Transitory Blues

 

How was your flight sir?

Quite uncomfortable!

Oh! Sorry to hear that sir. Why was it uncomfortable?

It was eleven hours!

Really! Did the pilot apologize?

No.

No!! Why not?

He had to sit for eleven hours too!

The man smiled, the mood lightened. And I was allowed entry into England.

But this one is not about England. Those stories will come later. This one is about transit. And statutory warning – this will be a long post.

I am one of those people who love the journey as much as the destination. And I have had varied experience in that department.

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From business class in flights and Rajdhani first-class-cubicles-for-two to roofs of jeeps and buses – I have travelled in/on them all.

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And I have enjoyed every single one of them.

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(The only first class air travel I had was on this plane. The airline went bankrupt right after that!)

Except last year’s luxury journey in Himachal (in which not only did we have zero independence, we were literally taken for a ride) I have savoured all the others.

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There are no good journeys or bad journeys – only interesting and boring ones. 

Amongst the most interesting was the one from Bakhtiyarpur. We were coming back from Rajgir, we had to travel to Bihar Sharif and then to Bakhtiyarpur, which was then the nearest railhead. Right after we reached the station, the station casually announced our train was cancelled. We were in college then, in our First Year or early Second. One amongst us was an aspiring doctor, another on his way to financial affairs and yours truly, the budding tormentor of young minds. After hearing the announcement we were quite lost. This was almost an alien land, and that confirmed ticket was our only way home. So we did what made sense. We went to the Station Master and asked him for advice. He said we can cancel the ticket or he can change it into a general one, which will allow us passage on any train going to Howrah. (I think I should mention that Howrah, along with Sealdah, was the doorway to Kolkata then. There is a Kolkata station now, but it is nearly not as popular.) As we had no clue as to alternative transport we chose the latter.

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We had a quick dinner and hoped for the best. Danapur Express came. The general compartment was beyond our martial skills. So we hopped on the next compartment: S1. It was reserved and was completely full. But one gentleman, speaking fluent Bangla, probably because he was Bengali, took pity on us and told us he would allow us to sleep on the floor next to his birth, and he will further tell the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE in short but TT in common lingo) that we are with him. So we procured some newspapers and populated the floor of this compartment coach.

Around midnight a light came to me and I awoke. I was dreaming of the recently visited Nalanda, but to my dismay this was nothing spiritual, rather quite the opposite. Two TTEs were looking at us with extraordinary interest. One was older and looked mean. The other one was younger and was trying to look meaner. Then an interesting conversation developed. Let me not bore you with the details. Let me give you the gist: they wanted a handsome amount of money, an amount we did not have. The gentleman who had promised help helped, said we were with him, and then fell asleep quickly. Our exchange did not seem to bother any of the sleepers at all. Finally an amazing moment of epiphany occurred. One of us, the future finance fellow, suddenly said: “Please leave us in peace, we have no money. We are students of Calcutta University.” I don’t know what magic happened, both the TTEs seemed floored! They hastily retreated saying that since the Station Master has allowed us, we were legitimate passengers. To this day I marvel at the power of the name. My best guess is that they were also students of CU and felt due sympathy for us. The rest of the journey was peacefully grounded and we thanked the gentleman who helped us in the morning with tea. I am quite ashamed to say that I will not recognize him if I see him now.

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(From a very different journey)

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(The nearly empty coach from Truro to London, the floor is much better!)

Another journey worth mentioning is the one where we were returning from our trip to Kankrajhor. We had a delightful 5k trek to a place called Hullung. Then we had to wait for hours for the bus to come. Apparently there was one single daily bus that used to come to this village and the people were all waiting for it with a suspense that would humble Hitchcock. The primary factor to be considered was that there was no guarantee that the bus will come. But on that day the bus did come. There were four of us – all in our 50s (weight I mean, not age) – and we managed to get four seats through an immense amount of confusion and contest. Our advantage was the locals had no idea that we were not unskilled in seat-seeking abilities (public transport in Kolkata makes you much more agile than you realise) and thus they were perplexed, if not flabbergasted, by our professional movements, and at the end we found ourselves seated. The bus started soon. Within minutes it was filled beyond the brim. The roof was crowded to the optimum extent. For the rest of our journey we could not enjoy the magnificent scenery we were passing through, because the activities inside were far more captivating. We were young and easily distracted; otherwise we would have been terrified of the bus toppling over as there were at least 40 people sitting on the roof.

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(This photo from alamy shows the exact model of the bus and the condition that we had experienced)

Inside there were women who were particularly interested in the curiosity that we constituted, men who were sick (not of the interest, but generally) all over the floor, there were domestic creatures responding to the call of the wild, and babies who objected to our existence so much that they expressed it through a pitch that forked our ears and our patience. To this day, even though I have been in many classrooms, I am yet to face such a crowded cacophony! Getting down at the familiar bus stand at Ghatshila we felt like we have finally returned to our world. Of course, I must admit that we were not fully unwelcome in that journey. There was a goat that found one of us quite interesting. I am sure its amorous eyes will haunt my friend for the rest of his life. Life is full of such goatesque moments!

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As customary, I have saved the best for last. But before that I have to tell you a short Airport story. We had two Varanasi trips in two consecutive years. On one of the trips we took the train, in another we travelled by air. About a month before the journey Make My Trip informed me that my flight back has been changed. They were quite polite. They had sent me e-mails, messages and they rang me up. The change was quite odd, instead of a direct flight to Kolkata they had put us up on an indirect path. Now we had to go to New Delhi and then fly back to Kolkata. If you think of the map then you would know that this would be far costlier for the airline (Indigo in this case) and time consuming for us. We would go in the exact opposite direction and come back. Instead of two hours, we would be spending the whole day in transit.

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I checked for a different flight, but the tickets were all untouchable. Since Make My Trip was not asking for anything extra anyway, we decided to stick to this carromesque itinerary. But what we had not bargained for is the date. We were flying back on the 26th day of January, a day on which Delhi airspace is severely restricted. What I find curious is that we may not know such things, but the aviation industry should. There are aerial displays on every 26 January. So the airlines can, in advance, make arrangements. But no such thing can be expected. Even that morning we were assured that all flights are on time. And thus we reached the airport precisely two hours before the scheduled departure. And then the announcements started. The display boards were confused. Varanasi does not have a large airport and pretty soon everything was crowded – almost like the Hullung bus (sans the actual livestock). After waiting for four hours, free food was provided by Indigo. That was a novelty. I guess they sensed how indignant the goers had become.

There are two departure gates on the ground level of the airport. I saw peculiar lines forming on both. As usual there were no announcements. Then I saw an Indigo flight had landed and was offloading passengers. I managed to go past the crowd and ask the helpless-looking crew-person if that was my flight. She said yes. I said what should I do? She said just join the queue. Both the queues were full of passengers for three planes that were there on the tarmac (which for some reason is also called the apron). These planes were going to three different directions. There were no ferrying buses. There was no one guiding people. They were just looking at the boarding passes and letting people loose. You had to find your own plane. Thankfully the three planes belonged to three different airlines. Otherwise there would have been a decent amount of confusion. But still I asked if this was the plane going to Delhi! Much like stopping a bus to ask where it was going! Never had I imagined that I would have to ask the air-crew if this plane was going to my destination!

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(This is a different airport)

Finally, the final one for today. We were returning from Uttarakhand, the Rudranath trip. We had come to Delhi in the morning and had an evening flight back. This time we had bought tickets of Air India. This was Autumn 2016. As always, we had reached the airport pretty early. After having a decent lunch at Coffee World (coffee and sandwiches work rather well for us) we went for check-in. There was a young man in the counter. He was, I don’t know why, in a huge hurry. I almost asked if he had a plane to catch! He took our print-outs and typed in the style of Adenoid Hynkel’s secretary and gave us boarding passes. One seat was at the front and the other one was at the back. I returned them and said we want adjacent seats and I don’t care about windows or aisles. He took the passes back. Another set of random typing ended in production of two boarding passes. This time he looked at them and apparently dissatisfied, tore them into smallest possible pieces. The third time seemed lucky. He gave us two seats in row 29. Practically at the end of the plane. I didn’t mind. Both ends are supposed to reach the same destination, so why nitpick!

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(This is Kolkata Airport on a rainy morning)

The plane was, well, interesting. It had that vintage feeling. My seat was already reclined, and I could do nothing about it. After a while a crew-member came and asked me to straighten it. I told her she was welcome to try. Being experienced in such aircrafts, she did not and there was no further comment from anyone else. Just before the plane was starting its final accelaration, someone called one of the air-crew and complained about the middle emergency door, the one on the wing. Apparently it was making indecent noises. The crew member informed her senior. She came, she saw and she became quite agitated. She then went to the cockpit. Being at the back we could witness this entire drama. The visit to the cockpit excited us. The people in the front remained blissfully unaware. Then the lady came back without the pilot or the first officer and said that everything is alright. The person who complained wasn’t quite convinced. But the reassurance was that if there was something wrong, there are digital alarms that alert the pilots, since no alarm has blipped and the pilots are alert, we need not be alarmed. Needless to say no one was reassured. The plane then bravely took off and I spent the entire trip looking at the door and imagining all the Hollywood movies I have seen in which horrible things happen.

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(This is not that flight. I never thought of taking a photo!)

After almost two hours of staring at the door the pilot announced we were about to land. Land we did, bouncing three or four times. Did I care? Not at all. I was far too happy to be alive.

In fact, when they told us that our luggage was sent to Vizag (courtesy Hynkel’s secretary who had put someone else’s tags on our luggage) I didn’t bat an eyelid. Air India is quite efficent in luggage retrieval, they returned our luggage to us within 24 hours as promised. That raises the inference that unless you lose expertly you cannot retrieve expertly. But that is just splitting hairs. We did not lose our lives, nothing else mattered. Luggage is replaceable. Never care much about things that are replaceable. Care only about things that can be permanently lost.

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