November 28, 2017
"To the kind attention of passengers. The flight will soon be landing at Kozirode International Airport. I request all of you to fasten your seat belts for landing and remain seated once the flight touches down on the runway and walk to the exit door one at a time. Thank you."
The announcement ended as soon as it had begun and the silence in the cabin was replaced by the clicks of seat belts and murmured exchanges between the passengers.
I looked out of the window and could see the blinking of little lights of red, green and orange along the length of the left wing of the airplane against the pitch black darkness outside. I looked at my watch. It was five fifteen in the morning. The plane was ahead of schedule. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes.
Hardly had I so than the groans of my fellow passenger piqued my curiosity and I turned towards him.
The man seemed to be in his late fifties with sparse silky hair grown gray and a thick mustache that was equally gray. He wore a neatly pressed white shirt tucked into a cotton trouser and a textured tie pulled tight around his neck. On his hand was a Rolex watch, its dials glittering, and on two of his fingers on either hand he wore gold rings studded with what seemed like precious stones.
For all his grandiose appearance the man was suitably overweight and currently was having trouble pulling his seat belt tight and clicking them in place. His obese physique was quite not what the manufacturers had in mind when setting the limit on the elasticity of the belt, I reckoned.
"Do you want me to..." I left the words unsaid and nodded towards his bean bag of a stomach.
He smiled, half relieved, half embarrassed, as he let the seat belt fall back to the sides and sighed deeply.
"It wasn't this tight the last time I traveled," he said, as if in his defense, implying, it seemed to me, that it was the belt that had shrunk in size rather than his stomach that had grown substantially since his last travel, which to me seemed more factual and plain obvious.
"Alright," I said, clicking my seat belt open, as I leaned over to pull the two ends of his seat belts over his stomach.
"I guess it'd be easier if you could just take a deep breath and..."
Well, it wasn't that easy, to be frank, but somehow we soon managed to lock the belt in place and all was good; that is, if you consider being pressed to a seat with a super tight seat belt over your super massive stomach good.
For the next twenty minutes until the flight approached the airport the man kept sticking his thumb between the belt and his stomach and mumbled curses under his breath.
He's definitely not going to travel on this flight ever again, I remember thinking as I settled back in my own seat. But little did I know then that it was not just that particular flight that the man would not be flying in but every other flight too. Just like how he would not be seeing his family or feeling embarrassed about his portly stomach ever again.
The narration that follows in the preceding paragraphs is that of the happenings inside the passenger fight AIR BUS 711 as it touched down on the runway of Kozirode International Airport. The entire episode, that lasted only a few minutes, is so deeply etched in my memory that the mere recollections, during the past ten days, has drained me of strength, both physical and emotional, and has turned me numb.
The sounds, the cries, the fire, the smoke, the sight of the inferno that had once been an airplane still haunt me, every day and every night. But what gnaws at my inner being and that has mutilated it beyond recognition and has turned my body into a mere husk is the burden of being alive; what ails me is the guilt of survival, and the revival of a long suppressed fear, and it is to heal myself of these ailments, that I am typing these words.
But it isn't easy.
It isn't easy to recount those ghastly moments and describe in words what it was like and how it had felt. It isn't easy to write sensibly of an event that challenges the very definition of sensibility and that has numbed my own senses beyond revival. But more importantly it isn't easy to speak of the fear, which had remained repressed for years but which has now once more come to fore, for the worse. Yet in spite of it all, I must write.
At first all was well. The flight lowered its altitude smoothly and, as I looked outside my window, the runway with the length of bright lights along its edges came into view. Outside, the traces of dawn were fading away into morning and the sky was brightening slowly. Every passenger on board was expectantly awaiting the touchdown so as to crowd at the exit door, as was the norm, so as to deboard at the earliest, in spite of the air hostesses’ plea for a disciplined departure.
It wasn't until the flight had very well approached the runway-but had not yet touched down-that the passengers sensed something was wrong. The flight descended close to the runway yet kept going and showed no sign of touching down. Nervous murmurs erupted among the passengers and the perplexed expressions on the faces of the stewards and the stewardesses, as they looked at each other, only added to the apprehensiveness of the situation. Before long the entire flight started to shudder and after a sudden thud, that lurched the passengers violently in their seats, an ear splitting blast sounded and all hell broke loose.
A screeching noise sounded from underneath the flight as it began to lean towards one side and as I looked out of the window with wide eyes and stupefied senses the left wing of the airplane crashed against the tarmac and was ablaze in a matter of seconds.
Screams resounded from every corner of the airplane. Men, women, children bawling at the top of their voices. Within minutes the cacophony rose to a crescendo; a heart wrenching crescendo that would send shivers down the spine of even the most hardhearted among us. A crescendo no man would have to hear, ever.
The flight continued speeding on the tarmac at a threatening rate and the fire on the left wing, or what remained of it, grew fierce and proceeded to engulf the left side of the flight, to where I was seated. The sight left me paralyzed and for a moment I remained still, as if my faculty of mobility had suddenly ceased to be. But soon, I regained my senses and hauled myself out of my seat. Just then a voice froze me on my path.
"Help me!" the voice was strained and aching. The man seated next to me groped for my hand like a drowning man, his body pressed tightly to his seat.
I fell to my feet, next to his seat, as panic stricken passengers ran wildly along the length of the aisle, screaming and shrieking with fright.
"Can you... free me... can't move..."
The man was panicking and was squirming in his seat.
"Hold still," I instructed him, as I tried to unfasten his belt, fighting to keep my balance as the airplane zigzagged along the runway with unabated speed.
"Try taking a deep breath, just as before, so th-"
A second blast, just like the one preceding it, sounded from the front of the airplane that sent it face down and threw me off balance and hurled me down the aisle. I rolled over a couple of times, head over heels, before I hit my head at the edge of the doorway that led into the adjoining compartment.
Several bodies sped past me, running nowhere in particular, screaming, stomping me as I lay sprawled with my head reeling. With the greatest of efforts I got to my feet and staggered to one side and leaned against the window.
But only for the briefest of moments, for just then the first class compartment was ablaze.
As I hurriedly squeezed myself through the narrow doorway that led into the adjoining compartment and that was clogged with delirious passengers running for their lives, I stole a quick glance behind me and caught a fleeting glimpse of the man finally managing to free himself from the crushing force of the seat belt but failing to keep up with the spreading flame.
And he was not alone.
The horrid cries of pain and anguish resonated throughout the airplane as the flame engulfed everything and everyone it came in contact with.
Inside the compartment, to which I now entered, a group of passengers, and a few flight attendants, had crowded at the exit door and were desperately trying to yank it open, tears streaming down their faces, their bodies quivering with fright and voices crying out. Within a while several others joined them and tried to get as close to the door as they possibly could.
It was then when half of the airplane was on fire and more than half of the passengers had been burned alive and many others were crowded at the exit door, bawling and hollering incomprehensibly, that the airplane surpassed the length of the table top runway, tipped over the precipice and slid down the decline at an even faster rate.
The passengers were thrown about like pebbles inside a tin can that was left to roll downhill.
As I toppled uncontrollably in the closed confines of the airplane, crashing into seats, walls, the roof - or was it the floor? - pain coursed through my body like bolts of lightning. I could feel warm blood tricking down the side of my face from a gash on my forehead as I began to fade in and out of consciousness.
The airplane continued its descent downhill, the sounds of ripping metal and blazing fire and screaming voices loud in my ears, as I finally managed to grab hold of a seat and collapse in the space between the seats, on the floor.
This is it, I remember thinking, lying there on the shuddering floor, with every inch of my body crying out in excruciating pain and my head pounding incessantly, blood streaming down my face. This is the end.
Feeling as if I had only an ounce of life left in me, I reminisced about my life and how abruptly it was coming to an end. How only moments ago everything seemed so normal, so like every other day, and how easily it took a turn for the worse. The certainty of an impending death ached my heart, ached my being, yet in spite of all that had happened not a tear did I shed and truth be told, I wish I had. Because had I done so, the burden of anguish and remorse would not have weighed down my heart as profoundly as now.
As I slowly descended into the realm of oblivion, with the dying traces of my thoughts lingering in my head, the sliding airplane heaved up into the air and landed heavily back to the ground and as it made contact, the airplane disintegrated into two and I was hurled out into the open like a dummy in a gravity defying stunt of some second rate movie and landed a fair distance away from the airplane that within a matter of seconds after being split in two, exploded into smoke and flames.
The last fleeting sensation before I lost myself into oblivion was that of an intense heat wave engulfing me and an excruciating pain in the lower half of my body.
I was lying on a hospital bed with a doctor and two nurses standing by the side of my bed when I regained consciousness. The doctor gave me a warm smile and patted on my shoulder. He leaned closer and spoke to me, with his smile still on, pressing my shoulder as he did so. Yet his words were lost on me and I only stared with distant eyes at his oval face with their sparkling eyes and felt nothing but numb.
And the world faded to blackness once more.
They told me that I was paralyzed waist down and that I would never be able to walk again. Added to that the burns on my body, owing to the blast, would take a couple of years to heal and would make my body intensely sensitive to touch. In short, my life would never be the same again.
The news of the crash is all over the place. Televisions, newspapers, radios discussing the details of the crash terming it as one of the greatest aviation disasters of the country. Animated recreations of the crash, with the least semblance to what had actually happened, are being shown over and over to the point of boredom-the footage of the wreckage blurred at places televised with mournful music played in the background; ministers offering their sympathies to the families who lost their loved ones and promising a thorough investigation on the crash; the airline company declaring the amount to be furnished as compensation to the bereaved; and amidst all this, a special report on the miraculous escape of some Rajesh Waldar who is currently under intensive care at one of the well-known hospitals in town and whose recovery is expectantly been awaited so as to get a first-hand account of the crash; a narration of the crash from the sole survivor himself.
How appropriate, don't you think?
I only hope these words of mine will serve their purpose well.
A couple of years is a very long time if it involves enduring excruciating pain with even the slightest of touch or the powerful blast of cool air from a ceiling fan while never again is an infinitely long time to remain paralyzed.
With only ten days behind me and the rest ahead, I look out the window of my room on the fifteenth floor in the multi-specialty hospital, seated on a wheel chair, and cannot help but lament about the days that lie ahead of me and about the misery they entail.
As a child growing up in a house where a father, who once was a stunt director, and who had forever turned bedridden after a failed stunt that involved jumping from an airplane, was fed, bathed and clothed by his two teenage sons and a emaciated wife, my greatest fear was turning into a cripple myself. This fear was at its peak during the period my father's miserable figure suffered on the cotton stuffed mattress and a long while after his death. As days progressed its intensity lessened and up until now had receded into the deep recesses of my mind. But now, lo and behold, it is back with a vengeance.
Fear is a powerful emotion and just like any other emotion it has two sides; it can either make you or break you and in my case it has broken me and broken me good, for the fusion of this childhood fear of mine and the dreadful remorse of survival form the crash that killed every other passenger on-board the flight, has left me with only a single alternative, a single choice.
The window is almost four feet tall and two feet wide and open, with only the curtains fluttering slightly with the slow wafting wind. Outside, the medley of horns and voices and loudspeakers is in full swing, and as I roll close to the window sill, with my finger pressed on the button on the hand rest that sets the wheelchair in motion, its intensity builds.
The canvas of the evening sky is painted deep orange and a group of migrating birds are flying away in a perfect arc. The wafting wind caresses my face, in spite of the prickles, and lightens my heart.
I inch my wheelchair close to the window until my knees press lightly against the wall underneath the window and place both my hands on the window sill.
The sill is cold to touch.
I close my eyes and for the very first time after the crash, I feel calm.
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