Ask any five-year-old child what s/he wants to grow up to be, and the answer you're likely to get is "I want to be a pilot" (with the child's acquired quality of beginning every sentence with the content of the question). Lying on the roof of the sky-blue Ambassador in my grandmother's garden as a child, I would watch the clouds stroll leisurely overhead and wonder at how quickly they actually disappeared. The high point of those evenings were the sunsets, when the sky would be streaked with auburn and then slowly melted into the gloaming. I never tired of them, but there were occasions when the beauty of the sunset escaped me - those were the occasions when I saw something even more beautiful - the aeroplane streaking across the sky.
I was seventeen when I first sat down in the pilot's cabin and felt the controls of the glider I was about to fly. I was a Flight Cadet in the National Cadet Corps (NCC) and the engine-less glider was going to be my first step. The officer who was to teach me to fly spoke on my headset "do you think you can handle this yourself?" and I answered "yes, sir."
"All right, then do it."
"Watch how the controls move. Once we're up in the air, you take over. And you bring us to a safe landing."
"What if I can't control it...sir?" And I realised what a stupid question that was.
"Then we're in trouble, aren't we?"
I could hear the smile in his voice, and I myself was smiling. Of course, he had a second set of controls! We went up into the air, and suddenly, I heard "you're on, lady!" My hands should have been trembling with excitement, but they were steady. From somewhere inside, I knew this was what I had been born to do. To fly.
The sensation of being up in the air, controlling something that refuses to obey gravity, and knowing that it is two simple pieces of metal that control the whole thing, can never be broken down into words. It needs to be felt. The same day, we shifted to a Microlight, and I was up in the air, among the clouds I had been so in awe of as a child. I was level with the clouds, and flying faster than any of them.
"Are you making these bizarre turns with any purpose or simply for fun?"
"For fun, sir."
"Hmm...you'd better find some purpose, or it might not be fun for either of us much longer."
"Sir, may I ask a question?"
"Have you ever not had fun while flying, sir?"
I heard a chuckle over the headphones. The aircraft straightened out, and we came out of the clouds.
"Sir, was it me who did that manipulation or you?"
"It doesn't matter, both of us were having fun, weren't we?"
The man who taught me everything I knew about flying when I was in the NCC passed away on the one day that I did not go to the Tambaram Airport to fly. He was in a glider with another cadet, when the rope that binds the glider to the ground and should be disconnected, wrapped itself up on the underside of the glider, locking the controls. The cadet passed away immediately. This was a girl I had been in parades with, and whose only ambition was to be in the Republic Day Parade, the highest honour an NCC cadet can dream of. I recalled my conversation with the retired Group Captain on our way back to Madras as we knew it, from Tambaram. His only ambition had been to have fun while he lived a clean life. He had become a teetotaller, a vegetarian and was planning to give up smoking. "Something changed in me when my mother died two months ago," he had told me, "I see a sense of the pure in everything I do. It's not me, but how I feel. And I fly twice as much as I used to."
Does flying have something to do with that sense of purity? When you're up in the clouds, as close to the cosmos as you can be, disconnected from any particular entity within it, you feel like you are the only one who matters, and society and everything else left far behind in terms of physical distance, melt into insignificance in one's mind. What do I want to do? How focused am I on getting there? Those are the issues that seem to matter. Perhaps the Group Captain was telling me he felt more healthy and flew twice as much as he used to as a result of that. But my immediate interpretation before the more mundane one occurred to me, was that the flying was a cause for and not an effect of his sense of well-being. When I heard the news of his death, my first thought was the cliche - at least he died doing something he loved. But it meant something deeper, more relevant in his case. It was almost a transit point to the Beyond - like he had no more births to go through, no more reincarnations and janmams, he would go straight to his last destination. Pure and free.
It is hard to identify completely with The Aviator if one has never flown an aircraft. It is hard to understand why one feels the compulsion to fly, and not be flown by someone else. I love the high one gets when an aircraft takes off - the momentary weightlessness that sends a thrill through one's whole body. The first few times I flew an aircraft myself, I was concentrating so hard on the controls that I couldn't sense the weightlessness at all. But sitting in the plush interiors of the passenger area, and waiting for the moment that takes my breath away, I feel a momentary sense of impotence.
Is it only to flying that this sense of impotence applies? Every train journey I've gone on in India is inseparable from a group of strangers finding a common topic in politics - why the country is going to the dogs and how should it be run. When I think of that, I realise everyone knows what it is like to be the impotent passenger in an aircraft.