Rafeeq Ahamed's flights of fancy elevated Malayalam movie song literature to new heights. His soaring imagination also propelled a fleet of poignant poems and even a novel, Azhukkillam. Yet the poet never dared to let himself fly, until he was 57 years old.
“I was afraid of flying, for no good reason. It was an irrational fear,” Ahamed explained his abstinence from air. He steered clear of anything that flew, even at the cost of turning down invitations to visit other countries including the United States and the United Arab Emirates.
He had no idea what caused his fear of flying and he did not bother to explain it. He laughed off suggestions to try wonder drugs to cure him of the fear.
Ahamed's private phobia became the talk of the town thanks to a newspaper column by a director-friend, Renjith. Until the write-up appeared, not many associates in the movie industry understood why Ahamed insisted on travelling on trains and in extreme cases, taxis.
Ahamed had famously hired a taxi from Chennai to Palakkad when he could not get on a train. He was working on a Tamil movie project when he was required to go to Kerala urgently. There were no train tickets available on short notice. The movie producer offered to buy a flight ticket for him but he said he would rather hire a taxi.
Ahamed finally put paid to his scary thoughts by flying to Abu Dhabi to receive an award in April. When the Abu Dhabi Malayali Samajam invited him to the emirate to attend a felicitation programme, Ahamed's first impulse was to politely reject the invitation.
It wasn't easy this time. Ahamed’s well-wishers including poet Madhusoodanan Nair convinced him to fly to Abu Dhabi and receive the honour. The suggestions prompted him to give it a try. A cursory look at the internet opened his eyes to an argument that air travel was actually less risky. “After all, I am regular passenger of the limited-stop buses on the Thrissur-Kozhikode route. Why should I be worried about accidents?” he retrospected.
The final push came from two intimate friends. Mappila song performer Yusuf Karakkatt and Muneer offered to accompany him abroad.
On April 5, Ahamed and the two friends boarded a flight to Abu Dhabi from the Cochin International Airport. Heartbeats echoing the rhythms of a fast number and hands held firmly in the hands of the companions, the hesitant passenger walked through the airport gate and the security check point to the waiting aircraft.
Ahamed never ceased chattering to distract himself from his worst nightmares. He buckled the seat belt and tried to put up a calm face. He said that he was lucky to have chosen a night flight. He could not fathom the depths by the aircraft window and he did not want to.
After a point, Ahamed noticed that he was indulging in soliloquy. He saw to his horror that his guardian angels were fast asleep on either side. So were the other passengers on the flight. The scare rose again from the bottom of his heart. He realised that he was in a void, unattached to terra firma. He sat still with bated breath for the ordeal to end. He tried to find solace in some random movie playing on the screen in front of him.
After an eternity of three and half hours, the captain announced that they were about to land in Abu Dhabi. His friends woke up and gave him an I-told-you-so smile. Still uneasy, Ahamed was happy to end his first flight.
Poetry on cloud nine
Ahamed came back from his flight with more than the confidence of conquering his worst fears. His latest poem, Venalmozhi, hit him in the air. The poem about an expatriate worker’s anguishes was inspired by the observations of a Malayali he met in Abu Dhabi. One of the earliest expatriates in the emirate, he narrated how he toiled under the desert sun as a construction labourer, without even a weeny branch to offer him shade. He told the poet how he had looked longingly at the aircraft far above in the sky and wished that they stood still and offered their shade to him.
Ahamed spent 10 days in Abu Dhabi, attending functions and catching up with his compatriots. He patted himself on the back for mustering the courage to fly. Yet he grew tense as the return date approached. He boarded a flight back to Kerala on April 15, with only Yusuf to keep him company.
“Even now I am not a fan of air travel. I just managed to keep my fears under control,” Ahamed said from the comfort of his house at Akkikkavu in Thrissur. He even had a word of advice to fellow phobics. “Don’t worry at all. Go ahead and fly. But don’t expect me to fly again.”