It is 8.45 in the morning on the Dhaka airport tarmac and we are on a 12-hour flight to London. The airhosts and airhostesses flit in and out through various doors of the aircraft to complete mysterious chores, as if passing through different compartments and various imaginations of travel. I have no idea why I have asked for a window seat when given a choice for an aisle. My legs are cramped and I am scared stiff that Deep Vein Thrombosis will grab my already beleaguered limbs. Steve Waugh had it; you are not Steve Waugh so you cannot have it. The absolute logic of cricket greatness calms me down. I promise myself never to fly again.
It is strange that the problem called Travellers Thrombosis (TT) happens when you cannot move but when you are on the move. It is like being punished for breaking a religious taboo. When on the move, move, otherwise… It is also called Economy Class Syndrome as if to say that the slightly penurious may go on pilgrimage, with all its hazards and ritualised suffering, but not travel sitting immobile while on the move, least of all in the air. Nature’s argument is inescapable. When travelling, move your ass. An immobile posterior kills.
Not having enough money and space have become deadly crimes in our time. The search for legroom has become a metaphor for that scarce space we deserve, search for, and fail to find. A few seconds before take off, a man claims my seat as his own after a futile hunt. My ancient territorial impulsive screeches at him and he is confused once more, peeking at his ticket in the half dark and peeping at me in the same half-lit corridor.
The Italian gent in the aisle finds him a spare seat somewhere in the bowels of the airplane resting amidst headphones, pillows, blankets and small charity packets to be filled with spare change. Pennies from heaven or at least a little higher up from terra firma. Coins will send a girl to school, an announcement pasted on the packet explains.
After many a summer, my neuropathy-ridden legs, already ravaged by diabetes feel the strains of desperately needed exercise. Oh, God what am I leaving behind for my kids? Father dead mid-flight from stiff legs. First the legs, then the rest. I wake from my semi-doze to see a breakfast being served. It is almost 10 in the morning by my watch. I left home at 5.30 to reach the airport on time. Flight took off at 8:45. A couple of slices in the dark chased down by bad tea. In the plane it is time to feed the dogs leashed to the seats. The trays hang from the seats like an Alsatian’s tongue gone stiff from hunger.
I take the veggie breakfast that consists of a vapid omelette (my weekly egg ration), bland even by airline standards, and three steamed sliced half mushrooms with a shrivelled tomato, all most docile and humble beings. We have to spend a lot of time negotiating to pry open the blistering hot foil paper that keeps the cooked food happily inaccessible. Must do the job while keeping the fingers safe from burning.
I have heard of safe sex while travelling but I experience safe eating for the first time. Maybe there are these serial cooks, demented minds serving one airline after another in secret, killing food and taste with stabs of their cleavers and knives, giggling in mad joy at the death of taste, huddled in some unseen kitchens in the sky.
Everything is microsomed in the air, and one learns to eat with arms close to the ribs with dwarfed cups, midget forks and gulp tiny sips of tea and water. One moves carefully, without moving much, struggling to decide whether it is worth drinking a half sip of water when the Italian has failed in his third attempt to get into the loo. Somewhere near the pelvis and around the belly, the Bay of Bengal is experiencing a rise in water level causing as much misery as the coastal people experience. The plane coasts towards destiny and destination. Eyes burning with sleep unused, it is TV time. Alas.
11 channels show 11 movies at the same time. Unusable choices ultimately mean denial. You can only have one and refuse the rest. I do not think I want any. There is even a Harry Potter movie but bless us all, also an Abhishek Bachchan brooding and dancing badly, and a brooding and repetitive Ramgopal Varma on the road. Two hours later, Manoj Bajpai is still a Bollywood nasty, the girl whose name I do not know as irritating, and Vivek Oberoi is still trying to convince the police and failing, till the inevitable becomes inevitable in Hindi movieland.
The films go on and on, ending and beginning, ending and beginning, till it is time to land. Everyone caught in the spin of time. Moving forward towards lying still. The movies, like my legs, are trapped in the air, condemned to continue for a still audience.
One dance sequence in the film Road is better than the whole movie. Everything gets slicker and less authentic as Varma travels away from Satya. Like the passengers in the air he sits in the same place getting worse. There. I have said it. Now I can try the loo.
There is a long queue and I see my Italian co-passenger further up ahead, waiting in hope. Next to the loo is a table on which are tuck boxes from which people pick up midget sized snacks, water, Pepsi etc. After waiting for some time I walk back. Then return again. Wait. Return again. In the dark, they only see a large shadow passing by. They do not know I am exercising, exercising, exercising…
Legs feel better. A full flight and two toilets for the lot keep legs healthy for many. This must be part of the survival package, part of the new health plan to keep terrorists and TT at bay
Almost six hours after the last meal I am ravenous. Manoj has tried to molest the cop’s daughter again. I do not know whether she likes it or not. I do not care. I ask the Bangla speaking crew about food.
“We will be serving lunch in two hours, sir”.
“But why? You haven’t served anything in six hours”.
“Please have some tuck. It’s just there”.
“I don’t want tuck. What about real food?
“We will be serving lunch because it’s lunch time in London”.
“But we didn’t fly from London, we are flying into London”.
“Please have some snacks sir”.
“I think this is a damn silly way of doing things”.
Manoj is getting thrashed again. Nobody loves him. Between his stiff upper lip and my stiff lower limb there is an alliance. Of the dreamer and the traveller, of the dancer and the flyer, both out of sync with the chants of time.
Many hours later, finally in Oxford, I have a special Chinese fried rice with all the trimmings in the shadow of St Giles, discussing Chinese capitalism with the owner. It sends my sugar level flying but finally I manage to look at Oxford with clear, painless eyes. Never felt better. And the prospect of a walk in the cold is a happy thought. Maybe I should take to the air more often.