The crack of dawn is another name for a migraine. My head wanted to explode and spill its sorry mess over the illiterate whose head, apparently loosely hinged to his neck, lolled on my shoulder. All of the last three hours he had slept like this. I had eaten my uninspiring inflight meal of kebabs and a foamy omelette (wishing I had not allowed that grab-and-fly thought to perish back at the terminal) and attempted to catch a few moments of shut-eye before my co-passenger, right on cue, began to snore.
I’m a fairly competent snorer myself but to have a man-size mosquito ventilate in your ear was a cruel inversion of fate; it showed me what it was like to be at the receiving end of acute sleep apnea.
We had met before, he and I, at the check-in counter. It is not always that strangers smile unbidden at my dour countenance, but he greeted me with a broad grin and a nod of his head. For a second I worried that something about my getup advertised homosexuality and had sent the wrong signals. I nodded back, as subtly as possible, and looked away. He asked to borrow my pen, then fiddled around and asked for my help to fill the emigration form. I’m normally a hopelessly gullible and patient Good Samaritan, but on this evening I was exhausted from working too hard and too long. Better sense prevailed (catalysed by migraine, perhaps) and I refused sans excuse or ceremony.
As we approached the check-in counter, an Air Arabia executive asked aloud if anyone wanted help with filling forms. Our man stepped forward. Any incipient feelings of guilt that my refusal had invoked in me subsided with that. But I don’t think he forgave me so easily. He cast a mirthless glance in my direction and held my gaze for an instant longer than routine politeness permitted.
In the waiting lounge, he chose the only seat available – right next to mine. I stared at my iPad, typing away in my journal. He leaned over furtively to steal an occasional glance but his curiosity evaporated on seeing a sea of grey text.
On board, we had met again. Crossed by fate, as it were. And too close for comfort. With barely any eye contact, he shuffled into the seat next to mine.
Being a guest of Air Arabia, I had expected to be treated better but I couldn’t really complain. This was a low-cost carrier offering arguably the cheapest flights to the Arab Gulf. The airline is the flag carrier of the oil-rich Emirate of Sharjah, the third in land area and importance in the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi has Etihad; Dubai has Emirates; and Sharjah Air Arabia. These were men returning to their jobs in Sharjah, probably Dubai (many workers make the daily 40-minute commute from Sharjah, where the rents are lower). This red-eye service from Bangalore departed in the wee hours of the morning and arrived at the crack of dawn in Sharjah.
The aircraft was full to choking; in the lavatories careless fliers unaccustomed to flight etiquette had left behind their bio-signatures. Perhaps they too, like my friend, were barely literate. Of what use were printed instructions to them? Signage literacy is often beyond them, too.
A twinge of compassion stirred in my heart for my snoring co-passenger, who was still resting his head confidingly on my shoulder. I thought of the day ahead: I had a lazy morning to catch up on lost sleep before a leisurely lunch appointment and a stroll in the mall to work it off, followed by a chance to grab a siesta before attending a light opera in the evening. My neighbour, on the other hand, probably had to report to work as soon as he got home in the morning. I relaxed, sat back and lent my shoulder. Happy to help, I sighed in edification. On idiotic cue, Lean On Me began to unspool on loop in the back of my head.
I must have dozed off, too, for I woke with a start when the plane hit a patch of turbulence. It was then that I noticed my friend had made himself really comfortable. He had turned on his side and the entire left side of his torso now lounged against my willing body. He even had one arm on my chest, clinging with the delicacy of a two-toed sloth. It has never been more opportune to quote the parable of the Arab and the Camel.
I waited for the next burst of turbulence and, synchronising myself with the violence of its jolt, shook my friend off. His head rolled back, whipping a robust strand of drool back onto his face (to my grateful relief, it had not yet made contact with my person).
Enough milk of human kindness for one flight.
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