Finding my ‘chi’ at 35,000 feet

RESHMA N C SHAH

The beautiful air hostesses in their trademark Thai Airways uniform greeted us with the famous Thai greeting as we boarded the flight to Bangkok. We found our seats in the middle, all four together. R and Z were already too tired, since it was past 2: 30 am. They had been up since 6 am for their exams at school and then flown from Guwahati to Kolkata in the evening. Maybe the initial excitement was wearing off. As they settled down into their bright pink and orange seats, the airhostess came with fresh blankets wrapped in clean cellophane packets. They took one each, and settled comfortably into their seats. For a few minutes we watched the onscreen video of the customary safety rules and the Thailand tourism promo. Not that the country needed any promotion, with a million tourists flocking there each year.

By then it was time to take off and the lights were dimmed. As the jumbo jet gathered speed and we braced ourselves for the final lift off, I said a silent prayer to God for a safe journey. I was travelling out of the country after almost 9 years, and for the first time with my whole family- my husband and my two daughters- aged 7 and 4.

Even before the seat belt sign was switched off, my daughters had already dozed off. I was dozing off when the sound of laughter from a co-passenger woke me up. I turned and saw him showing his friend the photos he had taken with his digital camera. They were part of a larger group of about 35, mostly young men, who must have been sponsored by their office for a holiday package. As the noise in the cabin softly died down, I found myself drifting off to sleep. My husband nudged me awake when they came with our dinner. I remember I was excited when I was on my first international flight on Lufthansa Airways, in 1985, and we had gone from Delhi to London, via Frankfurt. Even now after so many years, I remember each detail, the smart dark blue and yellow uniforms, the aroma of food that they served, and especially the special toys they gave us. I wanted my daughters to also remember each detail of their first international flight. I opened their tables and took their dinner trays.

It must have been around 3:30 am, IST, by then, too late for them to be awake, and too early to wake up. In spite of coaxing, I could not wake them up. Ultimately I gave up and concentrated on finishing my food, warm enough to be relished, the dessert, just right.

Now I was wide awake. I listened to some music, and also looked around, and I could see some of the young passengers walking up and down, talking to their friends.  We were now flying in the southeast direction over Myanmar, and were almost into Thailand. I noticed a strange glow in the aircraft. And then it dawned on me. I looked towards my right and saw the purple night sky, not yet lit up by the golden glow of the rising sun. And then I looked towards my left. On the horizon I could see a crimson glow, almost as if someone had painted a thick crimson line along the entire horizon with a thick brush. The sky was still a dark purple, but with each passing moment, the crimson glow was spreading into more directions. It was almost as if our plane was in the middle of a time zone, with night on one side and day on the other.

It was an eerie and overwhelming feeling. No cinematography, no painting, could have ever captured the magical beauty of that moment. And it lasted for only a few seconds. After a few minutes the sky turned a pale crimson, and the bright orange sun shone in full splendour. At this moment I remembered the flight we had taken in 1985, from Frankfurt to New York. It was over the Atlantic, and the sun was just about to rise. Most of the passengers were asleep, but I was a young 15 year old too excited to sleep. I remember I was listening to ‘Killing me softly with his song…” and then, I happened to glance at the window. It was magical, something that mesmerised me. At that time I was amazed by the sheer breathtaking beauty of it. Now, more than the beauty, I was overwhelmed by a feeling I could not describe. The only thing that kept coming to my mind was the lines from the verses of the Quran, from the chapter ‘Ar Rahman’ that speaks of the different signs in the universe about a grand design by a divine power- “ and which of the Lord’s bounty do you deny?”

Such fleeting, magical moments come every day that the sun rises, but I have been lost in sleep to  savour such priceless moments. Imagine, travelling at 35,000 feet and realizing how insignificant you are compared to the grand design of the universe that we are just beginning to explore. I felt humbled and at the same time thankful for having been blessed to see such a sight twice in my life. I felt a tinge of regret at not being able to share such a moment with my daughters. And then I thought, maybe, if it is in their destiny, they too will experience this splendour and feel the magic of that moment, when their time comes.

I smiled. They were sleeping peacefully, their heads on the soft and small airline-size pillows propped up against the arm rests, dreaming of a holiday that had just begun.