There is something about coming home! I still remember those three young boys and a girl at the tarmac at Mumbai airport thumping their fists with the triumphant, “We are home!” They had boarded the same Swiss Air flight from Zurich. Whatever excitement I had felt in touching down had already evaporated as we were swallowed in by a huge, formless, knotted mass of people at the cramped airport. A strange musty smell welcomed us as we stepped in to queue up for immigration check. We had to change from the international arrival terminal to the domestic terminal (It was before the new airport in Mumbai was inaugurated earlier this year!) to catch our Air India connecting flight to Cochin. As we ambled down the arrival terminal, we saw the usual expectant faces waiting for their dear ones’ arrival; placards reading out names of important people who would be picked up and dispatched to their destinations; the cabbies cajoling passengers for a ride. I recalled with amusement how Prof. Robert Young (of NYU) once felt tempted to impersonate John Sexton (NYU President) as he found someone holding a placard bearing Prof. Sexton’s name at an airport! As we walked past the milling crowd, we were directed by the hyper-active airport security personnel to take a circuitous path to the domestic terminal. We kept missing the suggested signposts! It was a bizarre experience as we barged into canteens, crowded offices, and seedy spaces/cracks to finally land at the domestic terminal. Whenever that experience crosses my mind, I still feel horrified to think if that was the only legitimate way to reach the domestic terminal. Like everything else in India, luck had to surely play its part if one were ever to find one’s way!
When one returns home after a gap of two and a half years, how much does one carry the ‘home’ that one left behind and how much does one carry back the ‘foreign’ one has been a sojourner in? If the first sign of confusion at the airport was unsettling, the complete chaos at the Air India counter (we had to collect our boarding passes for Cochin) prodded us to indulge in the usual immigrant banter about the ‘incompetent’ Indians. We had a window period of about two hours to catch our connecting flight. The barely-existent queue kept bloating horizontally like an anemic patient. As the passengers started joining in the line gleefully from all sides, and as the assistant at the counter kept slowing up (‘bungling up’ will be more appropriate!) the process, my patience wore off at a faster pace! As we kept growing tense about missing our connecting flight, I rushed to the counter giving the assistant a mouthful. (It was an act of self-assurance that nothing offends my professional, middle-class sensibility more than ‘incompetence’!) I can’t say if my frantic attempt at injecting some life into his morbidity had any perceptible impact.
As we rushed to the departure gate with our boarding passes, we heard an announcement that the flight to Cochin has been delayed indefinitely. The flight kept on getting delayed further and further. We explored the shops and restaurants at the terminal taking mental notes of how much the prices of things have increased in the last two and a half years that we have been away. Indian airports (it might be the case with other third world countries as well!) always remind me of those ‘gated communities’ (which have now mushroomed in many parts of India as well!) in the west that preserve their exclusivity by maintaining an artificially insulated way of life. Even though the low-cost carriers have tried to diversify the demographic composition of air-travelers in India (and it was evident that this did have some desired visual effect), the airports still maintained their sense of exclusivity in the way they priced food, beverage, and other necessities. The airports in India were those spaces of unique modernity that the west bequeathed to us and we aspired to achieve. Here people valued dressing smartly, spoke mostly English, ate western food, and behaved in a strangely hybrid way!
Our flight was finally scheduled to depart at around five in the morning. The passengers jostled at the gate to get on the bus that was supposed to carry us to the aircraft. The impatient, unruly crowd gave that particular space a look of an over-crowded bus terminus in an Indian city. As we inched our way to the gate, the security officer stopped me as one of my carry-on luggage was missing a tag which was supposed to be stamped at the security check (even though my luggage had gone through the mandatory screening!). As my imploring failed to convince the security at the gate to allow us to board the bus, my wife anxiously kept on waiting at the gate and I sprinted the fastest 500 meters I had ever done in my life to go back to the security check to get a security clearance stamp on the tag.
The same fusty smell that we had encountered as we stepped into Mumbai airport greeted us inside the Air India aircraft. The dull orangish-yellowish rickety seats and faded out greenish floor carpet added to the already permeating sense of gloom among the passengers. The ageing fleet told its own story how the govt. of India’s flagship carrier (the mascot of which was officially christened ‘Maharaja’) was dying a slow death and the intravenous support provided by the govt. periodically did not show any sign of its recovery. As we resignedly settled in, a bevy of mosquitoes descended on us like the members of a tribe in western films whose spaces have been encroached upon. The intermittent whirring of the engines, though initially disconcerting, gave us a sense of security in this airborne ordeal.
The very next day I sneaked out of the quiet neighborhood I was staying in Cochin for a walk. As I walked on the discontinuous pavements that suddenly disappeared in a pile of rubbles and then emerged again, the ‘foreign’ in me intensely interacted with the ‘home.’ The early morning crowd comprised of office-goers, mothers waiting on the roadsides for the school buses to pick their children, an occasional brave-heart taking a morning-walk on the intermittent pavements, an array of casual wage-earners milling off the road to be picked up randomly for the day’s work (this is, in fact, a regular feature in most Indian cities!). As I kept on puffing at my few remaining Marlboro Lights (before switching over to Gold Flake), I spotted a tea-shop on the pavement. I was genuinely thrilled as there is something about this tea that reconnects me with home in the most intimate way possible. I could still buy a cup of tea for three rupees!
I kept on walking until I reached the Vytilla junction, an important confluence of three roads. The traffic signal was dysfunctional and people seemed not to mind as they crossed with ease! I made several attempts at crossing to the other side but failed. The ‘foreign’ in me was looking for the security of green, red, orange, and white signals like Pavlov’s reflex action. I was like a dog well-trained on patterned stimulus but that didn’t quite know how to react facing unexpected circumstances. There was something surreal as I watched life flit by. This feeling was very similar to the one I felt when I first arrived at Vancouver in 2007 fall. The dainty houses in the perfect square blocks on both sides of the road took on an unreal appearance for days. As I sat in a bus and watched the houses pass by, they always made me think of doll-houses. Standing at the cross-roads in Cochin, I once again experienced the same dissolution of my spatial certainties.
That was in December, 2009!
To be contd…
[The next part of this piece will narrate my experience of coming back home this July, 2010.]