Up above the world so high

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

If world travellers once crossed paths at serais, they now exchange ideas and jokes at the bar of an international flight

In the days of old, the serai on the world’s major highways — such as the Silk Route and our Grand Trunk Road — were locations for the meeting of minds of a variety of races, cultures and communities, aided by the spirits of distant lands. Places with names ending in serai, or inn — Sheikh Serai or Ber Serai in Delhi, to name just two — bear witness to this.

Nowadays, this international convergence of minds and souls aided by exotic spirits has moved upwards to the skies — the bars in the business class of international flights.

Flights to the business hubs of the world from India are a long haul and usually overnight. Such flights also induce insomnia, especially when you shift between time zones. Moreover, it is deeply ingrained in our psyche to get our money’s worth for the air tickets by guzzling as much of the free booze as possible.

Thus we find an international collection of insomniacs, drunkards, freeloaders, and globetrotters all congregating by a bar in the sky. They have the captive audience of the flight attendant at the bar, and seek to regale her with stale jokes in various accents or boring stories of business triumphs and wealth acquired — much like the way Othello tried to woo the fair Desdemona with stories of valour and glory.

However, it also gives us a chance to meet people from countries you cannot find on the map and learn about cultures we have little knowledge of.

People from our western neighbour whom we love to hate turn out to be quite lovable, especially after you’ve shared a few large ones. They speak the same Punjabi that we do, crack the same jokes, are as irreverent about their political and religious leaders, and drool over the same Bollywood starlets that we go gaga over. We only differ in the cricket teams we support. Mr Khan from Lahore ends up inviting me to his country on an all-expenses paid holiday and I extend the same welcome to him, knowing fully well that we will soon lose the cards exchanged and never really stay in touch or take up each other’s offer. But perhaps, someday, Insha’Allah...

Then there is this lady from the tiniest country in the world tucked away in a corner of Switzerland which we cannot find on the map, or spell or pronounce after having imbibed freely of the spirit that cheers. All I remember is that the name of the country begins with the letter L, and that the lady told us the most improper jokes about the various nationalities of Europe.

Not every encounter revolves around humour. There is a lady from Cyprus and I learn that they too have a story very similar to our Kashmir. She is bitter that her parents had to flee their home when Cyprus was divided into two. She remembers the exact date. They call the other portion Occupied Cyprus and insist that it is part of their country. But Turkey sees it as its own. The split was on religious grounds when Christians fled the occupied parts, which were resettled by Turkish immigrants. She is strongly Islamophobic and anti-immigrant. There is a Cypriot film in the airline’s collection which talks about the bonhomie between the two sides of Cypriots and centred on a dog which crosses the border. Liberal nonsense, she snorts.

Arabs from West Asia do not look anything like Lawrence of Arabia. In jeans and tees, they are a jolly, cosmopolitan people who can drink anyone under the table and are well informed about global issues. I get not one glimpse of a diamond watch or a glinting gold tooth. Another stereotype is shattered. The only disconcerting habit some tend to have is that they hug you while parting after hours of companionable drinking, when, to my mind, a simple handshake would have done.

I receive invitations to Cyprus, Estonia, Lesotho and the unpronounceable country starting with an L, and, in turn, invite them all to India. We are all fully confident that we will never meet again.

But one co-barfly in the sky breaks this myth, too. Singh pra ji from sadda Canada, originally from sadda Punjab, has not lost an inch of his Punjabiyat even after 32 years in Canada. He speaks a rustic dialect of Punjabi I have difficulty deciphering. And he actually lives up to his sozzled promise, which I had completely forgotten about, by turning up at my hotel, taking me to his house, playing host and giving me a guided tour of his city. We continue to be in touch.

Some bar-in-the-air friendships do last. Not all are ships, or flights, that pass in the night.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

Published on June 28, 2019
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