When they assigned us to read Lord of the Flies in ninth grade, it confirmed so much of what I knew to be true of group dynamics. Most importantly that any group of people kept together for extended periods of time form a microcosm of a society and eventually, inevitably, end up wanting to kill each other in passionate and inventive ways. Nowhere is this more evident to me than on long-haul flights. Nowhere.
I arrived at JFK after a productive day of last-minutes errands in NY, excited to be on a Qatar Airways flight coming to Lahore and the many movie-watching opportunities that affords. I arrived on time and kept up my positive mood despite the traumas of check-in (“Sir, you are overweight!” “Well, I never!”) and the humiliation of TSA security checks (“Spread ‘em”).
I found the gate and wiled away the two hours til the flight with some reading. So engrossed did I become in “Negative People and How to Become Them” that it wasn’t until much later that I realised they still hadn’t announced boarding and it was half an hour past the take off time. This did not portend a Good Thing. An hour went by, then another, then another. It’s usually around this stage in the long-haul flight process that you start clocking in the cast of characters around you, as I tend to do whenever I imagine my life as the opening scene of an Agatha Christie murder mystery. There was the harassed Australian mother of three to my right, the elderly desi couple who were having a muted argument and the three students all hypnotised by their iPhones. As this was a US-to-Middle East flight, there were at least five suspiciously well-built Marine/Army/Spy looking guys, some burqa avengers and one inevitable lady dressed head to toe in leopard print.
People were crying, wailing, shouting at the attendants, snapping at each other, scolding their children
Four hours later a mousy, terrified voice announced over the intercom that a part of the plane was experiencing “technical difficulty” and that the flight team was working to resolve it. This proved to be a massive lie when a further four hours later (there isn’t enough Duty Free in the world to make that wait OK) they announced that the flight had been cancelled. That’s when the mob formed as four hundred angry, tired, cranky people descended with uniform fury upon three wide-eyed Qatar ground staff. It was like the opening credits of Saving Private Ryan. People were crying, wailing, shouting at the attendants, snapping at each other, scolding their children and some even threw over the trashcans in fits of rage. There were moans about how they had missed a wedding, or a funeral and in the case of one Indonesian man called Sultan, both. Eventually there were seven armed policemen patrolling the area menacingly so that the situation didn’t escalate.
Bringing guns into a situation like this is a recipe for a mass shooting and I’ll be damned if I end my days as a gun violence statistic on CNN. I decided not to join the angry mob shouting for reservations and hotel vouchers and instead sat down at the end of the terminal where there was a bit of peace and quiet. This was also because the elderly desi couple had attached themselves to me like a suckerfish and then absconded with my phone to make long distance calls to their son in Karachi, which was not OK. I found a seat behind a pillar so that Shagufta the Aunty couldn’t spot me when a few minutes later one of the beleaguered ground staff came into my quiet lair, her hair tousled and her cap askew, and sat down with a heavy sigh. Eventually we began chatting about the flight, her home, her kids and what I was looking forward to most about being home. Poor thing, I thought to myself as I saw the chaos unfold behind her: if I were in her shoes I would probably have taken out a machete a long time ago. She seemed genuinely grateful for an interaction that wasn’t a one-ended tirade and a little while later she went back into battle. I was just gathering my things to enter the fray myself when I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was her again, this time smiling as she handed me a new (upgraded!) boarding pass for another flight in the morning on a different airline as well as a hotel voucher with a free massage. All without having to stand in a single line behind a single farting person, imagine! Who knew being nice would work out so well? When I left with my things bound for the airport Hilton, there was still a queue of hundreds waiting to be heard.
The rest of the journey was mercifully uneventful, and 24 hours later I walked out into the acrid gas chamber that is the smog of Lahore. I could feel my lungs being coated with every breath I took, but I didn’t care. In the words of another who had a hell of a journey: there’s no place like home.