Left my hometown in Gujarat for Chennai yesterday. I always felt spirited whenever I’d leave my small town, especially because I knew I could behave and talk the things I usually felt self-conscious to speak about in Vadodara. The first thing I did to tackle this slightly self-imposed self-consciousness was to put on a ‘topi’ i.e. a cap worn by people from Himachal Pradesh. Must’ve been a souvenir my parents must’ve got during a trip about a year ago. I wore it so I could project the ‘I don’t give a damn what they say!’ attitude that I shied away from in my hometown. But I only wore it after I was out of my parents’ sight, for my dad said “Take that thing off till we’re able to see you!”. I happily put it on, only to be asked by the airport personnel who frisked me “Nepali ho (Are you a Nepali?)!”; I said I wasn’t and was only wearing it because it looked good on me, at least that’s what I thought. It could at least hide the bad haircut I had that made my large face feel even larger and rounder. I was the last to get into the bus which took me and my fellow travelers (including a happy and smiling white guy, possibly European) to the plane.
Getting down near the airplane, the wind that blew against my face inspired me. I felt a little loosened up, because I was going to enter a plane full of strangers to visit my mother’s motherland all on my own, without the need to feel like I was ‘one of them children’. I simply hate that feeling, you know, the acceptable segregation based on age groups when the younger ones couldn’t talk ‘adult matter’ with the older ones. It was just so patronizing, you know, when adults would ask the same dull questions like “How’s college life?” “So, what are your hobbies?” and we are compelled to give stock bullshit answers; why always ask, just tell something and I will reply what I feel about the subject – isn’t that enriching for both of us?
Strangers fascinated me because if probed, they would tell you things your parents would feel uncomfortable talking about. So I looked for my seat, passing by all these men and women I knew nothing about, wearing my topi and not with one ounce of self-consciousness. I was more self-aware though, and quite happy about it. The best thing about me is that I always surprise myself and everybody around me because I never fit into any stereotype and never stay for long in one state, so everybody sees a different me all the time. This self-aware me can be compared to a character in a film who is embarking for a journey for the first time and is quite excited, ecstatic about it, smiling at everyone enthusiastically and talking out loud whatever he has in mind, like ‘And so I’ve found my seat’ or ‘I wonder where the air hostess is?’.
So I sat down, placing one handbag on my lap and the other on the empty seat beside me, forgetting that there were lockers to store them above. I’m generally wont to holding it this way on my train journeys in India, where I couldn’t risk my stuff getting nicked. I opened the two bags and searched for the novels that I planned to read on my flight journey but I couldn’t find them. I assumed they were packed in the main luggage trunk that I’d only get my hands on in Chennai. Now I had nothing much to do. There was a guy in my row on the window seat and I was wondering how to start a conversation with him, how to beat the introvert in me for a while. The airplane began to chart its course on the runway and a couple of hot airhostesses came to instruct about the usual safety rules. The one directly in front of me had this bob cut quite similar to Louise Brooks’ in the film Pandora Box. Once the instructions were given, the ladies left, leaving me only with the airplane sound to hear. The sound made my airplanes while taking off or landing is also something that my ears like to catch, along with the sound of a train stopping or a sound of ‘Allah oh Akbar’ booming from a mosque.
The airplane gained flight and I sat wondering when my ears would get that odd sensation that happens due to change in altitude (that’s what I’m told). It fortunately didn’t feel odd this time, perhaps because I’ve flown a couple of times before with my family. My flight was to touch Bombay in an hour and fifteen minutes, halt for about two hours and then resume its journey to Chennai. There was nothing to do but watch the movements of the air hostesses, which would otherwise seem like a pervertish thing to do except on a plane with no in-flight entertainment. I looked at the seats, all facing the other side so you couldn’t see the faces of the travelers, and thought how different the experience would’ve been on an Indian train, with the motley of people – tea-sellers, wafer-sellers, beggars, loquacious and loud travelers, beggars, hijras etc all present as a unique form of entertainment for your eyes, and how sophistication of everything was robbing many of that mad multifarious experience.
I did manage to have a word with the fellow besides me when I asked him whether he was travelling to Chennai. When he replied that he was, I eagerly asked him whether he knew the Tamil script so he could write it down for me in my notebook. My grandmother insisted that I knew the Tamil script, and so I had practiced a bit of it before leaving; she also tried talking like a ‘pure Tamilian’ and began talking oddly and I couldn’t stop laughing yet I admired her efforts of prepping me up for my two month stay at Chennai. I didn’t really admire my father’s efforts though who, while my family was watching TV, said “So aren’t you excited you’re doing something you’ve wanted to do for your whole life?”; not that he didn’t show any effort, but it really didn’t sound heartfelt plus it’s stupid for him to say that going for an internship in a film and media company was something ‘I wanted to do all my life’ – I wanted to be an archeologist when I was young, a novelist when I was thirteen, an actor when I was seventeen, and now I really do want to get into film journalism. It’s always silly for anyone to say that he or she chose a career because it was something he or she dreamt of all their lives. Your life is jaded if you are one of them.
Back to the part of asking whether the fellow traveler knew Tamil or not – he didn’t. So I stuffed my book back into the overstuffed handbag and began to watch the airhostesses again. They were serving their beverages and mini-meals now and the funny part was that they completely missed the row I was sitting. I didn’t mind because I knew they were to serve again later. By the time they served everyone, there was intimation from the pilot that the flight was to land in fifteen minutes in Bombay. Till then I exchanged a few words with my fellow traveler who if I remember correctly, was an employee at Saint Gobain Glass India Limited who hailed from Andhra Pradesh. He took out from his bag a copy of ‘The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo’ and read a few pages. This reminded me of the incident which happened about two days before, when my sister was caught by my parents watching the R-rated film without permission on her computer. My sister is sixteen and I particularly found the incident funny because I watched ‘9 songs’ when I was fifteen. A good parenting approach in this situation would be to tell the kid why the movie is unsuitable to watch at that age, but my mother’s (whom I love, no doubt) response was ‘Its R! Not for kids!’.
About ninety percent of the travelers got down at Bombay, including the smiling foreigner whom I saw at the bus. The next two hours were spend watching what was happening in front of me and hearing what was happening behind. In front of me were two male travelers complaining about one of the pretty airhostesses; turns out one of the men had dropped hot coffee all over himself during the flight but was stopped by the air hostess from using a relief spray because it was inflammable. Behind me, the traveler whom I spoke to before went to chat with his superior was incidentally travelling on the same flight. Heard about the superior wanting his son to pursue his internship at IBM. Also heard about his wish to see his son study further but his son’s desire to earn quick bucks. Fresh faces of travelers began filling the vacant seats. My plane acquaintance came and took his original position at the window seat.
The air hostesses too came back to perform their duties. First they went to the travelers sitting next to the emergency exit and instructed them a few words. Then they performed their usual task of instructing everyone about the airplane rules. I silently admired their dedication towards their job, and I thought, as I watched them act out the safety instructions, about the conversation I had had with an aunt who proudly told me about her career ambition to become an air hostess in the seventies. The tale goes like this (she could remember it very vividly, so I assumed I wasn’t the first whom she was telling about her life): she was, according to her, prettier than her sister when she was young but she wasn’t very keen on studying. Yet she did as she was told by her parents and worked as a receptionist at some company. One day, a superior noticed her and told her that she was very pretty and should try and become an air hostess. She knew already that she was very pretty but was worried that a small town ‘dumb’ girl wouldn’t find such a career very suitable (choosing such a profession in India in those days was bold, according to her). She then lived for a few months with her aunt, gave her written test for which she was so sure that she would be rejected that she… didn’t and so she grew more anxious as the dates for personal interview drew closer. She had her friend and aunt to constantly placate her fears, and after she gave her interview she was certain that she would be rejected, again not forgetting to tell me why: that she was a very pretty girl, no doubt, but she was also a small town ‘dumb’ girl. She got selected for the final medical test, and in this round was she absolutely cent percent confident that she would get rejected. But, alas… sadly… to her horror… she, a very pretty but small town ‘dumb’ girl was selected. Interesting story but not really inspiring, I mean what’s the moral here: ‘Always think in the negative and good things will happen to you’?
Later, the airhostesses began serving the same beverages and mini-meals again. I asked for a cup of Biryani (rice dish), which she served promptly. It was a light and tasty meal, and though there were other tempting options on the menu, I didn’t order anything after a glance at the price rates. I also glanced for a minute at an airhostess who was throwing shade at her colleague who was taking orders by snickering and signaling another hostess, who too was probably smiling back. As the two airhostesses went silently from one row to the next taking orders, I suddenly felt how dreary and depressing this career is for them, which although dealt with hospitality, had nothing much to do expect smile all the freaking time, talk politely but curtly and repeat the same safety measure exercises again and again.
The flight was to reach about twenty five minutes before schedule despite the announcement of bad weather when we approached Chennai. When it stopped, I saw all happy faces of old and young, happy eyes showing a great relief at reaching their homeland. To me, it was a sense of happiness and excitement at having to stay at this relatively foreign place for about two months. I got a message from my grand-aunt, with whom I was to stay, that her office chauffeur was waiting for me with a placard outside the airport. I did take off my cap this time only because I thought the chauffeur would suspect me if I wore a hat usually associated with people from Himachal Pradesh. The guy, a swarthy mustached man whose name was Jay Prakash but who was addressed by all as JP took the luggage trunk and kept in the boot, and I sat in the front seat beside him as he drove to my grand-aunt’s place. I did manage to chat with him for a while, and got to know about the traffic in Chennai (more in mornings and evenings), told him about the purpose of my stay and also commented about my ‘impurity’ of my Tamil (as pure Tamilians speak the language slightly different than the rest). It was nearing eleven when we reached. I was greeted by my grand aunt and her avuncular husband who were watching a cricket match at that time. Thinking that I was a cricket buff too, she spoke as though I would be very keen to catch the updates but I admitted I was no cricket buff. I kept the slippers I was wearing in the shoe rack and took the luggage inside. After freshening up, I was called for dinner where I was served bajra-based chapattis with two sabjis. I got to know that the couple was temporarily staying here till their original home was being refurbished. I went to my room after dinner, read a bit of ‘Theory of World Cinema’, not finding the other novels which I sadly left behind, (btw they were Animal Farm by George Bernard Shaw, Dr. Jerkyll and Mr.Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky) and then dozed off. Work was to begin the next day: the reporting time was 10:30 am.