Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Joy of Flying

“Cabin crew to your stations for takeoff.”

Even after 28 years of being a loyal patron of the airline industry, the announcement for cabin crew to take their seats never fails to evoke a thrill within me. After all, the captain’s request for the crew to be seated is usually the final announcement before the aircraft’s exhilarating rush across the runway and graceful leap into the sky.

Some days ago, on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, I thought about my fascination for flying. What is it about flying that captures my wonder so much that no matter how many times I fly, I still look forward to the next flight? I mean, it’s not like I’m new to flying or anything. My first international flight was barely a few months after I was born, and that was the first of tons more to follow, across cities and even continents.

I’ve flown so much that I recognize all the mechanical sounds and events that now seem routine during a flight. Like the wheels wrapping up after takeoff and being lowered down when the flight is cleared to land. Or the bright beam of light that comes on below the plane shortly before it makes a final descent towards the airport at night. Or the extension flaps that miraculously grow out of the wings as the plane negotiates its landing in stormy weather. Not to miss that very slight but noticeable drop in altitude accompanied by a lowering of the engine noise about forty minutes to a half hour before we’re due to land, that tells me we’ve begun our descent even before the seat belt sign is turned on and the descent is made official.

I have a feeling that if studying Math and Physics weren't pre-requisites, I might just have become a pilot!

But back to my pondering on the reason for this fascination. What is it that still makes me pine for the window seat, like a child sitting in a plane for the first time does? I’ve begun to acknowledge that flying is a deeply spiritual experience for me. And that’s why I love it so much. That’s why I would choose a flight over a train ride, any day. It’s the whole deal of flying away from the world, up into a realm where all I can see is an expanse of “nothingness.” Where the shades of blue always make me gasp with wonder, and the multitude of pink and orange hues painted across the evening sky elicit that familiar “wow” reaction from me, every single time.

As I look out the window, I am reminded of the greatness of this Universe. Of how much there is to it, and of how small our world really is, in the larger scheme of things. Out there in the stratosphere that we are racing through at 800 kilometres an hour, I see a realm that we humans cannot occupy with our ugly buildings, and pollute with our plastic trash. Finally, a place reserved only for the Gods. Well, and for planes too! This is a realm of the Universe that is so close to us on Earth, yet, so very still. Such a contrast to the restless lives that we lead down below.

Stillness… what I attempt to experience during my meditation sessions. Now here it is, right outside my window.

As we approach Mumbai, we’re greeted by huge monsoon clouds. At first, the clouds look like isolated clumps of cotton candy and we rush in and out of them within seconds. I look into the distance, and see a cloud float past in the shape of an angel. She’s lying on her back floating through the air, gleefully playing with fluffy lion cubs who sit by her side.

I am humbled. Reminded that I am a guest in the realm of the Gods.

As I continue to look ahead, I see a dark grey cloud hurtling towards us. I turn to Saraswati who’s sitting beside me, and I announce to her with a very serious face, “We’re heading for some serious clouds.” My obsession with the goings-on outside the plane window has always baffled her, ever since we were toddlers flying on late night Emirates flights from Dubai to Mumbai way back in the 80s. While I preoccupy myself with angels floating outside the window, her meditations are with her books that she voraciously reads on flights.

Our plane leaps into the “serious” cloud cover. We’re tossed around for a bit, and then “Shoom”… the cloud is gone. Just like that. There’s sunshine again. I turn to her and clarify, “Never mind, it was just a passing cloud.” As I hear myself say that, I smile. I love the little insight that I just stumbled onto. The “passing cloud” metaphor that we freely use for life’s experiences couldn’t have made more sense than it did right now.

“Crew to your stations for landing.”

The city of Mumbai beckons to us from below. As the plane descends into this great city, I am reminded that our holiday has only just begun. Yet, as I return to the bustle of Earth below, I feel like a part of the holiday has just ended – the part that took place up in the heavens.

(Also posted on my blog)