Flight: In the Summer of 2001, a Man's Body Fell out of the Sky from a Plane Headed to London. Amitava Kumar Searches for Death of a Transnational Migrant. (Culture)

By Kumar, Amitava | Colorlines Magazine, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Flight: In the Summer of 2001, a Man's Body Fell out of the Sky from a Plane Headed to London. Amitava Kumar Searches for Death of a Transnational Migrant. (Culture)


Kumar, Amitava, Colorlines Magazine


The writer Rabindranath Tagore flew in a plane in 1932. He had awoken at three-thirty in the dark morning and was in the air at four. Tagore was traveling in what was then called Persia; at half-past eight the plane reached Bushire. "Now comes an age in which man has lifted the burdens of earth into the air," the writer noted in his travel diary. The achievement of flight did not always promise freedom for Tagore. On the contrary, he felt that the airplane was not in harmony with the wind. It roared like an animal in rage. A plane in flight suggested very strongly that human conflict had been raised from the level of the mundane world into the heavenly skies above.

Tagore had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913 for his book of poems, Gitanjali. The thought that the earth lost its hold on man when he flew into the sky was not the result of poetic fancy. A few paragraphs later in his travelogue, Tagore had supplied the context for his thoughts. "A British air force is stationed at Baghdad," he wrote. "Its Christian chaplain informs me that they are engaged in bombing operations on some Sheikh villages."

Reaching for Air

The fields, ponds and rivers of his childhood bound Tagore to the earth and its beauty. To fly was to lose this contact with the earth. Only one sense remained for the one who was in the air, the sense of sight, and it gave man the disease of aloofness. For Tagore, the man in the plane raining bombs below could not even in good faith ask himself who is kin and who is a stranger: he has put himself in a place from where he is unable to be aware of the difference and to judge accordingly. "The men, women and children done to death there," wrote Tagore, "meet their fate by a decree from the stratosphere of British imperialism -- which finds it easy to shower death because of its distance from its individual victims."

At the same time, the invention of the airplane impressed Tagore. He saw in the race of the inventors qualities of character like perseverance and courage. The sight of his four Dutch pilots ("immensely built, the personification of energy ...their rude, overflowing health bequeathed by generations brought up on nourishing food") evoked admiration and the thought that his own compatriots had been deprived of food and exhausted by toil. This picture has now changed. The descendants of those who were, in Tagore's time, the subject peoples have for long been flying planes. They also travel in planes. The travelers are often workers migrating long distances in search of work. In fact, such travel remains a part of the fantasy in the minds of the poor. There are many in the poorer countries of the world for whom the plane in flight represents the journey that, when undertaken in the future, will take them to the promised land. In airports all over the world, one can see the migrant workers from countries like Tago re's India, waiting to be taken to another place to work.

The Promised Land

On the morning of September 11, 19 men, in their appearance not different at all from the others who stand in the visa lines outside the embassies and consulates of rich nations in cities like Calcutta and Cairo, Karachi and Khartoum, hijacked four American jets filled with fuel and people. The suicidal acts of the hijackers also gave a perverse twist to the old story of difficult travel to the land of plenty and promise. According to reports that were published in the days following the attacks, it was revealed that the hijackers believed that their deaths promised them entry into the garden of heaven and the ministrations of 70 virgins. We can persist with Tagore's vision of the fiery bird raining death, but his universe is already lost, the simple oppositions between the earth and the sky rendered obsolete. Those who had been chained to the earth have also learned to claw their way into the air and wreak havoc from on high. There are new stories of travel, and now terror touches all. …

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