Fly to learn

 

Do jumping from trees, benches, roofs and parapet walls in Superman’s costumes, qualify as flying? No? Well, in that case, the first time I really flew was when I was 26. In an airplane, of course.

This might be shocking to a generation that now starts flying earlier than birds do- Some of my grandnephews & nieces are Frequent Flyers already.

But my days were different.

The night before my first flight, my dad had given me a ready-reckoner of sorts, a list of what to do after I enter the airport. It equalled the kind of briefing that commandos get before they storm a hijacked plane.

That’s because, in those days the airport was a world not many have been to. Like Norlan’s movies, it had customs and rituals that were very different from the world I lived in. The airport was very different from the railway stations and bus depots that I was used to.

It had no porters, the old-world’s paid husbands who carried your baggage, listened to your grumbling and could be blamed for all things wrong.

No tea stalls, the ubiquitous Enquiry counters where you could ask anything under the sun, and get prompt, wrong answers.

Worse, no crowd, which I missed the most. It’s still the Third World’s greatest leveller. A sea of anonymity that offers you comfort in numbers, and ironically, most privacy. It is the best place to lose wallets, kids, inhibitions and self.

I remember wondering why there had to be so many complicated formalities just for a ride. In trains all we did was enter a station, wait for the train, get in and settle down. Once in, we could sit, stand, sleep, walk or talk. Most strangers would be willing to share their entire life’s story with us within minutes. A cousin of mine even fell in love and later married her fellow passenger on one journey.

But the people one encountered inside the airport looked, dressed and spoke- if at all- very differently. They spoke with cultivated accents at counters, and displayed the kind of manners and aloofness usually associated with the West. Airhostesses seemed like Bollywood heroines, and pilots, straight out of Hollywood seventyemems.

The experience was intimidating. I don’t think I have ever again felt that inadequate or lowly.

But I learnt a valuable lesson that day- That this world will never be just ONE homogenous world. There will always be worlds within worlds within worlds. Some of those, we will be familiar and comfortable with. Some, we will never be. The trick is to enter, adapt, evolve and exit by choice. There’s no need to try and belong to every world that we encounter.

To translate a popular Malayalam saying, “Subsume the world before the world subsumes you.”

That holds good not just for countries and cultures, but, as I learnt later, for all life’s relationships, experiences, roles and responsibilities.

************

Airports, flying and flyers have changed a great deal since those days. And I, a bit.

However, one thing that hasn’t changed much is my hopeless luck at check-in counters.

For many years, I used to ask for the window seat, and never get it.

I then began to ask for the aisle seat, and never get that either.

Which is why, three months ago this happened.

“Any seat preference, sir?” I was, as always, asked at the check-in counter.

“The middle seat,” I said, for the first time in my life.

“Sure, sir! Is 18B okay?”

I got what I asked for, for the first time in my life.

Don’t believe the bestsellers when they say there are 8 secrets, 10 steps, 25 ways and 101 roads to success. There’s only One. And here it is, summed up for you, by me, from that experience of mine.

If you don’t get what you seek, seek what you can get.”

I assure you, that’s the only mantra for permanent success in life.

************

I am now a regular Middle-seat seeker, getter and sitter.

On my uncomfortable journeys sandwiched between two strangers, I have learnt what no psychologist, anthropologist or sociologist could have told me.

That there are only three kinds of people in this world.

Window-seat sitters.

Aisle-seat sitters.

And the Middle-seat sitters.

I am sure you have noticed them.

The Window guys are those with a Do Not Disturb sign etched on their foreheads. On the flight and in life, they assume both handrests are theirs. They pretend to look out of the window, or be engrossed in the book on their lap with music in their ears, to suggest that their worlds are far more meaningful than yours. In reality, they are fully aware and worried about where their neighbour’s elbow and knees are, and keep a keen eye of the food-cart coming along. Their sleep is never genuine. For no reason, they seem to be anti-humanity and particularly angry with the Aisle chap. They can, at the most, tolerate the Middle guy. So, they will ask and maybe apologise to him when they have to go to the loo, but pretend the Aisle guy doesn’t exist. Communicating to Aisle guy is left to the Middle man.

On the contrary, the Aisle guys are all eyes and ears to everything around them. They’d stare and even intrude. They are the guys who watch the airhostess all the way down the aisle, until she disappears behind the curtains. They read nothing, listen to nothing and do all they can to fight sleep. They are keen and are always looking for opportunities to start a conversation. Doesn’t matter even if it’s an argument. They will have no issues if the Middle guy wants to go to the loo, but will let out grudging groans when the Window guy gets up. They are the closest to their overhead baggage, and yet they have this uncontrollable rush to reach for it at touch-down.

Between the extreme right and the extreme left are the Middle ones. Condemned as fence sitters, shunned as mediocre, described as spineless and blamed for being too diplomatic. They have been treated as nobodies because the Extremes believe that life is a shoot-out between the Window and the Aisle, with the Middle guy at best a bystander.

That’s precisely why the Extremes can be annoying. I find them too melodramatic, self-centered, opinionated, and judgmental.

In comparison, the Middler always seems saner, calmer and in control.

In a world of definitive answers, it is refreshing to hear their Maybes. Amidst  stubborn opinions, it is breezy to hear their realistic I-Don’t-Knows.

Middle Sitters sleep faster and better, often falling on to the shoulders of those beside them. There’s an air of informality and positivity about them. To boasts of “I have the Window” and “I have the Aisle”, all they say is, “I have a bit of both!”

I am beginning to believe that the Middle is the new Chill Pill, the original Cool Cucumber.

It’s definitely cooler- You get the blast from all the air-vents.

It’s safer, too- Have you ever heard of a hijacker shooting a Middle-seat sitter as his first ransom victim?

The Middle is actually more than just a seat. It’s a happy state of equilibrium.

Pity, most of us aren’t born so. And we do all we can to avoid the stigma of Mediocrity and Averageness that comes attached to it.

But the fact is, those traits aren’t as bad as the world makes them out to be.

A wise man recently tweeted: If the whole world were to take a middle path in everything, we’ll probably have a less developed world, but surely a happier world.

So true. Especially when that Middle Seat is between Obsession and Detachment, Servility and Arrogance, Delirium and Depression, the Sugary and the Bitter, the Prodigy and the Idiot, the Stunning and the Repulsive, the Too Good and the Too Bad…

Between the Absolute and the Absolute lies a happy and comfortable heaven. The only permanent heaven there is.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask for it. Fly in it. And discover the meaninglessness of fighting for the Window or the Aisle. On a flight. And in your life.

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