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White Knuckles In The Air

White Knuckles In The Air

November 26, 2012

As long as people keep me amused while flying, I think I can keep my fears in check.

I am a nervous, you could say anxious flyer. I would not call it a phobia exactly but I find myself sweating quietly at takeoff, scrutinizing the cabin crew’s expressions and body language and clutching the hand of whoever is next to me during turbulence.

I envy that guy in front of me who pulls up his blanket and begins to snore gently the moment he straps himself in, that lady whose concentration on her book does not waver even a little as we battle through dense, angry clouds, the businessman who continues to frown at his balance sheet even as the plane rocks.

Since mine is a job that requires travel, I’ve had to bite the bullet and develop some coping mechanisms to ensure I don’t turn into a gibbering wreck by the time I land. Fortunately, the human race is a colorful one and I find that between our very own Bhai-behen and the dour farmer from South Dakota, I am provided with enough entertainment, aggravation and amusement to take my mind off… oh my god, is that lightning? No, it’s some twit taking pictures in the aircraft.

Let me start with myself. I am no mean hand at dishing out irritation and amusement to those around me in a plane. The moment I am strapped in, I kick off my shoes and then crawl around on my knees the entire duration of the flight trying to find them. When my tray of neatly wrapped AVML arrives, I consume everything on it, including the cling film, noticing with mild interest that the watermelon is a bit chewy. I spend 20 minutes getting the little sponge wraps around my earphones, tear them and sheepishly ask for more. Meanwhile, the 14 something old next to me rolls her eyes and deftly slips on hers. I manage to lose my blanket and pillow, demand blankets slightly petulantly and then discover I’d been sitting on them all the time.

At the slightest hint of turbulence, I clutch the hand of the person next to me (a bonus if it turns out to be a cute guy, not so much if it’s a large hirsute man with heavy gold chains around his neck). I babble about my life, my work the events that led to my traveling that day. The moment the rockiness stops, I drop his/her hand and spend the rest of the flight squirming with embarrassment trying hard to remember exactly what I said to the man and whether I should expect a call from him soon.

So people pretty much cheer when I walk into the aircraft because it makes them feel supremely tremendously calm and competent. It’s a public service really.

But enough about myself. The one thing I’ve learned by flying is that all men LOVE that little hot towel that’s handed out. The man next to me will extravagantly and thoroughly scrub his face, neck, his ears, wring out the towel and proceed to wipe his arms up to his elbow. The women around me, meanwhile politely pat their hands with the towel. As hard as I try not to get distracted by this, I find myself wondering every single time if: a) Men have discovered the link between hot water and hygiene just yesterday b) have taken a sacred vow to not clean their necks until they are seated in seat 45B next to me.

One of my most memorable moments and one that made me forget my fears completely was on a flight from New York to Minneapolis. I was seated next to two very pleasant gentlemen. As is my wont, I began to babble the moment we hit some turbulence, explained to the man next to me that I had a need to converse to get me out of panic mode. He asked me where I was from, to get the conversation going. He turned out to be a farmer from South Dakota on an annual pilgrimage to NYC to watch a Mets game. The whole conversation we had was about Hinduism (what is it about?), Christianity (only those who believe in the Lord our Saviour will go to Heaven) about my family and me – we’re not bad people really (Nope, it’s Hell for you heathens) and finally the Big Question (why don’t you convert?).

I was mildly amused by his assumption that a 2 hour flight could have me questioning my beliefs but a friend of mine had the last word when he wrote to me saying - “ Well, think of it this way, Hell will be full of your friends while Heaven will most likely be full of farmers from South Dakota, so I think you’re better off”

In that Baptist farmer’s defense, he really was not being offensive, he genuinely could not believe anyone would actually choose to follow a different faith. Ah well…

Swinging back to our own motherland, on my way back from Bangkok recently, I boarded the plane, settled in and then… the sweet, unmistakable sounds of two self-righteous Indians squabbling over nothing. It started slowly – a few splutters of “what, what is this, I say?” then slowly swelled to a crescendo of “How dare you I say? What you are doing? See Sir (to a startled fellow passenger minding his own business) he has just thrown my bag out of the overhead baggage hold… how he can do that?, “you mind your language” and then of course the sweetest, classical Indian high note “Do you know who I am”?

This question always reminds me of an Asterix comic strip when a Roman soldier asks Asterix what the password is, to which he retorts “Why? Aren’t you in the know?” (The response from the Roman soldier is classic. Drawing himself up, he replies “I should think I am. It’s Cogito Ergo Sum”)

But I digress. By this time, the Thai crew is standing around smirking and barely hiding their loathing for us as a race (“such a silly matter”) and I have never been more interested in my biography of Clarence Darrow.

Anyway, I think it’s safe to say that as long as people keep me amused while flying, I think I can keep my fears in check. Plus, I have a theory. I believe I am not alone in my fears.

While I may act out my fears, (okay, so banging on the cockpit door demanding that the captain sit next to me holding my hand was not the wisest thing in retrospect. To be fair, the police were very understanding) that businessman staring at his spreadsheet is most likely mentally reciting the 10 names of Arjuna feverishly as we fly through a storm and I did notice our bookworm toss back her third glass of red wine. So maybe there is a collective sigh of relief when we land and that typical scramble for the door is a way of us kissing the ground and saying “let me out of this tin can”. 


  • Vinod
    07.12.12 04:38 AM
    I enjoyed reading your article as a reader who has been flying for the last 16 years. I am one of those who has no issues in flying but the real agony lies in making me think that I am breathing in someone's lung 'exhaust'!While coming to the topic of amusement - I love watching people right from the time I get the comfort and time to look around, who have the same fate as mine to end up in an aluminum can at least for sometime!:-)
    27.11.12 09:44 PM
    Hell will be full of your friends while Heaven will most likely be full of farmers from South Dakota, so I think you’re better off” :)

    This is a best one I've heard and I thought I have heard everything. Cheers for that. :)


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