As I was about to take the aisle seat, I stopped to let a middle-aged gentleman in. The man took the centre seat and quickly fished out his mobile, presumably checking messages for the last time before take-off. I took my seat and did the same.
The flight, which was scheduled to take off any minute and head straight for Pune city, had been delayed several times. The passengers were cranky, tired and the plane smelled faintly of stale perfume and coffee.
I saw the man pull a hardback novel from his shoulder bag and place it on his lap before pushing the bag to his feet. I glanced at the cover.
“Harry Bosch?” I asked him, flashing him a knowing smile. I love crime fiction fans.
“Can’t travel without a Michael Connelly book,” he replied, with a grin.
Before I could say anything else, a young teenage boy asked us grumpily to move; apparently the window seat was his. The man and I both promptly got up and after letting him assume his seat, sat down again. Flights often reminded me of primary school, when one of my teachers used to play the “Stand up, Sit down” game.
The boy was cute and I checked him out surreptitiously. He was probably 15 at most, traveling alone, looking bored and sullen as most boys his age do. Normally, that expression deters most people from approaching teenagers, but the man next to me politely engaged him in conversation, possibly not aware of how unpleasant teenagers can be.
“Lovely weather, isn’t it?” He gestured outside, where the clear sun was shining through, although the coastline was no longer visible. Goa isn’t known for bad weather and the beaches are the main attraction. But it seemed a tad risky, asking a teenager about the weather. They don’t understand small talk.
“I guess,” the boy grunted back. His fingers were flying across the screen of his posh iPhone. Earbuds were sticking out of his ears, as clear as the Do Not Disturb sign that hangs from the doorknob of a hotel room.
Before the man next to me could try again, the speakers came alive with a mellow voice, asking us to fasten our seat belts and pay attention to the stewardesses who positioned themselves in the narrow aisle and smartly guided us through the emergency drills.
As the cabin lights dimmed and the plane began taxiing, I studied the man beside me. Square-rimmed glasses framed dark brown eyes, alight with interest as they read the novel a few inches away. His nose was fleshy and his cheeks slightly hollow, giving the impression that he was in good shape. He was smartly attired in beige jeans and a contrasting checkered shirt, the latter tucked into a brown belt, showing none of the flabby gut that most middle-aged men possess. The moustache was well-trimmed and there was no hint of a stubble, giving a distinctly military impression. The hair was black with a smattering of grey, neatly combed and slightly longer than a crew cut; he could have been anywhere from 40 to 50 years old.
As the plane gathered speed, I closed my eyes, holding fast the armrest on either side, swallowing convulsively. I am not a happy flyer; one of the things I have not inherited from my father is a love for flying.
“It’ll pass, don’t worry” the man beside me muttered, which made me grimace. He didn’t seem to have even noticed we were airborne, as if changing altitude was as routine as going to sleep.
Once the plane was level again I breathed out and swallowed to pop my ears a bit. When my hearing was restored, I realized that the man was once again trying to talk to the boy.
“Good take off, wasn’t it?” he remarked bracingly to the young fellow.
Oh God. No. Not this again.
“It was fine,” the boy said noncommittally, looking quite put out about the fact that he couldn’t access his phone and avoid conversation for the next 10 minutes.
“You know,” the man continued thoughtfully, “as the plane moves forward, usually full power is required. Before take off, the engines, particularly piston engines, are routinely run up at high power to check for engine-related problems.” He placed his hand in front, palm-down, modeling a plane inclined slightly upwards. “So planes are fitted with slats and flaps, which are deployed right before take off, to generate enough lift.” He pantomimed a plane gathering speed.
A short silence followed this rather bizarre speech. The boy looked confused as if trying to remember if he’d asked a question. Meanwhile, the man flipped out the foldable table in front and placed his hand on it, caught up in his little monologue.
“The plane takes off once there’s enough lift to overtake gravity. When the plane’s in the air, thrust from the engines pushes it forward.” His hand took off and the boy watched it blankly.
“That’s……nice, I guess,” he said, and I knew it was dawning on him that this flight wasn’t going to be a fun one.
I pulled the shirt sleeve of the man urgently and he leaned in.
“I don’t think he wants to know about take-offs” I hissed in his ear.
He waved his hand dismissively. “All boys love planes” he said and my heart sank.
“My friend’s training for a commercial airline,” the boy suddenly piped up and I looked up in horror, shaking my head at him. No, no. Don’t encourage him.
The man looked positively delighted. “He is! Well, it’ll be some time before he’s allowed to fly solo. They’re very strict about that sort of thing. His training as a pilot will take some time. Did his father fly commercial as well? Did he go to a flying school?”
The boy looked like he regretted saying anything at all. “Uh, yeah,” he said rudely, and pulled out his phone again, apparently deciding that waiting for the announcement for electronics to be switched on again was taking too long.
Somewhat panicky, I looked around at the other passengers, only to find that most of them were asleep. A child was crying in the back somewhere, and I could detect a hint of chicken tikka sandwiches in the air. Who eats during a one-hour flight? As if to contradict that thought, my stomach grumbled.
“Time for lunch,” the man next to me said, looking at me kindly. “Ah, the trolley is here. Do you want vegetarian or non-vegetarian?”
I didn’t respond and quickly took the complimentary sandwich the pretty stewardess handed me. Were all of them Miss India Runners-up?
Unfortunately, although I tried to tune it out, the man continued in the same vein, munching his sandwich and discussing the intricacies of flying, unperturbed by the less than welcome response he was getting from the boy.
“The main question people ask, is how does a plane stay up in the air?,” he was saying enigmatically, as if teaching an imaginary class of enthusiastic pilots, which I was sure came from his experience of being an instructor.
“The key to keeping an airplane flying is the wings. As the jet engines or propellers move the plane forward, the wing splits the air.” He made a slicing motion with his hand. “Some air flows fast over the wing and the rest flows under it slowly. Simply put, the plane flies because the wing is set at an angle that pushes downward on the air,” he said matter-of-factly, as though nothing could have been simpler.
Was his captive audience still conscious or had he lost his will to live? I couldn’t tell for sure. He was staring with half-open eyes at the back of the seat in front of him, either pretending to have dozed off, or maybe he had dozed off.
Having spent a very large part of my childhood listening to similar lectures about the marvel that is the airplane, I tapped the novel that was still on the man’s lap.
“Has Bosch found his half-brother Haller yet?”, I asked.
“Oh, he has” the man said contentedly. “They’ve worked on a case together already.” He looked back at the boy, frowning as if wondering why no questions had been forthcoming.
“Which kind of planes do you like?”, he asked after a moment’s pause and I threw caution to the winds, cutting in hastily.
“I finally finished Catch-22, ” I said
“There are fighter planes and commercial planes. Private jets.-” The man was not listening.
-“Joseph Heller is the wackiest-“, I ploughed on.
-“Fighters are magnificent creatures. The F-14 tomcat was featured in the movie Top Gun. Have you seen-”
-“funniest writer ever. The pilots were clearly off their rockers-”
-“And the largest transport plane in our Air Force is the C-17 Globemaster,” the man rattled off. “So which is your favorite? Come, come now, all boys have a favorite aircraft.”
The boy finally looked at the pair of us and said, with a dead-pan expression. “I like the Grand Theft Auto.”
I laughed when I saw the man’s baffled expression, hastily avoiding spilling the juice I was drinking. I didn’t think men from his generation would get that reference.
A voice issued from overhead, informing us that we were now approaching Pune airport. The airfield, situated very close to Lohegaon Air Force Station, when it was first established, had been home to Second World War squadrons and the famous Supermarine Spitfire fighter aircraft. Even today as you land at the airport you can see fighter airplanes parked inside massive hangars. As a child, I remember the sight used to thrill me. It was like having a roaring tiger leashed in your backyard, ready to go to battle. My favorite, in fact, was the Mirage 2000 because when it took off, the sound made your bones vibrate. Now, though, fighter planes did little for me. Our generation is not very enthused about flying planes unless it is in fantasy simulated warfare with a joystick for a control column.
As the plane slowly circled the airport, its nose tilted downward, clearly in a descent, I checked my seat-belt. Luckily the man next to me had reopened the novel, and the boy, who felt he was safe again, was looking disinterestedly at the skyline visible through the rectangular window.
As the plane hit the tarmac, I could feel the wheels hitting the ground unevenly, and the man next to me made a noise of disapproval.
“Not a good landing at all. I don’t know what’s happened to the quality of pilots these days.”
I ignored him and waited for the plane to stop.
“Ah,” the man said, flicking open the seat-belt as the plane reached a standstill, “landings can always be tricky.” He looked to the boy again. “Do you know how they land?”
The boy had reached boiling point. I could see the storm gathering in his face, suggesting were about to be treated to a teenage diatribe. His jaw was working furiously, his mouth opened as if about to launch a missile, before I reached across the middle seat and grabbed his hand.
“The airspeed is kept above stall speed, the descent is constant, to reduce the lift and transfer the plane’s weight to its wheels, and something known as spoilers are used. After which the autobrake kicks in. After touchdown, reverse thrust is used to help slow down and I’m really very sorry. He’s a fighter pilot, it’ll get better once he retires.” I said all this in a rush, nearly falling off my seat in my earnestness to apologize. My face was burning and I wanted the ground to swallow me right there.
The boy flicked his gaze to the man, who was beaming at me with pride and then to my face. Something about the relationship between me and the man, which hadn’t registered before because I was trying to pretend I didn’t know him, must have finally struck him. He smiled shyly at me and then shrugged his shoulders as if to say, I pity you.
As we disembarked from the plane, after being thanked politely by the airline staff, I hoisted my laptop bag huffily and walked several paces away from the man.
“Nice flight,” he said, clearly still in a good mood, wheeling a strolley.
I stopped in my tracks in utter disbelief, and glared at him until the jocular look behind his old Ray-Ban Aviators flickered. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, he said sheepishly, “I won’t do that next time, Abu. I promise.”
“I’m telling her,” I said, playing my trump card. “I’m telling her what you did on the flight”
His face turned slightly pale, and I just about managed not to laugh.
“Not her. Please. She’ll stop me from talking to people anymore,” he pleaded.
After a few seconds, knowing I’d finally landed a proper punch , I dropped the severe expression and gave him my laptop bag.
“Fine, I won’t tell Ma,” I said importantly, putting on my shades, feeling like a total boss. “But no more backseat flying, Dad,” I said, with a final warning glance at him.