Flying to Kolkata from the US is an awesome adventure. First of all, there are very few flights to the city (For some reasons, international carriers, after a few years stop serving this city (British and KLM being two examples) even though I have never seen a flight from a European city to Kolkata empty in all these ten years I have been doing this route). Which not only severely limits your options but always makes the flights packed to the rafters. Second, more often than not, the companies put their oldest planes to this route—if there was a possibility of giving a box-rickshaw (the kind that takes toddlers to school) with wings for their Kolkata bound passengers, I am sure they would have.
But then, what truly makes it such an enriching and life-changing experience are the people.
Waiting at an European airport with fellow Kolkata passengers for the 5-6 hours layover between the flight from the US and of that to Kolkata is what I most keenly look forward to, as it brings back happy memories of being stuck in a railway waiting room. A Bengali man, wearing a sendo genji (a type of baniyan), whose face I vaguely remember from a CPM michil (morcha) throwing stones at a state transport bus, walks out of the restroom with toothpaste flowing down from his mouth, shouting at his wife and kids. Another Bengali handsome hunk with an upturned pot of misti doi as his stomach, getting comfortable after he had missed his last connecting flight, has changed into a lungi and is reading a newspaper while propped up on a seat in London. A pudgy looking woman, walks about self-contentedly, telling till-5-minutes-ago total strangers “Amader na upgrade hoye geche…or to anek frequent flier miles ache” (We got upgraded, he has so many frequent flier miles), working from the assumption that people whom she befriended, for the express purpose of telling them her good fortune and how “high-fly” her husband is, care a flying eff whether she is traveling in economy or business. What’s unique however is that they do, as they mill about her, their congratulatory Baah baahs doing nothing to hide their “Oooh I wish my husband had gone to IIT instead of Titagarh Polytechnic” writ large on their faces.
An aged couple, obviously returning from having visited their son or daughter, have a passionate conversation; the lady looking out at the window and giving her husband a running commentary of the planes as they taxi about on the runway, occasionally throwing in an Arun-Lalian expert observation like “They have given a big plane”. The gentleman’s morbid interest are the passengers in the waiting list as it scrolls down the large monitor, as he relays his judgment on whether the Banerjees (of course total strangers) will “get in” or not.
It seems everyone in the plane is traveling with small kids and one wonders whether there will be even more kids coming out at Kolkata then those going in.
And then the flight is announced. Immediately everyone gets up and starts approaching the turnstiles like an army of zombies moving towards fresh meat, as the harried flight attendants try to hold them back. Feet are stepped on, suitcases bang against knees, but the crowd pushes on inexorably.
First class and business class passengers please.
Immediately, our “Moulali-r Mala” (reference to old Anjan Dutt song where Mala from Moulali ditches her poor boyfriend and marries rich) stomps past the masses of the dis-privileged, smiling triumphantly at everyone else, brandishing her business-class boarding pass like a baby does a colorful rattle.
Next the call is for those who need pre-boarding and traveling with small kids.
Another rush since almost everyone there is traveling with “small kids”. Or so they think. One air attendant gets into a fruitless argument with a lady who insists that her eleven year old boy qualifies as a “small kid”. A lady pulls up a gentleman for cutting into the line of pre-boarders. He argues that his kid is smaller and hence he deserves to go first.
Hell breaks out among the minority who do not have small children. Namely between uncle and aunt who are both standing at the turnstiles, watching everyone boarding before them. The attendant keeps repeating “Small children please. We will board in order of zone numbers.” much to the dismay of those without children who had hoped to rush the plane once pre-boarding was over.
Then she says “Zone number 4 please board.”
Aunt pushes uncle—-“What’s our zone number? I told you to read the ticket well.” Hassled uncle fiddles with his glasses trying to read the small print. He shouts out “34C”. Aunt does not get the unintentional humor. “No…..that doesn’t sound right..look again you…” to which uncle immediately responds “Ooooh we are in Zone 4.” Right on cue, the attendant announces “Zone 3”. Aunt spits out “You and your glasses. Now we are too late. Everyone is going ahead of us. Ufff….” as she clutches her purse and elbows a peaceful looking European Vaishnav (in a coat and dhoti) in his ribs to cut into the line.
And then you get onto the plane. The passages are of course clogged with people conversing with each other while they try to fit their gigantic bags into the overhead bin while everyone else standing behind, fret and fume, only to do the same thing once they get to their seats. Moulalir Mala, sitting in business class, makes a point to make eye contact with everyone who passes by her to the rear of the plane; as she occasionally exclaims “Amra seat-ta peye gechi” (We got out seat) like a cat who has eaten the cream, as if anyone had any doubt.
Then the flight begins. Babies cry in-tune. The mother behind me decides to use the back of my seat to teach her 5 year old how to do Thai-boxing, making sure that every time I doze off, I am awakened by a thump on the seat and a cry of “Haha ki mauja” (Haha what fun !). Not that I complain. I dare not. Unlike the poor man who tells a father “Sir please ask your son not to pull at my hair” which the father dismisses with a lazy smile, as he studies intently the coloring book his son was given so that he does not pull at the hair of other passengers. Unable to take all this inflight entertainment, I try to watch a movie but am instantly enveloped by a foul ghostly smell, right as the aunty tells uncle in a hushed voice that three rows up and down can hear—- “I told you not to eat so many cashews on the last flight”.
Trying to shut off my olfactory and auditory senses as much as possible, I try to look within. I know that there will still be many an obstacle—–the lengthy lines at immigration, the over-eager porters, the one hour spent at the conveyor belt but in the end it will be all worth it.
All for the joy of being home.