Air travel no longer has the thrill it once did; now it’s just something to be endured. So many departures and arrivals, almost always between the same places. When one finally musters up the time and the money, how can one ever bear to go anywhere else? Takeoffs and landings, takeoffs and landings, to London, Bombay/Delhi, Boston/New York, from London, Bombay/Delhi, Boston/New York. Rituals of welcome and farewell in each home, regimens of arrival and departure in each airport. Small tricks and contrivances to pass through the limbo of in-between, when the baggage is all checked in, the lists and last-minute preparations fall away, and only anxiety and anticipation remain.
December 1963: our first plane trip ever: from London to—where? Delhi and then Bombay?—via Rome. I remember the journey but not the arrival. I was nine and my little sister (who screamed, “Stop the plane!” when the pressure began to build up in her ears) was not quite four. Air travel was still a rarity and we were treated like VIPs. In those days people dressed in their best to fly, so people-watching at the airport was itself a treat. The airline was German, and offered never-to-be surpassed treats for us children. There was was a box of chocolates, each of which when eaten revealed part of a picture from a Grimm’s fairy tale. When all the chocolates were gone, we were left with a cube puzzle, with a colorful scene from a different fairytale on each of its six sides; Hansel and Gretel was one of them, I remember. The stewardesses sat with us and entertained us so that our parents could relax, sip cocktails, and peruse the elegantly printed menus. We stopped for tea in the Rome airport, my only taste of Rome to this day.
“Back-to-Bom!” Saleem Sinai’s joyful cry in Midnight’s Children captures exactly how I’ve always felt. Always a tremendous sense of relief and recognition when the heat hit me full force and I knew I was really back. I recall my parents’ old joke, quoting the Air-India slogan, “There’s an air about India,” as the heady mix of incense and raw sewage assaulted our senses. As we emerged blinking into the sunlight and scan the throngs of eager relatives waiting to greet their loved ones, we always found my trusty cousin Binky—or, years ago, my eldest cousin Raja who worked for Air-India and could fast-track us through customs (“Of course she’s my sister, man. Look at her name!”)—ready to sweep us and our luggage into a car and get us home to eagerly waiting family and extravagant welcome feasts.
Arriving in London wilted and weary, we were always met by the round, beaming face of my Uncle Bill, who was a London cab driver and would not hear of us coming home by any other mode of transportation. As soon as we were all bundled into the cab, the sweets would come out. “Poor darlings,” Aunty Bette would say, “five whole years they’ve been without a nice bit of Spanish. Never mind, we’ll make up for lost time.” And to Mum: “You poor thing; you look awful. What have you been eating out there?” And she’d bundle her up in a luxurious leopard-spotted fur coat she’d just happened to bring along with her. “Oh, this old thing? It’s yours. I’ve got a cupboard full of them at home.”
The first time I arrived in London alone as an adult, I was traveling with a small child running a fever of 103, and Uncle Bill was no longer there to meet me. After dragging all our luggage onto the double-decker bus that took us from Heathrow to Euston station, I hailed the cab that took us (by a circuitous route and at an exorbitant cost) to my cousin Susan’s, who met us at the door and gathered Nikhil up into her warm arms. “My darling Nikhil, we’ll bundle you right into that cozy bed—Jess has given you hers and she’s going to look after you. And Jo: you and me can have a nice cup of tea. I’ve got your favorite Digestives in.”
On my very first plane trip, I squeezed my eyes tight shut during takeoff and saw a kaleidoscopic pattern of colors and shapes as rich and intricate as a Persian rug. Oddly enough, I could reproduce that same pattern for years afterwards, whenever I squeezed my eyes shut in that particular way. When the old familiar pattern emerged I was always strangely reassured, and told myself that it was a good sign; no matter where I was, I could call it up. I can’t remember when I stopped looking for it, but it lasted me well into my twenties.
International arrivals are like that pattern. When one flies away from a familiar place and beloved people, they and their whole world vanish as if they never were; but as soon as one returns, there they are again, conjured up as if by magic. There are the small green patchwork fields of England and the rows of identical red tile roofs like toy houses. There is the unmistakable air of India, the noise, the crowds, the heat, the smell: close your eyes tight and breathe deeply—you are home.