If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Coming home

As our aircraft touched down, I felt an inexplicable sense of happiness and relief. At first, I didn’t realize what it meant; but in a few moments, the truth dawned upon me. Perhaps birds too feel the same when they return to their nests.

Five months ago, we had boarded a spanking new state-of-the-art Boeing 777 from Bengaluru to Dubai on our way to New York. On the way back, we travelled by the same airline, but to a different airport. From Dubai, we flew by a rickety old Airbus 310 which was state-of-the-art in the 1980s. The difference between the two aircraft was striking, just like the dissimilarity between the airports at Bengaluru and Kolkata. The new Bengaluru airport is as well-appointed as any in the world, although on the smaller side. And the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Antar-rashtriya Hawai Adda is ….

Let me change the topic, everyone knows that my beloved city belongs to the backwaters of the third world, there’s no point rubbing it in.

My sense of happiness was reinforced by the immigration official, who was friendly and smiling. He was in stark contrast with the overweight African American woman whom we had met on arrival at the JFK airport. Ignoring my “Good morning!”, she asked in a gruff voice, “Why have ya come ’ere?” It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t questioning the propriety of our visit to the US; she was only performing a routine official duty, that is, to ascertain the purpose of our visit.

But the morning doesn’t always show the day. During the rest of the trip, I was amazed by the civility of Americans. Although they are rather stand-offish and don’t get involved in others’ business normally, their manners are impeccable. Strangers often greet you on the road. Nobody ever elbows you and moves ahead while boarding or getting off a train or bus. On the contrary, if you have a bit of grey hair like me, chances are that the person in front of you will let you pass, with a slight bow. When you cross a man walking his dog on the road, he always moves aside, taking care that you don’t feel threatened by his canine companion. When you have paid for your coffee, the girl at the counter invariably says, “Have a good day!” In five months, I didn’t hear anyone talking loudly.

My sister was waiting for us. After we walked out of the terminal building, she phoned her driver to bring the vehicle from the parking area. As the car arrived and we were about to load the luggage, three young men approached our driver menacingly. Their leader, a dark fellow in an orange shirt was doing the talking, rather, the shouting. He started off with tui, the derogatory form of you in Bengali: “What do you think? You can park the car in someone’s bathroom?”

Looking around, I saw neither bathrooms, nor any sign that said the car couldn’t be stopped there. The driver had done nothing wrong. Obviously, the men were touts going about their business of fleecing hapless foreigners. And our only fault, if there could be any, was this: they thought we were standing in the way of their business. The ruffian continued to shout in filthy language and when our driver protested, was about to hit him. As I stood in front of the driver and asked the wretched fellow to stop, a police constable came ambling along. He neither talked to, nor looked at the rogues. But he was genuinely apologetic about us being harassed for no reason. He politely explained that the three men were acting under the orders of the “Airport Manager”, and requested us to move the car a little ahead, which we did.

Anyone unfamiliar with the current state of West Bengal would find this little incident bizarre. But we know there was nothing extra-ordinary about it. Actually, it’s a perfectly normal kind of welcome to the land of the lumpen proletariat, where law keepers look on helplessly if you are lucky, and side with criminals if you aren’t.

13 February 2009


  1. Sad that lawlessness is our style these day. Anyway I hope that Kolkata does not reduce the frequency of your posts.

    My best regards

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  3. The 'votes' are about to begin and someone in my colony, very confidently assured me who the winner would be declared, and that made me feel sick.

    If people ruling the land are themselves so very unruly, notorious, then how can we even dare to hope, better?

    My 'bangla' badly needs a committee of "good people" to help it regain its lost charm and name.


  4. Kolkata, you are not alone!

    Kozhikode and Kochi, Kottayam and Kollam, Kannur and Kasaragod are all in the same league.

    Let me hasten to add Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram to the above list, lest any of you should jump to the conclusion, like a colleague of mine from Patiala, that the names of all places in Kerala begin with a 'K'.

  5. I understood that you were utterly frustrated on your return after so many days absence from your home land.It is true that day to day conversations on streets at Kolkata even within the public transports are too much beyond acceptance.I strongly believe that we have been tolerating this at every spheres of life for too long.That may be one of reasons for this epidemic.I agree with what Manoshij suggested.We must gear up to find ways and means to clean this Augean Stables.
    Meanwhile, you are most welcome again,Santanu, to your writing world.

  6. I would have been surprised reading about the airport incident one year back, but not now.

  7. All I can say is that until one has lived in West Bengal, one's education would not be complete.

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience - admittedly shameful but a few positives need to be noted.

    1) A constable was actually around which prevented the situation from worsening further and 2) you could call (thanks to the mobile revolution) for the vehicle without having had to walk to the parking lot carting all the luggage around.

    These would not have been possible 10 years ago - in the last few years, Kolkata has come a long way and is slowly catching up with the rest of India from an "economic" standpoint. As India upgrades and gets "educated", our value system will change and such instances will be more an exception than the norm.

    Frankly, I have had similar experiences in other airports in India and so reading this was not a surprise. Just hope that the rest of your stay in Kolkata was pleasant and this was truly the only disappointment !



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