The daint, white and red coloured aircraft slowly taxies into Kolkata airport. The swanky new terminal , buzzing with coffee shops, eateries, gift shops selling useless memorabilia at extravagant prices, excited children running about and couples sitting and assisting each other, is teeming with activity.
What a far cry, I think, from the rundown terminal five years back, which seemed more like a railway station than a modern airport , that to at a time when all the other major airports across the country had been modernized . But that same rundown terminal contained memories of my childhood, when my father (who is no more) would return from his official tours and me and my mom would take the only existing” minibus” service from our house to the airport. It was a time of joyful expectation, and would usually lead to the procurement of “ Tinkle” comics or other such icons of my childhood from the airport book shops, courtesy my father.
Things have changed drastically. They have been sanitized, commercialized, and frankly I prefer this clean, well –maintained building any day compared to the rundown terminal of yore with the stinking dirty toilets and stale food ( courtesy AAEI), but somewhere, nostalgia still lingers, in a corner of the mind somewhere, and nestles itself firmly.
Air Asia I5 549 has arrived. The pretty airhostesses (some looking a bit too self -conscious in this plastic atmosphere) and the smart pilots are holding fort at the departure lounge. Air Asia, Indigo, Spice Jet, you name it, they are all over the place.
The departure bellow leads us to the aircraft, which is a clone of all such similar aircrafts ( contemptuously called” cattle class” by Shashi Tharoor a few years back, leading to public uproar). Neat, daintily arranged seats, the crew with their plastic ( or amiable, whichever way you look at it ) smile, and the humming of the engine. The airhostess announces the pre- take-off instructions in her drone –like voice ( probably she is more tired of it by now than we are), and displays a bit more than what she has been probably briefed to do. The engines come to a roar, the aircraft lurches forward, and we take off, Calcutta dangling below us like a vast chequerboard of buildings, greenery, fields and waterbodies.
The chap next to me is from Delhi , probably on a flight for the first or second time, and I guide him on a few things ( including how to take the airport shuttle from the Delhi airport, courtesy my four years in Delhi ). We have a general discussion on air travel and its merits vis a vis rail travel, it transpires that his brother is a co-pilot with Indigo Airlines based in Bangalore, and his knowledge on the current airline scenario in India turns out to be quite good. At the end, I guide him on staying seated during the stopover in Ranchi on his way to Delhi ( this being a connecting flight ) and not to get down ( as he had thought) . I collect my bag from the overhead bin, endure the plastic smile from the airhostess once more one way out, and leave. I am handed a discount voucher for some outrageously priced items from the airport store ( which I dispose off quickly) . Collecting my luggage from the conveyor belt, I move out of the terminal for the usual haggling with autorickshaw drivers for my journey back home.
Routine, humdrum? Depends on how you look at it. I spent my time observing people ( cantankerous couples, cooing children, pretty airhostesses , smart pilots and fastidiously busy laptop-wielding executives ), and enjoyed this sojourn on my way back home. Fast and sure, air travel is now embedded into the DNA of the Indian middle class. Give me a break from the plastic smiles , though, and I would enjoy it a bit more.
Bon voyage on Air Asia. Welcome aboard.