Short story published in Silverfish Anthology
“Good morning, Mrs. Nair, How are you today? Shall I get you your usual?” It’s 5 am on a Monday morning, and I might be forgiven for wondering if she was going to pass me my usual ‘large cappuccino with an extra dollop of sugar’. But no, the usual is an aisle seat by the emergency exit in the non-smoking section.
Imke has the early shift on Monday mornings at the KLM counter. She has been there every Monday morning as far as I can remember, and can’t be blamed for not knowing that today is anything but the usual. In a few hours, I could be the first woman CEO of Biacorp, managing multi-billion dollar revenues and over 200,000 employees, or just as easily, be on the next flight home, after being fired from a company I had worked in for over twenty years. Imke takes less than a minute to look over my e-ticket and pass me my boarding pass.
As I walk towards the boarding gate, still in a daze from not having had my early morning coffee, I instinctively look over my shoulder. I see two loving faces, riddled with anxiety, praying that their only daughter would reach safely and wishing the very best for her, while trying hard to keep an encouraging smile.
It had been thirty years ago at the Chennai Airport, then known as the Madras Airport. I was barely fifteen and feeling uncomfortable in an oversized T-shirt and my first pair of denim pants.
The journey had started from Wadakkanchery – a small village in India, half an hour away from the nearest big town. I had been accepted to one of the most prestigious junior colleges in Singapore and the glossy brochure that arrived with the acceptance letter had advised that I bring many assortments of notebooks, paper, pens, a few sets of uniforms and all the books in the very long book list, that had warranted a little booklet all of its own. Achan and Amma had been busying themselves for several weeks with all the tiny details with love and care as only parents can – Achan making many calls to the several bookshops and more than a few trips to the city to get all the books. Amma trying to work her way down the list of things I had been asked to bring, all the while making her own additions to the list – new clothes in the latest styles she had heard of from the city bride next door who had just moved to her husband’s home in the village, food for the journey just in case I didn’t like the food that was served on the flight, home remedies for all imaginable and unimaginable ailments, and not to mention a large collection of pictures of Gods and Goddesses that had always protected her family, and now will travel with her daughter to keep her safe and away from troubles of any sort.
Then there were the ladoos, made by the old lady with the wrinkled face who lived next door, the fresh murukku that my aunt had brought all the way from her home that was almost a day’s bus ride away, a huge packet of roasted cashew nuts from my high school English teacher and a can of salted mangoes that Amma had carefully kept aside last month in a large ceramic jar so it would be ready just in time to travel with me and brighten up the bland Chinese and Malay dishes I would soon be eating. They were all packed, unpacked and then, packed again into the huge brown suitcase, which was almost as tall as me. Everything had finally fit into it, Achan had picked up my tickets, the visa was stamped – and there was no turning back.
Shamu, the help at the nearby grocery shop, had struggled to load my 40 kg bag into the autorickshaw that took us to the bus stop. The autorickshaw stopped by the roadside bus stop. It was just a long highway, the only one in the town that had no potholes, and had no markings whatsoever to show where the bus would stop. But Krishnan, the bus driver, always stopped at the exact same spot and everyone knew where the spot was. Everyone in Wadakkanchery, that is. Baiju, the autorickshaw driver insisted on waiting till the bus arrived and loading the huge suitcase onto the top of the bus. I tried to ignore the fellow passengers who were staring at us by now.
In about 40 minutes, the bus arrived at Trichur’s “Shaktan Tampuran” bus stop – I wondered for a moment what the Shakthan Tampuran, the mighty emperor that he was known to be, would have done if he had to leave his home and travel to a faraway land? Would he have killed all the butterflies that seemed to flutter madly in his stomach with one quick swipe of his sword or would he have used his diplomacy to induce them into a temporary coma? His lofty statue offered me no answers, and I followed my parents to the Trichur railway station. Five inconsequential waiting hours later, the Kanyakumari express arrived to take us to Madras.
During the whole length of the journey, I didn’t say a word. Amma was still not very convinced that it was a great idea for me to go; I was but a little girl. Comforting words from Achan, followed by a stern look, made her decide not to say much more. I didn’t dare to open my mouth. I knew that I wanted to go. I badly wanted to see the world. To be out in the open and to be free. Yet, I didn’t trust myself not to say otherwise. To confess how truly scared I was and how, no matter what I did, the butterflies just wouldn’t stop fluttering. I stared hard into the Competition Success Review, still stuck at the first question in their IQ test.
Twelve unforgiving long hours later, we were at Madras – the land of heat and dust. Just getting out of the train makes you want to rush into the shower and stay under it forever. But then the water is so salty and hard, it will make you want to rush right out.
It was already late for bed, and we had a long day ahead. The soft couch at Hotel Riviera just couldn’t nudge me into a slumber deep enough to forget my fears. I woke up in the middle of the night, with the moonlight shining onto the bed where my parents were sleeping, their peaceful faces veiling the unspoken misgivings. I sat up on the couch and stared at them for hours, wondering if they knew how much I would miss them. I could hardly resist the urge to sneak out of the hotel room and take the next train home. Thankfully, sleep had other plans for me and I drifted into a dreamless slumber.
The morning passed away in a huge rush. Breakfast, shower, prayers and a long cab ride later, we were finally at the Madras airport. The airport was a colossal mess. I had expected peace and calm – clean hallways and smart men in uniforms. I could just as well have stepped into a fish market.
We somehow managed to find two others who were traveling with me. Their city accents and smart clothes didn’t offer me much comfort. Mortified that I might start to cry, I forced a Colgate smile and convinced my parents that everything would be alright. They asked me yet again about my passport, my ticket and the foreign currency that I had just obtained.
Despite all my attempts to make the clock stop, it had ticked away and the hour was finally here. Farewells were never my thing – I rushed through them with a hurried hug and kiss. It was time for us to proceed to the check-in queue, which had over forty people ahead of me. I waited with my two fellow students, exchanging little pieces of information about ourselves, and waving to our parents in the distance every once in a while. We swapped stories about how difficult our interviews were, which colleges we were going to, how troublesome it was to find some of the text books, how sad some of our old classmates were when they didn’t get this scholarship and so on. Sandeep told us that his cousin had been to Singapore last year and how everything was nice and clean, but that you had to study the rule books as soon as you can or you might be fined for unknowingly breaking one of the umpteen rules. I made a mental note to procure one of those rule books as soon as the plane landed.
“Next please”, came the impatient voice of the lady at the Air India check-in counter. She stared at my 40 kg luggage with disbelief, and frowned when I produced a letter permitting a student baggage allowance. After looking me up and down a few times, she asked me if I was traveling with my parents. Determined not to be scared any further by a grumpy old woman, I eagerly quipped that I was traveling with two friends. Unconvinced with my answer and with the frown now permanently plastered on her face, she handed me my boarding pass, along with a strict warning to proceed to the boarding gate without any further delay. I clutched onto my passport, my ticket, some name tags and my new boarding pass and proceeded to the boarding gate.
Desperately looking for a last beacon of hope, I glanced over my shoulder. And I saw them – two loving faces, riddled with anxiety, praying that their only daughter would reach safely and wishing the very best for her, while trying hard to keep an encouraging smile.
“Gooie Morgan, Mevrouw, Kan ik u helpen?” the KLM assistant’s voice startles me out of my daze.
“Nee, dank u”, I mumble and absently wave good bye into the wide open space, suddenly confident that I wouldn’t be taking the next flight home.