Passengers queue to get their documents verified before entering the IGI Airport amid the lockdown, on May 30, 2020 in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Flight COVID-19 is now boarding

The grimness of my flight to Delhi bespoke the special cruelty of this crisis

The first flight I can remember was out of Delhi. I was going home for the holidays. My flying companion, a friend of my father’s, was a starchy eminence returning to his constituency for the parliamentary recess. He had me collected from the school the evening before, fed me a frugal “Gandhian” meal in his sprawling Lutyens bungalow, made a bed for me in his study, and woke me at 4am for the 9.30am flight. “Do they teach you about Gorbachev?” he asked me in the car, turning the pages of his newspaper. I was too young to know or to care. “He is a traitor. They should tell you this in school.” There was no security check at the airport, and my only possession was an abridged edition of Gulliver’s Travels. At the entrance of the aircraft, a pair of smiling, sari-clad women proffered candy and cola on golden trays. And there the grieving socialist disappeared without saying goodbye into the first class on the left hand side, and I was escorted by a hostess to the economy cabin on the right hand side and hoisted into a seat in the middle row. 

Hypnotised by all that surrounded me—stewardesses serving mango and watermelon juice in cut glasses, emergency instructions and evacuation manuals and in-flight magazines, the buttons, the belt, the buckle, and warm buttered rolls—I succeeded in missing the wonder of flight at takeoff. When I looked at the window, we were cutting through clouds. And a little later, when the plane dipped and danced a little, I became nauseated. A stewardess raced towards me, lifted me in her arms, carried me to the front, cleaned me, changed me into a T-shirt with AIR INDIA printed on it in red, and—never ceasing to smile—plopped me in a ludicrously large seat next to my guardian in first. The mirthless old man, interrupting his breakfast, allowed himself to smile for the first time. Mortified with embarrassment, I closed my eyes and opened them only after landing.

The bureaucratic burdens imposed by the process of applying for a seat did nothing to frustrate the demand created by disaster

On Sunday, the queue for Air India’s special flight to Delhi formed on the ground floor of Heathrow Terminal 2. Social distancing was the formal reason for this arrangement, but the real reason was to prevent those without a ticket from overwhelming the airline staff upstairs. Sometime in March, the government of India shut down air traffic to, from, and within the country to suppress the spread of the coronavirus. Indians constitute the world’s largest diasporic community, and all the seats on the rescue aircraft marshalled by Delhi to bring them home could not meet the multiplying need. The bureaucratic burdens imposed by the process of applying for a seat—forms, declarations, undertakings, oaths—did nothing to frustrate the demand created by disaster. Not even the prospect of catching the Chinese-origin viral infectious disease onboard functioned as a deterrent. Almost everybody in that queue was nursing a private tragedy that could brook no delay. 

Before the rescue flight was announced, I had considered at a 59-hour journey that would have taken me from London to Europe to the Middle East. But there was no saying I would make it home: an English acquaintance who had recently made it all the way to the Gulf was told that the connection to Bangalore had been cancelled and put on a return flight to London. I then probed the possibility of marine transport, but seaports in India were shut. Then, as I began distracting myself with fantastic plans to fly to Nepal or Bangladesh and hire a human trafficker to smuggle me into India, a friend messaged to say that Air India was adding two flights to its rescue mission from London. I set an alarm and opened the airline’s Website the moment the tickets went on sale. By the time I completed the forms releasing the airline from all liability should I become “inadvertently infected” with Covid—a matter of minutes—there were two seats going. 

To walk the distance from the check-in counter to security to the boarding gate was to acquire a glimpse of the social and economic depredations of the virus after long weeks of contemplating them in isolation. At the height of the holiday season, the global hub of civil aviation was practically bleached of life. For as far as the eye could see, everything was shut. The boarding gates were barren, and the aeroplanes, cars, cargo trucks parked on the tarmac, looking like abandoned wreckage, endowed the stillness outside with an eerie gloom. For those whose livelihoods depend upon it, the suspension of air travel has been calamitous. In Britain alone, airlines are expected to lose over £20 billion in revenue, and at least 70,000 jobs in and around aviation—ground staff, store assistants, technicians, caterers—are projected to disappear. Where will they be accommodated? What will allay the anger and unrest that will follow the loss of income and dignity? The oppressive inertia of the airport seemed to adumbrate the turbulence that awaits us.

At the entrance to the Air India gate, passengers were given a mask and a visor, and parents sealed their unhappy children in hazmat suits. Someone had claimed my seat—which, in a very Air India way, was mistakenly assigned to him before being reassigned to me at the check-in counter—and I wanted it back. “Can’t you adjust?” the man shrieked. I would have liked to, but I had paid more for that seat. He could tell that I was a nervous flier, and reached for what he thought would be the clincher. “If you are worried about catching Covid, let me tell you that I have touched the seat everywhere,” he warned, and proceeded to give a demonstration of how to infect a surface. We were drawing an audience, and I had to decide quickly: settle for ten hours of heightened OCD in a different seat—or take my chances with the invisible enemy from Wuhan. I chose the latter and cleaned the seat with the stock of ethanol wipes under the ottoman. There wasn’t an empty seat in view, and every face was covered with a mask and almost every head shielded by a visor. The disgruntled man returned a moment later and apologised. I reciprocated. “Kindly return to your seat, sir,” a member of the crew in full protective gear pleaded with the man just as our ire was dissolving into mutual solicitousness. “This is not a normal flight.”

In so many ways, it was a normal Air India flight. Scheduled for take off at 9.45am, it soared into the skies just after 11. Nobody seemed to mind because India’s flag-carrier, like India itself, keeps its own time. The captain made an announcement after 10am that there was a technical fault and that engineers were on the scene to fix it. After a few muffled bangs—the sound of hammers striking metal—we were airborne. This aircraft, a 787 Dreamliner, was a recent acquisition of Air India’s. In the decade-and-a-half since it ordered 68 aircraft from Boeing, the airline’s fortunes have sunk and its debts mounted. Its reputation is in tatters. 

There was, however, a time when Air India was India’s glory. Originating as Tata Air Services in 1932, it was rechristened a year before independence and publicly listed. The Tatas, a fabulously rich Parsi family who traced their origins to Persia, had made their fortune in the opium trade with China and were early pioneers of Indian nationalism. After independence, they sold the majority stake in the enterprise to the Indian government and oversaw its operations. Air India’s first long-haul international flight, in 1948, was to Heathrow, where it still retains some of the most prized slots. In the decades thereafter, even as it accumulated a fleet of more than 100 aircraft and trained some of the best pilots and crew in the world, it was so appallingly managed that the government is now struggling to divest its holdings. When it attempted a few years ago to sell the airline, it could not find a single bidder. 

Air India’s eventual privatisation is inevitable. But on this flight, it was impossible not to be overcome by awe, pride, and gratitude. For ten hours, the crew, draped from head to toe in surgical suits, uncomplainingly oversaw the safety of the passengers. A few hours before the descent, I saw a flight attendant, a middle-aged woman who had been trying earlier to comfort a child at some personal risk, eat her first meal: alone in the galley, she carefully pulled up her mask after every spoonful of food.

Seats marked to help with social distancing are pictured inside Heathrow airport. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Delhi airport, always overflowing with people, was bare. The escalators were static and only a handful of the overhead lights were turned on. It was airless and hot. Because international arrivals are mandated to undergo quarantine at the port of entry before being allowed on domestic flights, the connecting flight to Hyderabad was, in a bureaucratic sleight of hand, given the designation of an international flight. It was running 30 minutes or so behind schedule. At the transfer desk, a strapping man in military fatigues instructed a group of recently arrived passengers on another flight on the minutiae of the quarantine regulations. “Many of you have come from far away places to care for your families,” he told his masked and helmeted audience, “but don’t forget that you can endanger their lives simply by going near them.” Just as the contagion is receding elsewhere, it is peaking in India. The country’s densely packed cities have become feast for a virus that thrives on human proximity. 

The first time I flew into Hyderabad, my father, whom I seldom saw, had come unexpectedly to receive me at the airport. That creaky old building, which I liked despite its hideousness, was retired more than a decade ago. The new airport in which I landed now was erected as a symbol of the city’s new affluence. Seven decades after being reduced by the savage fallout from the partition of India, Hyderabad had gradually ceased to be a backwater. It had grown prosperous and extortionate, a poster child for India’s economic reforms, the original Silicon Valley of South Asia. But the virus that has overwhelmed the rest of India has also imperilled Hyderabad’s status. The desolation of the airport intimated the devastation beyond.

To survive this, we must segregate ourselves from those we cherish

My passport was confiscated at the immigration counter. “It may be collected after you have completed two weeks in quarantine,” the officer at the counter said. This seemed extraordinary, but it was not an occasion for protest. After being scanned by a thermal camera and signing two forms in triplicate, I was released into quarantine: a fortnight of seclusion. The grimness of it all bespoke the special cruelty of this crisis: to survive it, we must segregate ourselves from those we cherish, and unlearn the rituals of human solidarity, sympathy, affection, and sorrow.

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