December 6, 2020

Maan

(c) J. Singh, 2017

Jaswinder held his toddler in his arms awkwardly and turned to look worriedly at his wife, Preeti. She stood behind him in line, cradling their infant in her arms. Jaswinder sighed. It had already been a stressful enough day getting to the airport with the kids, and the security screening process didn’t help either. He was used to being singled out for additional screening, and it really didn’t bother him when he had been single. He would stand patiently while the airport security personnel waved the wand over his turban and then asked him to do a pat-down of his turban so they could swab his fingers to detect any chemical residue. It was an extra six or seven minutes of his time, and he didn’t really mind it. But now, with small kids and an overwhelmed wife, it added immensely to the pressure he was already under.

The flight attendant in front of the gate took each boarding pass and scanned it efficiently, before returning it to the passenger with a smile and a quick “Have a great flight.” Courtesy. It was supposed to make the passengers feel comfortable and valued as customers. Jaswinder thought wryly how air travel had been anything but comfortable. He dreaded getting on the plane and being subjected to all the stares and whispers from the other passengers. He wished that there was an alternate form of transportation that he could take, but flying was the most efficient and cost-effective option there was, especially given the fact that he only had five days of vacation time from his job. Still, he didn’t particularly relish the prospect of spending the next five hours on the airplane.

He reached the front of the line and handed the flight attendant the boarding passes. She took them without looking at him. He wondered if he would have to go through an additional security screening. It had happened on several occasions and was not a surprise anymore. He felt a little apprehensive. There was a long line of passengers behind him. It would be humiliating, just like it had been all the times it had happened before. Only this time, Preeti would be there to witness it. His heart sank when he thought of that. He didn’t want her to see him being treated with suspicion, like a common criminal.

The flight attended scanned the boarding passes and handed them back to him without a word. He managed a brief, half-smile. At least I didn’t have to endure the humiliation of additional screening, he thought to himself as he turned to walk onto the jetway connecting the terminal to the airplane.

They found their seats and managed to sit down without either of the kids complaining. The older girl quickly scooted over the seats to the window seat and stared intently out of the window. The infant cooed and gurgled and yawned and then went back to sleep. Jaswinder and Preeti settled into their seats and finally allowed themselves to feel relaxed. They had both been up since 5 a.m., and it was evening now. They were exhausted.

Jaswinder’s eyelids felt heavy with sleep. His back and shoulders and legs ached. He just wanted to rest. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. All around him were the sounds of seat belts clicking, passengers stowing their carry-on luggage in the overhead bins, and the low murmur of a few people talking. And in the background, the constant hum and drone of the aircraft’s engines. Jaswinder felt the seductive lure of sleep reach out to him. It was enticing. His head fell forward with a jerk and he immediately woke up. He looked around. Preeti was sitting next to him with the infant. She smiled with empathy and gently caressed his arm.

“You must be tired, too,” he said.

“I’m ok,” she smiled. But he could see her fatigue in her eyes, her messed up hair, and the exhaustion in her face. She’s sweet, he thought as he looked at her.

“I love you, my dear,” he said in his matter-of-fact way.

She kissed him on his cheek.

It was almost time for the airplane to push off from the terminal and begin it’s taxi to the runway. All the passengers appeared to have boarded, there was nobody walking down the aisle or standing to stow their luggage. The overhead cabin lights flickered a few times and the noise from the engines changed to a higher pitched whine. It was only a matter of a few minutes more.

“Excuse me, sir,” it was a female voice, the flight attendant. Jaswinder opened his eyes and saw her standing in front him, leaning down and looking directly at him. He began to get a very uncomfortable feeling.

Her blonde hair was perfectly combed and styled, and her uniform looked crisp and neat. Jaswinder wondered why she needed to talk with him now. Perhaps, he thought in the back of his mind, they are going to throw us off this flight.

Down the aisle, a few people were standing in a small group, huddled together. Occasionally, one of the men would take a quick glance back at where Jaswinder and his family were seated. Something was clearly wrong.

Jaswinder had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. So his fears were going to come true this day after all. He looked at Preeti apologetically, and then turned back to the flight attendant.

“Yes?” he asked, his brow furrowed in a concerned frown.

“Would you please come with me, sir?”

The small group of people ahead had been joined by one of the ground crew, who seemed to be directing them now. A few of them sat down.

Jaswinder unbuckled his belt. He wanted to ask what this was all about, why he was being singled out. He wanted to ask if it was because of his turban and beard. But the words caught in throat and he couldn’t manage to say anything. He stood and waited.

The flight attendant turned and started walking down the aisle, which was clear now. Jaswinder sighed followed her, motioning to Preeti to stay seated with the kids. Whatever this was about, he wanted to know before Preeti so he could at least be prepared to deal with it.

The flight attendant parted the curtain and walked through. Jaswinder followed, feeling everyone staring at him. They walked into the spacious and roomy first class cabin. It seemed to be a totally different atmosphere here, relaxed and calm, not like the cramped feeling one got in the economy class cabin.

She stopped in front of a row of empty seats, and turned to face him.

“We’d like to upgrade you at no cost. We hope you and your family will find this comfortable,” she said, smiling warmly at him.

“I don’t understand,” Jaswinder blurted out in surprise, “Why?”

“Oh, there were a few other passengers who had raised a concern.”

“What kind of concern?” Jaswinder remembered the group of people in the aisle.

“They didn’t feel comfortable with you on the flight. I reminded them that every passenger on this flight has been through security and has an equal right to travel with us.”

“Oh,” Jaswinder looked down, astonished at what he was hearing. He couldn’t believe it.

“They were adamant about having you removed from the flight. They refused to fly while you were on board.”

“Oh my God,” Jaswinder gasped.

The flight attendant smiled and touched his arm.

“We informed them that they are welcome to deplane and take another flight. Which they did. The captain and our crew believe that all our passengers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. As a courtesy, we would like to offer you this upgrade.”

“Thank you,” Jaswinder whispered, fighting back tears.

“Of course. I’ll bring your wife and family, please take a seat. We will be taking off soon.”

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