Friday, July 4, 2008

Homeward bound on AI140 ... and a little drunk !

I started writing on my way from JFK to Mumbai on the night of the 12th December, 2007. I finished it on the night of 30th June, 2008 sitting in a cottage in a godforsaken part of New York State, in the middle of a state park where people go mostly for their vacations in summer. See if you can make out the disjoint! - Anirban

As I break the barrier across the thin invisible line on the masses of water that divide Asia and Europe forever, dawn breaks through and time becomes a discontinuous jutted function and so does everything else. The time on my laptop reads 3:03 am. On any other night, I would be sitting in the lab in front of the bilayer waiting for the channels to appear, not tonight however. A few minutes ago, I was happily listening to a late night raga collection – I become a little unsure what to do now. Not that I am not used to seeing the night break into dawn but never this fast! Earlier I had fallen into the spell of Vidushi N. Rajam's violin, for the first time in my life. Unbelievable, isn’t it? Thousands of miles away from the culture that gave birth to the music and the musician, I hear her for the first time – in spite of growing up amidst it for tens of years. Moulded in the cast of Hindustani Classical Music, violin, the quintessential western instrument, takes on such a lonesome form. It almost sounds like the longing moan of a forlorn soul sitting by the sea shore, yet so deliciously sweet. She plays a 14:30 minute rendition of Darbari but in it she packs an eternity. I look all around me – there is a stealthy silence all around except the necessary background noise that accompanies the mechanics of a midair transatlantic flight. The air hostess has switched off all the overhead lights and the aircraft is but dimly lit now. Almost everyone is asleep; strewn around here and there in the darkish interior of the aircraft are a few compulsive nocturnals like me staying awake and catching up with the latest bollywood release, or even tollywood release, for that matter. With only the occasional laptop or entertainment unit lighting up the few faces, the aircraft seems like a ghost town.

I hesitate somewhat before playing the Darbari for the sixth time. Because thousands of miles above the ground, with the billowing clouds passing below me, the first ray of dawn breaks through. Unsure, I switch to a morning raga collection. We are flying back home after a long two and a half year break and at the worst possible time in terms of ticket pricing - the second week of December. However my wife’s strict annual allotment of vacation days coupled with my own post-doctoral obligations in lab meant that this was the only option left to us. Consequently we had to settle for an Air India flight, at a price higher than either of us had ever paid for a trip back home. In spite of numerous warnings against flying with Air India and almost the mythical rumours about their ugly service, we decided to give their JFK-Mumbai flight a go. Till now, I have not regretted – the food has been fabulous, service quite good and the seating way more comfortable than other airlines I have flown by. But above all, I have discovered something today. Every time I have boarded a transatlantic flight, be it British Airways, Al Italia or KLM, I have always sensed discriminatory attitudes from the in-flight service personnel. Over the years my complaints have wearied even some of my more patient friends and they have warned me that I am becoming overly sensitive and to speak the language of the experimental scientist, am picking up signal where one cannot distinguish it from noise. Well, today my friends, I have done the control experiment, as the biologists say. Cause not for a single time, did I feel any racy attitude from any of the air-hostesses. Not that I was not looking out for it. As a matter of fact, I was ever more ready to catch an untoward comment or even a nasty glance at the request for the odd drink. To my relief, the ladies have been supremely gracious, well-behaved and kind - in an almost, at the risk of sounding clich├ęd, Indian way.

The sunlight slowly begins filling in the space around me and HPC's Basant Mukhari falls perfectly into place. I look at the screen of my entertainment unit. Outside, the temperature is -68°C. Inside the flight, it is a motley crew. Most look like expats returning home for the perennial imperceptibly short visit. But life hasn’t yet made the complete switchover yet to the other side. Just for the sake of example, my last dinner consisted of Gosht Hyderabadi accompanied by bread rolls, unsalted butter and a salad that had, amongst other things, black olives! My entertainment unit offers an interesting blend where Chinese films are ranked as part of the “western film collection" and there is a BBC world documentary on the Saptak festival. We all are, or at least most of us are eagerly awaiting the end of the journey when all of the discontinuities will come to an end –where butter will be salted and gosht will be served with paratha and where dawn will not break out in the middle of a Darbari. However, specks of doubt loom large - it has been a long time in exile. And at least as far as anything about home is concerned, time had stopped for us since we left for the last time. So as we wait in unison, the question hovers around – what lies at the end of the road?