If you are at an airport and see a passenger fumbling with multiple children, many bags or both — don’t smirk or be sarcastic. Take it from me. That passenger could wind up in the seat next to you. The longer the flight, the greater is the chance of this happening. I should know. This is the true story of an Air India passenger.
Waiting for the last Air India passenger
I boarded my Air India flight after spending four days in the biting cold of Delhi. I settled down in my seat, removed my shoes, and switched on my Kindle. My toes felt free and began to breathe again. With a deep breath, I rested my head on the window pane and looked outside. The fog was descending back on the city. The flight was full. It was time to get out of the winter and go home.
The pilot announced, “We are waiting for one more passenger, then we will be on our way to Mumbai.” After his announcement ended a lone figure appeared at the front end of the airplane. A harried girl with a small suitcase and two bags hung on either side of her thin body. She clutched her mobile phone in her left hand. Her shawl kept slipping off her shoulder. She walked in completely unaware of the stare of 120 impatient pairs of eyes.
God is my witness, I simply muttered, “Huh!” Lo and behold,the steward guided her to the seat, next to me in the middle seat! The passengers on the aisle seat and window seat always silently wish that the middle seat would remain unoccupied so that we could use it as a side table to dump our books, phones, etc.
She took forever to settle in her seat
She put her carryon and a shopping bag on her lap and looked for the seatbelt. I was getting annoyed as she occupied all the space and her stuff spilled over to my side. Her last minute shopping must have delayed her I thought.
“You are sitting on your seatbelt,” I said.
“I am sorry.” She got up holding all her stuff in both her hands.
I retrieved her seatbelt. She fumbled with the belt but couldn’t get it right. She was flying for the first time. I fastened her seat belt and noticed she clutched an additional boarding pass in hand.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“Trichy… Tiruchirappalli,” she said looking at me. Her narrow eyes behind her glasses were moist and red.
“What time is that flight?”
She looked at her boarding pass, “5.35 in the morning…Will there be a place at Mumbai airport to charge my mobile phone?”
“Yes, of course. Don’t worry you have six hours to kill, enough time to charge you mobile phone,” I smiled. She could have taken a direct flight from Delhi to Trichy. She could have easily avoided spending six sleepless hours at Mumbai airport. She was really clueless.
“Thank you.” She didn’t catch the sarcasm in my voice. I ended the conversation and returned to my reading.
And then came the torrential tears
She had covered her face in her hands and her body was shaking. She was crying. “What happened?” I asked.
“Emergency…my father is in hospital…very critical,” she said removing her hands and looking at me with teary eyes.
“Oh dear…!” Suddenly the fumbling and clumsy young woman disappeared and a little, sad and vulnerable girl tugged at me, a complete stranger. Such was her helplessness.
“I am so, so sorry. This is really sad but don’t worry. He will be all right.” I let her cry. Her sadness and fear were personal.
While she cried, I looked at the tiny lights on the ground outside the window. We were gaining altitude as the aircraft made a turn and found its course.
Sadness turns strangers into friends. For the next hour she told her story. Her name was Lisa and she lived in Tiruchirappalli with her older sister, mother, and father. Her family had a history of lung disease. In her words “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease”. She was a nurse and worked in one of the hospitals in Delhi. She had been looking forward to her first break to visit her family during the Easter holidays. She had bought a new shirt for her father last Sunday.
Daddy’s doting daughter
Lisa was the baby of the family and her father missed her a lot. He would call her up several times a day. Her father would have his lunch and call her to check if she had lunch. He would do the same after tea and dinner as well. I noticed a sad a smile on her face when she talked about her father.
“This afternoon, I received a call on my mobile phone and saw the word ‘Daddy’ on the screen. I took the call and said, ‘Daddy, I had lunch.’ ” Lisa recalled. But the voice was her neighbour’s. And her father was not well. He was waiting for the ambulance to take him to the hospital. Lisa narrated the sequence of the day’s events, “My mother had gone to the market and my father was alone in the house,” she cried again. I gently touched the back of her hand with my fingertips.
“Why didn’t you consider working in your hometown?” I asked.
“Hospitals in my town don’t pay well. I came to Delhi six months ago to earn money so that I could pay for my father’s treatment.”
I noticed that she kept taking her mobile phone out of her purse to check if there were any messages from home. She didn’t know that mobile phones do not work at 35,000 feet above the ground. I didn’t feel like telling her this fact. Facts sometime damage hope.
She wasn’t eating, so I made her tea
The airhostess came by with her food trolley and parked it next to our seat. Lisa declined the supper, but I was hungry. I ate quickly and asked the airhostess for some hot water in my cup. I added sugar and slipped a tea bag in it. I gently forced Lisa to have the tea.
She held the cup in both her hands and looked at me, “Are you a Father?” She was asking if I was a Catholic like she was and a priest.
I said I was not, but taking the exhortation from Peter, I said, “You could say I am a pastor.” It was a perfect after-dinner conversation. The passenger in front of me had reclined his seat and almost put his head on my lap. The cabin lights were turned out.
The plane began to descend into Mumbai. I love to take a night flight to Mumbai. From above, the city at night looks like a gorgeously lit-up planet. The plane landed, taxied and parked.
I grabbed her suitcase while she carried the shopping bag and other stuff. I had my bag checked in, so we waited for it. When you are not in a hurry, your bag will arrive in the first lot. My bag was first to come. I snatched it off the carousel and looked for Lisa.
Daddy no more
She was standing near a pillar, talking on the phone and crying. She had cupped her mouth, standing in the middle of her bags. This cry was different. Instantly I knew this was it. I stood next to her watching her cry. She looked at me and shook her head. Every relationship whether it’s Eleven Minutes old or seven years old creates its own language with words, looks, gestures, and half- finished sentences.
“Lisa, I am so sorry. It’s really very tragic,” I said. I offered her to take her home and bring her back on time to catch her flight. She said she was fine and would wait at the airport. I looked for the airline staff to check if there were any flights earlier that she could take. There were none. I talked with two women staff and shared Lisa’s situation. They offered her to take her to the Departure Lounge through a side door meant only for the employees.
I went back to Lisa and gave my phone number just in case she needed any help. I asked if I could pray for her. She nodded her head more out of politeness than realising her full need in the moment. I prayed and when I opened my eyes I saw two women staff standing with us with their eyes closed.
They escorted Lisa to the door. As she walked away, I noticed her shopping bag. It was a well-known men’s clothing brand. Her father needed a new shirt. People were coming to see him.