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