The lady on the microphone announced in her squeaky voice, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Mumbai airport.” Oas groaned, closed his eyes, and contorted his face like only an exasperated 75-year-old can. Having heard her numerous times in the last couple of hours, he was tired of listening to her any more.
“Does she think I’ve never been to an airport before?” he muttered under his breath. “Bah. I’ve been on planes for longer than she’s been on earth!” The staff was running helter-skelter on the airport with some angst that Oas couldn’t fathom. “Freaks,” he sighed in disappointment.
The constant low hum of the music from the headphones of the young guy beside Oas didn’t help his mood either. As the guy shuffled in his seat, the huge laptop on his lap brushed against Oas’s arm again.
“Do you want my lap too?” Oas blurted out loudly as he knew the guy couldn’t hear him. “Take it, I am happy to help you save the world which is what I assume you must be doing,” he continued muttering. The guy hardly budged.
Bored of the one-way conversation, Oas got up and stood gawking at the hustle-bustle around. He was a lost alien amidst the time-poor professionals. He walked to a television screen in the lounge playing CNN. A news scroll read about a novel disease spreading through China. The main news being run on the channel though was about a kid at the Mumbai airport traveling alone. Oas massaged his forehead in disdain, wondered why this was news, and walked away.
He began to stroll around the airport. He had to buy nothing, but he also dearly wanted to interact with another human being. He wandered through the Crosswords bookstore, hoping a salesperson would ask him if he needed any help. No one did. Lacking the patience to browse around the towering walls of disparate books, he walked straight to the bestseller section. He glanced at all the self-help books crowding the non-fiction racks. The fiction ones were full of tales from fantasy worlds. Oas was fond of neither; so he strolled out.
He saw a deserted coffee stall. Hoping that the person selling coffee would be as bored as he was, Oas walked to him. The person was seated on a low stool chair; to Oas’s disappointment, even he was lost in his smartphone’s screen.
“What’s hot?” Oas asked the guy with a wish it would trigger some small talk.
“We only sell coffee here,” responded the guy without glancing away from the glowing screen.
“Do you serve it hot?” Oas quipped.
The guy hadn’t looked at Oas yet; he didn’t even now. He jerked his face towards the coffee vending machine and said, “We serve it however this machine dispenses.”
With all his hopes for even a meaningless interaction crushed, Oas ordered a cup. The guy shrugged in annoyance, got up and walked to the machine. He served the coffee with eyes as dull as sloth’s. “Sorry to put you through so much trouble, my friend,” mocked Oas. The sarcasm in his voice was lost on the mindless guy. He responded, “It’s alright.”
With a bitter taste in his mouth, Oas walked back to the gate buzzing now with the regular pre-boarding bustle. A lot of people had gotten up in the anticipation that the queuing would start soon. “Would they prefer to stand up longer just to be ahead in the boarding queue?” Oas wondered. “Just so that they could sit inside the plane longer?” The rationality behind the thought had always stumped him.
“Mr Puri?” Oas heard a soft voice calling for him. He turned to face a flight attendant, smiling a very plastic smile at him. The nametag on her read ‘Anjali’. Oas stopped himself from telling her that she had unnecessarily puffed her face with makeup. She had helped Oas earlier at the check-in counter; he had stopped himself even then.
“Would you please follow me?” It sounded more like a command to Oas than a request.
He looked at her, puzzled. He couldn’t think of any reason why he should follow her. “I’m ok, Anjali,” he said curtly. “I don’t need any help.”
“Sir, we have a priority boarding policy for all the senior citizens,” she spoke without letting her two pepper-red lips touch one another for long. “We will get you on the plane first.”
Oas stared at her like a child would at his examiner. “Why does the world make us elders feel a lot more helpless than we are?” He didn’t have much choice though; the stewardess looked adamant.
“Fine. But I would need to be taken care of. I don’t want to get stuffed in and forgotten,” instructed Oas.
“Won’t happen, sir.” The plastic smile didn’t leave Anjali’s face.
Oas followed her. He was stuffed into the plane. And forgotten.
Oas looked at the kid from the CNN news report boarding along with Anjali. He wished the kid wasn’t sitting anywhere close to him. Sure, Oas was yearning for interaction with another human being, but he was convinced that kids didn’t fit that category. He did not hate them. He just believed they were dispatched by God to make people live through misery right on earth for the sins they have committed.
“Kids are too clumsy,” he used to tell his wife, Sara, “and too stupid to spend any time with. All they can do is leave you more frustrated than you were before.” Sara, on the other hand, believed they were godsent to spread joy amongst the grieving souls, to teach them valuable lessons about life. “That’s why God sent us no child. We are not grieving, you see.” She used to joke with tears soon shimmering in her eyes. Oas let her settle with her fantasy.
Oas saw the kid follow Anjali till they reached right next to where he was seated. She started pushing the kid’s backpack inside the overhead compartment. Oas dropped his face in his palm; the kid saw him do that.
“Avik, this is your seat, right next to nice Mr Puri here,” introduced Anjali. “I’m sure you would enjoy your flight.”
Oas saw the kid slide onto the seat next to him and blurt, “Thank you!”
Avik shuffled into his seat by the aisle. He looked towards the open overhead compartment. Then he stuck his neck out into the empty aisle. He wanted to see someone around; he didn’t. Displeasure cloaked his innocent face. He then looked at Oas who had picked up a magazine and was clearly pretending to be engrossed in it.
“What are you reading, Mr Puri?” Avik was looking curiously at Oas.
“Nothing that will interest you,” Oas answered curtly without looking at him once.
“I don’t think you like reading Mr Puri,” continued Avik. “You don’t look too interested in that book. My mum says if you enjoy doing something, you are always very busy doing it. So much that you won’t even answer a question from someone else.” Avik had pulled out the envelope kept in the seatback pocket and rummaged through what was inside. “I never answer my mum when I am watching cartoons, you know, because I looooveee cartoons.”
Avik was doing nothing to thwart Oas’s beliefs about kids, rather, he was only making them firmer. “Why are you alone, kid? Why are you not with your mum?” Oas asked while putting the magazine back into the envelope.
“She’s in Bangalore. My father is also in Bangalore,” said Avik while pulling out the printed safety instruction manual.
“Why are you not with your mum?” Oas asked again, thinking, “of course kids never answer the question that’s asked”.
“Because they are not in Mumbai?” Avik shook his head a couple of times and continued staring at the pictures in the security manual. “I was living with my grandma here. She is very old –” Avik paused and looked at Oas’s face again. “Not as old as you, though. But she still says she can’t fly; she says she is afraid.” Avik wasn’t accustomed to staying silent. “I am not afraid at all. My mum says I am very strong.” Oas himself had started rummaging through the envelope now, searching for headphones that he could plug his ears with. “She says I am stronger than all my friends in the school. Rohit, Sid, everyone. Neil does beat me sometimes, but I always hit him back. My mum says I am stronger than even my father. My father -” Oas had found the headphones and had quickly plugged his ears shut. He looked at Avik; he could see his lips move, but heard no sound at all. He breathed a sigh of relief. He was happy that he had booked a first-class ticket; at least they provided the customers noise-cancelling headphones.
Oas saw Anjali standing by the gate welcoming the other passengers that were boarding the flight now. He watched a couple enter the flight with a baby. The father was walking in front carrying all the luggage. The new-mom was struggling to carry the baby through the narrow aisle without letting even its sock touch anybody around. “That kid’s going to wail throughout the flight now.” Oas let out a deep sigh.
The guy with the huge laptop under his arm and headphones over his head walked in next. Oas smirked looking at him. “The Avenger,” he muttered and chuckled at his joke.
Oas felt a pat on his arm; Avik was gesturing at him to remove his headphones. Oas didn’t want to, but Avik had shifted his attention to work the seat belt that was holding him in his place. Worried the kid would set himself free, he pulled them away and gave Avik a probing look.
“Did you hear what I was saying, Mr Puri?”
“Sorry, I didn’t. You see …” Oas pointed at his headphones. “… I was listening to music. Now that is something I like doing, kid.”
“Why do you keep calling me ‘kid’? Everyone else calls me ‘Avik’. My mum says she spent many days thinking before she settled on that name. You know what it means?” Without waiting for Oas to speak a word, he bent his arms, flexing his biceps. “It means brave, just who I am, my mum says. But she always cries when she says that, though.”
The last statement made Oas freeze in his place. He saw a moving image flash in front of his eyes; of Sara hunched down next to Oas, laughing and crying at the same time. “Oh, I know you are brave, Oas!” He could recall Sara lying to him, preparing him for something he just wasn’t ready for.
“Why does she cry?” He asked Avik in a much softer voice suddenly.
Avik shrugged, “I don’t know.” He continued his assault on the seat belt.
Oas continued to stare at the kid, gloomy thoughts clouding his mind. Feeling increasingly restless, he asked, “Are you going back to your mum?”
“Yes, I’m. Grandma says my mum’s missing me. She always misses me.” Avik had given up on his fight with the seat belt. “Who are you going back to?”
“No one. I am going back to being alone.”
“Alone? Do you like living alone? Don’t you have a family? My mum says everyone has one.”
The innocence in the kid’s voice caught Oas off guard. “I had, once. I don’t now since my wife… uhmmm… you know - ” Oas wasn’t sure if the kid was old enough to understand the concept of death. This was one more reason he didn’t like spending time with kids. “They could keep making the mindless fart jokes around you, but say ‘shit’ around a kid and the whole world starts judging you,” he always complained. Sara was good at manoeuvring such situations; Oas wasn’t.
“What? Did your wife die?“
Oas was taken aback by this unexpected straightforwardness. He gulped the heaviness of the moment down his throat and nodded.
“But she did love you, didn’t she?” Oas nodded again. “So, why are you alone then? She must be still around, you know?”
Oas looked at the kid expressionless. His mind was full of questions that he knew he would get no answers for from this unripe mind.
“My mum says the people that love you do not go anywhere even if they die. They do disappear but continue to stay around. They never leave you.” He was busy unfolding and folding the tray table over his lap now. “My mum says she also is never going to leave me alone. I don’t know why she keeps saying that; I know she won’t.”
Everyone around had settled down into their seats now. A calmness spread through the plane that Oas didn’t share. Uneasy, he stared out the window into the darkness outside, illuminated by the occasional flash of lightning. Within, he was storming through the dreary thoughts.
Anjali was now ready with the security demonstrations. She was used to being ignored, but the kid craned his neck to take in every word she said. Oas, on the other hand, was lost in his thoughts.
“Uhhh … Why do they rush through these security instructions? Do they even want people to understand them?” Oas looked at him struggling with the seat belt again. He finally got it open and squeaked an enthusiastic “yay”.
“Cabin crew, prepare for take-off please.” Oas heard the Captain announce. Avik was jumping up and down on his seat; he didn’t look alone any more. Oas unbuckled his seat belt, stretched towards the kid and put him back tied to his seat belt. “Don’t you unbuckle the seat belt now. Your mum won’t want you to do that.”
Avik settled back into his seat. Oas locked his stare at the darkness outside. The flight took off, passing through the stormy clouds. The raindrops pattered against the window and then stopped suddenly as the plane cut through the low dark clouds.
Avik had unknowingly slid his hand around Oas’s arm. Oas smiled at Avik. “Your mum’s right. You are a brave child.”