Thursday, February 11, 2010

FLIGHT INTO DANGER

09 August, 2009.

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We had landed at the Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in the morning. Our flight to Buon Me Thuot (BMT) in the Central Highlands was not due to depart until 5 in the evening. As we had a whole day to spare, our son Hari and his wife Radhika took us for a spin in the city. Everything about HCMC, the commercial capital of Viet Nam (The administrative capital is Ha Noi), from the crowded streets to the skyscrapers and highrises to the swamps to the church steeples to the squalour reminded me of the commercial capital of India.

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On weekdays, Radhika told us, it is a tiny ATR aircraft that that plies between BMT and HCMC, but during weekends when the traffic is heavy, it is replaced by a Boeing 707. Hari, who stands 6’3” tall was understandably delighted: in an ATR, he would have to bend double and more; a Boeing meant more legroom, more headroom, more comfort.

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The computer system of Vietnam Air was down that evening and the girl at the check-in counter had do issue manually written boarding passes. She was obviously used to mono-syllabic names and surnames like Hung Tan and Loi Dung and had to literally grapple with our Indian names.

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My passport stated my name as Koodali Thazhathu Veettil Rajagopalan and was the poor thing floored! Which of these four components was my surname? (I thanked my father that he did not add the mandatory ‘Nambiar’ to my name which would have added to her misery.) She was non-plussed.

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She did not speak English and as Viet Namese was Greek to me, there was a communication issue. Driven to the wall, she did the obvious thing: she tossed a virtual coin a few times to decide which of these was my surname. Koodali it is, she decided. On the boarding pass, she wrote: KOO DA LI/ MR T R and handed it over to me with a smile that spelt – and smelt – success.

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Even before the lift-off, I dozed off. So did Hari. That resolved a problem that had intrigued Radhika from the day she married him: how does Hari drift to the slumberland the moment he gets on to something that moves – a car, a bus, a train or a plane? She now knows that it is coded in the DNA he has inherited from me.

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HCMC-BMT is a very short haul – under an hour. As we reached the destination, clouds enveloped the aircraft. The sudden jerks, abrupt descents and ascents woke me. We dropped down to prepare-for-landing height and suddenly gained height and again went through the clouds. There were a few very sudden and substantial drops in height. A substantial percentage of those aboard were on the distaff side and they did the most natural thing: they shrieked in panic. I realized that panic knows no language. The shriek sounds the same in Malayalam, Armenian, Bengali or Spanish.

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The public address system spluttered and came alive. There was an announcement. We were not enlightened because it was in Viet Namese. However, the about-turn that I could feel the aircraft took told me that the pilot had decided to abandon any further attempt to land. We were well on our way back to HCMC.

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Once on the ground, the passengers were herded into the airport bus. We were told we had to return because of the squally weather and the rains that lashed BMT. The flight would leave the next morning and we had to make our own arrangements for the night.

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However, the bus did not move. We saw the pilots, crew, ground staff and officials go into a huddle. While most of the passengers stayed on in the bus waiting for it to head for the terminal, a few got out of the bus, and walked ahead, heaving their baggage, towards the terminal.

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After about half an hour, the officials changed their mind. They had a message that that the weather in BMT had improved and the flight could land. So the passengers trooped again into the airplane.

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Once again I dozed off, so did Hari. Once again we were airborne, once again we flew through clouds, once again we fell into air pockets, once again we gained altitude, once again we lost height. The plane started bobbing like a ball. This time the turbulence was more violent and the aircraft was tossed about. More and louder shrieks and screams from the rear, the front, the left and the right.

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Bhawani held my hand very very tight and I could feel the sweat on her palms. Her fear permeated into me, osmotically as it were, from her hand to mine. She heaved a sigh and said, ‘The ones who walked out of the bus are the only ones who are destined to survive this air crash.’

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I just couldn't stop thinking about my mother and siblings. And of course my younger son Gautam who was in Bombay. They might hear of an air crash in Viet Nam but would think Korean or Jap bearing the name KOO DA LI/MR T R had died! No one would know that I had perished mid-air. If that be the fate, so be it, I consoled myself.

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Well, all’s well that ends well. Soon enough, the aircraft steered clear of the clouds, the plane aligned with the runway for landing and we landed with a teensy little bump and all of us let out a collective sigh of relief.

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It was as much a dramatic beginning of a long placid holiday in Viet Nam as a sobering thought: how fragile human life is!

5 comments:

Ashok Menath said...

Good to see you back, blogging . I really started wondering whether everything is OK over there.

Air turbulence ofcourse is a scary and surrealist experience. To top it you had a surrealist name as well: Mr. T.R.KOO DA LI.
I am tempted to do this:
Salvador Dali was derided by many for his penchant for making money. They made an anagram of his name: AVIDA DOLLARS !
Now your Vietnamese name could be re-arranged as:
AIR TOLD OK !

wannabe said...

Thanks, Ashok.

Good anagrams have always had me spellbound. Speaking of anagrams, I hope you have read my 'Anagrammatically Speaking' and 'It's a Verbal Circus!'

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

Fantastic post! what style! you should reach out beyond the blogsphere.

guess the return trip was smooth, tho your thoughts on boarding the helicopter would have been interesting.

am also terrified of being air borne- had posted a blog in my early blogging days about a flight by jetairways. http://pareltank.blogspot.com/2006/02/jetairways.html

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Another lovely post, KTR. Good to see you back in this space.

I particularly liked the statement: Panic knows no language. Yes, in the end, every human is an insignificant little helpless thing. Good to be reminded about it even if I should forget it soon.

Ashok Menath said...

Please try this:

I could not even for once muster the courage 'so be it' whenever an aircraft passes through turbulence while flying in domestic routes. On the otherhand in international flights, yes.. I am Mr Courage... macho.... Sylvester Stallone!!!!

Any idea why?
(Clue: No mind reading required here)