‘Do all the people in the flight travel to the same place or do they get off in different stations like people in the bus do?” asked the boy with the first signs of stubble on his chin. “Can you see us from the aeroplane?” asked another boy who told me the other day that he aspired to be an athlete. When the third boy, an artist in the making, asked me about in-flight entertainment, I decided to put teaching aside. We were just going to chat that evening.
Last summer, Sid, my son, and I spent a week in Sevalaya, a not-for-profit school, in Tamil Nadu, India. Every evening, after our day’s activity, Sid and I would walk to the boys’ hostel in the campus. I would help the seven boys from Grade 10 with spoken English, while Sid would teach/chat/play with a bunch of 10-year-olds. A day before we were to leave, the seven 15-year-olds got curious. Having seen not much of the world outside their school, the boys wanted to know about me. They were intrigued that I — a person, they spoke to, would take a flight and traverse many kilometres in minutes. I felt like an astronaut — a person on a mission to the moon.
The boys sat around me that warm evening — eager to learn about a world and ready to see it through my eyes. I smiled to myself because, in their eyes, I relived a few moments of my own childhood.
Back in my village where I grew up, I remember looking at the sky to trace the path of a flight whenever I heard a distant whirring sound. The sight of an airplane always fascinated me. Sometimes, I would wave my hand frantically hoping that, someone looking out of the window of an airplane would see me. “How can they see you when you can’t see them?” an older child had asked me one day. “Why not? Maybe they use binoculars,” I had argued.
On other occasions, I tried to measure the airplane between my tiny fingers and I always wondered how many people would fit inside. “It seems airplanes are really big,” one day, my friend told me in school. “Really? How big?” I asked her, unable to fathom that a tiny one that I could measure between my fingers could be big. “I heard it can seat 100 people,” she told me with her eyes widened. I couldn’t believe it, but it lingered in my head that the white tiny thing that flew above me could seat 100 people. So, the next time, I heard the aeroplane at a distant, I ran out to see it. That day, a tiny thought crossed my head — where would all these people be going because, there were anyway just two countries — the one we lived, and the other we didn’t live!
That warm August evening, at Sevalaya, my childhood replayed itself in those innocent questions. I patiently answered them wondering if I was crushing some fantasies when the quiet boy asked me thoughtfully, “Can you put your head out from the window of an aeroplane?” There, someone was asking me the very question I had asked myself 33 years earlier. I thought for a split second, unable to decide whether to trash his fantasy or be practical. In the end, I decided to tell him that the windows in the aeroplane were fixed. “Would you wave at us if you see us from the top?” he asked me eagerly. I looked at his eyes, and saw my own self — a little girl with pigtails and I nodded as I smiled.
A day later, as I boarded the flight to Dubai, I couldn’t help but think of those seven 15-year-old boys in Sevalaya. I retraced my own journey — a little child to an adult who criss-crossed the sky. I may not have looked out of the window much. But that day, I decided to see if I can see people. Perhaps there are a whole lot out there like me, waving at a random airplane that flies by, and just maybe, there is an innocent child who is wondering, if someone can see him from the top and to all those people I decided, I would wave. Strangely, it didn’t feel silly but rather, it felt very good.