It was the British Airways flight from Moscow to London, and Ajay was heading home on a roundabout route. In those days, it was easier to travel to the USSR via Europe; one method of avoiding the dread Aeroflot, which was by no means celebrated for its exceptional service. (I remember a flight once in which ample and sturdy stewardesses marched firmly up and down the aisle calling out sternly: “No bee-yer! No beeyer!” to the trapped and disappointed passengers on the hop from Delhi to Tashkent.)
The man flourished his boarding card, prompting Ajay to pull his out too. And both cards carried the same seat number. Ajay’s unease grew. Around them, seats were filling up fast. Surely the ground staff at Moscow airport weren’t expecting them to squeeze in together? Taking a closer look, he read, “A Aggarwal”, exactly what his own card said, and quite rightly too.
Alarm rising, he cleared his throat and leaned forward. “What’s your name?” he inquired politely.
“A-jay,” the man replied, with a curious foreign blurring of the j. Ajay turned pale, and the other man squinted at him, suddenly alert that something intriguing was in progress. With narrowing eyes, they stared at each other for a few moments. And then broke into laughter. Two people, booked on the same flight, and with the same name – not so surprising that the ground staff, referring to a hand-written passenger manifesto, had made this mistake.
Now you’ll say that there’s nothing so very unusual about this. After all, Air India on the Bombay-London sector routinely carries a score and more of Patels and it’s not at all uncommon to have half a dozen P Patels on board, with some, but not all, demanding Indian Vegetarian Meals at dinnertime.
The cabin crew now came to their rescue and settled the other gentleman in the seat next to Ajay so that the appellative doppelgangers could enjoy each other’s company for the rest of the journey. Whether or not all kinds of brotherly feelings, and an intense experience of the universality of all human beings arose, I cannot say. But the central curiosity of this episode is that the other Ajay Aggarwal lived in Paris. He was French. And he had not only never been to India, his range of acquaintances numbered a scanty few who could boast Indian descent. This man was totally astonished that his exotic, unpronounceable headache of a name had turned out to be so common in the country of his ancestors.
first appeared as What's in a Name? in Maharashtra Herald on 4 May 1997