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OP-ED: Nostalgia for the days before 9/11

  • Published at 06:50 pm September 10th, 2021
It has become harder to trust strangers on planes REUTERS

On that day, we started trusting each other a little less

One of the casualties of 9/11 has been the small talk, the fleeting friendships, the exchange of ideas, banter, and the rediscovery of common humanity during air travels. While on a plane, we often have a sense of loneliness with a touch of uncertainty (although experts reassure us that chances of dying of a plane crash are less than dying of a car crash). In moments of introspection, you turn to your neighbour and say “hello,” or offer a smile to break the ice, or even shake hands, if you are intrepid. Once introduced, you start the small talk. 

Once on a flight from Sydney to Singapore in the mid-1990s on a Qantas flight, a large man sat next to me. I remember the diplomacy on the part of the cabin crew when she approached the gentleman with an add-on belt as the large passenger was struggling with the daunting task of fitting the standardized airline seatbelt to his girth. She said: “Sir, perhaps you will be more comfortable with this belt.” The gentleman declined, politely. I was non-observing this little drama in the manner of studied non-observance with my eyes riveted to the newspaper. 

Once belted, the gentleman extended his hand to shake my hand and picked up a conversation about the type of plane we were flying. “Are you a pilot?” I enquired with a touch of incredulity, since his body size was at variance with my images of dashing pilots like Kamal Mahmood Bhai or Liaqat Bhai. He reassured me by disclosing that he was a farmer who had a twin-seater plane that he used for spraying and fertilizing his farm of several thousand acres. 

As the flight stabilized, with the help of a generous supply of red wine, he opened his belt and heart. He was going to meet his father in England for the first time in his life. The large man was young of age. When he was a child, his parents parted company. He was sharing his excitement with more frothy drinks -- he found in me a kindred soul, as I was intently listening to his life story. He made me promise to visit him in Australia next time I was in his country, and shared his phone number and promised to take me on a flight over his farm. And he meant it. 

On another flight from Minneapolis to New York’s LaGuardia airport once, my fellow passenger was a fisher from Alaska. After an intense discussion about the beauty of Alaska and his life as a fisherman, he insisted that I must taste his salmon, which was in the luggage compartment. At the airport, he insisted that I wait, and once his luggage came, he gave me a slab of frozen salmon. I surprised my hosts in New Jersey with this exotic gift. The taste of salmon was great, but the friendly gesture was greater. 

On my flights, I would carry Bangla books, especially short novels by Satyajit Ray or Shirshendu. I remember having to deal with so many curious passengers at various airport lounges who would stop and ask me about the language of the book, as they were attracted by the colourful covers of those small books. Such queries often would lead to conversation about Bengali scripts, and language, which would take me to the history of the Language Movement and the liberation of Bangladesh.

Once, on a flight from Atlanta to San Francisco, an elderly lady was seated next to me, who was engrossed in solving the newspaper puzzle. I often envy people who can solve the puzzles of newspapers like The New York Times. Only super-smart people can solve these puzzles. At one point, the lady turned to me with a look of some degree of certainty, and asked one of the questions from the puzzle that she was stuck with. That was my lucky day, first time in my life, by sheer chance, I knew the answer. 

The lady was not overly impressed, as in her stereotype of “smart Indians” this was only expected. 

Though neither smart, nor Indian, I took her compliment of non-compliment. Then she started sharing with me her life story. She worked as a nurse at Pittsburgh University Hospital where she met her husband a doctor. That was long time ago. 

Now she, a widow, lived in Florida and was on her way to the Bay Area where her adult children lived. This was her annual trip to be with her grandchildren. The name Pittsburgh brought memories of my own. I lived there, went to school, and our son was born there. Our discussions became cozier. 

A loving and caring grandma, she was a source of wisdom, and was ready to share her life experience with a fleeting friend. She asked me how often my children saw their grandparents. Not that often, as we lived in Singapore and they in Dhaka. She had a touch of concern on her face, as she told me that children are socialized more by their grandparents than their parents in this age, where work-life competes with parenting duties. A true nugget of wisdom.

Part of the collateral damage of 9/11 has been exchange of a friendly smile or small talk with a co-traveller, and trust in a fellow human.         

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociologist.

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