Sometimes in India
He was the first person to board the flight – wheeled across the scorching tarmac, manhandled up the steep steps and unceremoniously placed in an aisle seat at the rear of the plane. Bored by the long wait in the departure lounge I had watched this small drama unfold. I first noticed the wheelchair while my camera bag was being unpacked once again; I was furious because I had neatly coiled the cables and packed with great care the various adaptors, lenses, chargers and camera bodies and when the young woman began to remove a lens cover I lost it. India is dusty at all times but Bhuj during drought is something else and the thought of Kutch dust infiltrating my best lens was too much to bear. It never pays to shout at people in army uniform and so my bag was emptied yet again. The only response I got to my repeated question of ‘Why?’ was ‘It is unclear Mam’.
The young man waiting next to me caught my eye, shrugged and impatiently indicated I was holding up the queue. He was in charge of a wheelchair in which sagged a very old man. Ancient hands clawed wildly at the air, a toothless mouth opened and closed soundlessly and all the while his sunken eyes darted back and forth. His long white gown was dusty and spotted with stains and his bare feet cracked and ingrained with filth.
My camera bag was finally approved and I dodged the seeking hands and sat down as far away as I could from human contact. I needed space, breath and recovery time. I was hot, sweaty and in no mood to be bothered.
My flight had been moved forward by 5 hours due to local air force activity and my day had therefore started in a rush. Time management in India is always a juggling act and I was exhausted by all that I had to do in a shortened space of time. I was even more displeased when the flight not only left 30 minutes after the rescheduled time but also when we sat in idling mode on the runway for another one and a half hours while two Stealth Bombers came and went in clouds of exhaust and screaming engines. The captain kept reassuring us that in five minutes we would be in the air as he drove the plane on and off the runway in ever decreasing circles. The air conditioning was almost non existent and I could feel the 40 degree heat seeping through the fuselage! We were not offered water but told to stay firmly buckled and buttoned up! My head ached.
Then miraculously and just as we were told we would not have enough fuel if we did not take off within ten minutes (and Bhuj has no refuelling service) we were suddenly taxiing down the runway and thrust into the notoriously unstable summer air. I made my way unsteadily to the rear toilets and there in the last seat sat the ancient being. His eyes roamed over me and his hands grasped at my shirt. What was I to feel? I did not wish to wait so went back to my seat and into camel state.
One hour later we bumped and ground our way down over craggy ridges worn to knife edge sharpness by weather and time, over dry river beds that snake across dusty plains and then across the mangrove inlets that mark the foundations of Mumbai. Soon we were flying low over the familiar shanty towns that creep ever onwards between new developments and high rise buildings. Amongst the flat grey roofs I spotted orange temple flags, pink spires and green minarets and rested in the comfort that life goes on as usual in this city of twenty million and still counting.
Landing is never easy and I always allow the surging mass to take first place and consequently am often last off the flight. This time I was not, for, as I made my way to the rear door, the old one was being unbuckled and manhandled out of his seat. I waited until he was gone and as the bus drove off my last glimpse back was of an old man in a wheel chair unceremoniously parked in the shadow of a wing and left to wave his hands over his face while his mouth screamed soundlessly into the fume laden air. I dared not give a second glance.
It took an hour and a half to locate my bag by staff who did not seem to care. Not the best flight experience in the world and I was almost pleased to climb into a prepaid taxi with a cantankerous driver who shouted at me all the way home as if I knew nothing about Mumbai. ‘Haji Ali’ he screeched ‘Sea Link’ when I had instructed him to do so and ‘Return madam?’ when I pulled into Geeta’s driveway. Such can be the life and times of India and sometimes compassion is elusive. I only hope that someone remembered to wheel an old man away to some better place.