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Solitary Saunters
by Archana Sarat (Prose - Short Story) | Published On:

Travelling alone has always sounded a lot better in my head than it is in reality. It is a liberating feeling to not have to pack toys, medicines and mosquito repellents. The feeling of independence and the possibility of some adventure is exhilarating. However, I'm usually stuck with some mother, travelling alone with a baby, and I end up holding the howling child while she changes the diaper. It was no different on my recent trip from Mumbai to Chennai.

Though I had a hectic schedule there, I did think about squeezing in some fun too. However, all plans (like partying till the wee hours of the morning on the Marina beach) were squashed by my mother as soon as they were conceived. So, it was a tame trip till I reached the Chennai airport for my expected-to-be-boring return journey to Mumbai. However, life still had some surprises for me!

Though I am a strong proponent of the maxim, ‘Ask and ye shall receive’, it wasn’t something that I act upon as frequently as I should. This time, I let go of my inhibitions and asked for a ‘free’ upgrade to the business class. Surprise of surprises, I was granted one! Beaming about travelling all alone in the business class of Jet Airways, I pulled in my tummy, straightened my spine and adjusted the lipstick.

As I headed towards the aircraft, the second surprise hit me. The aircraft was an Airbus headed abroad. This was one business-class upgrade that was worth gold. Puffing up with pride and feeling like an offspring of one of the Ambani brothers, I walked towards my seat. It was a twin seat and a young chap of around 26 years was my co-passenger. He stared fixedly out of the window with hardly a glance towards me. It was obvious that he was delighted with the prospect of my company for the next two hours. At least, that was what I assumed then.

We had clearly decided we were going to ignore each other. He had a huge pair of headphones over his head and kept humming something to himself as the plane taxied into the runway. Meanwhile, I opened the bar of Snickers and relished it, lost in the world of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shame’. Once the plane took off, my nosy-self peeped into his IPhone to check out the song that seemed to have arrested his attention away from me. It was then the horror struck.

The damn thing was in pause. The small inverted triangular display stared back at me. What was this guy listening to, and humming too, without pressing the play button? I kept looking at him as discreetly as possible. My eyes are not what they used to be. So, I had to scrunch them, risking wrinkles, and peer keenly into his phone screen to understand his fishy behaviour.

Firstly, it was no song on the screen. It was an audio book and he was on the Chapter 3. The title of the book wasn’t available on the screen but the author’s name was ‘Mohammed Aslam’. He started the book, then stopped it, started mumbling (it was no humming!) something like a prayer, re-winded the track and replayed it for a few seconds before stopping it again. Within a matter of half an hour, he must have played the same portion some 50 times.

It was obvious something was amiss—an international flight with a young chap who ignores the beautiful girl next to her for some audio book that has a track of around 30-40 seconds that he has played back some four dozen times. But can terrorist organisations afford business class seats for their suicide bombers? It could be the poor chap’s last wish.

The airhostess started serving the afternoon snacks then. It was a vegetable cutlet and a chicken puff. I wondered whether it would be advisable to eat both, considering my expanding waistline. The suspected-to-be-terrorist chap put away the headphones and pounced upon the food hungrily. Yes, I needed to do the same. After all, this could be my last meal. When I was contemplating on asking the airhostess if she had an extra meal available, (Remember, I was on the ‘Ask and ye shall receive’ spree!) the chap put back his headphones and the whole play-pause-mumble-pray-play cycle began afresh. My appetite deserted me.

I wondered if this was when I needed to inform the airhostess of my suspicions. Just another half hour of the journey was left and it was obvious he was going to blow up the plane on his onward journey. I wrapped myself in the cosy Jet Airways blanket, closed my eyes and dreamt of my speech at the ‘Bravery Awards’ ceremony. That was when he spoke. And, he spoke in Tamil. That French beard and sinewy build had misled me. He was a Tamilian?

“So, is this usual for Mumbai flights?” He asked in Tamil.

“What?” I asked. I didn’t know if my ears were playing tricks.

“The aircraft seems to be circling Mumbai for the last ten minutes. Is that usual?”

“Yes. Ground clearance gets delayed at times. It is quite a crowded airport.”

“Okay. By the way, I am Girish. Software Engineer.”

“Hi! I am Archana. Author.”

As expected, that led to a lot of oohs and aahs, followed by conversations that centred on books, Chetan Bhagat, writing and future plans.

“So, what’s next? Thriller, again?” He asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “It has a few dozen murders but I don’t think it could be called a ‘crime thriller’. What about you? What brings you to Mumbai? Business or pleasure?”

“I’m actually headed to Germany. The flight goes to Abu Dhabi and then Germany. I’m going to do my M.S. there.”

“Wow! That’s cool,” I said. He looked less and less of a terrorist now.

“Germans don’t speak English. That’s going to be a challenge for me. So, I’m learning the language,” he said and pointed to his headphones. “The pace is slow and I need to keep repeating the lessons.”

The mystery was solved. It all fell in place now as the aeroplane dived down towards the runway. As I bid him goodbye and wished him luck, I tried to pin the blame only on my active imagination for making me jump to conclusions. I failed.

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