Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
The knot in my stomach tightened as I walked down the ramp to the door of the airplane. I had N, who was then fifteen-months old, in my arms. I was taking him to far away India from Washington, DC for the first time.
All by myself.
I was in a state of controlled panic.
The excitement of going back to my hometown after more than four years and the frenzy of packing, getting the documents ready, getting all the proper vaccinations and last minute shopping had kept reality at bay. There was no escaping it now. I would be spending the next 26 hours on three planes, in two airports and in one transit hotel with my baby in tow.
I was sure of two things. First, diapers, a changing pad, water and milk bottles would go in the pocket right in front of my seat. I wanted to avoid having to dig through the backpack in the overhead bin at the last minute. From prior experience with domestic flights, I knew this staved off crankiness from hunger and messes from overly full diapers. Second, I requested a bassinet. If I could steal at least a few hours without having to carry N on my lap, I was going to do it.
As for the rest, I had no idea what to expect. He had just learnt to walk a couple of months earlier and was eager to try his new found freedom at every opportunity he got. Would he sit on my lap for hours at a stretch? Would he sit still when the plane took off or landed or when we were being served food? Would he jump up and down the aisles and bother the other passengers? Would he be able to sleep at all?
Well, I was going to find out soon enough.
I stood at the head of the line, ready to take full advantage of pre-boarding for passengers with small infants (thank God for small mercies!). Once in, it allowed me to change his diaper quickly and feed him as the other passengers boarded the plane. If he felt sleepy as the plane took off, we were all set for the night.
I found I had the aisle seat and we were next to a mother with two small boys, one four years old and the other about two years old. Their father sat in the row behind them.
About an hour into the flight, my crankiness alarm started blaring. The two boys next to us did not want to eat any of the ten different things their mother had packed for them (I have since learnt that providing too many choices to little children is a bad, bad, thing). They wanted to switch seats. They wanted to go to their father. They spilled all the food from one container on the floor in front of them.
I groaned silently and stole a look at N. How was he going to handle this? He was staring at them, fascinated. He thought it was funny. He looked at me and giggled. Then, he lost interest and played peek-a-boo with our neighbors across the aisle, an elderly couple delighted to have a baby to play with on a long flight.
It suddenly struck me that sitting next to two absolute brats on a long plane ride (or in any other setting) might not be bad after all – if you want to look at the bright side, that is. By comparison, N was positively angelic and promptly won the hearts of his fellow passengers and the stewards.
I soon asked for the bassinet. N had snuggled into the crook of my neck and had fallen asleep. Heaven. When the steward had finished setting up the bassinet, my heart sank.
It was too small.
Not to worry, we have another kind for the older infants, said my knight in shining armor. He brought out an infant-sized recliner that could be pushed almost all the way back. It had safety straps, but no walls around it, so it could accommodate even toddlers.
The plane was speeding across the Atlantic. N was fed, changed and was asleep in his own space while I had my dinner. Six more hours to go on this leg, but all was well so far.
After a thankfully short layover in London, as we settled down on the Mumbai flight, I looked around, hopefully this time, for potential brats in the immediate vicinity. None was in sight. Too bad. We had only one seat to our left. It was occupied by a businessman from Sierra Leone. An hour into the flight and with nary a whimper from N (he was happily chewing on a board book), I felt comfortable enough to start a conversation with the businessman.
He was on his way to Mumbai for what would have been his wedding but tragically not – the wedding had been called off two weeks earlier. But the brave man went anyway, because he did not want to waste his ticket (practical as he was) and because, he said, he loved to visit Mumbai and did not want to miss the opportunity when it came up.
Oh, how I would have loved to have continued that conversation!
But it was not to be – N decided that the kitchen just beyond the curtains warranted some investigating. He had slid off my lap and was toddling his way over. I followed him, determined to save my “no”s for things way more drastic than that. He looked around and pointed to the cups of orange juice the stewards were getting ready to bring around. I shook my head and mouthed a “no” to the inquiring stewardess. She then handed him a chocolate bar (have you noticed how everyone, from the dryclean lady to the barber, hands your children candy?) encased in plastic wrapper. As far as he was concerned, it was a toy. I happily agreed.
After two more trips around the plane, it was time to bring out the ammunition. I cajoled him back to the seat and pulled out two more books out of the back pack. After reading them each five times, I saw a yawn. Hurray! Out came the infant recliner again. Only five more hours to go, and I was hoping he would sleep through all of it. I was asking for too much. Three hours later, he was up and wanted to be picked up. We spent most of the rest of the flight with him squirming on my lap, trying to make a dash into the kitchen and with me unable to eat my dinner or carry on a conversation.
We landed in Mumbai, contrary to my memory, to a surprisingly clean airport. I must have made a pathetic sight – a mother traveling alone with a child and lugging two carry-on bags. Sympathetic airport officials guided me to the extremely quick “Diplomatic Lane” for immigration clearance. My perceived distress also prompted complete strangers to pick up my two huge suitcases from the carousel.
When we finally got out of the airport, the novelty of the situation preempted any breakdowns N would have otherwise had from pure exhaustion. I had been through this trip a few times before and I was exhausted and ready to scream. He, on the other hand, was fully occupied with the range of never-seen-before stimuli around him – the honking taxis, buses, the porters yelling to take the luggage, and hordes of people milling around the entrance. He sat in complete silence in the coach that took us to the Transit Hotel (that’s the name), completely ignoring his grandfather who had come to receive us at the airport. Once he got inside the room, he ran around and showed off all his tricks at once.
Four hours, a short nap and a clean change of dress later, we were ready for another plane ride, a one and a half hour flight from Mumbai to Bangalore. N scrambled off my lap and made friends with the neighboring passenger and wouldn’t let him eat his breakfast. Soon it was time to land in Bangalore where his other grandfather, grandmothers, his uncle and granduncles were waiting. I was more than ready to hand him off.
He, however, refused to let me go.
When we got into the car to drive from the airport, he realized he wouldn’t be bound in a car seat (unlike in the US). He sat on my lap and shrieked with delight every time the car dipped into a pot hole.
It was going to be war when we got back home and I tried to get him back into his car seat.
A version of this essay was published in the now-defunct Vijay Times, Bangalore.