I love the idea of going places. I love the idea of ticking off the Parthenon or the Palais de Versailles. I make no bones about it, I know that I should aim to be a sojourner who wants to sit in a café for a whole morning and watch people pass but I am much more the person who is rushing to get another glimpse of the Mona Lisa. But what I don’t like is travelling. I don’t like applying for a visa. I don’t like staying up all night to catch a flight at 3 am. I hate not knowing how foreign cities work. I hate airplanes but I know that I have to use them and so I do. And I try to make things as painless as possible for myself
This means that if a domestic flight is to leave at 11 am, I try to get to the airport at 9 am. This may seem a little silly, as if I am making my life more difficult but it isn’t, not for me. I like having my boarding card tucked into my book. I also like choosing whether I want a window or an aisle. It isn’t much of a choice really: long flight: aisle; short flight: window. That’s because I am now a gent of a certain age and I don’t like having to explain my bowel movements to the world when I want to get up and go.
Some months ago, I was on my way to Mangalore. Accordingly I got to the airport in time and I got myself a window seat—who knows if we might fly over the sea?—and I settled in. I noticed that another young man was on the aisle seat but I paid him no mind. And then a young woman arrived. She had been assigned the seat between us.
“You please,” she said and pointed to me and pointed to the empty seat in the middle.
I did not care to and I said so.
“You please,” she said to the other guy and repeated the same set of instructions. I must say I knew a moment of hope. Perhaps he would be a nicer guy than me and that would solve the problem but he was not or he was not in the mood to be. Or perhaps he was also a nervous traveler who had made his way to the airport well in advance in order to be able to choose his seat.
So the young woman stood there and waited. The attendant came up and was conferred with. She said the flight was full but later perhaps…?
The woman sat down in a pale pink huff. I felt terrible so I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep even though I didn’t want to sleep. And the young woman stuck me in the side with her elbow. My eyes flew open but now hers were closed but she was sitting in the time-honoured male tradition: take up your seat and whatever you can of anyone else’s. She had her elbows out and one was in my side and the other was in the space of Mr Man in the Aisle. He was at this point making an early loo visit. He came back and looked at me startled.
So I said, “Excuse me,” and when she opened her eyes, I indicated that she had better withdraw her elbow. She looked puzzled, almost as if this were some social solecism with which she had no acquaintance for in the better class of people (hers) men offered women their seats or suffered the indignity of an invasion. She shrugged and withdrew her elbow. I closed my eyes again. I could not think what the young man on the other side was going to do and I didn’t even want to. It was his battle.
In any case, the flight passed without event. When the plane landed, the young woman surged up, crossed the man in the aisle, got into the aisle and opened the overhead locker. Then she turned to the man in the aisle.
“You, please,” she said.
He looked at her carry-on luggage which looked like it might hold a corpse without effort. He put his shoulder into it and got it off the rack for her.
Later, I found myself thinking about her as an old woman pointed at me and indicated that I should take her huge suitcase off the carousel and place it on her trolley. At some risk to my back—what do people carry in these things—I did my duty.
And I tried to regain some sense of proportion. Why had I not given up my seat? I am trained to do this kind of thing. I know that women do not have it easy in most forms of public transport and that she was only asking because she wanted to…what? Save herself from being pawed by me? But if I looked like the kind of person who might paw her mid-flight, how much sense would there be in asking me to exchange seats? Was it because she asked with what seemed like a sense of entitlement? Or because I have some deep-rooted thing about women who turn up late and then think they can reorder the universe to their liking?
I think not. But before anyone else says it, here’s my explanation. I think I’m getting cussed as time passes. I know that the whole idea of India seems to be based on a series of mutual adjustments but sometimes, I just want the window seat and the side of the aircraft on which to rest my head.
Only the next time someone asks, I am going to give up my seat. It just seems easier that way. More wussy? Yes. But less explanations.
Jerry Pinto is a contributing editor, MW