Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Passenger in Transit

When you are up in the air, the earth seems so inconsequential and insignificant. From the little window of the jet plane, the skyscrapers appear flattened on the ground, their sky-mocking Pinocchio-type noses rubbed into the green of the earth. Whosoever says that the earth is fast losing its green cover should look at it carefully when the plane, having taken off, becomes air-borne and not exactly cloud-borne. The earth appears, unrealistically, unbelievably green. Even the most polluted city would, in such moments, put its worst detractors to shame. Not that I have seen Delhi from his vantagepoint. I never can, for the flights not only leave Delhi but also return to it, under the cover of darkness. I have a feeling that this is part of some international or anti-national (does not really matter how you put it, for in the ultimate analysis, one just means the other) conspiracy. They just do not want the reputation of Delhi to be salvaged even in those fleeting moments when you’re air-borne. In the daytime, they allow the pollutants to have their way and at night, too, they let everyone believe that it’s no better.
The twinkling stars across the surface of Delhi, however, do give you a comfortable feeling that all is not lost, that Delhi still has a sky overhead and sometimes, especially when it’s not wet, it dazzles as well. As one is slowly lifted out of the darkness overhanging Delhi, one strangely feels sad, not comforted. Leaving darkness behind should ordinarily be an uplifting experience but it’s not. Somewhere deep down, I believe we begin to love that darkness, especially if we have lived among its shadows for far too long. Besides, somewhere in that darkness shine faces you have known, of the people you have shared your life and light with. Once you get air-borne, you know that the earth is behind you, that the human settlements are beyond your reach, that among those hazy, lost, black-hole like structures, you too have left a little home or a part of your heart behind. As the darkness gets thicker, with the clouds floating in, faces blur into memories. Over the vast ocean of darkness, when one cannot reach out to the faces in flesh, one clings desperately to the memories racing through the mind. The sound of the over-heated jet engine only makes the mind race faster. Then it begins to fatigue. But now, the plane is very much in a commanding position, steering straight ahead on its chosen path, but you slowly lose control over your senses as drowsiness washes over you. Sleep comes unannounced, unexpectedly, very much like the sound of the pilot or the flight-bursar on the microphone. It comes and goes. Drifting in and out of sleep, you do not quite know which world you belong to – the one you have left behind or the one to which you are so determinedly headed.
Sleeping in one zone and waking up in another – such is the fate of every jet-traveller. The time-zones change for everyone but for most of the travellers, it’s just a question of re-setting their watches, not their mind. We carry ourselves through all kinds of time/space zones, unblinking, without so much as noticing that a change that has occurred demands that we, too, change. How and in what manner, I don’t quite know. All I know is that time zones do something fuzzy to our consciousness, our whole being in a way. It is re-made, re-set like our watches; almost re-invented without our knowing it. And it’s this re-invented being that peeps out the next morning as the plane touches the ground of Charles De Gaulle airport. The misty, rain-swept morning is something like the uncertain, memory-ridden night you have had. As the plane zeroes in upon the runway, you try and shed your bleariness so that you can be more focussed and alert; ready to hurl yourself into the arms of a new day, a new morning. All your dreams of watching the Seine or the Eiffel Tower from the French windows of the airport lie buried under the announcement you’d heard a few minutes before landing, which said: “Paris is some thirty-two miles from the air-port.” There you are. Things rarely turn out the way you expect them to. Having lost the opportunity to get a visa entry to France on your passport, all you can do is comfort yourself, saying: “Well, I did it for a good reason. The evening with the wife and children was well spent.” No, you do not regret it in the least. You do regret not having armed yourself with information on Paris, though. When I travel, I let my wanderings prove to me how and in what different ways have I gone wrong! It’s like the road telling me that I am not walking on the right track. The more I travel, the more knocks I get; the more knocks I get, the less I know, the less I know, the more mistakes I commit. And the more mistakes I make, the more I travel. I am no Ulysses, and I do not have to travel beyond the utmost bound of human thought. For me, travelling does not mean accepting yourself as a superior being, it means accepting yourself as a lesser mortal, as a human being, warts and all.
Paris fails to hold your attention when you are just passing through, when you are a passenger in transit. Not that I have seen it, but I imagine that Paris is somewhat like those French wines that are silently brewed in cold-cellars for long and that demand a connoisseur’s well-attenuated taste and attention. I am more like a non-drinker, walking past a rich haul inside the cellar with the perfunctoriness of someone who doesn’t care. But even the most hardened of non-drinkers have a secret wish to taste the wine, if nothing else but to know how it feels on the tongue. But I have to pass it over. There is hardly any choice. Passengers cannot be choosers, least of all, the passengers in transit. They have things to worry about, things such as their baggage, which terminal to go for their next flight, how to get there, how not to react when the French customs’ official demands that you empty out your pockets and pass through the metal detector, the second time. So wrapped are you in doing what is either demanded or not demanded of you that you have no time to worry. Besides, you almost bless your stars, stop worrying altogether when you find that someone, who has the same colour as you or is perhaps from the country of your origin as well, has been asked to step out of the queue for a more rigorous questioning. It leaves you temporarily disturbed to find that all the white passengers of Air France have been allowed to go through the security check with minimum of fuss. Is this the miracle of your skin, the charisma of your colour that you get more intrusive attention that you can cope with? I do not know. It’s perhaps, too, early for me to thinking such thoughts, too early to form any impressions, good or bad, too early to start judging people or situations. Besides, does a single swallow make a summer? Paris is cold and wet and the summer appears far away, too far for comfort.
With these thoughts criss-crossing my mind, I follow a charming hostess of Air France, holding up a placard with London Heathrow written on it, leading all the passengers across the gate from where we/they have to board the plane again. Another boarding pass, another queue, except that this time round, all of it is rather rushed. From a 336-seater jet jumbo on to a 100-seater carrier, you not only feel somewhat cramped but also diminished. You have been second time lucky. Again, you have found a seat next to the window. As the engine is set into motion, you cast one last longing look at the little strip of Charles De Gaulle (for that’s about the only thing you can see outside) and turn around to look at the fellow passengers. The same couple with a small child, who howled through the night, punctuating your sleep, is now seated next to you. The man is in a white kurta-pyjama and a sleeveless black jacket. He is extraordinarily tall, but his height does not overawe you. It’s either his long nose on an otherwise handsome, well-cut face or a well tied, tuft of hair at the back of his completely shaven head. As you spontaneously mumble ‘Hare Rama Hare Krishna’ he twists around to give you a cold, hard stare. Sheepish, you pretend to smile at his bawling child but your smile withers away hopelessly under the strain of the effort. And you retreat behind the newspaper which he already has thrown open, right next to your nose, mercifully not even half as long or half as sharp. Nursing your nose, you sneak a glance or two at his wife who is not very short but is dwarfed each time he stands up next to her. His voice is self-assured and authoritative, but she only mumbles each time she speaks. Occasionally, he puts his arm around her in a sudden rash of affection, gives her a tight hug or a peck on her cheek. And each time he demonstrates his affection or love or whatever else it is, she appears gratified, somewhat overburdened with his perfunctory kisses and the child’s insistent bawling. Only when she decides to put the child to breast to soothe him do you look away, out of well-imbibed sense of propriety. You are glad that this propriety has travelled with you from your land of birth and has not been left behind in the darkness that hung over Delhi the day you left.
By now, the plane has pierced through the clouds. Huge bundles of rain-washed cotton wool lie scattered all around. No object in sight! It is almost as if the earth has ceased to exist, at least, temporarily. White clouds have pulled themselves over the earth, spreading like the crumbled map of the colonial ruler that used to send all the dark strains into hiding, cloaking the ugly nakedness of the earth almost instantly. The unsettling symmetry of the human settlements as they appear to the naked eye from somewhere in the sky, is also forgotten like Karl Marx’s dream of social equality. Clouds have a way of making you forget that you’re an earthly being, that the earth is not as beautiful as it sometimes appears, that human beings are not equal though the distance might make you think they are. In short, nothing is what you either think or feel it is. Clouds have a way of telling you that you cannot always know or penetrate everything; that there are limits to what your mind can know or your heart feel. Floating on the huge bundles of cotton wool, you feel like a real dwarf, not just an optical one that the tall man’s wife begins to appear as soon as he stands up. Your reverie breaks only with an announcement in broken English, saying, “Soon, we’re going to land on London Heathrow.” The way they put it, it almost sounds as though London is the name of the airport and Heathrow, that of the place. Never you mind. It sounds good the way it is pronounced. Besides, who are you to question it? They like it this way. Why must you always question the logic of things? And whose logic is it, anyway? Yours or theirs? It is certainly not everyone’s.
This time round, you are not as shaky to find yourself at the Heathrow as you were the first time you landed here. That was some two years ago. You had been told to call up the British Council office from Heathrow to find out about your accommodation. Remember how you had gone round and round in circles, trying to figure out how to make a call from the phone booth. Too embarrassed to admit your ignorance to anyone, you had stood outside a booth, observing others make calls. That is how you had found out that calls couldn’t be made without a phone-card. After buying the card, you had kept turning it over for a long time to figure out how to use it. All those memories of wasting almost two hours trying to put a call through are still with you as you confidently walk into the nearest shop to buy a phone-card, almost with the flourish of a native. Calls through, you walk across to a counter to find out about hotels/hostels in London. In your feigned spiritedness, you greet a thickset, bespectacled person behind the counter with a more than usual warm ‘Good Morning,’ He unsettles you by saying,
‘No, it’s not a very good morning. But what can I do for you?’
Still collecting your wits, which get easily scattered in a foreign land, you shoot a nervous query, ‘Please tell me about a decent place I could spend the night in? Reasonably good but not very expensive.’
You immediately realise that it’s your third-world syndrome that has made you add that bit about ‘not very expensive.’
‘What’s your expectation?’
‘Say, fifteen to twenty pounds.’
‘I’m sorry, there’s no place in London as cheap as this.’
You feel guilty for having thought that London, too, could be cheap. You are glad that he has put you straight on that rather early on in your wanderings. You do not even know how this fortuitous remark is a preparation for much of what you have to meet in London, later that evening. Despite the gruffness of his tone, his suggestion about looking for a hotel on the Belgrave Road turns out to be sound one. This road runs close to the Victoria Coach Station from where you have to catch the coach for Norwich, the next morning. You discover that the coach station is not more than five minutes walk from Leicester Hotel on the Belgrave Road, that eminently forgettable place where you end up spending the only night in London.
No, I had not really planned to stay at Leicester Hotel. To be honest, I did not even know it existed. As I was dragging my luggage sullenly on the pavement outside the Victoria Station, wiping the sweat off my face, unable to breathe in the fresh, cool draught of London, I suddenly came across this modest-looking hotel. Modest, of course, it was not by my standards but only in comparison to the other hotels in the neighbourhood that towered far above it. Right across the road stood the majestic-looking Eccleston Hotel, neon-sign beaming even in the daytime. As I was to discover later, Belgrave Road is known for its endless rows of hotels, stretching out in all possible directions. But did I have the patience to check out on the other hotels and compare the tariff? No! It was sheer fatigue of a ten-hour long journey, made worse by having to drag my luggage, which made me enter the first reasonably looking lodging I could. When the young man with a ponytail, sitting behind the counter announced ‘Thirty-five-pounds’ in his heavily accented-voice, I simply gave in. I did not ask him all those questions that the experienced travellers often do ask. For instance, I didn’t ask him if the room was on the ground floor or the top floor; whether or not it was equipped with a telly and channel music; or if there was a porter around to help me with luggage. The moment he said ‘Thirty-five pounds’ I wearily took out my purse and handed him a fifty pounds bill. He slipped in the key along with the change, without so much as explaining the directions. When I asked, his cryptic reply was “The third floor. Walk down the corridor and then go up the stairs.” Until then, I hadn’t quite realised what I had let myself in for, which I did only when I had to carry my huge suitcase up the steps. The climb was simply endless and the steps small. It was not possible for me to rest the suitcase on the steps. It had to be carried all the way up to the floor. By the time I had finished lugging all my baggage up to Room no; 65, my fatigue had reached a breaking point. What was worse, all this effort had made my back-strain return. I cursed myself for not having hired a taxi, for being a stingy traveller, for not having found a hotel with a porter. I certainly hadn’t come all the way to England to feel so miserable. Besides, the prospect of nursing my back-strain through the only evening I had in London was not particularly an encouraging one.
What a mousetrap of a room it is! No bigger than a solitary-cell. Though there is a large glass window overlooking the street, it has curtains that block out the natural light. Not that there is much of natural light, anyway. It is a windy, sunless day. I retire to the bathroom for a hot shower, which almost brings me back to life. The bathroom barely has a space for one person to stand in, but what more? Modest-looking places can be quite cramped and self-limiting, at times; just as the large, open spaces can, sometimes, be frightfully intimidating. It all depends upon where you are and how you are experiencing whatever you are. I console myself by saying it aloud, ‘Well, how does it matter? I just have to spend the night here, not my entire life.’ As I say it, image of worn-out, dilapidated shanties and ramshackle tenements flash across my mind – images of all those cramped spaces, somewhere in a Delhi slum where people spend their entire lives without complaining, without a demur or protest. I have seen one often gets into the habit of complaining only if one has. For the one who does not have, life itself is a complaint. But for the one who has never tires of complaining every minute of his life. It surprises me immensely that I am whining so much. I have not been particularly notorious for it. Does it mean that I am acquiring a new set of habits, too? Is this what the re-invention all about? Time inventing us, and re-inventing us. We, inventing a story, and someone re-inventing it. Repetition. Endless repetition. Of words, of experiences, of stories, even of time. When you are on your own, you have a plentiful of everything but no thought of how to use it, and upon whom or against whom.
My journey has just about begun. I’m still a long way off the destination where I’m supposedly headed. So I decide to walk across to the Victoria Coach Station to book myself on a coach leaving for Norwich, the next morning. Though every kind of information is being put out through the video-screens, I decide to approach the man at enquiry desk. He gives me a folder with complete information on coaches leaving for various destinations in and across England, encircles Norwich for my convenience and directs me to the reservation counter. It does not take me more than five minutes to get the reservation done. The man behind the window, a black with a genial smile and elegant manners is as helpful and polite as anyone could be. As I am about to step out of the station-gate, it suddenly occurs to me that I have not had anything to eat since the last meal served on the plane. It does not really matter when it was, for I had not re-set my watch at that point in time. What matters is that it is 13.00 (GMT) and I suddenly in the grip of severe hunger pangs. Scouting around for an eatery, I find myself outside an outlet that sells sandwiches, bread and buns of a wide variety. I buy myself a cup of tea and three thick-looking buns with black currants, and retire to a bench in the corner. That moment as I sat crouched in a corner, nibbling hungrily at the buns with black currants, I was suddenly reminded of a beggar at Delhi bus station, whom I had bought puree-chana and who, too, had sat in a corner and sated his hunger, just the way as I did now. Is it that the hunger has a way of reducing all of us, regardless of who we are or where we are, to plain and simple beggars? Or is it that on being placed in a situation where we are not observed or watched, we all tend to eat as hungrily as the rest of us? It is strange that we forget our manners when we need them the most, in presence of the strangers.

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