It is midnight and I stumble onto the Singapore Airlines plane, right foot first (for good luck and safe travels), dragging my carry-on bag behind me. It takes a while for the passengers in front of me to find their seats, harried little old Asian women and men, Indian families going home for the summer break, babies wailing their discomfort at being awake at the odd hour. I find my window seat and sit down, relaxing into the scratchy fabric, peace washing over me. I wonder briefly at the notion that I feel at home on international flights, but then I remember the reason for this trip to Coimbatore. I look down at the book in my lap, and then blindly out the window. The flight attendant starts talking about the safety procedures and my mind wanders to another trip, another plane ride, another time.
I was eleven. On my first solo trip to Coimbatore, to visit my grandparents for the summer. I had been so excited the days leading up to this point: shopping for my new travel purse (a round white pleather bag, long cross-body strap, with an image of the Taj Mahal on the front), packing my clothes in my new suitcase. But now that the day was here, I was scared. As I said goodbye to my mother and baby sister, I clutched my purse close to me and put on a brave face. My mother held me close for a moment, and then I was off, headed to the car with my dad. During the drive, I received detailed instructions on what I was to do at every step of the journey, and then he repeated them again, to reassure both of us that nothing could go wrong. As I picked out a Nancy Drew book and Five Star chocolate bars at the airport newsstand, I could hear my father talking to the Indian Airlines flight attendant who would be responsible for me, and her soothing responses back to him.
I walked on the plane, an early boarder with the other solo children, dressed in their maroon school blazers, all of them headed back to their boarding school in Ooty, a couple hours’ drive from Coimbatore. Envy ate at me, watching their easy interaction with each other and the flight staff; they had done this countless times before. I pretended a nonchalance I didn’t feel, giving them a cool stare when they looked over at me, and was surprised when my nervousness eased.
“Are you a new student? Are you going to our school?” one of the girls asked me.
“No,” I said shyly, barely making eye contact with her. “I’m going to my grandparents for the summer.”
“Oh. Without your parents? That’s odd.” She dismissed me and turned back to her friends, sliding easily back into their chatter. I watched them for a little while and then turned to my book.
As the plane filled with the rest of the travelers, I thought about what she said. Was it odd? It had come about rather suddenly, the talk about me going away for the summer. I reflected back a month or so…all I could think of were my exams, and how hard they had been. I was behind in math, science, and hindi, and dreaded every night, when after dinner, my dad would start in on me and my inability to retain what he had tutored me on the night before. “Idiot, you’re an idiot.”
My mother, clearing the table of the dinner dishes, head down, not making eye contact with me. She knew the drill…interject and bear the brunt of his wrath. She did, sometimes, but not that night. My sister was almost two, her teeth were coming in, and her crying was the accompaniment to our evenings.
I cringed, which made him even angrier. “What are you doing that for? Did I hit you? No! I should! Maybe that would make you learn better!”
My eyes welling with tears, I tried to recite back to him the multiplication table, stammering through it, messing up halfway through. He threw back his chair, dragged me out of mine, and hit me, across the face, and then on my back. “Idiot. Can’t remember anything! Go to your room.”
I sat, looking at the Nancy Drew book in my lap. I was still on page one, chapter one. The flight attendant was announcing our imminent arrival at the Coimbatore airport.
As we hit the tarmac and coasted along the runway, I looked out the window at the hordes of people waiting by the gates, waiting to welcome their loved ones off the plane. I scanned the crowd, easily spotting him standing towards the back, a tall man, one arm on his hip, the other shading his eyes, tracking the plane’s movements.
My grandfather. Thatha.
The engines start up, the flight attendants close the doors, the high pitched whine of the engines reach a fevered pitch, and the plane pulls away from the gate. The familiar scent of airplane deodorant mixed with the smell of the fabric seats and the recycled air washes over me, relaxing me.
I’m leaving earth for a while.