When I have to take a train or flight, I usually leave home three to four hours ahead of time. The idea is to reach the station/airport at least an hour before, and keep another in pocket to take care of glitches like traffic jams, flat tyres, and so on …. Naturally, my children, who belong to the unfortunate generation that believes speed is more important than the destination, make fun of me. They think it’s just another sign that their old man is getting on in years. But they don’t know why I do what I do.
Actually, I love watching life pass by at stations and airports. At the major rail stations in my home town Kolkata, there is always a long queue of people waiting for long distance trains. They wait for hours to board the “general” coaches, which are actually quite special. While most express trains in India have cushioned seats in reasonably clean “reserved” carriages, the few “general compartments” at the head and tail of the trains are unreserved dabbas for the aam admi, who – a politician described with disarming honesty – belong to the “cattle class”. These are coaches with naked wooden seats and non-functional dirty toilets and stationary fans where people pack themselves like dead sardines.
I watch the blank faces of the men in the queues, most of them young, uneducated migrant labourers travelling to faraway Gujarat or Kerala, where they will live a sub-human life to make a living. Their faces are blank, but it can be seen they are dreaming of the day – months later – when they would return to Malda, Murshidabad, or Medinipur, with currency notes hidden in their underwear and sometimes, AIDS in their bloodstream, to spread a bit of prosperity and death in rural Bengal, which is dying in any case.
At airports, the story is different, but equally captivating. You might come across celebrities like film stars or potbellied politicos whose picture you saw last week when they were released on bail on fictitious grounds. If you are lucky, you might come across a woman in a sari and a magic blouse that has no back … and of course, men in extra-large shirts giving instructions loudly over phone to their minions and telling the world how important they are. There are also “ordinary” people at airports – like yours truly – but unlike in other parts of the country, they do not outnumber the high and mighty.
Last week, when I had to catch a flight from Bengaluru, I checked in two hours before departure as usual, but despite that, I nearly missed my flight, and I am going to tell you why.
To catch a bite, I went into Madras Tiffin, an eatery opposite the Departure Gate No. 4, where you get reasonably good idlies at unreasonably bad price. As I collected my plate and looked around, I found all the tables had been occupied. So I approached the nearest table with a free chair where a charming fiftyish woman was having her breakfast alone. I asked her if I could sit down.
‘Yes of course, please do’, she said with a touch of warmth that’s not too common in today’s world. With curly hair and thick glasses, she had an intelligent face with sad eyes that would make her stand out in a crowd.
When I went to pick up a paper napkin, I brought one for her too. She said with a smile, ‘Thank you. Where are you going?’
A brilliant Bengali writer Syed Mujtaba Ali once wrote that some people, for example, an Englishman, would never ask you this question if you met him on a train. In was unlikely that he would be interested where you were going. Even if he was, he would rather ask: ‘Going far?’ A vague question that could be answered with equal vagueness if you wished.
But my companion at the breakfast table was an Indian, and a charming thing about us is that we are less inaccessible to perfect strangers.
‘Kolkata’, I answered.
‘Oh! Apni Bangali?’
I nodded. And it was time to switch over to Bangla and ask, ‘And you?’
‘I am going to Visag. But I don’t have a home there.’ After a pause, she continued, ‘Actually, my husband and I bought a flat in Bangalore. I came here to get some documentation done. My husband used to work in Visag.’
Then she said, ‘I am going to settle down in Bangalore in a few months.’
‘Really? In a few months’ time, my wife and I too are moving to Bangalore.’
As I answered her, I found it rather odd she said “I”. Hadn’t she said her husband “used to work” in Visag? But naturally, I didn’t ask her why. That would be too much even between two Indians.
Grandparents tend to become talkative when they get an opportunity to talk about their grandchildren. I found myself talking about Haroun and Toto, who were the reason behind our decision to move. She too suddenly brightened up as she told me about her granddaughter who lives in Toronto. A chirpy five-year-old with two swinging plaits floated before my eyes. And time flew as two grandparents happily shared notes on their respective grandkids.
After some time, she suddenly fell silent. She was thinking about something rather deeply as I drank my coffee. Then quite abruptly, she said, ‘My daughter will come down to help me when I shift to Bangalore. … My husband is no more. You would have read about a helicopter crash near an off-shore rig in the Krishna Godavari Basin last year? My husband was one of the two pilots …. He was a Colonel in the Army. A helicopter pilot, he was on deputation to Pawan Hans.’
She was controlling herself with great effort as I heard the announcement: “This is the last and final boarding call for Mr Sinha Chaudhuri, passenger flying to …”
02 May 2016
02 May 2016