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.