Raji Cells

by Raji Jayaraman

Scheduled departure at Dulles came and went as we waited for the last passenger to board.  Although the non-smoking section in the rear cabin was full, the smoking section where I sat was half empty. Death by asphyxiation on the flight to Paris was a distinct possibility but with three empty, adjacent seats in the centre nave there was some chance that my obituary might read, “She died peacefully, in recumbent sleep.”

A threat to abandon the tardy passenger filtered from the departure gate through the hull of the aircraft. Five minutes later, just as the pilot was threatening to offload his luggage, the no-show showed. Buckling under the weight of duty-free shopping bags, he made his way apologetically down the far aisle of the cabin, pausing at my row. From behind my paper, I listened to the sound of the overhead locker being opened and then clicked shut. My hopes for a good night’s rest sank with the soft thump at the far end of my four-seater.

At cruising altitude the signs blinked green, and the smokers lit up like runners at their starting blocks upon hearing the shot of the race pistol. The flight attendant rolled the drinks trolly up the aisle. I folded my paper and placed it on the empty seat beside me. As I lowered my tray table, I heard a voice at my far left ask, “Can I use your newspaper, please?” I turned to respond, but the words stuck in my throat as my eyes landed upon the most stunning man I had ever seen—the kind Michelangelo would have immortalized in white marble. He returned my stare with a disarming smile, with all the unselfconscious charm that only those born beautiful possess.

He reached out his right hand. Snatching it, I blurted my name, noticing too late that his outstretched palm had been upturned in anticipation of the paper. Retracting my hand clumsily, I retrieved the paper and handed it to him. He took it but laid it on the empty seat beside him without so much as a glance. “Thank you,” he said, “But please can you repeat: what is your name?” “Raji,” I repeated, more articulately this time. “My name is Raji.” It was his turn to be dumbstruck.

Armin was a medical student. An aspiring haematologist, he was doing lab research on childhood lymphomas. This involved running experiments on cells cultivated in petri dishes, but human cells are hard to grow outside the body. If any cells can do the job, then cancer cells are good candidates because their survival depends on their ability to proliferate in hostile settings. Historically, these cell lines have been named in honour of the patient from whom they were originally harvested. For example, the oldest such human cell line is famously called HeLa for Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951.

The first haematopoietic, or blood-derived, human cell line was named for a Nigerian boy who died of Burkitt’s Lymphoma in 1963. His name was Raji. Armin didn’t know the details of this origin story at the time, but he had spent the last three years lovingly tending to Raji cells. I wouldn’t have seemed remarkable to him had he been to my corner of the world, where my name is commonplace. My namesake wouldn’t have seemed extraordinary to me if I knew anything about cellular biology. But because we came from different worlds, Raji bred an odd sense of intimacy between us.

I hadn’t made a contingency plan for meeting The Man of My Dreams when scheduling my flight from Paris to Delhi, so a Before Sunrise type dalliance was out of the question. I would have joked about that, but his sense of humour was Teutonic. There was also little chance we would ever meet again. The internet barely existed. I had no address, no phone number, and no money. I did have an email account but that seemed useless given the inordinate power that philatelists appeared to wield in Europe.

We shared no past and had no future, so only the present was open to us. What do two private people do, when all they have is five hours in the present? We opted for the banal: we spoke of things we liked to do. The most useful class I took in school was drama where we were told that in improv, blocking an offer is a high crime. When someone makes an offer, you accept it and then run with it. This is something I rarely do when I have outside options—when I can get up and go, or leave someone on red. Outside options felt unavailable to me on that plane. I was, quite literally, strapped to my seat.

So, we made offers, and accepted them. My offers were nothing but honest. My acceptances, less so: I met his interests with an interest that greatly exaggerated my own competencies. He was a serious cellist, and I was shocked to hear myself claim to have been something of a child prodigy on the clarinet. He was a competitive sailor and I had never stepped foot on a boat but evidently, to our mutual amazement, my tennis prowess was not to be underestimated. Ironically, I found myself wanting to be the character I was playing. How grateful my neighbours would be if I could make my clarinet sound like a musical instrument. Maybe, by landing a serve or two, I could get someone to play tennis with me more than once.

Before we knew it, the pilot announced our descent to Charles de Gaulle airport. My connecting flight was in two hours. Armin had a longer layover before his onward journey to Munich. In the arrival terminal, he asked me to guard his duty-free loot while he freshened up. As I watched him saunter to the restroom clutching his vanity kit, I told myself that if I ever got married, I would marry him. When you know, you know.

Of course, knowledge is one thing and action is another. My head is filled with idle thoughts, whose commitment to Newton’s First Law is unshakable. Armin turned out to be more of a Second Law kind of guy. He got an email address the minute he landed in Munich. Six months later, we met properly. Six years later, we were married.

Here we remain, a quarter century later, still becoming the people who crept up on us that day. We sometimes play chamber music and tennis together. I try to follow instructions on a boat, and occasionally succeed. Once a year, Armin laughs at an objectively funny joke. We have two children who look nothing like us, but who everyone can see are both of us. The beauty of our own youth has long since faded. But Raji cells are thriving.