A queue bumped up behind me with a gentle shove. I looked up at the overhead lockers and back at my boarding pass. Six B. This was definitely it. My seat was between two Indian women. One – the older of the two – sat on the far side, leaning heavily against the window. A silk sari was pulled across her shoulder and did little to cloak ripples of her generous girth which spilled out and pressed against the confines of her seat. A small bundle of thinning white hair was pulled back tight against her scalp and she chewed on her jaw with a kind of disinterested indolence. The other woman, the one closest to me, sat rigidly; a purse clutched on her lap and her eyes boring in to the seat ahead. She seemed unaware that I lingered, hoping to wedge myself between the two of them. There was another gentle shove behind me – stronger this time and accompanied by the swell of an impatient murmur. I blinked several times at the woman, who still hadn’t moved. As I reached out to touch her, my jaw fell slack. My clammy hand hovered over her shoulder for a moment, and I pulled it back. I curled my bottom lip over my teeth and bit down. It dawned on me that I had no idea what to say.
I looked further down the aisle and saw worn mothers and fathers bundling young children in to seats and barking instructions I couldn’t understand. Businessmen heaved their laptops into overhead compartments and prattled away on their phones. A peppering of tourists with bronze tans laughed with each other about something, but I couldn’t make out what. My pulse rose and my tongue became heavy and sticky. Men with long beards, white tunics and knotted turbans sat as reticent witnesses to my panic, gazing silently forward over their spectacles at me, awash in the wave of noise I couldn’t make sense of.
Sometime in the last two hours, between gliding in on a flight originating in Auckland, and boarding another bound for Kolkata, I had been consigned to the minority. Illiterate. Foreign. Other. ‘This is how they must feel,’ I thought, turning over faces in my mind of wide-eyes immigrants and exchange students I had met over the years back home. Unable to speak, unsure of what is appropriate. Completely at the mercy of the crowd.
I turned back over my shoulder, air trapped in the back of my throat, and young, kind eyes met mine. I couldn’t remember her name, but it was the english-speaking woman and I had made acquaintance with over quick-fire conversation just minutes before on the air-bridge … “You are to stay in Kolkata?” she had asked – her voice rising in surprise at the word ‘stay.’
“Yes” I had responded – and if I had been wholly honest I would have admitted a degree of surprise myself. Her face and tone had betrayed her thoughts when I’d told her where I would be living. “You have a project there?” she’d asked, assumingly.
“You have heard about Sonnagacchi then, I suppose?” I’d sighed in response. “I hear it is famous in Kolkata.”
“Sonnagacchi is famous in all of Asia” she’d said, and shook her head in a sort of sorry nod. Her words hung in the humid air and I hadn’t known what to say back.
The Air-bridge woman looked back at me now from under raised brows. Taking my silence as permission, she pressed her lips together in a subtle smile and tipped her head to the woman in the seat. She uttered a few phrases to the Bag-lady, who hurriedly and inelegantly clambered out of her seat. I squeezed past and sank down in to vinyl and tired foam. A hinge squeaked in protest as I adjusted myself in my seat and jammed my bag under the seat in front of me. We each sat in our places – the Bag-lady and I – and remained wordless for a few moments. Meanwhile, my mind raced as the reality of my place in a new world sank in.
The old Sari-woman still hadn’t looked at me when the Bag-lady punctuated the silence with a clatter of words that fell between us and then rolled away under the seats as marbles. I shook my head and shrugged back at her silently with a tired half-smile. Generously, and humbly, she shaped her mouth around the few English words she knew. We bumbled our way through the basics as the planes engine roared through the darkness. I think she has a son living in Australia. Though I had been trying to tell her I was full with my rounded belly gestures, I think she she thinks I’m pregnant and I can’t convince her otherwise. As our plane shudders and bounces in to Kolkata, she grabs my passport and thumbs opens it to the photo page. A stained finger jabs at my picture. “Friend,” she says, and then points back to herself. “You, me, friend.” She smiles. I smile back, and wonder if I will ever see her again after this moment. Nevertheless, her warmth matches the amber glow of lights which had been gliding past my window, and have now stopped, our journey complete. I gather my things and unfold my limbs as I prepare to disembark.
I got on this plane in a world I understood, a world I could be confident in, a world where I knew my place. A world that worships the scientific method, where all happenings can be seemingly rationalised by cause and effect. I walk out now, in to a world of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, unpredictability – at least from my vantage point. A wide-eyed novice, a student, an apprentice.
This is the beginning.