Ever since I was a kid, flying was like second nature to me. My mom had trained me well — go up and down the aisle and spot the empty seats. As soon as the airplane doors would close, we would scramble and find our new seats — ideally in a row of 3, or if we were lucky, even a row of 4 in the middle. We'd lift the seat arms and quickly lie down. I didn't necessarily feel sleepy or feel the need to rest but it was a way to mark our territory.
Those were the golden days of travel. I'd walk around the plane, visit the pilots and have orange juice up in the cockpit with them, play cards with air hostesses and of course, smile and get whatever food items that were available in any class.
I always had the advantage of being a vegetarian — on international flights there were often fewer choices so they'd profusely apologise and compensate the lack of options with ice cream, cookies, peanuts and fruits.
These days, most airlines charge passengers for food, if they serve anything that is. The ones that do, offer many options — one can request for kosher, Jain, gluten-free, low salt and other kinds of meals.
Penny-pinching airlines seem to think that comfort is a luxury.
The hunt for an empty seat, on the other hand, has become challenging. The flights I'm on almost never have an empty seat. As a result, the little cocoon I was used to as a kid, and then the space I would get during my working years in business and first class, have all but disappeared.
Now, penny-pinching airlines seem to think that comfort is a luxury. It wouldn't surprise me to find one day that seats have been removed completely and everyone has to travel standing, like one does in the metro or the local train. A giant seat belt can be used to wrap everyone up together.
But I digress — while there is no shortage of analysis describing the current state of the airline industry, I'd like to bring the focus back on the food.
In a space where ventilation is nil and there is no escape, what is a man with a heightened sense of smell and a lifelong aversion to non-vegetarian food to do?
One sudden jolt and the curry that was making its journey from the plate to the mouth of the man to my right had splattered all over my face and shirt.
Back when I was a kid, I always tried to avoid the smokers who'd go to the back of the plane and return back to their seats reeking of tobacco. But there's no escaping the dining service. I had sadly forgotten to check-in online for a recent flight and I was left with a middle seat. The flight attendant came and handed me my specially requested gluten-free vegetarian meal. The passenger to my right, a rescue-dog volunteer, got his non-vegetarian beef meal and the passenger to my left, a Bengali housewife, got her mutton. I said a little prayer for all of us as I didn't want to imagine myself back at the farm with my cows and goats, and we began our meals.
Truthfully, I had difficulty eating because of the smell. I'm not used to being in such close proximity to meat. Suddenly, the "fasten seat belt" sign flashed as there was turbulence. While the flight attendant continued to serve the meals, I could see our trays shifting a little. One sudden jolt and the curry that was making its journey from the plate to the mouth of the man to my right had splattered all over my face and shirt. I was horrified and he was apologetic. I grabbed my napkin and tried to clean myself up, realizing that because of the turbulence I couldn't even get up to freshen up.
For the next 45 minutes, I had to remained seated, just seconds away from vomiting atop my food. Still, I took deep breaths and managed. After all, I've taken cow urine, I've taken dung baths, I've fought much worse battles than this. Now, I was thankful for those experiences which had made me strong enough to endure this calamity.
Dare I say, given the current political climate, why can't we have a vegetarian airline?
Now, imagine if the situation was changed a little. Supposing to my left the man got meat and to my right someone got meat too but it was dog meat. Dog stew to be exact. Now, supposing I traded seats with the dog eater and he had had to endure what I just had. Would he have freaked out? Or, would he have maintained his composure like I had managed to.
I ask this because I've had similar experiences in restaurants, on the train, at movie theatres, at festivals, and even at work. My tolerance allows me to cope as I realize that I can't make a fuss. It's my problem and I need to handle it.
As a result, over the years, this has led me to make fewer and fewer outings, fewer social interactions, and my doing ridiculous amounts of homework to ensure that I'm on relatively empty aircraft or I go to watch movies that are frequented less by carnivores. I'm not out to change behaviour patterns nor am I seeking martyrdom for my tolerance power.
Having lived in India for the last 5 years, it baffles me that we have got beef bans, no smoking in all public indoor spaces and yet we have not understood the sensitivity to food choices. Why can't we just seat vegetarians together and non-vegetarians separately? Dare I say, given the current political climate, why can't we have a vegetarian airline?
I don't think it's discriminatory to not serve a particular type of food. I'm okay with any individual bringing onboard whatever they've made at home. If smells from home were to be banned, I don't think my Gujarati friends would be pleased as I know a large number of passengers would request for theplas and methi masala to not be allowed. And let's not even talk about perfumes, body sprays and hair oils.
If we can't reach some form of olfactory compromise, might I suggest a premium-priced row of seats that don't permit any scents be brought on or be served. Now that's a heavenly fragrance for my mind!