Having lived all my childhood in the United Kingdom, long distance flight travels played an integral part of it as every summer holiday found Mum, Shivi (my little brother) and me packing all of our luggage and flying over to India to enjoy the eight weeks of freedom at Grandma and Grandpa’s. Dad came with us only once in two years because of work at the hospital and during the times he didn’t accompany us, he’s drop us off at the airport, where he’ll witness Shivi and I doing monkey business and jumping up and down at the thought of seeing our grandparents. When we’re checking in the main luggage at London Heathrow, we can’t wait to get on the flight. When we’re seated in it, we can’t wait for it to take off and when it does, we can’t wait for it to land at Chennai. It’s a ten hour journey if it’s British Airways, since it is point-to-point. A few other flights usually had transits at certain European countries I can’t remember, during which the duration was longer. After landing at Chennai, we either take the night train to our hometown or board a local flight to reach Madurai quickly, from where it’s only a one and a half hour journey by the car. After spending two joyful months with our grandparents and our other family members, it’s extremely hard for us when we have to board the flight back to UK. Being attached to my mother on one hand, I’m also closely attached to my maternal grandparents, especially Grandma. I remember crying my eyes out on missing her when we get on the train or flight to Chennai and then fly back to London Heathrow.
It was during these summer holiday visits I flew to India all by myself for the very first time. This was in 2002 and since Mum and Dad had to work on shifting houses, as we were going to move to a new place after the holidays, they decided to send me onwards two weeks prior, knowing flights are safe. There’s a special category called Unaccompanied Minor, where an airport staff will take me through the boarding process and then put me in the care of an air hostess inside the flight. That air hostess is my guardian until we land at the destination, where she will transfer me to the care of another airport staff who will help me claim my main luggage and will let me go only when my grandparents give proof for their identity and relationship with me through their own passport.
Little eight year old me was very nervous as well as excited at the prospect during my first time. We departed to London very early in the morning and I had on a nice dress, which became soiled the moment we reached the airport, because I threw up in the car and all over me. I had eaten cornflakes for breakfast and that was the auspicious day I discovered I have milk allergy during car drives. Mum had to open the zipped up suitcase to extract a clean dress for me while Shivi giggled at the chaos I created.
Once inside the airport, Mum and Dad checked in my luggage and I played with my brother until a pleasant looking airport staff in a majestic suit came over with a smile and told me it was time to go in. Knowing I’ll see Mum and Shivi in a fortnight, I happily waved at my family and took my guardian’s hand as he escorted me inside. He was very kind and I found it easy to talk with him as he asked me about myself. While I was telling him about India, he revealed a surprise that was waiting for me in a colourful room after walking for ten minutes. I wasn’t the only unaccompanied minor. There were fifteen of us. Feeling comforted and ecstatic I was going to have company during my journey, I quickly made friends with a girl and boy, and we were chattering for a while before our two guardians enthusiastically went ‘Come on, kids’ and lead us through an entirely different pathway than the other passengers. I thought it was probably a shortcut to get in the British Airways flight, which was quite true, but what none of us expected was that we were going to see something before seated inside.
We gasped in awe as the pilots greeted us warmly and showed us the controls and explained how they fly this gigantic aircraft very securely. That was where I developed a huge respect for pilots that is intact to this very second. It takes huge effort to drive even a car safely and these people operate a large engine that flies thousands of feet above clouds. The very thought is jittery and I view pilots as extremely honourable people.
My first flight journey alone was actually quite fun, in contrary to my apprehension. I had the window seat, my preferred place, and my new friends were seated beside me. We were talking incessantly and the air hostesses enjoyed joining us in between intervals. They took amazing care of us and supplied us delicious food to entice our taste buds, along with bonus chocolate bars they’d stocked for us. The moment I landed at Chennai, my mother called up my grandfather anxiously and I excitedly told her everything that happened after she let the staff back at Heathrow guide me inside. She was pleased I had landed safely as well as enjoyed the flight, and even though we were only two weeks apart from each other, I did miss her and the morning she and my brother arrived at my grandparents’ house, I hugged her tight.
This reaction multiplied by tenfold after she and Dad decided to make me move to India to see how I coped up before deciding to move here permanently. I didn’t know what I was in for as I nodded to her when she asked me worriedly if I’d be okay. Since I’d always enjoyed my summer holidays here in India with Grandma and Grandpa, I didn’t think school and the permanent change of environment would be an issue. Until I arrived at Heathrow on the day of my departure from my life in UK, I didn’t have an inkling that I was going to miss my family terribly. This realisation dawned on my innocent ten year old self when my brother started crying when the staff came to guide me inside. I would love nothing more than to go back to that moment and hug that six year old child tight, telling him I wasn’t going anywhere and that I was staying right there with him. But in the real moment, I was sort of transfixed and had to let go of my brother’s hand instead of the staff’s, as I displayed enthusiasm for my new life. I didn’t want to break down on looking at my parents’ face. They were restraining Shivi from running after me as the physical distance between us increased the more steps I took towards that turning in the far end of the large terminal. My control challenged me when I was in the air and right in front of an air hostess and an Indian lady friend my parents knew was going to fly on the same flight and had requested to take care of me during it, tears came pouring out of my eyes. As the air hostess put her arms around me and tried her best to comfort me, the lady tried her mobile to reach my mother’s number but there was no reception. I cried for a long time and stopped only when I fell into an exhausted sleep. My mood got better only when I saw my grandfather at Chennai and hugged him tight.
I did have a hard time settling in but managed to eventually. Mum came to see me during Christmas and for some reason I don’t know, I didn’t fly to UK for my summer holidays. Mum called for me but whether it was me subconsciously knowing I’d never have the heart to leave her if I flew there or if I simply enjoyed life with my grandparents, I stayed. I couldn’t take it after she spent Shivi’s summer holidays with me and expressed my desire to fly to UK for Christmas, otherwise I may go insane. During my two weeks there, I had the epiphany of just how much I missed my home and Herefordshire and swore I wasn’t missing any more summer holidays with my parents.
The British Airways flight journeys from Chennai to London were extremely exciting. I’d be bouncing as I watch my grandpa tie my main luggage for me at home and throughout the train to Chennai, I’d be dreaming of Mum and her warm embrace. My grandparents and I reach Chennai one day prior and stay at my grandmother’s sister’s house, since my flight is always at four in the morning. I try sleeping during the day to stay fresh for the night but have never gone as far as two hours, courtesy of anticipation. Once it’s midnight, while Grandpa checks everything is in order and my ticket and passport in the safe pouch I always hang around my neck, I’ll jump into the shower for a bath and for a change of clean clothes. The bath isn’t my idea but my mother’s order through a phone call she always makes after she knows we have finished dinner 😀 It’s always dark in the evening by the time I reach home in Hereford and the first thing she does is direct me to the shower, before taking me to the church to thank God for the safe journey, and then a night out in the brightly lit city centre.
Once inside the flight, I relax in my seat, enjoying the soft music and watching the other passengers settle down. But as the aircraft runs at top speed for take off, my nerves roll around in my stomach and I grasp the arm rest tightly as it tilts upwards and lifts into the air, changing Chennai into a twinkling land beneath me. Misty clouds pass by my window as the airplane gains a colossal height and I lean back with a rigid body, which relaxes only after the seat belt sign is turned off. Sleep will be waiting to take over me and after I am free to get up, I shift to the middle row, throw up the arm rests, put a pillow on one side, stretch my legs out, pull the cosy blanket over me and drift off into a deep sleep. The journey from Chennai to London never has the flight full so I have liberty to enjoy this bed. I sleep for a solid six hours before I slowly flutter my eyes open and look above my head to see the rays of the sun pouring in through the glass of the windows. The air hostess smiles when she sees I’m awake and the first thing she does is get me my breakfast, checking to see if I eat everything and have a healthy stomach. I always love it when she constantly assures me she’s nearby and if I need anything or want to have a chat, she’s ready to keep me company. It’s tempting to have her beside me and talk but since I know she has to assist the other air hostesses and may have other duties, I have never asked her and instead entertain myself by watching movies on the television fixed before my seat. There’s always a Disney movie on and my favourite cartoons on Cartoon Network. And I sometimes take a walk from one end to the other to stretch my muscles. It’s a huge flight and it’s a pleasure to take a look at what the other passengers are doing, flashing a smile when anyone glances at me.
There was this one time the business class had no passengers at all and after asking my air hostess if I could go inside and take a look, she permitted me and even allowed me to sit on one of those plush navy seats for a while. I interestedly observed the sophisticated amenities to my heart’s content and after having a good look around, I skipped back to my makeshift bed to doze off for the rest of the afternoon 😀 I sleep like a dog during flight journeys and my air hostess sometimes has to shake me awake in time for meals 😀 While awake, I love checking into the map channel of my television and watching how close the small white flight inches closer and closer to the United Kingdom and to my family. Once I see it flying over the English Channel of the Atlantic after crossing the rest of Europe, I head over to the bathroom to wash my face and come back to my seat to take down my hair and comb through it to get rid of the tangles created from the sleeps. Once I have it into a neat high ponytail, I check to see my important essentials are there in my pouch and the air hostess fills in the checking out form for me with the help of my passport. I dread the landing, because my ears get blocked and it’s a painful process to pop it out later. Grandma always stocks adequate bubble gum and cotton wool in my handbag but the air pressure is notorious for getting through those barriers. As soon as I see the flight on the map on the outskirts of London, seat belt sign on or off, I quickly put the bubble gum in my mouth, stuff cotton into my ears and plug it with fingers as I pray for the landing. It takes almost an hour for the flight to descend, since it originates from a great height. The most hateful part is until the clouds get above the flight because once I see London city spread out below me, I’m always too busy drinking in the beautiful sight while taking care of my ears.
I’ll see my parents and Shivi soon enough, will be the squealing voice in my head and I literally can’t wait for the wheels to touch the ground.
Down and down the flight goes, slowly and steadily for a safe landing, but it’s not always at a snail pace. Once it is safe to do so, the speed of landing increases. The buildings get larger quickly and before I know it, there is a rumbling noise as the wheels finally run on the runway and I see the familiar environment welcoming me back. The flight comes to a halt at its designated gate and after the engine is turned off, I wait until the rest of the passengers take their hand luggage and exit the aircraft. The air hostess purposefully makes me wait so we can get out without a single disturbance. Once I’m the only person inside, she takes my hand and leads me out. At the exit, an airport staff will already be waiting for me and I give my air hostess a hug of thanks for taking such good care of me. She waves at me with a warm smile, hoping we’ll meet again soon, and I nod and wave back at her as my new guardian escorts me into the airport. Once I’m checked out and claim my main luggage at the carousel, I see my family waiting for me and as soon as I rush into my mother’s arms and my little brother joyfully jumps up and down, demanding my attention, the airport staff checks my mother’s passport for proof of identification and once the signing is done, we thank him and I’m all set for enjoying my summer holidays.
These onward flight journeys are a real bliss but the ones back to India have always been very hard. The night before, I plan on how to oversleep to miss the flight next morning. Or I decide to get into the heart of the matter and even cry to my mother to please keep me there with her. She controls herself from saying she will, since we both know what has to be done, and comforts me saying it’s only for a while more we’ll be separated and then we’ll always be together. Because the decision to move back to India has been made, now that I’ve settled well in school. But it’s painful for both of us as we separate at the airport terminal and in the flight, I don’t even eat properly, only crying even more at the sight of the white flight on the map channel flying farther and farther away from London and the United Kingdom. Before take off, I’ve wondered what tantrum to throw to get me out of the flight or if that doesn’t work, how best to smash that window and jump out. It’s always awful. The British Airways flight I love becomes the enemy machine for taking me away from the United Kingdom, read Mum.
For three years, it was so hard for all of us. Mum and I missed each other terribly while on other sides of the world but somehow, we coped up with it. And now I’m here, reminiscing those memorable days that were quite a turn. I thank Krishna for always being with us and I trust He will continue to do so and keep us safe together wherever we go and battle the other challenges life gives us.
Jai Shree Krishna ❤