Window seat Chronicles

We were to travel east, move forward even as we travelled back in time. When we'd boarded the plane at three in the afternoon, the sun had been high, throwing milky light down through thick clouds. Up in the air, daylight dragged as long as the hours on a flight that had no distractions -- no movies, no food even -- and few passengers. The sunset that should have tinted the sky with oranges and pinks in two and a half hours came almost four hours later. 

It was a relief when the cabin lights eventually went out, as though night and darkness could be switched on by tired humans. Even though it was barely evening according to body clocks, the few of us on the plane claimed rows for ourselves and lay down. A few Technicolour streaks continued to leak into the shadowed sky. Sleep came over us like mist, broken here and there by the dull glow of screens. The plane hummed with monstrous energy. We gained hours while losing both light and sense of time. 

I woke up to the feeling that someone, something had tapped my window. Even for one wrapped in crinkled, tissue-thin sleep, it didn't quite add up. No matter how many seats you get to stretch across, there's no forgetting you're on a plane when you're travelling Economy. I think that's why I sat up instead of trying to go back to sleep, and turned my dream-emptied head to the cold glass. 

Outside my window were stars, millions of stars, their sharp, steady light turning the moon-less, sun-less sky into a thing of shiny brilliance. Stars that were large, crystalline points of light, gleaming without a flicker. Stars that were smaller, clustered together to create rippling ribbons of diamond dust. Below the horizon, there was a smooth, unrippled darkness. It was beautifully topsy-turvy. The grounded, finite earth had disappeared and turned into black infinity while the eternity of space had come closer and curved around my window, as though cupping the plane in its palm. Unexpectedly, there was a dull, violet flare: lightning in the distance, casting electric shadows in the clouds that were below us. A few seconds later, it happened again, this time a little further away.  

Of course my first thought was to attempt a photograph. Even an abstract mess of grain and dots would be enough of a memory prompt. But seen through the lens, there was only a black night, mundane and without dazzle. The enchantment of these stars and lightning, of that sense of being a little closer to the galaxy and the tethers to earth being loosened - the muggle camera couldn't see any of it. So I pressed my nose to the glass and tried to imprint the stars on my eyes. 

At one point, lightning exploded dully again and again and again, turning one corner of the black sky into pearly lilac. Not one star dimmed. If anything, they gleamed brighter. Heroes and heroines from old legends, twinkling, plotted on star charts. Ancient light that would perhaps be amused at the idea that for us, here on earth, they came into being only when we named them.

A quarter of eternity later, there was a sparkle. And another. It was below us, far away from the violet lightning. A little cluster of lights came into view, surrounded by pitch darkness. It was utterly surreal, as though a piece of the night sky had broken off and fallen below. After a stretch, another little constellation appeared, this one had a shining thread unravelling out of it and it silvered a thin line through the black only to first sink out of sight and then erupt into another little neon cluster. The pieces of light appeared randomly, floating shards of the starry sky in an ocean of darkness. Except of course, you just had to look straight ahead to realise the night sky was gloriously intact, its constellations and galaxies precisely where they belonged in the thin, unbreathable air, undimmed by murky particles. 

We travelled relentlessly, at eye level with the stars and lightning, with pieces of the night below. 

It was much later that I realised that the moment when I saw the light below was when the plane moved over the land mass of India, leaving the ocean behind. Those neon clusters were electrified India, as seen from about 30,000 feet above sea level, while the rest of the country with its stolen electricity, dim bulbs and firelight became invisible. What I was staring at, with wonderment and awe, was my country, rendered unrecognisable from this peculiar vantage point; transformed from an earthly thing into glittering islands of light. 

There's a taunting question that we often lobby at one another, usually to cut our opponent down to size and raise our own stature -- "Have you seen the real India? Do you even know this country?" At surface value, it's a challenge to leave the city and encounter the hinterland. But there's more. Lacing that challenge is the prickly awareness that we have fed and lapped up lies for generations. We tell them and we believe them, preferring the comfort they bring to the exhausting process of examining the multiplicity of truths. So much of what we've built up as our identity -- today as well as in the past -- is made up of mangled facts and the shiniest bits of illusion. It's how we've both survived reality and stumbled into what is real today in India. 

A country isn't just a shape or the embroidery of greens, ochres, browns and blues that stitch together different terrains and territories. It is its people -- the seen and the unseen, the ones in the light and those in the darkness. A country is clusters of people, tethered together by the hopes and beliefs that try to make sense of an enormity that we can't entirely wrap our heads around. It struck me then that liberal or fundamentalist, conservative or progressive, any one of us could look at what was below and see it as their India: enlightened islands (us) floating in an ocean of unlit ignorance (them).     

Hovering above clouds, with borders and land blacked out, I felt something twist my gut (maybe it was just gravity and the plane dropping a few feet). Because there, under the most magnificent, magical of starry skies, was my real India: a heart of light -- broken into countless bits held together by strands that glinted with desperation -- pulsing in a body of darkness.