship the northie uncle comes uncomfortably close to me and asks, "Aap faisalabad jaa rahe hai kya?" ("Are you going to Faisalabad?") "Ji nahin, mein Hyderabad jaa raha hoon." ("No sir, I'm going to Hyderabad"). Hearing this he suddenly decides my existence on this planet doesn't matter and quietly turns around and walks off to join his family.

During boarding, the old uncle and I were in different zones so he got called off first and I was happy to be relieved of him for a bit. I was fiercely praying that I wouldn't see him sitting beside my seat when I got in to the aircraft! As luck would have it, both seats beside my window seat were occupied. I was glad to take my seat! A funny thing happened then. The uncle seems to have got up from his seat and come looking for me. I spotted him a few seats ahead searching anxiously for my seat number. I was dead scared that he had an empty seat beside him so I actually ducked down the moment I saw him, and stayed that way. As luck would have it, he came all the way to my seat when I was still ducking! I quickly put my hand to my shoe as if to suggest I was redoing my shoe lace. "Hello Karthik!" he said. "Hello Uncle?" I said, a little worried. "So you are seated here." "Yes." "I am in front." I smiled. I knew the seats beside him were full too. I was safe. For the moment. I still had that dreaded second leg.

But at that time, I was glad to regain my private space, and to read quietly, after two people had tread precariously on the thin line between friendliness and harassment :)

To be contd...

Acknowledgement: Encouragement courtesy Silverine.