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Thursday, May 26, 2022

The Terminal and I

Fond memories of a cussed,unfashionable airport

Written by Karna Basu |
August 9, 2010 5:19:08 am

I try not to romanticise the past. When my grandmother tells me about the price of fish in 1950,I remind her that incomes then were proportionately small. When she recalls the kindness of pre-Independence postmen,I say,“On the other hand,there were no pin codes.” So I surprised myself last month when,on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Delhi,I found myself wishing to disembark at Terminal 2.

My wish was granted. The temptress that is Terminal 3 — possibly larger than Madrid’s Terminal 5,perhaps containing more escalators than Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi,taller than the Burj-al-Arab,longer than the Nile — was opening later than scheduled. This tardiness was unexpected given Delhi’s otherwise superb preparations for the Commonwealth Games.

Perhaps my nostalgia was brought on by the fact that I was drinking shampoo-flavored whiskey. Since American carriers started charging for drinks a few years ago,I’ve made it a point to bring my own in travel-sized bottles. My fellow passengers think I’m mad to be drinking shampoo,but when beer costs $7 the joke is on them (except that time I washed my hair with rum by mistake).

Yet,inebriation alone cannot explain my abiding love for T2. Despite the hype about cutting-edge design,airports across the world are becoming glossy imitations of each other. This is not the fault of designers; rather,functional constraints and global retail considerations leave little room for differentiation. IGI Airport in fact derived its distinctiveness from its resistance to change. Little can match the experience of arriving at T2 at night — a disorienting walk through the institutional terminal followed by the first whiff of Delhi air,cold smoke in December and pungent moisture in July.

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Departing from Delhi used to be equally fraught with possibility. Dinner at home in Mayur Vihar (insipid,to prevent indigestion) would be followed by a taxi to Janpath where we would catch the ex-servicemen’s bus to the airport. If we were flying British Airways,my mother would manoeuvre us to the check-in counter manned by a Mr Prasad. She had discovered some time ago that Mr Prasad’s fear of aggressive women made him likely to acquiesce to her demands for upgrades. (But when friends pressed my mother for this information she would direct them to Mr Mishra,a man whose check-in counter was more dangerous than a lion’s den).

The relative austerity of IGI Airport only served to sweeten the anticipation of a foreign journey. This anticipation was particularly high when I prepared to fly out of Delhi one day in 2003. I had taken a year off from graduate school in the US to work as an assistant director to Rituparno Ghosh. My girlfriend,Shabnam,and I had been apart for several months,so we decide to meet in Thailand for a quick vacation.

The Indian Airlines check-in counters were late to open. We Indians have a natural tendency to abandon queues in favor of fan-like formations,but this was proving difficult to execute because two large pillars stood in front of the counters. The air was heavy with tension as people tried to recall lessons from years of musical chairs played in their respective colonies. They flitted through the pillars as if in a Shammi Kapoor dance sequence. But no one was smiling.

The check-in staff arrived,and in the ensuing chaos an Italian man got flung on to the luggage scale. A Bengali man with five suitcases asked me,“Do you know how much luggage they are allowing on this flight?” To him the luggage allowance was as unpredictable as the stock market. Three Israeli girls flashed their cleavage. A mustachioed man carrying a ladies handbag pushed me aside. When I protested,he said,“You have a complete misunderstanding of the concept.” With such an auspicious start to the trip,it was inevitable that Shabnam and I would get married a few years later.

Just as my life continued to change in little ways,so did IGI. The airport authorities installed a gigantic Santa Claus with a tiny head to welcome wintertime passengers. The ban on photography was lifted. For a while,the terminal was filled with signs informing people that they are permitted to take photographs. Flat-screen televisions were set up. Once,when my sister was gripped by self-doubt,she sat down next to one of these televisions,facing the audience. From her vantage point,it appeared that a sea of men was staring at her,even occasionally nodding in appreciation. Her self-confidence was instantly restored.

After Manmohan Singh liberalised the Indian economy,the terrors of customs too receded. That’s why I was recently surprised when,upon arrival in Delhi,a customs official rummaged through my bags and pulled out my beloved new camera,the Nikon D70S. “How much did you pay for this?” he asked. I said I didn’t remember,“It was years ago.” “Impossible,” he said,“this model was released last year. Before that there was only D70.” He proceeded to fiddle with the controls and look through the viewfinder. That’s when I realised what was happening. This tech aficionado was abusing his position as a customs official to test-drive electronic products. We had a pleasant conversation about the relative merits of D70 and D70S (I took care not to disagree with him),and I was on my way.

Terminal 3 might have so much to savour that savouring the details is no longer possible. However,I am aware that this is a small price to pay for the privilege of global interconnectedness. I was lucky,as a child,to be able to accompany my parents on their academic travels. Terminal 3 and the concurrent expansion in air travel will enable many more —Indians and foreigner — to experience the thrills of unfamiliar lands. And for the charms of the un-globalised airport,I will return to Kupang,the capital of West Timor,where I have been engaged in fieldwork. The Kupang airport has a dead-end conveyor belt. If people are slow to react when luggage is loaded,pressure builds up at the end of the belt. There is nothing more enjoyable than diving to evade flying suitcases while trying to catch one’s own.

The writer teaches economics at Hunter College,New York

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