It is dark, but for one laptop screen in seat 1F in front of me, where a Tamil man is finessing a presentation, adding and removing bullet-points. He is middle-aged, has an enviable paunch and a flowing beard, and he seems imperturbable.
The man in the next seat is young. He’s had a Black Label; he dined on chicken with it. The spirit has brought out his demons, I think: he’s shaking his head, and torso, with increasing intensity.
Only moments ago the young man let off a terrible groan, and turned and looked at me, to check if I’d heard him in spite of my noise-cancelling headphones, now playing back a Mozart sonata.
He may be forgiven his groan, set off by a fear that I share in equal measure with him, with perhaps all others in this cabin. This plane that we’re on has shook and shuddered and creaked and rattled for over an hour now, over the dark waters below. We’ve had moments when it seemed the plane would split along its spine. There’s been no service for some time; the captain has ordered his crew to their seats. But dinner is done, the trays have been cleared. The smells of what we ate are in the air.
We’ve crossed the Andamans, the monitor on the bulkhead tells me, and that an hour’s flying is left before we touch down in Bangalore, where the time now is 8:18, which also I read on the bulkhead.
We progress, scuffing the clouds as we go, and the blinking light from the plane’s wingtip pierces the clouds, causing flashes like lightning, except that these are so predictable, so metronomic, the only sound accompanying them the terrible labouring of the plane, which I hear in the moments I take off my headphones. In a half-hour we’ll be over land, I tell myself after a time, surprised to note a smile on my face when there’s growing anxiety in my heart.
I concentrate on my breathing, on the in-breath and the out-breath and the burn in my nostrils, trying to pat down the memory of the Air Asia flight which flew up in bad weather, weather that froze the moving parts of its wings, high above the waters that bring such rotten luck to Indonesia all the time.
The land appears as a curvy line of lights along the shore of Chennai.
More lights come up: large and small patches of pixellated amber, and a long line through them — a highway running northward and southward. Like embers the lights look; swollen and scorched, the earth seems.
But I know it is none of that. There are people down there, millions of people cloaked in the reduced, evening-heat of Chennai, who do not know that there’s this plane over them that has escaped tragedy and the front pages of tomorrow’s papers, and which will land in 39 minutes in Bangalore, inshallah.
The next day I tell my wife I experienced turbulence like never before last night. “Me, too!” she says and describes her flight last week on the same stretch. She’s been through the greater experience. As always.