Like any wife who revels in needlecraft, I look forward to these tales of his travels, crafting them into legends as the years go by. And Ajay, who scoffs at jet lag as the ponciest affliction ever defined, obliges every time with tales that would draw appreciative nods from Sinbad and Baron Munchausen. Chance encounters in the ether, with the image of serendipitous threads arcing and intersecting in the sky, are enchanting if not exotic.
The early morning flights between metros held the commuter crowd, which would about-face and head home by the late-night return flight. The Madras-Bombay route was thickly populated with film stars. In those days Sridevi was a regular, yawning politely and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, and occasionally even the gorgeous Rekha. Delhi-Calcutta, on the other hand, held mostly the smartly suited community of businessmen. Acquaintances would hail each other happily at the check-in counter, and once on board, wait for the breakfast service to conclude before they got up to stretch their legs and congregate in small groups to chat. Arjun Malhotra was a regular on this hop, and Ajay never failed to marvel at the IT giant’s friendly outlook even to one as insignificant as himself. Today, with Arjun’s TechSpan inching towards the Fortune 500, the vision of him bending down artlessly to touch the feet of an elderly acquaintance is a precious one.
And once, Ajay was on the same flight as Indira Gandhi. This is not a story of VIP arrogance and delays – quite the contrary. It was 1978, and Mrs Gandhi was as out-of-power as anyone can be. Who could mistake that fabulous profile, or the limited-edition sari? Yet, everyone pointedly faced away, and chattered around the dignified woman (who stood waiting in line like the other mortals), feigning deepest unconcern. When Mrs Gandhi stood in the coach to the aircraft, holding onto the overhead strap, the other passengers milled around, still painstakingly ignoring her.
Was it the most obnoxious in human nature, gloating sneeringly over a dazzling star that had collapsed into the viscous scum of the gutter? Was it vicious contempt for the excesses of her Emergency? Or was it merely the stereotypical mannerless bumpkin Delhiite? If he had a seat, Ajay would surely have offered it to her. As it was, no one else bothered.
first appeared as a Times of India Middle on 21 Dec 2001