“The imaginary flight has the children captivated.”

It’s a ritual in my family: every evening at 7pm, we sit down with milky cups of kappi and we watch NBC’s Nightly News. Now that I live 3,000 miles to the right, I’ll be honest, I’m somewhat lazy and so the Bru/Taster’s Choice usually stays in the kitchen cupboards, but thanks to the magic of DVR, I never miss Brian Williams’ slightly nasal take on the day. For that– and a hundred other things, right now– I am grateful.

I cried while watching that segment, on the news. I cried again when I tracked down the clip and embedded it. I was so overcome with the awareness of how different my life has been, as well as by how excited these children were, to take imaginary flights on an old, grounded plane. Remember that? When our lives were just as shaped by what we imagined as by what is? When there was hardly a difference?

I’ve never had the sort of glamorous (or arduous…take your pick) job which requires any sort of air travel so I still like airports and airplanes. I always have. When I was 3.5, and we first moved to the Bay from Southern California, I used to beg my Father to take me to SFO, so I could watch the planes take off. A year later, when I went to India for the second time, I was elated to be on the plane vs. in the car, watching them, from afar. The simple idea of being in the sky thrilled me; the fact that I was transported to another world, one which reduced my parents to crying children themselves, only reinforced my sense of wonder at what an airplane could do.

We all have our individual reminders of how everything is utterly different, post-9/11. Almost all of us are now kindly “invited” to be actors in security theater– but that’s not when I’m hit with the “it’ll never be the same”-realization. I don’t feel that prickly, undeniable sadness when I’m putting my shoes back on after going through security or when I’m forced to remain in my seat for the final 30 minutes before landing at DCA. I feel it when I see the cockpit doors.When I was 16 months old, we received the news every first generation Desi dreads; my paternal Appachan was on his death bed, in Kerala. He had never seen his only American grandchild, the only child of his favorite son, the son with whom he had the most in common and yet, or perhaps because of it, the son with whom he had also fought the most. Finances be damned, my father grimly applied for my first passport, and he and I left for “home”.

While on that, my first flight, when my father passed out from exhaustion, I apparently slipped away from him and toddled up to the front of the plane, past all the other sleeping passengers, which is where I remained, until my frantic parent rushed there with a flight attendant in tow, only to find me in one of the pilot’s laps, proudly wearing “wings” pinned to my pinafore. Now, when I’m buckled in and idly watching the safety demonstration, I think of how no other baby (let alone a brown one) will probably get away with such shenanigans, ever again. I think of how some other uncle won’t have that story to retell over cut-crystal glasses of Black, at dinner parties where their wives are in the kitchen and their children are playing in the basement.

I probably broke free and was able to make a waddling run for it because my Mother could not accompany us on that trip. Still, my Father had many offers of help, especially from the brightly-made up Indian stewardesses who posed for pictures with me in their arms. When I saw the sweetheart flight attendant in the NBC news clip, who talked about enlarging possibilities for the children on her flight, who happily said that “we are providing them with dreams“, I immediately remembered those photographs, as well as everything else I am typing.

To know that a mere three percent of Indians have ever taken a flight…well, it shouldn’t have shook me, and shamed me the way it did, but…it did. I half-exist in this rarefied, virtual world, where according to my Mom (and because of this blog) I’m “more Indian” than I’ve ever been in my life, but I keep forgetting that the Indians I interact with get on planes all the time, like it ain’t no thang. I am not as mindful as I should be, about differences and privilege, but also about the purity of spirit we all seem to lose while going through puberty. I got to fly around the world before my second birthday; I wish the same, and so much more, for every child on Bahadur-uncle’s magical flight.


More, via a year-old (which explains the disparity between stats?) TimesOnline article:

AN INDIAN entrepreneur has given a new twist to the concept of low-cost airlines. The passengers boarding his Airbus 300 in Delhi do not expect to go anywhere because it never takes off.
All they want is the chance to know what it is like to sit on a plane, listen to announcements and be waited on by stewardesses bustling up and down the aisle.
In a country where 99% of the population have never experienced air travel, the “virtual journeys” of Bahadur Chand Gupta, a retired Indian Airlines engineer, have proved a roaring success.
As on an ordinary aircraft, customers buckle themselves in and watch a safety demonstration. But when they look out of the windows, the landscape never changes. Even if “Captain” Gupta wanted to get off the ground, the plane would not go far: it only has one wing and a large part of the tail is missing.
None of that bothers Gupta as he sits at the controls in his cockpit. His regular announcements include, “We will soon be passing through a zone of turbulence” and “We are about to begin our descent into Delhi.”
…Passengers are looked after by a crew of six, including Gupta’s wife, who goes up and down the aisle with her drinks trolley, serving meals in airline trays.
Some of the stewardesses hope to get jobs on proper planes one day and regard it as useful practice.
As for the passengers, they are too poor to afford a real airline ticket and most have only ever seen the interior of an aircraft in films.
…Jasmine, a young teacher, had been longing to go on a plane. “It is much more beautiful than I ever imagined,” she said. [link]

23 thoughts on ““The imaginary flight has the children captivated.”

  1. Beautiful piece. Brought back memories of watching planes land at Meenabakkam ages back. Of longing to be on a plane for years before I got to be on one.

  2. It is a little jarring that the numbers are so low but for the sake of the environment, I’m also grateful that most people in India don’t partake in regular air travel. It would be ideal if it was at least attainable to the masses, but hopefully it never reaches the point where people take flights just to burn off surplus frequent flier miles.

  3. It’s so nice to see stories about rich Indian’s doing nice things for poor Indian people.

    The usual story is something like “Rich Indian jailed for buying poor babies just so he can laugh at how little they have”

  4. nice story and i suppose everyone has the story of his first flight. my dad has a photo of me beaming away in my red sleeveless sweater :-) so i know how special that was

    i was also reminded of an article on mumbai a while back. the writer said that it’s a city of vide disparity – but the poor living in their shanty towns may just be wastly happier than their rich counterparts with the Jags and the Cartiers. The reason is that while the rich compare their lives to that in paris or nyc and no that is unattainable, the poor have nowhere to go but up – the aspirations are real, progress is measurable, and ebullience is real.

    seeing the joy in the kids’ eyes, i was reminded of my visits to orphanages when in india. it burns me when people see a doc out here and go, “it makes me feel so glad we are living here”, because seriously, if the absence of material possessions of another makes someone feel good then it isnt happiness, just pettiness. and the truth is, i always came away from the visits feeling that these kids were vastly happier than i could ever be now – because they just cherished the simplest things in a way that at least I have lost somewhere down the line. [this pic captures the emotion very well]

  5. Nice story. I think it is essential that the kids are shown alternate life styles.

    I moved from the 97% who have not entered a flight into the 3% just 10 years back. Actually, I never imagined that I’d travel in an aeroplane some day even though my everyday commute for a long period involved crossing the railway station that serves the airport. I remember getting down at the newly built railway station along with my school friends to take a look at the shiny subway.

    I think someone should take these kids to visit Raj bhavan / Rashtrapathi Bhavan and to other colonial style bungalows where the government officials live etc.. to show them how some good-for-nothing folks live a luxurious life at their cost. That should motivate these kids..

  6. Thanks for posting this, Anna. It was moving and inspiring. Kind of reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury’s story “The Rocket” (from “The Illustrated Man”) where a poor junkyard owner uses his life savings of $3,000 to build a replica rocket ship in his backyard and sets up a 3D theater inside the cabin, then convinces his children they’re actually traveling to space. A really moving story, not so much Bradbury’s typical sci-fi as it is a story of sacrifice and making dreams come true ….

  7. Wonder whether these air-travel starved Indian kids be inspired to careers such as pilots, air-hostess, merchant navy officers etc ?

  8. Great article! With the excessive amount of flying I do over an year, I have lost the joy that I used to experience in air-travel. These imaginary flights are a great experience for these kids.

  9. Brilliant story, I travelled a lot on work till last year, about thrice and sometime 4 times a month and I love flying. Now that my new role doesn’t require me to travel as much I miss it.

  10. Nice story. Why only children? In India most adults have not traveled by air and are fascinated by it. I remember my Car Driver and his friends had booked tickets on Deccan Airways- A low cost airline selling ticket under Rs.500($10). Even I get nostalgic and watch Planes taking off from Mumbai airport. Its different story when I am actually traveling. I am very tense and frightened at take off and landings and during flight air travel is most boring form of travel. So this fascination for air travel has more in myth and imagination than the fact

  11. Very nice of the pilot to do this. I wonder about the pilot’s own transition from village kid to commercial pilot (must have been via Indian Air Force). Hopefully this will make middle class type jobs seem more attainable

  12. Nice story, I can empathize. I am a poor kid wanting to make that Virgin Space Flight. I have always dreamt of going to space and feel the weightlessness. But I am so damn poor to afford it. Please donate money to make my dream come true!.

  13. Touching piece! I remember mopping a few years back, as everyone in my house have taken a trans-atlantic or pacific flight except me, before I got into one. To think and know that I am one of the 3% of Indian population drills some perspective in my head! Thanks for posting this, Anna.

  14. Nice post, I still remember my transition to that lucky 3%. I joined the Air Force wing of the National Cadet Corps so that I could have a chance to fly. Didn’t work out. I tried joining the Air Force itself, that also didn’t work out. Then I tried the Navy’s air wing, the Army’s air wing, didn’t work out. Finally I decided to go back to school for graduate studies, and bingo! :)

    BTW, I recently read a book, subsequent research on the author somehow reminded me of your father’s day post. It is not a great book, but it has the most fervently and perfectly daydreamed father I’ve ever come across.

  15. Thanks for the comments, everyone. :)

    8 · Bridget Jones said

    Wonder whether these air-travel starved Indian kids be inspired to careers such as pilots, air-hostess, merchant navy officers etc ?

    One of the little boys featured does indeed want to grow up to be a pilot. The in-flight crew has aspiring stewardesses, too; they think it’s good practice, might give them an an edge, etc.

    16 · BlueVanMeer said

    BTW, I recently read a book, subsequent research on the author somehow reminded me of your father’s day post. It is not a great book, but it has the most fervently and perfectly daydreamed father I’ve ever come across.

    Wow, thank you for thinking of me. Will check it out the next time I’m near the bookstore. :)

  16. 14 · LandBeyond7Zs said

    Nice story, I can empathize. I am a poor kid wanting to make that Virgin Space Flight. I have always dreamt of going to space and feel the weightlessness. But I am so damn poor to afford it. Please donate money to make my dream come true!.

    To experience weightlessness, you could always book a ride on the vomet-comet. It’s pretty expensive at around $6000 a pop though. (Or, if you’re in science, think of a cool experiment, and you can get the taxpayers to pay for you!)

  17. Grew up next to an airport. Watched flights take off and land forever. Knew the schedules by heart, as also the type of planes and such. It was 80′s India; there were about 4-5 flights per day, until 92-93, when they had Jet Airways and Modi-Luft and East West Airways and some other airlines (NEPC?)

    Took the first flight out of my hometown after school; your reality changes from 2d to 3d. Been flying for eight years now, mostly personal, some business; some 180,000 km by my estimate. Still feel it’s surreal, still collect every single boarding pass I’ve used.

  18. Great piece-very touching. I remember my first flight, also to India. I was five and for some reason the travel agent messed up on the reservation so my mom, sister and I had three middle seats all throughout the plane. My mom was so worried that I would be scared and tried so hard to get somebody to switch with her-but of course nobody wanted a middle seat. But I was totally fine-probably the start of my independence! I now fly all the time for work, get on a plane to see my family at least once a month and the airport has become a second home. I know the best sandwich shops in Ft. Lauderdale international, the best place to find a beer and live music during a layover in Nashville and the best place to get online in Chicago. There are so many of us that fly to see a long distance boyfriend or girlfriend-and best friends that are now scattered throughout this great country and world of ours. I still feel a sense of awe and a bit of fear when a plane takes off and lands. Recently I had a plane diverted for some mechanical problems. Though we were all fine and just got home quite late the woman next to me was very VERY scared-and it does make you realize that even though for some of us flying is now a part of life there is always a risk and it’s not something that we should take for granted.

  19. Anna, how does one percolate coffee with milk instead of water? Would that work in a regular “coffee maker” percolater that you buy at Wal-mart? Seems to me that the milk would burn against the inner aluminum/material?

    Is there a percolater especially made for this type of brewing? Clue me in!!!!!

  20. Yes, saw Sooni Taraporevala’s hilarious and senstive film LITTLE ZIZOU at SALTAF in DC. Really eerie the connection! The flight simulator in the film was being built by the son of a fundamentalist leader who called himself “Son of Psycho” on his blog. Because the film was all about fundamentalism versus tolerance and love (wow it exists in every community doesnt it?), the flight simulator was made by these young guys to be accessible and open to all. If you haven’t seen the movie, watch out for it next year in more festivals and hopefully in theaters.