My ability to organize has reached such a deplorable low that I managed to book myself a flight to Delhi that arrived on the morning of Diwali. For the uninitiated, Diwali is a winter festival (it’s significance, spiritually, has yet to be unveiled to me) during which Indians set off lorryloads of fireworks, entirely arbitrarily, from their rooftops, for about 18 hours without remission. It’s like being in a war zone—and probably as dangerous. Absolutely noone sleeps—”Nessun Dorma” to the power of infinity. The air stiffens with post-explosion toxins and residue and becomes virtually unbreathable. In fact, there’s so much smoke and gunk around that you can’t actually see the fireworks explode. You just hear them. Yet, this is the day I personally arranged my arrival in India. There really is no hope.
In a way, the flight itself was my first step into Indian-ness. Never before have I been on a flight quite so packed with older generation Indians, scores of them so infirm that they had to be wheelchaired to the boarding gate, accompanied by their entire extended family. Ironically, if my fellow passengers weren’t octogenarian Indians, they were French, which meant that the plane was overflowing with beings determined to do things their own way, regardless of the consequences to their co-travellers.
It should have been a nightmare (for me, one of the worst my fearful, rusty brain could summon ), but strangely, it wasn’t. For once, luck (or an aeon’s worth of blessings, depending on your point of view) shifted the moody teenaged French girl I was supposed to sit next to to the back of plane and I found myself in an aisle seat with an empty seat next to me. Then the woman in front of me disappeared (alien abduction? corporeal dissolution as a result of spiritual realization? or just decided not to go? I’ll never know). But the upshot was that the only two empty seats on the plane had opened up around me!
By contrast the woman across the aisle from me was sitting next to an Indian couple in the 60s, neither of whom had any teeth, who launched themselves with what, in other circumstances, would have been admirable vigour into her lap (sometimes both at the same time) at least twice an hour to escape their window seats. She tried several times to persuade them to ask her to move (in perfect Hindi), or at least give her some warning before they landed in her lap, but they just smiled and jiggled their heads, as Indians do, and continued to physically mount her whenever the fancy took them. What a fine line it is between heaven and hell.
I chose not to explore the more negative possibities as to why, on this occasion, I was the lucky one, and instead focussed on trying not to feel too guilty about my good fortune. Maybe, I wondered, the character and quality of my trip will be defined by its beginnings: however desperate my situation may appear at first glance, the reality will turn out to be surprisingly survivable. It’s a comforting thought, especially with the prospect of a 13 hour drive up to Dharamsala tomorrow (I suffer from terminal car sickness).