Suresh Menon | February 7, 2012
Ah! The joys of flying! Friends and family don’t know this yet, but I am radioactive, which is why I don’t shake hands in greeting but either nod my head or smile foolishly. The reason is simple – I have been taking flights almost on a daily basis these past few weeks, and passing through all manner of x-ray screenings. As the bard nearly said, throw enough x-ray at a person and some of it is bound to stick.
The airports are very clever. They say, as you approach the x-ray thingies, “This is safe for pregnant women, the ailing and the elderly,” or something like that. This might well be true. But I am not pregnant, not ailing and not the elderly, so where does that leave the thousands like me – healthy, young (to stretch a point) men? Why is the airport warning silent on our type?
It is possible that I glow in the dark and emit a green-coloured light favoured by Martians. Train travel might take longer, and in India, you are obliged to share your most intimate family details with the person in the next seat, but at least you don’t glow at the end of it. Travel by train is not a journey, it is a social occasion, rather like meeting friends at a club or on an office picnic.
Well, it’s not all doom and glow, actually. I can walk into a dark room and pick out what I want without the bother of finding the light switch. I can lie on my back and read, confident that my fingers will light up the pages of the book. Then there is the matter of fireflies. You should see how confused these creatures get when they fly towards me doubtless because I am sending out some kind of a signal, only to realise that the mating game is not on.
The other problem with taking frequent flights is the safety lecture. This must figure high on the list of Things We Don’t Listen To. The pilot showing off about how high we are flying (“35,000 feet – I just measured it”) is a close second.
In fact, a long flight is probably the time we listen the least to anybody else – from the person in the next seat determined to tell us about her daughter’s recent wedding to the steward who tells us what’s on the menu without opening his mouth.
That is why safety lecturers, pilots and stewards have so much more fun than paying passengers on a flight. They know no one is listening.
“Welcome to Flight No. 3.1415, which as some of you know is the value of pi,” begins the safety lecturer holding up what looks like a popcorn packet with wires attached. “Some passengers are stored under your seats, and in the event of a crash, please make sure you get their names and addresses. In the unlikely event of our reaching our destination on time, oxygen masks will drop from the nearby aircraft; please grab one and fall asleep because we are going to take our time getting to the terminal. Should any of you require any assistance on landing, please walk through the door marked ‘Exit’ and trouble somebody else on the road.”
And then you settle down to watch the movie which is cleverly constructed – you can hear the sound on your headphones, but the picture can be seen only in the seat diagonally across. “Hi folks, I am your pilot,” begins the folksy pilot on the short trip. “If you look out of the window on the right, you can see my house which I purchased twenty years ago and am still paying for; on your left is the house my wife bought after we were divorced...”
Meanwhile, the steward bends forward with an expectant look in his eyes. “Do you want to eat some duty free shopping now, sir, or shall I bring you the small bag with fake peanuts on an elaborate trolley so you can buy a couple for your girlfriend as earrings?”
It is always the other person who has fun on a trip. The only fun you have is when a bawling child finally goes to sleep and you pinch it awake on your way to the toilet so its parents don’t get any sleep either.
Fire on the Ganges: Life among the Dead in Banaras By Radhika Iyengar 4th Estate / HarperCollins, 348 pages, 599
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