Friday, September 16, 2016

The Real Cattle Class

Just when I was beginning to feel happy about the Air India turnaround, their guy at the check-in counter told me something that totally pissed me off. “Sir, you need to pay extra for the front row seats.” I wanted to ask him if I could pay him in kind. Like return the complimentary sandwich which they give in flights of duration less than 90 minutes. But I was sure that it wouldn’t work. Even he knew it was not worth even fifty bucks. I just asked him for any aisle seat other than the ones at the last row.  Those are the most terrible ones where everyone who is waiting to use the loo , and that is almost everybody on board on an early morning flight, leans on. Often the derriere of the person standing and the temples of the person sitting are on the same horizontal axis usually separated by a few nanometres. It appears that Indians have a special fascination for aircraft loos. Everybody checks-in atleast an hour before the take-off. But no one uses the washroom at the departure gates. The moment the safety belt sign is off half the plane rushes to the loo.  It is like a trial room in a mall on a Sunday at the peak of season’s sale. I could never understand the mass hysteria to relieve oneself in the claustrophobic confines whose suction mechanism is so embarrassingly loud that everyone on the plane knows when you are done.

 I was, mercifully, spared of the ordeal that day. I was given a seat on the emergency exit row. The ones that cannot be pushed back and you sit straight through the entire flight as if you were an infant fastened to the baby seat in the car. These seats come with a complimentary sermon from the most disinterested member of the cabin crew who explains how the emergency door should be operated. I once asked at the end of the special briefing if I could try it once. Unfortunately, the lady was not amused. It was just like the Indian education system. Only theory; No practice.

As I fastened my seatbelt, I started thinking about the meanness of the low-cost airlines. They set out with the idea that the passengers would pay less and get minimal services. Today, their fares match their full service counterparts, or at times even more, but the services are bare minimum. Even a zen monastery would appear luxurious in comparison. If you ask for water, they would serve you in shot glasses. Unless you are buying some of their tasteless over priced stuff, you don’t exist for them. When they found that people were not buying their food, they started selling the seats. As soon as the plane is airborne, a lady would announce that she is glad to offer the front row seats for an additional charge. Offer for an additional charge? Why can’t you cut the crap and say that you are selling. Corporate communications, I guess. After all, there should be some pretence of b-school education.  Who is going to pay for the extra measly 4 inches of leg space? Thanks, lady. You can keep the four inches for yourself. Strictly no pun intended. Whom are you trying to sell space. We Indians can squeeze in anywhere. An entire joint family panning three generations will comfortably live in a room measuring 10 feet by 10 feet in Mumbai. I am just waiting for the day when the begin charging for even looking out of the window. “Sir, 100 bucks for the city view and 50 bucks for the wing view”.

The pain of low cost airlines begins right at the check-in counters. They weigh your luggage like cocaine. Every gram matters. If they find you have exceeded the limit, even by a trifle, they cant contain their excitement at the prospect of billing you. They adhere to their rule book more sincerely than Pope adheres to the Bible. What amazes me more is that some smart women manage to break even these hardcore believers. I have seen women carry in their hand baggage, a hand bag, a laptop case and two carry bags (one with shoes and other with groceries and condiments). Their totes begin a little below their shoulders and, in most cases, easily reach their knees. Thet would easily take in three duffel bags like mine. My check-in baggage for a 15 day trip would be half their hand baggage for a day’s trip. Apparently, their handbags would have a world of things. Energy bars, hand towels, scarves, umbrellas and even gas masks that can withstand a nuclear biological chemical (NBC) situation. They actually carry food, cloth and shelter along with them and can survive for 24 hours in the event of a nuclear holocaust. On a usual day, these ladies freak me out. But I like them when they beat the crap out of the Shylocks sitting at the check-in counters.

After you land, the trauma continues in their buses that are used to ferry the passengers from the aircraft to the terminal. The buses wouldn’t budge till every inch of the bus is occupied. The last guy who gets in has his face plastered to the glass doors after it is shut. I strongly suspect that the drivers get some productivity linked incentive in transporting a planeload of passengers in the least number of trips. May be they get promoted as pilots. When I finally reach the terminal, I direly want to swear that I will never travel by a low-cost airline again. But for obvious reasons, I know that I cannot. So I silently exit the airport and take up my next challenge - Identify my vehicle among the scores of cars.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Before Sunrise

The existence and location of hell may vary according to one’s religious beliefs. But the closest secular and acceptable definition of it could be our Greenfield airports which are usually located in the neighbouring districts. There could be nothing crueler than catching an early morning flight. It is worse if it is from Bengaluru where the travel to the airport takes longer than the flight to your destination.  And sometimes it could be costlier too. Just another one in the long list of innumerable ironies of urban life.  If the bard was still alive, he would have reserved his grammatically incorrect phrase, the most unkindest cut, for this. People have already begun to report jet lag when they travel out of Benguluru early in the morning. It gets more arduous if you are travelling a few days before 15th August or 26th January. Baggage screening at the entry, strip searches at the security check,  menacing sniffer dogs looking hungrily at your calves, SMSs threatening early closure of check-in – you are sure that the trinity of Gods in the heaven above and thirty odd public and private service providers on earth are colluding to ensure that you miss your flight. The serpentine queues at entry gate, check-in counters, security check, washrooms and just about everywhere have grim-looking, sleep-deprived, despondent zombies moving at a pace slower than the Hindu growth rate. The sight is reminiscent of the job seekers’ queues during the Great Depression. If you manage to board the aircraft without getting into an argument with anyone, you could earn yourself a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.

That Monday morning I too joined one of those queues. I chose to stay silent and keep my prayers going. Just the previous evening, I missed my train to Bengaluru. I almost never miss trains and flights. And absolutely never when I am sober. But there is always a first time for everything and it was the previous evening. Knowing that luck was not entirely with me, I fervently prayed that I should land in my seat before the menacing matron shuts the plane door.

Fortunately, I managed to check-in within time. Those who checked-in before me were busy doing the next most important check-in - Facebook check-in. It doesn't matter even if you are flying out from an obscure airport like Raja Bhoj International Airport. You have to notify on social media with the same pride as if you were undertaking space travel from the Houston Space Centre. And if you are a lady, an accompanying selfie with a pout is not just desirable but expected. Whenever, I see these pouted ladies, I remember the cute protagonist of the award-winning Australian movie, Babe. How prophetic was it to call the proud owner of the most prominent pout as Babe! Nevertheless, I marvelled at their dedication to land up early in the morning with copious amounts of cosmetics creatively spread across their faces. They deserved a Shram Ratna for their hardwork. Each and every one of them. So many layers and so many shades they had that I wondered if they were auditioning for the B-grade Bhojpuri remake of "Memoirs of a Geisha". I could understand the case of the cabin crew since gaudy make up is a professional hazard for them and a personal hazard for the passengers. But, why on earth would anybody wake up at wee hours in the night to paint their faces like they are going to a Halloween party? I wanted to go and ask the security personnel if it wasn't a security threat that these ladies are looking nowhere close to their photos in their photo IDs. Would they allow me to go if I painted my face like a Batman or Spiderman? But women have their privileges and it is considered impolite for men to question them.

However, it is not just the fairer sex. In the age of the metrosexual man, the obsession with looks has transcended the boundaries of gender. Not very far from these ladies, were two gentlemen into serious photoshoot. These new airports have such elegant wall panels that they serve as a wonderful backdrop for photographs. Any guy who can flex his biceps through his muscle fit t-shirt starts getting himself clicked. I could understand selfies, but what I witnessed was a serious photoshoot with a DSLR. The guy who was posing looked like those anchors who sell aphrodisiacs on teleshopping channels. He looked at the other end of the airport with a sigh as if it stretched into the horizon. He had that trademark John Abraham look which the famed actor uses to convey sadness, guilt, fear, pain, despair, diarrhea, constipation and 56 other emotions. You actually understand what he is trying to convey from the background score. So watching this guy pose was like watching a muted John Abraham movie.

I thought I should sleep to shut myself from these visual atrocities and headed towards the sofas. There were barely any seats available. The slimmer ones slept in sitting position and the fatter ones stretched themselves across the sofas. I thought it was something to do with their centres of gravity. The brazenness of posture was directly proportional to the body mass. To add to the grossness of the mise en scène, some of these portly hibernators were clad in low waist jeans. I managed to squeeze myself between two middle aged potbellied men who slept with such indulgence as if they were on a poster bed. But I could not stay there for long. They were deafeningly snoring right under the signage that said that it was a silent airport.

Amidst this madness, I realised that I felt a little queasy in my stomach. The rush to catch the flight left both my sleep and ablutions incomplete. My delirious mental faculties were trying to ascertain the current digestive state of the previous night’s Ambur Biryani. While I fervently hoped that it would take its peaceful natural exit at an appropriate time, there was an undeniable probability that it would beat the gravity to rise up my esophagus and make a virulent exit from where it entered. I thought of visiting the restroom but I knew that the queues there would be longer than those before the government liquor shops in Kerala. May be coffee could be of some help.

I headed to the kiosk that was selling coffee. Before me was a man who was animatedly questioning the guy at the cash counter. His interrogation skills matched with those at Guantanamo. I never knew so many questions could be asked about idly, which is the simplest of all the foods. He wanted to know about the sambhar and chutney, their ingredients, colour, texture and the entire facts concerning the matter. He just stopped short of asking for a 3D simulation of their molecular structure. The length of the queue behind him exceeded those before the washrooms. Some muttered, some cursed, some prayed and some even left. But no one dared to request him to end his search for truth in Idly. Probably, they were scared that they could become his next subject for inquest.  Finally, he ordered for a plate of idly and two coffee. The cashier sensed the end of his ordeal. He looked like a man who got out of the gas chamber just when he thought that he would die.

He printed the bill and told him, "That would be Rs 290, sir".
He extended the money and said with an air of authority, "210".
The cashier, who still did not recover from his near-death experience, whimpered like a puppy in the rain, “Sir, 290.”
 “I am saying that you need to return 210”

The cashier's tired glance dropped slowly from the argumentative customer's face to his hand which was holding a 500 rupee note. For a split second, he would have considered to insert his head into the adjacent microwave oven. It is during such weak moments the ideologues of terrorism conduct their recruitment drive for suicide bombers. Suddenly, I understood what strategic thinkers mean when they say that those who fight terrorism are those who create it. I saw the conundrum manifesting itself before me.

I took my coffee, sat in a corner and silently began sipping it. In front of me there was a line of stores. I wonder if anyone ever buys anything from these stores. I haven’t seen anybody till date. These stores seem to exist purely for window shopping purpose. I could see a young salesman passionately explaining about a scarf to a lady. All three of us, the salesman, the lady and me, knew that she wasn’t going to buy anything. But the young man had to appear as excited as if she was going to purchase the entire stock and as an incentive he would be promoted as a Manager. I finished my coffee and headed towards my boarding gate. As I settled in my seat and turned off my mobile, the images of the men selling scarves and coffee flashed before me for a moment. I wouldn’t be catching an early morning flight everyday. But everyday, they would begin their day not very different from what I witnessed. May be I shouldn’t be complaining about catching flights before sunrise.