Arrival pains

Manjula Padmanabhan | | Updated on: Mar 29, 2019
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Finally, I’m ready to leave for Elsewhere. My Qatar Airlines flight departs at 3.40 am. I like getting to the airport well ahead of time. But Bins, who flew off a couple of weeks ago, convinces me to take it easy. “My flight was delayed by three hours, remember?” he says, on WhatsApp. “Just check-in on-line and don’t leave the house before 12.30 am. You’ll be fine.”

So I follow his advice. I get to the airport at 1.30 am, stand in line and ... uh-oh! A passenger gets into a 10-minute argument with the check-in clerk. Half an hour melts away. I get to the immigration queue late. Another hour goes by. Fifteen minutes to get through security. I sprint towards the gate. Boarding is in progress. I’ve not eaten or drunk anything since leaving home.

Get to my seat. Sit down, buckle up. We begin taxi-ing. In the silence before take off, the man in the seat behind me begins to vomit loudly. I’ve never heard anything like it before: EEeee-googa-googa! EEeee-googa-googa! At least six times! I immediately cover my head with my blanket, convinced that I’m about to be drenched in some stranger’s last supper but ... nothing happens. The moment we are airborne the poor man jumps up and runs to the toilet, holding his air-sick bag in his hand.

We get to Doha with no more incidents. But we’re 15 minutes late. The next flight is already boarding. I jog through, grateful that Hamad International airport is smart and modern, easy to navigate. There are two security checks. As I go through the first one, I notice a couple, a tall man and a young woman wearing a brown body-covering which frames her face. She has large round eyes and satin smooth skin. Ethiopian or Somali, I think to myself. The second security check is chaotic. Too many security personnel waving sniffer wands struggle to subdue an unruly tide of passengers, all of whom are late for their connecting flights.

I finally collect my belongings and race towards the final corridor. I’m amongst the last passengers to board the flight. I get to my window seat only to find that the maybe-Somali girl has occupied it. “My seat,” I say, smiling with all my shining tusks bared. She tries hard not to understand but eventually gives in.

I realise then that she’s very young, though tall enough to seem mature. We spend the next 13 hours practically chained together, because she never leaves her seat. Her long limbs stray into my space repeatedly, while she either sleeps or watches Ferdinand the Bull. Sometimes she pants, as if she’s been running. In the final half hour, she begins to writhe, clutching her head, tears streaming, mouth open in silent agony. I feel utterly helpless, unable to communicate. Her brother smiles uneasily. “Some people have pain,” he says. Then we land, the ordeal is over and they hurry away without a backward glance.

Manjula Padmanabhan , author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on March 29, 2019

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