Where the mind is with fear

Soumya Mukherjee | Updated on May 15, 2020 Published on May 15, 2020

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Why did an eager and helpful co-passenger on a flight scurry to isolate himself

*Although he was in casuals, his typical army canvas bag indicated that he was a soldier.

*He told me that he was a new recruit, with the Sappers.

*I panicked and rushed to the washroom, where I thoroughly washed my hands and face.

This was just before the Covid-19 lockdown had been imposed across India. I was at one of the busy airports in the country, on my way to Delhi.

I was just entered the departure terminal when I encountered a young Sikh, who was obviously flying for the first time. He looked completely bewildered in the unfamiliar setting and spoke only Punjabi, which no one seemed to follow. Although he was in casuals, his typical army canvas bag indicated that he was a soldier.

Always keen to try out my pidgin Punjabi, and eager to help a member of our armed forces, I approached him and asked in his native tongue if I could be of help. He seemed really relieved and rattled off in rustic Punjabi, the gist of which I could follow.

I have had this experience in various places. Whenever I try out my rudimentary knowledge of a language with native speakers outside their home turf — from Punjabi cabbies in Canada, the US or the UK and an Odia chef or Assamese trainees in fancy hotels to Nepali waiters in Chinese restaurants and Lepcha guides on mountain treks — my attempt at bonding by using their native tongue always works. And my linguistic slips are forgiven.

Anyway, as it transpired, the young man was a soldier on leave and on the way back to his village in Punjab. He had tickets to Delhi and wanted to know where the plane was.

I had performed similar guide duties for his brethren at the Delhi airport for flights to Canada and the UK, and gladly leapt to the task, happy to be of some use to the guardians of the nation.

I guided him through baggage screening and took him to the check-in counter for the Delhi flight. The flight was almost empty and, as a frequent flyer, I received an automatic upgrade. I urged the woman at the booking counter to extend the same courtesy to one of our gallant young soldiers, and, after a consultation with her supervisors, this was done.

He told me that he was a new recruit, with the Sappers, where incidentally my cousin had been a commanding officer. He was posted to a remote area and was now going home on a short break. He had travelled by bus to the city, taken an auto to the airport, and from the Delhi airport would take an auto to the bus station to catch an overnight bus to his village.

I saw him through the security check, and took him to the boarding gate. He was very grateful and offered to share with me the meal he was carrying. I told him they would provide meals on the flight, and he could save his food for dinner on the bus.

They had given him the seat next to mine, and he seemed really happy that we had been placed together. As I showed him the seat belt and explained other instructions, he kept expressing his gratitude and shaking my hand.

After the flight took off, I asked him jokingly why he was in a hurry to get back. Did he have a girlfriend back home, or was he going to get married? He shyly explained that girls were a distant dream, and that he had many responsibilities before he could think of marriage.

And then he said something that sent a chill down my spine. Two men in his unit had fallen sick. They were tested; doctors found that they had been afflicted by altitude sickness and not Covid-19. But they were put under observation. The others at the post had been tested and were found clear. And then they were given 15 days’ leave and special permission to fly home.

I panicked and rushed to the washroom, where I thoroughly washed my hands and face. I asked the crew if they had masks and sanitisers; they didn’t, for this was before the manic spread of the novel coronavirus. I then requested a change of seat.

I could see the hurt in his eyes, as he assured me that he was all right, but I avoided his eye and made sure there was no physical contact, all my admiration for the guardians of our frontiers disappearing in sheer fear of the virus.

On reaching Delhi, I left the flight with an embarrassed nod to him. I wished him a happy holiday, and he saluted me, still looking hurt.

This happened about a couple of months ago. But I was reminded of him when I saw hundreds of migrants walking back home to their towns and villages from the big cities, carrying their small bundles and children. Their life is greatly different from that of my young co-passenger. What, then, made me remember him? It was, perhaps, the hurt in their eyes.

Soumya Mukherjee is a blogger based in Delhi

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Published on May 15, 2020
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