On a recent flight from Trivandrum on Etihad Airways, I found a man sitting on the window seat that was allocated to me. He refused to budge when I showed him my boarding pass and pointed out the seat number on it, and continued to look straight ahead when the woman in the next seat tried to reason with him that his boarding pass had a different seat number printed on it. All the while the queue of passengers continued to grow behind me and I turned to one of the flight attendants who directed me to another seat directly behind my original one. I was not really surprised. As far as possible, I try to avoid flights through Kerala as much as I avoid visiting Kerala for the people of the place are among the rudest whom I have met not only in India, but also around the world. The years that I spent working in Trivandrum have long been erased, the photographs deleted permanently along with any remaining memories of that hellhole.
So I was surprised when the chap squatting on my seat turned and started talking to me in a familiar manner. He asked me if I had once worked with a certain company and when I replied in the affirmative, said something about having worked there himself. I could not remember him at all – a nondescript, balding man with a mean look on his face. I asked him his name, and his reply rang a bell. I remembered his wife who was my namesake and part of the lunch group in which I had found myself as a nervous fresher. She was the least rude among the other three women in the group – a pimply faced midget who thrived on gossip, the office flirt who took vicious pleasure in saying mean things to everyone around her, and an obese harridan who was a perfect partner to their rough and shallow conversation. It felt like a breath of fresh air when I stopped being a part of that lunch group. Why had I joined it in the first place? To quote Salinger whose oeuvre I was reading through at the time, there ‘seem to me at least a dozen answers…and all of them, however dimly, valid enough. I think, though, that I can dispense with them, and just reiterate that…I was twenty-three, newly [graduated]…, newly advised in the efficacy of keeping close to the herd-and, above all, I felt lonely.’ (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters)
But to return to the plane. I exchanged a few polite words with the seat-usurper before returning to my book. As with most people from Kerala whom I have met, he did not ask anything about me but went to talk about his family and how they were happily settled in some middle eastern country. He added that he worked for Etihad Airways, and had used his privilege as an employee to override the seat allocation and occupy the nearest seat which he fancied. He mentioned that there were five empty seats on the plane before he turned away.
Why couldn’t he have chosen from one of the five empty seats? I voiced this question in my email to Etihad Airways informing them about the incident a few days after returning home, mentioning how one of their employees had caused so much inconvenience not only to me but the other passengers who had been held up for minutes. A few days later, I got a reply with a perfunctory apology stating that the incident had been notified to the concerned person’s manager. Noting that they had made no mention about preventing such an incident in the future, I made a note to avoid booking on Etihad in the future. It is worth paying some extra cash to fly on another carrier like British Airways where such an incident would have been unthinkable.
I have brushed away this encounter like a stray autumn leaf that comes to rest for a moment on one’s coat. Just as I have brushed away the unpleasant memories of working in Kerala. Now the mention of Kerala only invokes a feeling of gratitude in me – I feel utterly grateful that I don’t belong to that wretched place, that I did not grow up there, and best of all, that I will never have to live there again. I am grateful too to the five wonderful people whom I met during my work there who influenced my life so positively: the CEO of the company where I worked, three of my mentors there whom I have thanked in the acknowledgements of The Reengineers, and the only friend I made there – a lovely lady called Sayana. It is them whom I choose to remember when I come across anything about that place.