On my left is a young mother, desperately trying to calm her three little children, one of whom is wailing. The child has doubtless sensed that something is amiss and people around her, including her mother, are upset about something.
On my right is an elderly man, elegantly dressed in a seersucker suit even on this humid summer day, impatiently tossing the magazine he has finished reading and restlessly looking left and right, as if he expects something to turn up and change a disagreeable situation.
I am in an airport. Washington’s Dulles International Airport, which has been, for many years, the springboard for my many voyages. Especially to Asia, Europe, Middle East and Central and South America.
Today it is different.
I have come to the airport to make a short, quick trip to Charleston, South Carolina, to see my daughter. I have checked-in my suitcase, cleared the security gauntlet and sat near a boarding gate ready to enplane. That is where the process has stopped. No boarding, no news.
What gives? Turns out that, though the flight is ostensibly with a major US airline, it is really run by a subsidiary, whose operating system has unexpectedly collapsed. None of their flights can take off. They don’t even know how long it might take to get their system going. They just apologize and ask their passengers to wait.
Hundreds of passengers sit fuming, furiously counting the hours. I am slightly better off. I have a mobile phone, fully charged. I talk to an assortment of friends, with whom I seldom have the time for a leisurely chat. I write to another set of friends, at uncharacteristic length, whose letters usually evoke brief responses.
As the wait lengthens, I open my case and bring out my trusted laptop. This is my ultimate weapon. I can check the latest news. I can play electronic games. I can read incoming mail and respond at length. Above all, I can write. That is the never-failing balm for all painful situations, the ultimate answer to all my predicaments.
Since I grew up in India and Ramayana was an ever-read, ever-quoted text, I see myself in Trishanku’s Heaven. Trishanku was a king and had done well as a king. When he retired, he had the curious, preternaturally ambitious idea of entering heaven in his earthly body. In the other ancient text of India, Mahabharata, Yudhishthira, wanted to enter heaven with his dog, but that was less a case of ambition than of loyalty. Trishanku cultivated a great sage, Valmiki, who promised to help him.
With Valmiki’s celestial heft, Trishanku started rising toward heaven. But another powerful sage, Viswamitra, thought it was a singularly inapt idea and blocked Trishanku’s elevation into heaven. Now it was a clash of wills of two titans. None would yield. Eventually the two came to an agreement.
Viswamitra won his point that Trishanku would not enter the celestial heaven with an earthly body. Valmiki kept his promise to Trishanku and assured him a place in heaven, an intermediate, indeterminate heaven.
I am in that intermediate, indeterminate sphere. I am not at home; I have locked the doors and left the place definitively. Nor am I in my intended destination, my daughter’s home in Charleston. Thanks to a series of problems, the airlines can’t seem to get their flight going. It keeps muttering public apologies and saying it will tell us the departure time the moment they have solved their problems. I am in a zone of total uncertainty.
It makes me think. We are so accustomed to a binary world, where we finish one activity and start another one. Or, at best, do two things, but then we are doing one part of an activity before we turn to a part of the other activity. We are used to a clear beginning and a clear end, even if it is in parts.
It is profoundly confusing when we don’t know when something is finished, or even beginning. Or something that was supposed to end – and something else to begin – does not end and continues indefinitely.
This is not supposed to happen in our clearly defined world. How can something be so obstreperous as to continue beyond the end-mark we have assigned to it. It creates a profoundly disturbing sense of chaos and disunity in our existence. We find it annoying, even very upsetting, when things look uncertain, as if the universe has spun out of control and untoward consequences are expected to follow. Not just the world, but own life seems to have lost its bearing.
After the first two hours, maybe three, I encounter a change in me. Does it really matter if this uncertainty continues? Does it make a major difference to my life and to life in general? I find myself thinking differently, less of myself than of the world around me, including the young mother and the older gentleman.
Nine hours later, when the airlines announces that the plane has been grounded and the flight cancelled, I feel a little tired but not particularly disturbed. Maybe I will take another flight another day to visit my daughter.