I am flying anywhere after precisely fourteen months. And it feels awkward and unfamiliar to be carrying a negative RT-PCR report with the boarding pass. In the departure lounge, alternate seats have yellow stickers saying “Do not sit here” in an attempt to ensure physical distancing. But a moment after I find a vacant seat, I sense a man slide into the seat next to mine, ignoring the sticker. I turn around to glare at him, and find that his mask is in his hand. I have just had a look at the spiralling corona-positive numbers in Amravati, and have half a mind to give him a sermon. But then I prefer my peace at 7 am, and restrain myself.
A shrill voice keeps asking Air India passengers to collect PPE kits and face shields. I look around. I see an elderly gentleman with some sort of neurological ailment struggle to button his white gown. Then I notice a young lady, perhaps his daughter or daughter-in-law, help him. A child has been given an adult size gown, which is dragging behind him on the floor like the trail of a bride. Two gentlemen in their sixties are having a political conversation, as they peel off the films on their visors. But the moment, the face shields are worn, their masks are pulled to their chins. I cannot but wonder how the faceshields are going to help when their masks are down. One of them murmurs a good morning and smiles at me, when he catches me looking at him. Kya boloon? Finally the flight is announced, and the caped and non-caped line up. Half the middle-seaters have white tails, as they did not realize that their gowns had tie-up belts.
We are finally seated. My visor keeps fogging up and everything appears blurred. I cannot read a thing, so I decide to catch a few winks. I must have been tired as I doze off quickly. Suddenly something wakes me up. A man in the opposite aisle in front of me, shoves his mobile phone in front of my face. I feel like screaming, but I presume that he is merely trying to click a weird-angled selfie. So I go off to sleep again.
I am half asleep when I hear something about ‘jalpaan vitran‘ being started. Not interested, I think and doze. But then a voice very close to me loudly asks me to open my tray table. It takes me a moment to realize that we are travelling Air India and not Indigo, and the meal is for everyone. I glance at the hubby who is sitting on the opposite aisle, and he looks bewildered. “After all this, all the masks will come down, and everyone will eat together!” he hisses. “What was the point of all this?” He shrugs his shoulders.
I am still looking at him. Will he refuse the food? But this is India, does anyone ever say no to food? I don’t know whether it was the besan burfi or the paneer tikka, but he accepts the tray from the air hostess gladly. As everyone’s masks are removed, I look at the soul-less and hole-less barfi and wonder if it was actually meant to be a mysore-pak. After the meal, three-fourths of the passengers decide they don’t need to wear the face shields any further. It is rather stuffy, and people keep asking for more bottles of water.
The flight descends in Delhi. We are given instructions to keep on sitting. And also how to discard the PPE kits, masks and face shields in yellow biohazard bins. But the moment the seat-belt signs are switched off, there is mayhem. Physical distancing is forgotten, and people push and prod. The guy sitting next to me shoves me, almost toppling me over, because he wants to go first. I am angry, very angry, now. I tell him to slow down, but he ignores me and pushes ahead. As we get off the plane, I see that people have shoved PPE gowns under the seats. As I reach the escalator, the middle seat guy is waiting for someone ahead of me. I look into his eyes, and he murmurs, “Sorry Ma’am”.
As we retrieve our luggage from the carousels, I am still hunting for the yellow biohazard bins. I cannot find any. Then I see them. They are red in colour.