the height of work

I flew Indigo to Delhi, sitting in an aisle seat on row 3. They offer only (what Shashi Tharoor once called) cattle-class seats on Indigo, which is such a splendid idea, which takes you to the clouds on a flattened world for a couple of hours. The young man seated next to me, in the middle seat, started up a conversation in Kannada with the chap at the window, also young. It turned out both were in government service, and after a wide-ranging conversation on prospects in various government departments, and pay-commissions, and pay-scales, middle seat exclaimed he sometimes feels he should quit government and start a business. "I could start a coaching school," he told window seat, "and I won't charge too much."

After a while window seat went to the toilet, and middle seat asked me "are you a writer?" I forgive the man his overestimation of me: I was wearing a black Fabindia kurta over blue jeans, and a grey pair of sneakers. "No," I told him, "I'm only a student."

"I'm reporting rather late in life for classes," I added, seeing how he was figuring me out—"and you?"

A sub-inspector of police. He was on his way to the final interview for admission to the IAS (the Indian Administrative Services). His interview was set for Friday, and his medical examination for Monday. I'd watched him while he settled when we began our journey: his bag which he'd stowed overhead was a small saggy schoolbag, and the book he had in hand for inflight reading was a book of puzzles devised by Shakuntala Devi. "How many will be selected?" I asked him: Nine-hundred from the short-list of two-thousand and three-hundred.

I told him I'd pray for his success. He responded with a not-really-rude grunt to that, but one could see he was expecting success regardless of anyone praying for him or not.

(The Indian Administrative Service was where my father had wanted me to go. It had seemed like a grand thing when he proposed it, but I didn't have it in me to go through the rigors of a competitive examination, so I went into business.)

After a while when middle seat and I went each into his reverie, I leafed through the printed materials in the seat pocket and found an ad for ladies to join the pretty young things serving us on the flight. 33,000 feet above average, it said of the job. I have flown Indigo two round-trips now, and they appear to make no mistakes, and I saw they'd managed the issue of weight and complexion that they demand of their staff with such language as to keep their airline out of sight of activists.

But I thought of other things. What is the deepest a miner descends? Is his job so many feet below average? And the young man at the window who had since returned from toilet, who wasn't on course for the IAS, how far from average was he destined to cruise in his life? He seemed not to be discontented, and so, was the terrestrial his altitude of choice?

On the flight back home all passengers were put on a pleasant plane by a Costa Rican who had opted for a higher than ground-level job, but in the Indian skies. Indeed, the pilot was a foreigner, a happy one from the sound of him, from the way he kept talking to us, asking us to not worry, "only turbulence" or, "see, I told you, just turbulence." At the end of the flight he stood out his door to greet us as we left his plane. His bulk matched the volume of his speech, and his eyes were as merry as his voice has been on the speakers.