Sunday, January 15, 2006

The new face of terror

It all happened rather suddenly, as I suppose most terrorist attacks do.

The flight had taken off without much fuss at 11.45 pm as scheduled. And no one was complaining about the bad service on board the plane either. Even when the air-hostess told an elderly Indian gentleman that she could not offer him a vegetarian meal, there were no harsh words exchanged. It appeared that there was a collective calm among the beings on board the plane, almost to the extent that one began to feel uneasy and suspicious. Something just needed to happen - a minor brawl over the luggage in the overhead cabin, a shrill cry from a baby feeling ignored or even a few hijackers seizing control of the flight - just anything that would break this spell of super-quiet, super-polite and self-inflicted, artificial harmony on this flight.

I looked at the guy sitting in the row in front of me, across the main aisle and I am wondering at the sensous charm he oozes, equalled perhaps only by Osama bin Laden. I secretly hope that he is a terrorist. My mind is computing the probability that this man will unleash a wicked surprise on all of us (it won't be a surprise for me of course!) at this late hour.

I do not know whether I took too long to calculate the numbers spinning in my head or whether this man acted too fast, but here he was standing up now and suddenly jumped onto his seat, as we heard screams from the back of the plane, "Chooha, chooha!".

There was an intruder on the plane - a mouse ! The terrified screams reverberated through the ears of all the passengers. Some of them jumped in their seats, some of them lifted their feet from the floor and folded them on to their seats. Some others I believe had fainted, as the air-hostesses were running around trying to sprinkle water on their faces. In the space of a few frenzied minutes, there was absolute chaos on board the Boeing 737. And I realised that I had involuntarily chanted three mantras and had said my prayers already.

The pilot was informed of this disastrous development, and he quickly conveyed his solidarity with the rest of the passengers. "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we have had an unfortunate act of terrorism inside the airpane. A particularly ferocious rodent has made its way into the plane and has taken all of us completely by surprise. But we are proactively looking to find out where he is and what he wants, and then hopefully indulge in quick negotiations. Your safety is our number one priority. Please remain in your seats until the next announcement.There is no reason to panic, and kindly heed to the suggestions of the cabin crew. Thank you."

The more lion-hearted among the cabin crew were identified and assigned the job of tracing the whereabouts of the mouse, and I suppose they believed the mouse would follow them to the cock-pit for negotiations with the pilot, since they did not seem to be carrying a mousetrap. I briefly considered dubbing the airlines unprepared, but decided to be more forgiving, and chose instead to delay my judgements for a little later.

After all, I wasn't prepared for this myself, and blaming the airlines didn't exactly assuage my fears, so I deemed it best to be more reasonable with my expectations.

There was a sudden sound of a hypnotic siren blaring through the ambient speakers placed all around the plane directly above the seats. Soon the air was filled with the sounds of cries, screams, wails, shrieks, moans and the siren, of course.

An hour passed, but the crew hadn't restored any normalcy on the flight and it appeared they had failed miserably in their pursuit of the cunning rodent. One could sense the dejection, nay, the sense of doom and defeat, staring unabashedly from the eyes of the air-hostesses as they scanned the vicinity of their feet for a damning entry of the terrorist, even as they tried in vain to brilliantly contort their facial muscles to give an air of pleasant calm while asking you if you would like an orange juice or a soda. The way some of them asked the question, it sounded as if we were being asked if we had a last request.

It seemed as though everyone was looking up to a hero to save them from certain death. The man who would give us all a second life, even while the first hasn't ended, would most certainly have to be a supernatural human.

I quickly visualised my resume that I had prepared for my job hunt more than five years ago, and tried to see if there was a mention of the word 'superhuman' or 'hero' in it. Alas, there wasn't. It was a habit with me during the times I was hunting for a job to look for the adjectives mentioned in the advertisements that the employer looked for in a prospective hire, and quickly visualise if the word or adjective in question was in my resume. If it wasn't, of course the instantaneous thing would be to utilise the unfailing power of Microsoft Word, and deftly include the key word in my resume with an appropriate dosage of humility and arrogance. It mostly worked.

Not today, though.

Just as we all were collectively resigning to our fate, a young man in his mid-twenties, unmistakably modern with his golf tee-shirt and faded jeans, slowly made his way through the aisle from somewhere in the back of the aircraft. He didn't look like a hero, in fact he looked very much like me. Actually, he looked like a young Information Technology (I.T) worker, of whom much has been said and written about, including the fact that they are the new-age heroes of the Indian economy. And he continued his determined walk to the front of the air craft, where he was apparently requesting a private meeting with the pilot. At first the flight attentants refused, but then convinced by his reasoning, they conceded.

A few minutes passed, as some of us who watched him enter the cock-pit, waited in a combination of fear, relief and awe. And then the voice from the cock-pit spoke: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, the situation is under control. The cause for the panic on this aircraft has been identified, captured and is under the custody of a gentleman, who is in the cock-pit with me at the moment. I request you all to relax, and enjoy the flight. Our flight is at an altitude of 11,000 feet and we have another 6 hours on our flight to Moscow. Thank you for your patience and do relax. "

The young man soon walked out of the cock-pit calmly back towards his seat. Some of the men congratulated him, and others clapped for him. I was just too shocked to do anything as he went past me. Soon, we were all asleep and there was quiet once again.

Early the next morning, after the flight landed at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, I saw the hero of our flight sipping quietly on a cup of coffee waiting for his connecting flight. At once, I felt the rush of curiosity in my head and I walked up to him and first congratulated him on his bravery.

And then I remarked, "I suppose you turned over the mouse that terrorised us all aboard the plane to the airport authorities?".

He replied calmly, " Why, no! I still have him with me."

Quite intrigued by his response and friendly demeanour, I asked him, "Well, can I have a little peek at the rascal? I hope he is caged or leashed."

"Sure, he's right here", he said and bent down under his seat to bring him out from his black leather bag.

And that is when I saw it, the new face of terror: