October 05, 2005

Still seated

In the row immediately in front of me, there's an older couple, a man who looks like their son, his wife, and the younger couple's little daughter, about 4 years old and screaming nonstop, wordlessly. Screaming so loudly and steadily that everybody around tries hard not to look at the family. Instead we all look elsewhere, or down at the meals on our fold-down trays, anywhere but at the kid, carefully neutral expressions on our faces.

The little girl has the faint but unmistakable look of Down's, especially in her bright but unfocused eyes. When she first starts screaming, her father picks her up and passes her across the aisle to her grandfather, who cajoles and scolds alternately, the last with his hand poised threateningly, which only results in more screaming. Unable to pacify the girl, grandpa passes her back across the aisle, and pa passes her on to his wife in the window seat.

This back and forth happens once or twice more, and then there's a little to-do because the tyke has wet the little pants she is wearing. Grandpa stands in the aisle, holding the girl with one hand and trying to pull her pants off with the other, while the seated father points helpfully at possible spots on the garment to tug at. She screams some more, and then she is suddenly sitting in the aisle, still wordless and with grandpa's hand again threatening.

The pass-off happens again, grandpa to father who moves her over to the mother. This time ma decides to take her for a walk. She gets up, struggling to keep her balance in the slightly unsteady plane, and to keep the girl's head from bumping against the overhead bins, and she struggles past her seated husband's knees, which he does not so much as move aside. Let alone stand up to let his wife pass into the aisle.

Her face is turned towards me as she squeezes out. Not even the pallu of her pale pink sari, pulled carefully over her head, can mask the sad weariness in her face.

She and her daughter walk past me -- my neutral look still in place -- the screams like a train receding into the distance. But through them, I hear two other things.

First, the mother's quiet voice, in Gujarati: "You're disturbing everyone."

Second, the PA system, in mechanical and strident English: "Direct access message number one. This is a fasten seat belt announcement."

The plane lurches. In the seat in front of me, the father picks up a magazine. We're still half an hour from Bombay and somewhere behind me, I hear screaming.

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