The Fortune Teller and the Airplane
Freezing! Arghhh! Hate it. Late December, 1988…
New Delhi is not the sort of place you expect to freeze now, is it? Then again it was a week before Christmas and it is the northern hemisphere plus I was budgeting for a two-dollar-a-day doss-house on the roof of some shop front in a dormitory with a
busload of other freaky travelers. I could purchase a bucket of steaming hot water and charge in and out of the squat toilet and try to lather up — a sure fire ticket to pneumonia as I’d been sniffling a few days; I could feel a cold coming
Connaught Place (or Connaught Circus) was a huge park in the center of New Delhi; a circular area bounded by a ring of whitewashed buildings. The park was the place where everything went down and the name ‘circus’ was most apt. A visitor
could stroll around, catch precious rays of sunshine, get one’s ears cleaned with sharp unhygienic instruments, purchase heroin and hashish or watch the homeless gypsy-children perform acrobatics. I even saw a man with a bear on a chain
on one occasion.
And the fortune tellers. Plenty of them.
“Good morning my friend. I can tell your life story. A moment of your time, dear sir.”
The man was a Sikh, tall and strong. Oxbridge accent. A beaming round face, he wiggled his head as he spoke. Seized my right hand.
“Ooooh,” he chirped. “I can see you are a clever young man…verily, dear sir, a moment of your time please. I can tell you your mother’s name.” He peered more intently. “Ooooh. You have two ladies love you.”
He pointed to some mark near my wrist. “This is the butterfly. You are a traveler…an adventurer. From where do you come to this great land?”
“Ooooh — Alan Border.”
Hmmm…congrats, professor. A pretty good generic profile of a newly graduated backpacker in their twenties. No, I don’t care for cricket.
“Now place ten Rupees in my right hand and I can tell you more-”
I retrieved my hand and kept walking. I felt hungry. I was freezing. Moghul cuisine, a vegetarian Thali or Nirula’s™ Pizza?
The second man was a Moslem with his little cap of pure white, like a Belgian Lace tea cozy. Wasn’t as tall as the Sikh. Spoke in a gruff voice.
Strange. Surely fortune telling is forbidden under his teachings. Isn’t everything meant to be God’s will?
He took my right hand and began to speak. Looked intently at my palm. Then he closed my hand like screwing up a piece of scrap paper. He scowled.
“I cannot talk with you today!” The Moslem gentleman marched away in a huff.
I lurched after him and grabbed his shoulder.
“This is not good. I do not wish to speak with you today.”
“Ten Rupees,” I said as I chased him, holding the coins. But he was gone.
Indira Gandhi International. The Boeing 737™ turned and clattered as it taxied to the runway. The hostess in her pseudo-sari gave a pseudo-safety briefing detailing the exits and lifejackets. How useful. Srinagar, here we come, straight across
the plains then the hills. In India the hills are big. Really big; at least seven thousand feet to qualify.
Srinagar. Kashmir. The closest a person gets to paradise on this earth. I at least wanted to see it, even if the lake was frozen over. But there were troubles in paradise. The Vale of Kashmir was at war.
The airplane gunned her turbines, an old model. Still had the skinny noisy engines. We left the ground and the chill morning. New Delhi under fog. We climbed.
A bang and a whoosh. Smoke filled the cabin and the lights went out. The yellow masks dropped, children screamed as their ears popped and adults cried out in fear. The smoke, it was terrible, we were suffocating, gagging. The airplane lurched; my stomach
was wrenched apart as we turned sharply, then a steep dive like a fighter jet. We were all going to die…
The Boeing™ thundered and veered wildly as the captain and crew struggled with the stricken machine. I forced myself to look out the window. Emergency services and fire tenders waiting.
Indian pilots are supposedly some of the best given the poorly maintained junk they’re forced to fly. Trained in the Soviet Union.
Try to comfort myself.
Struck the tarmac hard. A collective cry from the passengers, one and all as it hits. No reverse thrust, he locks up the landing gear and we skid. The noise is deafening and shrill. I peek out…right next to the wing a fire tender has been chasing us.
We slam to a halt and I hit my head. My fault. Should’ve been in brace position, just like the hostess instructed everyone. But I’m still alive. My rugby days kick in as I dive for the door, down an inflatable slippery-slide and
into a Tata™ truck with police markings on it. I make eye-contact with an airport-commando. Not sure what to think. The captain should get a medal.
One week later and I’m on a train, headed to the balmy warmth and blissful beaches of Goa lined with coconut palms. Getting warmer as we go south. I read The Times of India™© as the express clatters down the Western Ghats. I learned
what happened that day.
Unaccompanied baggage; that’s how the booby-trap got in the hold. The airline clerk had been arrested. Kashmiri militants. In their enthusiasm to construct a device they’d put so much compound inside the suitcase and the firing caps couldn’t
cope. Eighteen thousand feet it went off. They’d only succeeded in setting fire to whatever it was, perhaps sourced from Libya — who knows? They had wanted to blow us all to smithereens, not just bring the airplane down.
It was all on page three, told the whole story. But we’d survived. I shuddered and felt like throwing up. Turned back to the front page, read it one more time
and shut my eyes…
Lockerbie! Flight 103. All over the front page. Scores of dead and a town destroyed by some bunch of fools wanting to be heard, wanting to make their mark on history.
I lean on my bar stool and take a sip from my shot of Jack™, I’ve been nursing it. The lady sitting next to me has been telling me her problems, she’s from Isarn somewhere and she’s on her third lady-drink. But she’s
an old buddy. No customers tonight. Seems strange; she always has some guy or another with her. Tonight she was sitting alone so I thought I’d stop by and chat. She’s been holding my right hand and massaging my neck. Now she has
my hand facing palm upwards and she points at something.
I tear it away, so fast she spills her lady drink on her miniskirt. She looks annoyed.
I raise my shot, she raises her beer. Cheers.
“Drink up, sweetie.”
“You tink too muts.” She taps her own forehead and looks at me like a schoolteacher. “Keet-alai?”
Decades ago, sometimes I still think about it. I just don’t want her reading my hand…not tonight. God knows what she might see. Getting too old for that, now.