I am late for the Glasgow-bound flight, and although I do request for 'the usual number' at the check-in counter, my favourite seat near an over-wing emergency exit is already taken; I must either settle for less or none at all.
Quickly I go through the Customs who carefully read the labels of my designer under-wears, the Airport Security staff who tone my body with a metal detector, and the Immigration that asks questions that embarrass them and not me. Sweating profusely and out of breath, I arrive at the aircraft door where an airhostess greets me—she takes away whatever breath remains in my heaving chest. This is her last and final plastic smile; she has already greeted and smiled three hundred times before.
“Welcome sir! 66F is right at the back!” she stretches the vowel in the word ‘right’ to insinuate how far back the seat really is.
Something other than the location is not right about 66F. I am within sermonising radius of a team of eloquent men from Raiwind who appear to be in the right place. Since the passengers are completely lost in finding the correct allocated seats, their minds are open to outside suggestions. Raiwindian-style proselytising begins immediately and without parental consent. Overcome with religious emotions, the travelling Muslims begin to dream about instant spiritual re-birth and fumble while squeezing hand-carried luggage into the overhead compartments.
The pseudo-science of numerology tells me that since the alphabet ‘F’ represents number six my seat, 66F, represents 666, the dreaded mark of the Biblical beast mentioned in St. John’s Revelation. The portent is disturbing: is something worse than Armageddon bound to befall us?
To the left is a bald man whose pair of torn jeans attempts to poke fun at my finely stitched Cerruti trousers. His finely veiled wife carries toddling twins in her lap. As for the challenger in the right corner, he is a bespectacled software engineer from Bangalore, weighs fifty-one kilograms in the flyweight category, and carries not an offspring but a laptop computer over which he nervously taps his bony fingers.
I sink into the discomfort of the aft section to relive moments from the wonder years: sitting on the coveted rearmost bench in the classroom where, much to the annoyance of the teachers, I lent full credence to the Legend of the Backbenchers. I gladly reminisce with half-closed eyes, the neighbours remain under the distinct impression that I am smiling courteously at them. It is a great consolation to be seated a safe distance away from the sights and sounds of the toilet and the galley.
As I wonder, what air-travel might be without a demonstration of inflatable life jackets, crewmembers appear to do just that. Like agents from Camp X-Ray of Guantánamo Bay, they instruct the passengers on how to use what resemble suicide jackets loaded with C4 explosives and ball bearings. Mature fare-paying humanity pays no attention to the deadly tutorial and prefers stewing in a juice of communal ignorance garnished with the views of the spin-doctors; it licks newspapers.
The en-route forecast is unfair with respect to the weather; God’s giant shower without a silver lining is expected to pour over the entire globe for the whole voyage. Soon the airplane begins to impersonate a vengeful dhobi and we, the public, agitate like dirty laundry.
Lunch service is still three hours away. Since daydreaming is better than any on-board entertainment channel, for a while I forget my marital status and daydream.
The first move: isolate the victim. That done in a Brazilian thicket, I convince Jane to cease living in sin with Tarzan. I am barely within grapevine distance of tying with a scantily clad bride a legal matrimonial knot in the presence of two sly witnesses from the animal kingdom when suddenly——
I am back in the airplane. The twins to the left of seat 66F wake me up with a shrill jungle-call and launch an overt frontal attack on their mother. Cheap Arabian oil be damned, the only concern of the baby boys is the Milky Way. A careless sideways glance confirms they are being breastfed according to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation. The enviable provincial autonomy of the twins—one glued tenaciously to each breast—proves two things: as a nation, Pakistanis are capable of handling their own affairs given half a nipple, and that the future of the Motherland is all milk if not all honey—if that pleases the puppet masters and the powdered milk manufacturers. Breast-feeding one infant is a feat beyond the design limits of Man, a lone woman feeding two simultaneously is a miracle that few men live to witness.
My Rolex GMT Master-II comes in handy. For seven minutes flat, the twins jerk their legs to kick-start an invisible motorcycle, and once satiated, fall asleep under their mother’s black tent. After exactly nine minutes, instead of following Iqbal’s poetic recommendation of nesting on the rocks, the falcon squadron swoops in fighter-formation to unveil their mother’s face. Operation Shielded Dessert, the mother of all babbles, is underway. The coalition of the hapless parents collapses completely in the face of an assault by the militant alliance of the Milky Martyrs’ Brigade. The young mother’s face stands exposed for precisely 0.786 seconds during which I, with an audible gasp, feel privileged to appreciate indescribable beauty that honestly deserves to be protection from colonising eyes. A resentful look from her muscular husband blocks this entertainment channel, activates all the dormant religious beliefs, and forces me to lower the gaze—just as The Book commands. Civilised defence is always my best offence.
A fashion-model seated nearby explains as she bats her fake eyelashes, “The reason the burqa—the nadir of male sense of dress—is not universally accepted is very simply: the indigenous design benefits from no creative input from any Italian or French fashion house.”
My view is broader: instinctively every child desires to look at a loving motherly face not hidden behind a burqa.
“Why can’t they select a different route?” the Indian software engineer addresses me while keeping his eyes glued to the laptop, unable to prevent the machine from jumping up and down over his lap much like an irritated infant.
"Good morning India; I presume you are addressing me. You see, airplanes follow virtual roads called airways that are twenty miles wide, and whose airy rules men in black strictly enforce from the ground. The airways have names like Juliet-840, Romeo-420, Whiskey-69, and that explains the romantic streak present in all aviators. One cannot fly freely like a bird but must follow a Flight Plan, a legal document submitted and approved prior to take-off”, I answer, confidently exhaling upwards the imaginary smoke of an invisible cigarette in the non-smoking cabin.
The airplane shudders severely. The information technocrat nervously recites the names of his favourite gods, follows that up with a complex algebraic formula conceived by al-Khwarizmī the Arab and even calls upon entities that belong to the pantheon of techno-gods of Silicon Valley. Surprisingly the turbulence only subsides when he wishes “the flight becomes as smooth as the bare commercial skins of Bollywood actresses”.
“Nun...nun...nicely explained but if the airplanes don’t go off into the pop...pop...poppy-fields, what causes turbulence in clear weather?” he stammers and punches the ENTER key with abnormal yogic energy.
“My friend, since this big bird is moving ten times faster than an average car, our pilot has slowed it down to ‘turbulence speed’ in order to increase passenger comfort. As for the types of clouds, some specialise in producing rain, hail and lightning while others wander about without causing much trouble. The unstable cores of certain clouds can make an aircraft sink, much like a debt-ridden economy, at phenomenal sink rates. As we fly in the vicinity of such cloud systems, layers of air rub against one another just as mentally ill men do against women in a crowded Pakistani bus”, I paint a Realistic cultural portrait with bold strokes of Dadaism—the art of the insane.
One more severe jolt; the engineer’s sweaty hand ends up over mine. Hurriedly I withdraw my hand to discourage dangerous moves aimed at making me an ‘inseparable-part’ (atoot ang) of Bharat. In any showdown, far more important than territory is morality in which the sole aim of an upright Ghauri must be to cool down carnal Agni.
There is trouble in paradise; monkey see, monkey do. Nearby wives grab their husbands’ hairy hands out of love and who, in turn, clasp their children’s little hands in fear. As half the planeload holds the remaining half’s hands, more shaking follows until the Zeppelin descends to a lower heaven.
When children are wrong—and they often are—crying without real tears wins them everybody’s love. Quite naturally, the entire neighbourhood sympathises with the little chimpanzees on my left who require a restraining order because non-stop they cry and jump. Their milk-less mother closes her tired eyes; she has done her sacred duty. The irritated father occasionally slaps the fatty buttocks of the twins and, in an authoritarian tone, threatens them to give up all agitation associated with the silly idea of freedom. Much to everyone’s amusement, the tiny air-filled buttocks protest audibly. Being a man of peace, I silently disapprove of the raw method the father employs to snatch away the birth right of the toddlers who have a hidden hand—or in this case, visible legs—in rocking the boat.
“Go on, what were you saying about the weather?” the software-man asks, nervously moving his index finger over the touch-pad in circular motion, and which makes the curser resemble a spiritually marooned whirling Mevlevi dervish.
“When a small rise in one’s body temperature from the normal thirty-seven degrees Celsius can leave one trembling and bed-ridden, imagine what changes in atmospheric pressure, temperature, wind direction, and speed can do to an airplane? This is how the atmosphere creates turbulence. To date, no jetliner has been built with shock absorbers that will suck away all the jolts.”
“But aren’t pilots taught to avoid tut...tut...turbulent areas?” he cross-questions.
“Yes they are but airplane weather radars only help in circumnavigating rough areas; to bell the CAT remains a bigger problem.”
“A cat in the air, as in Tom and Jerry?” he cackles unstoppably.
“CAT is an acronym for ‘clear air turbulence’; known to travellers by its non-technical name: air pocket. Although CAT can vary in intensity, encountering it unexpectedly may cause injury. CAT is invisible but the areas it affects are always marked on pilots’ en-route weather charts”, I expound chin up.
“Man, are you an aviation expert?” he quizzes moving a middle finger over the Intel and Centrino stickers of his laptop. Like most men today, he is a prisoner of 128-bit encryption who lives between the ones and zeros of spy technology.
“No, just a frequent traveller who actually learnt to fly a Cessna long before the September Eleven tomfoolery gave the secret brotherhood of neo-colonists the perfect excuse to launch a global war of terror—terror meaning usurped territory, stolen Gulf oil, and refined opium”, I whisper.
“There are too many announcements aboard that spoon-feed us on how to sit, when not to operate la...la...laptops, how to fold back meal tables, and what not”, he now moves his ring finger over the Pent-ium sticker which advertises neither the Penthouse adult magazine nor an expensive penthouse apartment in Dubai but rather the collaboration of Pentagon with computer manufacturers.
“Well, the law requires that the cabin crew clearly spell out and demonstrate to travellers what is expected aboard; legally we are required to follow their instructions. Besides, unexpected turbulence may re-arrange a passenger’s head like that of Linda Blair in film The Exorcist.”
“But I see the Bond-girls serving coffee during turbulence! They must have been taught tightrope-walking because nothing appears to affect their balance”, he comments looking at a stewardess.
“Cabin crew members get accustomed to vertical occupational hazards whereas the Bond-girls of Hollywood—models of physical perfection and mental decay—only worry about horizontal chores that are quite unrelated to housekeeping”, I elucidate.
The killer service-trolleys roll down the aisles, the hungry masses seem ready to be victimised by ‘traditional hospitality’, and it is time to present my pet theory.
“This walking up and down the aisles has actually helped Man’s elbows to evolve beyond Charles Darwin’s expectations. Now watch E=mc2 in action; where ‘E’ is for elbow, ‘m’ is the rear end mass, and ‘c’ stands for crew member.”
To witness a successful demonstration of my Theory of Elbow Relativity in three-dimensional space, the engineer looks at the seemingly innocent males in the aisle’s atom-smashing seats. Their elbows—sensitive NASA probes really— protrude beyond the ethical limits of the armrests to prove my theory correct in the laboratory of life.
A teenager’s elbow pokes into the ‘m’ of a serving aunt. “Sorry auntie”, the naughty teenager apologises and escapes chastisement.
A man’s ‘E’ indulges in similar un-brotherly e-activity. He immediately utters “sorry sister” and goes scot-free after receiving an armour-piercing stare.
Then a man’s ‘E’ indulges in similar un-brotherly e-activity. He immediately utters “sorry sister” and goes scot-free after receiving an armour-piercing stare. Finally, when an old gent, with neither real teeth in his mouth nor efficient guts in the stomach, unleashes his leathery ‘E’ at the hindquarters of a ‘c’, saying “sorry beta” makes the girl react by calling Big Brother for help.
A giant steward with an Occidental name, O’Brien, appears to enquire in customary Oriental manner if the elderly man has any stepdaughters or a youthful fourth wife in his earthly abode. Such unsubtle assertion of human rights immediately makes all wayward elbows obedient, the girl feels truly emancipated, and all male passengers become models of courteous behaviour and good self-governance. Suddenly every male down the aisle has a toothpick in his mouth. With the entire matter amicably settled out of court, what remains impossible to ascertain whether the use of toothpicks is causing men’s facial features to distort or they are smilingly wickedly.
It is time now for mid-day prayers. With just one airhostess is left untouched by satanic elbows and she is sent to find out from the captain the exact compass bearing to God’s House. Nobody wishes to purchase from the on-board duty-free bar, a $5 prayer rug that comes with an automatic Qiblah-locating compass. In the meantime, the congregation performs ablution as it never has before, depletes the supply of water, and re-arranges the aft toilets’ landscape.
“Sister, we need seven prayer rugs”, the dripping prayer-leader demands from the air hostess who has returned after a successful direction-finding mission.
“The captain says, ‘Thou shalt not tempt thy Lord. And thou shalt sit in thy seats if thou art believers.’ Now if you would excuse me, I must get back to work”, she says curtly, and makes an about-turn.
The archaic instructions infuriate the congregation to no end. Had they been able to access the landing-gear bays, the surely would have set ablaze the aircraft tyres in protest.
“The devil seizeth those who toucheth not their foreheads to the ground while praying”, declares the bearded prayer-leader.
“But God’s green earth is actually thousands of feet below”, quips a beardless man.
Beardless moderation knocking sense into hairy stubbornness is akin to opening Pandora’s makeup box. However, my stubble entitles me to defend the hairless against the onslaught of the hairy ones, and this I do with great diplomacy to avoid being declared an apostate. Unconvinced, the pious congregation disperses heaping God’s curses upon every beardless heathen. The female counterparts resort to chanting aloud the creed of their religion, convinced that the ‘earthquake in the sky is a sign of an end that is nigh’. Like all doomsday cults that glorify men’s nightmares instead of God’s Word, the women later prove themselves wrong.
An aged woman watches all this with quiet desperation and thinks that ‘the captain does not know how to drive the plane’. A few emotionally charged souls blame the ‘un-trained co-pilot at the controls’. I insist that the captain is a highly trained professional, whereas the paying public loves to dabble in conjectures.
“I can’t breathe”, warns an old man.
The airhostess misunderstands it for ‘I want to eat’.
A confusing debate ensues until, unable to explain further due to shortness of breath, the old gent empties the contents of his stomach over the poor girl who runs away shrieking, “The customer is always right!”
Others begin to unburden the airline food they have gobbled hurriedly. Mothers too find it convenient to change diapers at such an inopportune time. Quickly the foul odour of a few litres of vomit mixes with the smell of a few kilograms of infant-excretion. Miraculously, the Lord of the Hosts holds back the angel of death, and all aboard, except a young Jew, survive 'the final solution'.
“The pilots, and the cabin crew are so accustomed to Nature’s bumps that one never sees them vomiting—perhaps they do when they reach their sweet homes or hotel rooms”, the engineer laughs again with his Bangalore mouth so wide open I entertain the thought of staging a leveraged buyout of his two gold teeth.
The airplane shakes viciously one last time. A hefty man, unable to keep his balance in the aisle, falls into the lap of an equally obese woman, and whose husband clobbers him until another passenger intervenes on behalf of Amnesty International. International mediation—something that turns regional conflicts into global ones—works for once. Suddenly everyone looks at the FASTEN SEAT BELT signs to realise that there is infinite wisdom in the announcement that follows their illumination.
The feed-nap-feed cycle of the twins remains unbroken until landing. By then the poor mother has not only lost a few hairs, she is without what the twins demand, and is all set to implode like the twin towers near the Statue of Puberty of Ellis Island.
And it comes to pass in the land of Glasgow, over three hundred obedient servants of God land safely one sunny afternoon. The same airhostess who once guided me to 66F now shows me the door with a sad good-bye on her rose-petal lips.
Because two days ago, on 30 June 2007, Glasgow airport experienced an explosive attack, every non-white is now a S.I.F.T: Suspected Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorist. In the English air, my nose identifies the fragrance of Common Law that makes all people ‘more equal’.
Her Majesty’s Customs has arranged for us a surprise royal party whose inedible menu is sweet and sour cream soup, sniffer Alsatians as appetisers, three-course body search, intense interrogation for dessert, and bubbling champagne. I suspect, the last-mentioned haraam (forbidden) item stands for a happy mix of ‘shame and pain’. The option of saying no to the entire menu does not seem to exist.
“What is there I would not do, England, my own?” with a sigh, a youthful Anglo-Indian Miss Pereira quotes Henley from behind.
“A family with the wrong members in control—that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase”, verbatim and aloud I quote George Orwell to counter misplaced British nationalism.
A little boy perhaps seven years old, wets his pants out of fear for the Union Jack flag and claims, “For England.”
“Oye, I can’t take that many English people all at once”, declares a Sikh tickled by eight hours of turbulence.
Lucky for all of us, nobody on the other side hears these remarks. I resort to treating the entire episode with the kind of Lahori live-heartedness reserved for the severest jolts of life, and manage to leave my royal hosts much earlier than the unlucky ones who are detained with a promise: ‘the best is yet to come’.
Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.