It was September 1940. There was an air of festivity in the big house on Harris Road, Madras, where the family had gathered for a reunion. It was  a special treat for the children, Kanaka aged nine years, Sharada (7) and little Shanthi aged four, for they had been waiting eagerly for their parents’ return from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). They had been living with their grandparents, with visits to Kandy during their summer vacations, and now they were happy to know that their parents were returning home to Madras at the end of their tenure of four years there.

Much of the excitement was due to the fact that  their parents, Vittal and Tara Pai were returning by aeroplane! They were to go Meenambakkam aerodrome to receive them, which in itself was an adventurous journey for the little girls. Grandfather’s blue Studebaker sedan took them along the long empty stretch of road, out of the city, past St. Thomas’ Mount.  Skirting the hill crowned with the church of St.Thomas, they saw the vast space of the aerodrome, as the car entered the airport building. Grandfather spoke to the manager and asked about the arrival of the plane. “Very soon,” he said, “we are in radio contact and have given them permission to land”.

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We three girls ran outside, shading our eyes, looked to the sky, as grandfather pointed to the south, the direction from which the plane would come.

“There it is!”

“Where? I can’t see it!”

“Look! Just over the church on the hill.”

A tiny speck in the sky grew into a large dragonfly, the buzz grew louder, the small single-engine plane came down lower, made a wide circle and landed on the small strip, bumping three or four times, until it came to a halt a couple of hundred yards in front of the building where we waited. The noise ebbed to silence as the engine was switched off and the propeller came to rest. We waited impatiently, grandfather’s hand on my shoulder restraining me, as grandmother held Shanthi’s hand. The pilot opened his little window and called out to the ground crew who brought him a step ladder. The small door at the back was then opened and Father stooped as he got out and turned to help Mother. They saw us and waved. We could barely wait until they came close enough, so that we were allowed to rush forward to be hugged, and littlest one picked up by father high in the air. The pilot Capt. Guzder joined us. He asked us if we would like to see the plane and we moved forward as a group to see this amazing vehicle. We looked inside one by one and wondered how they could squeeze into this little space, Father with the pilot, and Mother on the small seat at the back with the mailbags and luggage.

As we drove home, the adults’ conversation was constantly interrupted by our questions: Weren’t you afraid that you might fall into the sea? How do you stay up in the air for so long? Could you see the houses and people from up there? Could you see our house as you flew over Madras?

In the evening my father answered all our questions patiently, as we listened with interest to his account of the experience of flying, and the bird’s eye view of the southern coast of peninsula.

After dinner, as Akka, who took care of us, got us ready for bed, I told her how amazing it was that a machine could fly like a bird. She said laconically, “ Vishwakarma knew all about this. He made the pushpaka viman which Ravana stole from his brother. Ravana carried away Sita in this “flower plane”, and took her to Lanka. But Rama brought her back in the vimana. They had flying machines too!”

I digested this information thoughtfully. That night I dreamt I saw my mother shouting for help as she fell from the plane and a big bird got caught in the propeller as he tried to save her. Unfortunately, neither my father nor Capt. Guzder were there to catch her – as I woke up with a start.

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Flying machines are getting bigger and better, as modern Vishwakarmas compete for sales to international airlines. One is filled with awe as one sees the roomy comfort and gadgetry even in “cattle class” When they announce the departure of a flight and ask the passengers, in chaste Hindi, to board the “viman” they are referring to a big bird called a Dreamliner. All very commonplace at everyday journeys at airports around the world.                                    I fasten my seat belt and accept the little bottle of water offered by an air hostess.  I close my eyes and remember a little girl and a plane in 1940.

Fortunately, the wings of fantasy are not designed by technology, or a child’s dreams fashioned by a computer.


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