I’m not sure exactly what I expected of India, but it was certainly different to what I got. I think maybe I was anticipating the the bright colours and fast paced soundtrack of a Bollywood Movie. What I saw was a country still in a transition that had started six decades before with the withdrawal of the British Empire, what I experienced was deeply immersive, yet strangely impenetrable culture that stubbornly remained more foreign to me than I had ever imagined it could.
I know I definitely didn’t expect my travelling companion to be quite so eccentric, and for him to add an extra layer of ‘interesting’ onto our journey, for want of a better word. If I didn’t know why he hadn’t been able to persuade any of his three children to accompany on this pilgrimage to the land of his birth before we set off, I certainly did as soon as we got to the airport.
Being the procrastinator that I am I had typically left everything to the last moment. I honestly can’t think of any reason why so many of us are hardwired to procrastinate so much, other than to cause the maximum possible stress in any given situation. Anyway, I had booked our tickets online and they were to be collected at the airport. This, it turns out, would become the first of many problems in our unnecessarily haphazard journey.
Ashwani* had told me that he was 72 years old, so I had told Air India that he was 72 years old, and they had expected him to be 72 years old. All quite reasonable. The problem was that his passport said he was 78. I thought it odd when booking the tickets that he had insisted I didn’t see his actual passport, and that he read all the details over the phone to me. It was then that I realised whatever planet Ashwani thought he lived on, it certainly wasn’t the same one the rest of us did.
Somehow he managed to bungle his way through getting hold of his tickets, explaining in the simplest terms that he had lied about his age because he didn’t want anyone to know how old he was. I guess a diminutive 72, sorry 78, year old man doesn’t seem much of a threat to anyone, which I was to find out was very fortuitous indeed.
As soon as we got on the Air India plane I realised why they charged about a third of the price of any other airline to travel from Heathrow to Mumbai. The seats were cramped, the dinner was basic and the entertainment consisted of Mr Bean episodes and Clint Eastwood movies. This was in 2008.
Though, to be fair to Air India, I had no idea how popular Mr Bean actually was, and I can only assume still is, across India. It’s certainly not mentioned in any of the guidebooks, but you were never too far away from a 30 minute episode of a mumbling Rowan Atkinson. I imagine he could live off the royalties alone.
We were about 2 hours into our flight and I was just falling asleep, or falling into the best half-sleep you can do with cramped legs, when Ashwani nudged me awake, a look of terror on his face:
“Look” he said urgently, pointing at the window.
In my half dazed state I peered into the murky darkness, expecting to see some sort of gremlin eating away at the wing. Surprisingly, there was nothing there:
“What?” I said, wiping the back of my hand across my gritty, sleep filled eyes.
“Look” he said again, prodding his finger urgently at the window “It’s cracked” adding after a second “I bet I can push it open” prodding finger now tapping firmly against the plexi-glass.
“I think you need to tell someone” he said, tapping becoming banging.
Now, I was pretty certain that the window wasn’t cracked. But it also became apparent that if I didn’t get someone to confirm this fact to Ashwani that it soon would be. I have no idea why it fell to me to call a member of the cabin crew, and to him to try his best to actually break the as yet unbroken window, but that’s how it was.
“Can I help you?” the stewardess asked politely, not quite sure what to make of the unthreatening, diminutive pensioner sat next to me bashing the window.
“The window is broken” Ashwani butted in. Apparently it was my place to summon, not to speak.
“It’s just ice, Sir” the stewardess said after a cursory glance at the spider webbing forming on the outside.
“Oh” said Ashwani, immediately stopping his barrage, closing his eyes and falling asleep.
“Thanks” I said to the stewardess as she moved off, looking rather confused. She wasn’t the only one.
As you can imagine my anxiety began to peak. Not because I was afraid that the plane would crash, or that there was some impending disaster around the corner. Rather, I realised that there was a 72, sorry 78, year old man shaped bag of potential disasters who would be accompanying me for the next 3 weeks.
Maybe a couple of hours after Ashwani had mounted his one man assault on the plane window in an attempt to assure himself it wasn’t in fact broken all of the lights and TV screens turned off. The inside of the cabin was plunged into darkness as the pilot announced over the tannoy that there were:
“Issues with some of the electrical systems on the plane” and that he was “attempting to reset them'”
“We should remain calm” and there was “nothing to worry about.”
I looked around at the other passengers, all of them looking very much worried and not calm. Apart from Ashwani. He was fast asleep. As you can tell from the fact that I am able to write this 12 years later it turns out everything was OK. As you can also tell, Ashwani’s threat perception was somewhat off.
The rest of the actual fight passed without further incident, aside from what would become Ashwani’s regular gripe throughout our trip that his meal portion size was ‘too large’. I have never heard that complaint before or since about prepackaged food served on an aeroplane.
We landed in Mumbai, at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, and made our way through security. Well, I made my way through security, past the rather tall and rather scary looking soldiers standing guard. Ashwani on the other hand had a little more trouble. He had been stopped and pulled to one side, where I saw him emptying his pockets and his bag. Of numerous batteries and a rather sharp looking screwdriver.
I have no idea how he had managed to smuggle them out of the UK, nor any idea why. Neither, it seemed, did the very unimpressed, rather tall, rather scary looking soldier who was asking him to explain the latter of those two questions. To which Ashwani calmly replied:
“To change the batteries in my camera.”
He then produced the aforementioned camera from his pocket, pointing the screwdriver at it in a way that seemed to say ‘what a silly question Officer, this is what screwdrivers are for’. Luckily for both of us it seems that the Indian Military didn’t see much of a threat in a screwdriver wielding, battery smuggling 72, sorry 78, year old camera aficionado.
I was left wondering what I had gotten myself into as we left the airport and stepped into the humid Mumbai air.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of a 72, sorry 78, year old man shaped bag of potential disasters.