The day breaks. The morning is crisp and full of cheer. A pleasant cool westerly breeze is blowing. I open my eyes and immediately realize that the dreaded day has finally arrived. My heart sinks with heavy feeling of impending doom. I try to close my eyes and get some more sleep. But my mind is already tense with the thought that I begin my long international air journey in next few hours. With that sinking feeling, I finally get up and start moving.
The day is gone, packing and running around with last minute errands. The taxi arrives in time and I leave for the long six hour drive to Mumbai. After negotiating, evening unruly traffic of Pune for an hour,the Pune-Mumbai express way, drops me on outskirts of Mumbai in a jiffy. The hot taste of Vada-pav, eaten on the way,still lingers in my mouth. The drive to the airport is uneventful but boring. That is, if few close encounters in the Dharavi area are discounted. As the taxi enters the drive way of the airport, I am already tired and down with fatigue. The place is extremely crowded as usual. It appears that all the people of Mumbai have decided to visit the airport that night. I somehow gather my strength, get down and start looking for a trolley to haul my bags. My taxi driver is resourceful and finds a trolley for me. I load my bags and start walking to the check in counters. As I walk, I briefly remember the airline poster proclaiming their service as a ‘Dream in the Sky’. The dream shatters in an instant as I see a long queue leading to a X-ray machine. After waiting for some time, which appears like hours, I have to haul up my bags to the X-ray machine and again put them on my trolly. By this time I am already fagged out. I start limping towards check in counter. There is another long queue. I see many people jumping the queue. But they turn out to be V.I.P’s. Since I have no such labels, I wait for my turn. The check- in is a routine affair,except the fact that I do not get desired aisle seat. For next thirty or forty hours, I will have to adjust myself cramped between two persons. Having gotten rid of my bags, I feel relieved and crash onto a chair. Still there are some forms to be filled. I fail to understand that why should an Indian citizen, in possession of valid passport again has to fill an embarkation form. I keep my resentment with me and oblige. Ready with all documents I start walking towards another set of counters called Immigration.
When I am through all formalities, I am already half dead and has started thinking about my foolishness for having taken up this endeavor. Now I reach a big hall with series of hard chairs. I crash into one of them. For next couple of hours nothing happens. I try all tricks not to get bored. I take a stroll. Change my seats, but the wait is endless. After what seems like an eternity, my flight is announced. Another passport check, another X-ray check and I reach another hall called Gate no. four. Actually this hall has many doors. These are numbered four, five , six etc. I find out that other people who were headed for a hall, called gate no. five, also have reached the same hall. This confuses me a little but I decide that this must have been done to provide some fun for the bored passengers. I decide to have a cup of tea. I find that with my exalted status as an deemed international passenger, the cup of tea , available outside for five rupees, will now cost twenty rupees.
Already nine hours have passed since I left home. I remember the airline hoarding, which claimed that their aircraft were really ‘Palaces in the sky’. Unfortunately, the gates of my palace were still closed.
Now suddenly there is a murmur in the hall. Every one gets up and starts rushing in grand Indian tradition towards a closed glass door. The airline staff however turns out to be a damp squid. They do not share even a bit of passenger enthusiasm. They refuse to let us in and order us to sit down. Every body is now expected to go in by virtue of his seat number. Finally my turn comes and I move towards my palace in the sky. At the entrance of the palace there are two slim ladies with an over dose of make up, welcoming us. In the wee hours of the morning, some ten hours after leaving home, I am in no mood to acknowledge their gestures. I just nod and move inside. As usual, all baggage racks are already full. I realize that a long queue of people is still waiting behind me patiently. I dump the hand baggage in some corner of a baggage compartment and sit down. I am numb with tiredness and fatigue and doze off.
After some time, I am awakened by our hostess, who wants to know whether I am interested in having a mid night snack or a drink. I am annoyed but console myself that the fine young lady is just doing her job and decline her offer. In any case , eating Fried Pulav with Kofta at 3′ O clock in the morning is not my idea of luxury. I request her not to disturb me again. She obliges and fixes a ‘Do Not Disturb’ tab on my shoulder. The meals are served and cleared. The lights are dimmed. But I find that I can not sleep anymore. I try to move a little in my seat. I realize that the throne given to me by the airline in this palace, is designed for the size of a small kid. I can not stretch my legs. Neither can I change my position any way. Resigned to my fate, I twiddle with TV remote. By now I have reached the state of ‘Sthitapradnya’ described in the ‘Bhagavadgita’. Nothing pains me or pleases me. Time just moves on.
The morning breaks. Sun shine filters through window curtains. The aircraft lights suddenly come on and we are told of our imminent landing. Suddenly there is a buzz of excitement. The aircraft touches the ground and every one wants to get up and move in Indian tradition. Our hostesses again pour cold water on our enthusiasm. We are ordered to remain seated. After some interval of time there is a scramble to move out. Obviously, every one had enough of the palatial luxury. As I reach the transit lounge, there is an announcement that passengers going to travel further should go to gate E21. I realize that the airline has again pulled a fast one on me. Even when there is an immediate connecting flight, these blokes have put me on an evening flight. This means that I have to spend another eight hours in the transit lounge. I just collapse on a chair and like a zombie, watch the world go by.
In next eight hours, I explore every bit of that place. Behind all glitter, there is really nothing to do unless your pockets are lined with Dollars. With my frugal economic state, I am in no position to undertake any such proposition. I manage to survive the day with just a cup of Tea. I suddenly realize the value of that midnight snack offered to me by my hostess. But now it is too late. I recite my ‘bhagavadgita’ and keep myself calm. Some twenty four hours since I left home our next flight is announced. I reach the gate and find that I am not the only unfortunate soul to go through this horror. There are families, kids and old people in the same boat. They have their stories of horror too. Small kids go without milk and elderly have no place to rest their tired bones.
I go through more baggage checks, frisking and passport checks. I start feeling like an fugitive but some how manage to keep calm. We repeat the same drill to enter another palace in sky. On the aero bridge I see another poster. A passenger happily in state of deep slumber in his seat. But inside the aircraft, I see the same old seats designed for small kids. Next twenty hours or so are spent turning and stretching unsuccessfully in the seat. I eat all kinds of funny stuff. Ice cream so hard that one would like to have a metal cutter to cut it. Orange juice with a metallic taste. Onion bhajia’s for breakfast. Stale oily rice with palak testing like sea weeds. But we just about survive.
After some forty four hours since I left home,the aircraft lands and I come out. Again that fugitive feeling grips me. I become aware that many eyes are watching us. My skin colour, which was of no importance till now, is now a matter of suspicion. I watch a huge banner welcoming us. But I am rudely awakened by the question, thrown at me by the immigration officer. I am no longer really sure, why have I come here. I am again finger printed, photographed and allowed to go on. More questions, baggage checks follow. I find that carrying food with you an such a long journey is the worst crime you can do.
Finally I come out of the darkness. In the brightly lit arrival hall, I see my grand daughter laughing and waving to me. My heart is filled with joy. In one instant I forget all that has happened in last forty hours.
The pleasure of international air travel has just began for me.