Friday, June 26, 2009

Flying High.....

She had been travelling outside India since 1948. When she first travelled go to the New York to join her husband , already there studying for his masters in Brooklyn , (the "Bombay" government then gave scholarships to deserving students), flying was still new. Her husband had gone a year ago, by ship.

Memories from her flight are still there in the form of black and white fading photographs with smiling pilots (wearing something that looked like a boiler suit with boots) , standing with her , just near the plane, parked on the tarmac, someplace midway, in Europe.
To this day I don't know how she managed that.

Many many years later, her children too went on to study in the US.
One returned. Some did not. Luckily, travel had become easier and faster. And so for about 50 years, till the end of the last century, she did many trips, to attend graduations, births, some one's Special Day, or someone being bestowed with an honor, or sometimes, to just help out in a difficult situation.

Airline food started having variety, vegetarians didn't suffer so much any more (being suddenly presented with turkey and chicken) , and of course, she didn't really care for the movies they showed in the plane. Whenever her ticket was booked, her children ensured that her food preferences were listed correctly, which didn't stop her from looking disapprovingly at the greasy and spicy stuff that was served sometimes......and that she was always assigned an aisle seat , so that she didn't have to trip over knees and stuff getting out of her seat to visit the loo etc.

Much to our wonder, she took to carrying packets of home made stuff in her purse, just in case, as she said. She never trusted all these posh airlines.
And we would just shake our heads....

Most flights to the US from India, take off at unearthly hours like 3 am or 4 am. Due to the propensity of large family groups, congregating to see a member off, entry to Indian airports, for those
not travelling, is through a hefty entry fee, which most people are not fond of. Today, however, all entry, except for passengers and folks with special permission, is banned.

When I went to see my mother off, on what was to be her last trip, I took special permission from the airport manager , something you could do if the passenger was 80+. My mother really needed physical help in handling her always bulging bags, filled with stuff that she was convinced, the US didn't carry in shops, and another person was really required to lift these onto the conveyor belts as security scanning was done.
This time she was carrying, among other things, hand pound rice, dehusked specially at home , and a large silver plate for the "first food" ceremony of the youngest grandson, still a baby.

Just when I was wheeling her cart to the check in counter (
beyond which stage I was not allowed), I heard a voice calling out to me. I was surprised to see a lady from our campus, M, who appeared to be extremely relieved to see me. She was flying for the first time ever in her life, that too, out of the country, by herself; her husband was not allowed inside, and she was a bit flustered. She thought I was travelling and was thrilled. I explained that I wasn't, but I introduced her to my mother. Turns out that she and my mother were taking the same flights to the same place, with the same change of flights in between. My mother told her not to worry, and to kind of "hang out" with her ..

They were assigned different seats far apart during the trip. The meal was served, and after having her predefined vegetarian meal, my mother left her seat, for what is called , or may be loosely translated , as , a
"loosening of the feet" .

She often walked around at home in India after a meal, in what is traditionally called "
Shatapavli" or hundred steps, supposed to aid greatly , in digestion. Her various trips had her routine well set. Travelling in planes did not hinder her walking. She was happy the planes were big, as she could do several trips, slowly walking around the place, as the crew rested after serving the meals. Airlines probably never realized this aspect of the big planes.

By and by, well into her walk, she passed by where M sat, and asked after her well being and whether she had had her meal. The lady dissolved in tears, saying they served her chicken , and said there were no vegetarian meals . Looking at the chicken made her nauseous, and so she sent it back
and had had nothing. Those booking her ticket had not worried about the meal preference. The trip had certainly begun on a bad note, and she had this corporate type sitting next to her who was relishing the chicken, which made her physically uncomfortable.

My mother was carrying her big purse with her ( she never left anything like that on her seat, appearances were deceptive, and you never knew your neighbor). She unzipped a compartment and whipped out a set of "laddoos " ( sweet ball- shaped concoctions made of whole wheat flour, dry fruits, cardamom, saffron, shortening, and jaggery) and passed them over to her.

"Try these" , she said, and explained the ingredients over the head of the startled corporate type, who was probably wishing he could have a piece too, but didn't dare ask. A look of disbelief in M's eyes, followed by a sudden filling of eyes.

"Did you ask them for milk ? A couple of these and a glass of milk should be like a meal." And seeing M's confused face, she took off towards the galley, to ask for a carton of milk for her young friend . The crew probably remembered their schooldays, once she got through with her request,simultaneously pulling them up, for what she thought was total thoughtlessness on their part.

When they got off mid-way to change flights, M kept close to my mother, and was almost in tears. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful, till they got off at San Francisco. And went through customs. My mother never tried to hide anything and she was carrying the rice, so she went through the appropriate customs channel. M accompanied her although she had nothing to declare as such.

The US customs were treated to a short spiel on the benefits of hand pound rice. They then asked about the silver plate she was carrying. I still haven't figured out why they would object to a silver plate.

But the sight of an old grandmother, slightly bent at the shoulders, tired after a
22 hour journey, explaining the baby grandson's first food sampling ceremony , with a maternal uncle dipping a gold ring in some delicious sweet stuff on the silver plate, and allowing the infant to lick it delightedly, probably updated the US customs knowledge of Indian customs......

The officer, slightly amazed, probably touched, and duly impressed, nodded and my mother walked out with her friend, both of them wreathed in smiles as they saw their respective sons , with families, waiting for them.

M couldn't stop praising my mother as she explained the happenings to her son. The business with the "laddoos" , and berating the airline staff for not offering milk to a meal-deprived lady, and what she described as the " brave" explanations to the US customs about various things.
She got all teary eyed, her emotions a confusing mix of saying goodbye to a motherly person, and relief at seeing her son after so many years. She quickly bent down and touched my mother's feet before leaving with her son. And my mother patted her back, promising to look her up during her stay.

There was a smile on the face of the tough looking African American police lady assigned to that area.

No one from my family was the least bit surprised. These kind of things were always happening with her.....

I am just glad that she never had to face travel in recent times, when all kinds of things are
barred and banned, and confiscated, due to security reasons.

With increasing variety in travel routes, and constant screening even in transit, I can only imagine the illuminating lectures that are being missed by customs and airline authorities in places like HongKong, Bangkok and Seoul.....


  1. Your mother has spunk, and commands respect. Good for her!

    I fly a lot, and it has gotten to be dreadful and tedious. The planes are dirty, no one responds to requests, people are herded about. When I was a little girl, flying was special, we always dressed up!

    I can hardly keep up with the security changes myself. It would be hard for an elderly person.

  2. Wow loved it.
    I am so impressed by your mother. Sometimes I find it too much to handle the rude air hostesses and the horrible airline service.

  3. Flying used to be so exciting and the traveler was treated with respect. I once thought the trip in an airplane was the best part of my tour. NO MORE! I dread flying now. I have learned to be spunky like your Mom and to speak up when they are rude or thoughtless.

    It must be doubly difficult if you have different customs and food preferences. Actually, you don't get food now unless it's a long flight so that is no longer a concern. I pack power bars in my purse.

  4. Loved the account of your Mother's journey..
    You know "Shatapavli" reminded me of my grandfather's routine post lunch/dinner walk along our living room hall. I dont know if he took 100 steps or not, but what I remember was that however sleepy he may be (he had to take sleeping tablets to ensure proper sleep), he would NEVER fail to complete his quota of circling the hall 6 times!

  5. Very interesting.

    I have always felt that grandmas have tremendous innate confidence that takes people in authority by complete surprise.


  6. that why they walk around after their meal?..i've seen my grandpa do that...

    i love the courage in your mother..i see that in my MIL..she never lets anything get her down.

    lovely post ugich :)

  7. Very nice. Reminded me of my grandmother who passed away at the tender age of 94. Even though she had never flown in an airplane or gone anywhere out of India she was a wonderful role model.Till the time she was there I never had to buy fulwaati or samai chya waati.Those delicate white waatees , homemade masala and metkut , bhajani..gone are those days.

    I get airsick in the plane however short or long the trip may be. So I hate flying. I love road trips.

  8. It is amazing how your mother could adapt to something 'foreign' and make it her own. That is the sign of true intelligence. Your posts have made me admire her greatly.

  9. Amazing post.....absolutely loved it....Hats off to your mother - such a smart, brave and caring these days very few people actually care about anyone, leave alone strangers....Really worth admiration and your narrative is spellbinding...

  10. I read your blog occasionally. De-lurking for this lovely post. I could picture the whole journey. "Shatpavli" brought back so many memories.


  11. Lou,Shilpa Thank you

    Darlene My late mother did her last trip at 83. She would have been 92 today. She was never impressed by the pomp and show in these airlines. But just like she fired folks who needed to be pulled up, she was also appreciative of times when they had excellent service in the planes. This India-US flight is a 22-24 hour thing and necessarily involves meals. Gets very tiring for elderly types.

    SGD,Suma, Veena Thank you. And isnt it wonderful that across India, a certain generation of folks continue to rigorously follow all this "Shatapavli" stuff , regardless of cultural differences etc ? I think that generation simply had more spunk. I know my late mother did...

    Vivek So true. Actually I feel the real authority is always with the grandmas. Everyone else's authority is all virtual...naam ke vaaste...

    Vinita My late mother would have been the same age as your grandma today. She also used to do the "wati", and the metkut and the bhajani for all of us !

    Sucharita Actually, my mother is no more. But there is such a bank of wonderful memories that serve as a guide in various situations in life for me. I remember so many things as if she was there......

    Koel Thank you. My late mother always encouraged us to do the right thing and help, regardless of whether it would look odd, whether it was in fashion, or whether it was likely to bring you "burapan"...a lot of people today worry about "appearances" per se, instead of "what is right"...