Travelling great distances
"THERE'S nothing wrong with your heart... your kidney... or your liver. You are only 27, too young to have serious problems. It's all in your mind," the doctor had said after examining all the reports.
"Mind? What do you mean?" Giri had asked.
"You have an affliction temporary, I think of agoraphobia and anxiety. Agoraphobia is a fear of open spaces, crowded public spaces. The funny feelings in your head, the palpitations, giddiness, a sense of doom are all a result of that."
"Why did this happen?" Giri was not entirely convinced by the doctor's explanation, but was relieved that there was nothing seriously wrong with him.
"It's hard to trace it to something. Past trauma, stressful situations, digestive system upsets... don't worry, it should settle down. Take some vitamin B complex. Go for long walks, avoid caffeine, and eat mild food. See me after three weeks."
Was it his mother's recent illness? The stressful week at work when his boss screamed at him? Giri could not tell. After two weeks, as the doctor had predicted, most symptoms disappeared. But the disconcerting giddiness remained. It did not trouble him when he walked fast. Walking slowly aggravated it. Standing still made him miserable.
The quotidian chores became his existential challenge. Waiting for the elevator, moving slowly in a queue, stopping to hold casual conversations. Shopping in malls and supermarkets under arc lamps proved particularly difficult. He took every opportunity to sit for the most ordinary tasks. When he had to pay at a counter or stand on one side of the road for the signal to change, he struggled to maintain his posture and countenance. His life became a complex assembly of darting motions; there was no room for slow movement or for standing stationary. When the world around him moved with ease, he gazed at it with a sense of wonder and resentment.
Today, after avoiding travel for three weeks since these symptoms had first occurred, he had to travel for an important official engagement. He alighted from the taxi with enlarged pupils and the sheen of sweat on his forehead. The security guard at the door was letting in people in a line. He leaned against a pillar until the line had cleared and swiftly strode to the guard. Fortunately, the guard waved him in without examining his ticket.
The lights of the airport interiors dazzled him. His heart sank at the line waiting to check in. He scrambled to the nearest seat, waited until the line had cleared, and presented his ticket. The check-in assistant seemed to be in a particularly garrulous mood, chatting with his colleague while he printed out the boarding card. Giri stood at the counter shuffling to maintain postural stability, and cursing the check-in assistant. After an eternity, the man handed the boarding card.
Giri quickly passed through security and sat close to the boarding gate. He decided to board last.
"Excuse me," said a voice. Giri looked up from the book that he was trying hard to concentrate on.
The old man flashed an almost toothless grin at Giri. He was stooped and his legs buckled at the knees. He had a cloth bag slung over his shoulder.
"I couldn't help noticing you were on the same flight," the old man said. "Can I ask a favour of you?"
Giri nodded doubtfully.
"I am afflicted by arthritis and... what do they call it... osteoporosis. I have great difficult walking. May I board the plane with you? You just need to keep me company till I reach my seat."
"Why don't you ask the airline for assistance? Perhaps a wheelchair?"
The old man shook his head. "I'm not an invalid. I don't want to attract attention. I like to manage by myself. Do tell me if I am troubling you, I will ask somebody else."
Giri hesitated. Shame on you. The old man seems well over eighty. Look at his self-reliance. Grow up, help him, he chided himself.
The old man had an expectant beatific smile. "Well, all right. Let's board last. That way, we won't be rushed," Giri suggested cleverly.
"That's very kind of you." With great caution and labour, the old man sat himself in the chair next to Giri.
He chatted for a while, then cleared his throat with hesitation, and said. "I need to go to the bathroom. Would you mind coming with me?"
This alarmed Giri. He himself had been suppressing the urge for a while, resolving to use the toilet only after checking into the hotel at his destination.
Don't be a sissy, go with him, his inner voice rebuked. The toilet was a good 100 feet from where they sat. He helped the old man to his feet and they hobbled together. The bathroom didn't seem to arrive at all while the old man immersed himself in an unremitting monologue about his past. Giri did not receive a word of what he said.
While the old man was inside the toilet, Giri clutched the door and waited. It appeared as if the old man wasn't coming back. When he peeked inside, once or twice, he found the old man pensively in position before the pot. What are you doing? These old men! Finally when the old man was done, with greater uncertainty, Giri led the old man back to his chair.
"I hate to trouble you, but I'd like a cup of coffee," the old man smiled apologetically. Giri had to exercise utmost restraint to stop himself from smashing his fist into the old man's face. As the old man made to get up, Giri stopped him. "Wait here. I'll get you the coffee."
The coffee stall was at least 150 feet away. Fortunately, there was no line. Giri swiftly strode to the counter, swayed for a few dizzying seconds before the stall, before he returned with the coffee. The old man slurped the coffee with relish.
Giri was relieved when the boarding announcement came. He followed the old man as the last passenger in line. When he came to the gate, he froze. The aerobridge was connected to the aircraft in an incline whose mere sight made him dizzy. The line moved slowly and Giri held the wall of the aerobridge for support. A few feet away from the aircraft door, the line halted. The world spun, and Giri in a reflex placed a hand on the old man's shoulder and leaned on it. The old man looked around but turned to head into the plane. The line now moved.
Giri seated the old man with an overwhelming shame. Twenty-seven saved by eighty plus. What if the old man had collapsed under his desperate hold?
When Giri started to speak, the old man beat him to it. "Thank you very much for helping me, young man. Particularly for holding me on the aerobridge. That was the most difficult part. These arthritic knees... walking with them is not such a problem... standing still is. That too on inclined surfaces. Oh, you are too young to understand all this. Thanks, again."
G.B.Prabhat writes fiction and non-fiction. He is Director-Consulting and Enterprise Solutions, Satyam Computer Services Ltd. E-mail him at email@example.com.
Send this article to Friends by