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The lady on seat 17A
September 29, 2005
As she came down the aisle, she was carrying a baby in one hand, two bags on her shoulder and as if all this was not enough, a large Starbucks coffee in her other hand.
It was a crowded flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles and I was travelling on official business, but in the economy class.
The coffee in her hand irritated me. It is bad enough that the cell phone has become an extension of the arm: in terms of Darwinian evolution there will soon come a day with all children being born with an extended palm ready to clutch a phone; but to be unable to walk without a Styrofoam coffee cup in your hand, a feature that afflicts modern Americans, is a bit too much.
And this in a plane, where everyone is already irritated, because you spend three hours -- one from home to airport and two in long lines to be searched, frisked and in other ways humiliated -- for a one hour flight. You read reports about the US airports being unfriendly to Indians. Don't believe them. They are uniformly unfriendly to everyone but who can blame.
I was seated at 17-B, an isle seat. She had 17-A. I got up to make way and had to take the Starbucks coffee from her hand while she got busy arranging the bags, taking out the milk bottle etc. As the plane taxied, I buckled myself, coffee cup still in my hand. This was the background to our intimate conversation, which followed on this one-hour trip.
To set the scene, I must clarify that I was wearing a suit, the only one in the economy class. Others of either sex were evenly divided between jeans or shorts or some even less. California is super cool sartorially and wearing a suit is almost like a fancy dress, but with my job I still don it.
I was carrying a book: I-con, a new biography on Steve Jobs of Apple Computers and I-pod. I am still trying to come to grips with Silicon Valley and hence do some business reading on airports and flights. As we were airborne, I handed over the coffee to her, accepted her thanks somewhat gruffly and opened my book.
"Are you a business person?" she asked.
I turned to look at her. She was a young mother, dressed smartly though not flashily, with a serene and radiant countenance. Her tone was calm and friendly and her English somewhat hesitant. She looked vaguely foreign, but could have been from anywhere. This too is a normal feature in California: one gets used to an ambience of hearing Chinese, Mexican, Hindi, Korean all around you and airlines advertise that they have staff speaking 53 languages.
"Actually, no. I happen to be a diplomat. But may I know why you ask whether I am a businessman", I asked.
"The suit, the book on computers, you must travel a lot, it looks like," she said.
I was pleased, but didn't say anything. I am not the kind to gush or blush. Anyway to be thought of as a businessperson was to be taken as a compliment and not a condemnation in America.
"Do you know tithing?" she asked in a somewhat tentative way. I thought it was something to do with the baby. "Have you read about it?" she was asking. I shook my head. Holding the coffee cup was bad enough. I didn't want anything to do with the baby, its burps or slurps. I didn't want any trouble, teething or otherwise.
"Please don't misunderstand my interruption. But it is my duty to tell you. You look like a successful person. We believe, I mean, in our Book it is written that if you give ten per cent of what you earn to poor people, especially poor widows, it will come back to you ten times. God will give it back to you. It is called tithing. It goes back to Abraham and Moses," she said with great sincerity.
There is no shortage of people asking for contributions in America and even Indians are not spared, but it was evident to me that she was not trying to con me or convince me. She seemed to be doing a duty with great detachment and equanimity.
"Don't misunderstand me. I don't know anything about you. But if you are ever in trouble or run out of money, please remember what you were told on this plane from a lady on your left seat." she added.
Decades of being a diplomat has instilled in me a propensity to agree to almost anything or to find the middle ground. There are exceptions of course: hard core issues such as nuclear policy, Jammu & Kashmir, etc where by instinct and training I take a vigorous stand. But on an issue such as this, I thanked her and said I will certainly remember tithing.
"Giving to the needy is a good thing in every faith," I said, trying to be careful and correct.
"May I ask you, if you don't mind what your faith is?" she was asking ever so gently.
Now discussion on faith cannot be avoided in America. And there are many faiths: not Christianity, Islam, Hinduism etc as we are inclined to think before pronouncing that we are secular. Here the debate is more between a plethora of esoteric sounding groups: Pentecostals, Jehovah's witness, Later Day Adventists, Born again believers, Modern Evangelists, Mormons and many others.
What are these? Go search an encyclopaedia. All I know is that besides churches, there are television shows, charities, cliques and cabals, and what have you for each of these.
Another aspect, which is still a fascination for me, is the form that the ferocious public debates on faith takes. It can be about birth, death and marriage -- the three defining stages of life -- on which every religion seems to have a view, but the controversies get contorted beyond my comprehension.
For instance, there are presently major controversies about birth: at what stage is the foetus to be deemed alive, does life start at conception, a few weeks thereafter or only in the third trimester, is banning all abortion or allowing choice truly ethical, in permitting stem cell research is science destroying the embryo etc.
These are only for starters. Similarly debates on 'death' can be full of dilemmas: 'Is the brain dead truly dead?', 'Can life support ever be removed', 'Is euthanasia sinful or ethical? And such like. It would seem to a stranger that there is more concern for the unborn or the brain-dead than for the merely living and this itself is a current topic after Katrina.
What about marriage? Here the discourse is all about gay rights, solemnising same-sex marriages, trans-gender relationships, and so on. I will need a separate column for educating the reader on the complex issues of GLBT. (I am not even expanding the abbreviation, but you can look it up!).
Pardon me then for thinking that discussion on faith is for the freaks. And yet to be asked to join a debate on faith is not uncommon. I decided to take the plunge.
"I am a Hindu. Do you know anything about it?" I asked, though it was clear that to even begin to explain the concepts and complexities of something so alien to her was an impossible task.
"No. I know very little. But can I tell you one more thing? Do you know anti-Christ?" she asked again with complete concentration on her question and total indifference to mine.
"No. But do you know some Hindu beliefs?" I persisted.
"We don't have much time. Please remember one thing. A huge war will come. The anti-Christ will try to put a mark on everyone's wrist. The Book called it a mark. We now think it will be like a chip. The devil will put a chip under everyone's skin to control them. It may start here in California, as the devil needs many chips. Please remember what I am saying. If someone tries to put a chip, do not accept. If they say they will kill you, let them, but do not get the chip put. If you die, remember what I said. You will go straight to heaven. You look like a nice person. Don't you want to go to heaven?" she asked breathlessly as the vast spread of Los Angeles appeared below from the windows of the aircraft.
Her serene frame, her kind tone, her deep eyes all implored me to accept this, should I face the choice one-day.
"But I am a Hindu. Please don't misunderstand me. We believe in rebirth or in the liberation from the cycle of life and death. Not in heaven," I protested gently as the plane touched the ground.
Her eyes looked glazed and she appeared devastated. "Just remember what I said. Don't accept the chip," she concluded, while gathering her bags.
I will remember for more reasons than one.
B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
Read earlier articles by B S Prakash here