Travelogue: Unforgettable: Shail Agrawal

‘You are going to UK?’
Those two guards with the gun, who were escorting me to the aeroplane asked again , ‘Your flight number, Madam?’
‘121’, I replied in a timid and respectful voice and showed them my ticket again. This was the fourth time they have asked me the same question and fourth time I had given them same answer. I must confess that my patience was wearing thin by now and I did start to wonder about their sanity and integrity.
35 years have passed since that harrowing journey, but its memory whenever resurfaces, still sends a shiver down my spine.

The day started early with a 6am flight from the base to the country’s capital, which was more than hundred miles away, though this was a last minute reschedule by airport authority, I informed my husband who was staying back there because of his job commitment and was going to join us back in U.K. after six weeks. He said, It should be all right, just few hours delay unnecessarily but nothing to worry, these things do happen.Generally there used to be a direct flight from the base but that morning I was told I had to change the flight at capital, as due to some unforeseen circumstances, there is no direct flight from there to London on that particular day. Probably there are not enough passengers , I thought and moved forward with a smile. Little did I know then that how overpowering and nerve wrecking that whole experience was going to be.

Though there was nothing new and strange in the fact that I was travelling alone, but to fly like a royalty in an empty plane with the crew of six or seven people was truly a strange and tense experience for me that morning. Even more Strange was the experience of being escorted by those two fully uniformed guards all the way, through airport tarmac to right inside the plane-cabin…passing crowded airport terminal right up to the seat inside aeroplane, I was accompanied by them. They did not leave me alone even for a second, and this experience was making me feel really tense and unnatural inside, as if I was a V.I.P. or under arrest of some kind and both situations were uncomfortable and not normal. In-spite of my repeated requests that I will manage by myself here-forth, they did not go.

Whole situation was not only puzzling, but a bit scary too. Yet I did not dare to ask them any question as I may challenge their authority, and offend them. May be it is normal in these countries to shadow lonely female passengers like this. Any way, it was only another five or ten minutes bother,I thought. ‘ Once inside the plane, everything will be normal again’.

Though strange and uncomfortable, all this was happening to me, because I was a women and travelling alone in a country, where women are kept in purdah and in strict surveillance all the time!- I reasoned with myself again and again. But I saw many women walking free and alone that day also, like I, myself have done quite a few times before …so what was different this time, I could not fathom out this mystery?

After getting my passport stamped through those narrow and busy lanes, they quickly whisked me inside a waiting plane. I was sitting now in between two odd looking men, who had big moustaches and were wearing white pathan-suits. Younger one, on the left was constantly staring at me and the older one was trying to make me comfortable in my seat by his odd nice gestures, like lifting the seat belt for me etc. One thing was sure, they both were invading my privacy. Immediately I looked around for an opportunity to swop the seat, as they both were making me very uncomfortable not only by their foul behaviour but by their foul body odour as well.

‘ Is there no seat vacant in this flight with some female passenger by my sides, where I might have been more at ease and comfortable ?’ Flight attendant refusing my request to shift me somewhere else, told me straight away-Majority here is male only ’ What…? That is strange!’ I could not suppress my surprise and looked around. To my utter surprise and disbelief, whole plane was full of those white pathan-suit clad men only …no other nationality at all …all around me, them only. I could not see any more female passenger in that plane.
‘ This is a strange flight, going to London!’ I thought with a wry smile on my lips – ‘ Not a single women on the plane!’ It was not only strange, definitely, bit scary too. But there was no reason to doubt, those guards confirmed and reconfirmed with me again and again that I was going to London.
Then to my little comfort , I spotted one and only another female on that plane- an asian air-hostess in saree . I immediately felt bit better and asked her to give me a glass of water to sooth my frayed nerves.
After the routine prayer of a verse from the holy qoran, passengers were asked to fasten their seat belts as plane was about to take off and In next few minutes it did take off , but I was not comfortable at all. There was this deep niggling fear churning my tummy inside out. On the screen in front of me routine safety announcement was going on, which I found hard to concentrate.
‘ Welcome aboard to flight no. 121 . Please make yourself comfortable with the safety features of the plane. Soon we will be flying at the height of 31 thousand feet and after five and half hours, will be landing at Islamabad airport’.
‘Islamabad…?’ I was stunned for a second. ‘ Oh my God! I am on the wrong plane!’ Realization pierced me like a bullet and I did burst out in profuse cold sweat. Immediately buzzing the emergency button of my seat, I stood up shaking uncontrollably-whatever happens, this flight cannot carry me to Islamabad… I will not let it happen.
Swallowing that sudden big lump inside my throat, I shouted loud in a surprisingly calm and composed voice, ‘ Help, I am in a wrong flight. I need to go to U.K. not Islamabad . Stop it now please immediately and turn back this flight. I do not know how this happened, Your security guards , whom I trusted fully have betrayed me, I do not know why? My family is waiting for me in U.K.’
Air hostess came running towards me and tried to calm me down .
Wide eyed with a thumping heart I saw the plane turning back…plane which just took off the ground five minutes ago, reverted back and started to descend. It landed back on the same tarmac in no time. Within few minutes I was being escorted again, but I made sure that I am going to the right flight this time. This time inside the plane passengers and crew were all normal…of mixed nationality and appearace.
Lucky for me flight was still waiting there. ‘ All well that ends well’ I sighed a sigh of relief and thanked the officer who was constantly on his mobile, and arranged everything so swiftly for me. I did not bother even to ask about my luggage, because I did not want to miss this flight and to escape this night-mare was my utmost and only priority.
Once seated and buckled, I thanked God again and again .
I was grateful for his mercy that I was returning home. To my sheer delight I found all my luggage also safe and intact back at Heathrow airport’s conveyor belt waiting for me.
Once again, I was happily chatting and chirping on phone, informing family, not to worry at all, as I have landed safely and will see them in few hours.
All the way back in car, while returning home I could not stop wondering, what would have really happened to me if I did not hear that fateful announcement and would have really landed in Islamabad? What would have happened indeed there…was beyond my imagination? Have heard enough horror stories about how women disappear in those countries and what happens to them afterwards! Or they were just after my British passport…Was I a mere useless mean to their dubious ends and they might have disposed and discarded me ruthlessly! How would have my family coped and reacted with all this? Or may be that this was just a genuine mistake on the part of the authority, not a nasty planning after all …but how is it really possible, specially when one’s papers are checked so many times? …But in these countries who knows what and when !…

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