Saturday, January 5, 2013

Notes from Heathrow Airport

At 7.45am, I arrive at Arsenal station for my last tube ride. My friend, who I first “met” over an internet forum when we were bound for the same London university, who is from my country, who has been the warmest person in a sometimes cold place, and who insisted on making the journey from her boarding in Notting Hill to mine in Highbury so that she could accompany me and my luggage to Heathrow, is with me. We drag three suitcases down the very convenient ramp, pausing slightly at the head of a short staircase. I’ve hardly got mine down one step when a man materialises, firm of grip and with a business-like air, lifts my 23kg suitcase easily, and deposits it at the bottom of the staircase. I’ve hardly begun to thank him when he’s back up the stairs to help my friend, before anonymously vanishing into the crowd.

Our train arrives earlier than we expect it, and everyone waits for those inside to leave before getting on. For the next hour and a half, I am partly nostalgic, partly drowsy. It’s much quieter down here than usual, and the air feels thick with bleary wariness at the start of another day. Some heads loll, while others are buried in the newspaper. My three suitcases are sitting comfortably side-by-side in the priority luggage area. They seem sleepy, too, and every now and then one of us sticks out a foot in case they fall over. We chomp on Snickers bars, talking softly as the train slowly empties. No one stares at us.

The tube arrives at Heathrow Terminal 4 and we get a trolley. The Air India check-in desks are at the far right. They have arranged barriers to ensure a zig-zag path to the desks, and I, being no 60kg trolley-manoeuvring genius, keep knocking into them. I sense impatient stares as my face burns, though once or twice someone helps by shifting the barriers slightly. At long last I am through, much to my (and it seems everyone else’s) relief.

I make it through baggage weighing, security, and immigration unscathed, and without any stamps on my tags or boarding pass either, which make me wonder nervously whether I missed a step. No matter how many airports I go through, they never get less confusing. I come out into the waiting area, and I am disoriented by the sudden lack of diversity, the multiculturalism that I have gotten so used to over the last 14 months. Waves of shame mingled with defiance wash over me as I realise how little I’ve missed India, how little I want to go back, and that I had already left London behind at the immigration desk.

An announcement about my flight rings through the terminal, something about incorrect boarding passes. As I try to decipher its mysterious nature, a female voice says “Excuse me?” She hasn’t understood the announcement either. Armed with a companion, I ask the Information Desk, who’ve missed the announcement altogether. Finally, we are told that the announcement is for people catching a connecting flight from Canada. My companion gets her boarding pass changed while I wait for her courteously, wanting more than anything to be alone.

I drift off towards a book stall, with a vague idea of buying myself a graduation present with the money I managed to save. After half an hour of poking around, I decide that spending £8 on the book I’ve chosen is really unnecessary when I could get it for about a quarter of that price in India. I head back to the seating area and settle down with my dad’s somewhat battered copy of Erich Segal’s Prizes, which travelled with me to London last September, and has yet to be opened.

Opposite me, a child starts howling. Other children in the vicinity are howling too. His mother hoists him up and paces around while her husband talks loudly into his mobile phone, making call after call as he updates people back home about their whereabouts in the airport, occasionally throwing an annoyed look at his wife and still-howling son. My book still unopened, I relocate to an area devoid of families. I firmly grasp the bookmark when –

“Hi!” My former companion has found me, and seems quite pleased with herself. I smile back at her as she settles down, and resolutely open my book to the first page again. It takes a few seconds for the guilt to set in, and I close it with a small sigh, stuffing it back into my backpack. We begin to talk. She is from Ludhiana, but has been living with her husband, a driver, in Canada for a while. She is studying to take a nursing exam. She has a baby daughter – left behind in India. She is here for her first birthday. I ask her why she left her daughter behind. She tells me that it’s only till she takes her exam, they will then be reunited. She misses her daughter terribly. Why doesn’t she stay back in India, then? I detest India, she tells me. There is no freedom here, especially for women. I am answerable to everyone for everything that I do, and the questions never stop. I warm up to her suddenly. Her struggle is far greater than mine, which seems positively commonplace. But then she tells me she is now a permanent resident of Canada, and I prefer to wallow in misplaced self-pity.

We are at the boarding gate. An air hostess yells at a passenger for having too many bags. The passenger tries to stuff all her duty-free shopping into her suitcase. Three men sit opposite me, making call after call as they loudly update people back home about their whereabouts (“bas board karne wale hain!”). A child is still howling. When our boarding call is announced, four haphazard queues and groups of stragglers are formed, all converging towards the single boarding gate. It feels like India. About ten people reach the gate at the same time, whereupon they have a silent battle over who gets to go first. A scene from the Underground flashes before my eyes: I am at the top of an escalator – stand to the right, walk to the left – and I am looking down at the neat lines of people below me. Here, though, a girl throws me a filthy look because I finally go through after letting in five people before me.

On the plane, I have helped the elderly woman sitting next to me and the elderly man across the aisle fasten their seatbelts. They smile their thanks, seeming almost surprised that I helped them without them asking (they fidgeted with the buckles for a bit while people stared). The woman talks to me in Punjabi, which I barely understand, occasionally telling me to use the blanket or turn on the light so that I can read better. I have forgotten such gentle concern. She pokes me awake whenever she needs to use the bathroom so that I can unfasten her seatbelt. The man across the aisle pokes me awake and asks me to call the air hostess for him because he is confused by all the buttons on his chair. Lunch is served in the following order: elderly, children, others; and in the following sub-order: vegetarian, fish, chicken (trolleys are abandoned as the air hostess goes back and forth with groups of five trays). When she finally gets to me after a half hour and some pointed glares while everyone around me is almost finishing their meal, I am told that I will have to wait if I want chicken because they seem to have exhausted their supply. And for nine whole hours, some kid is howling.

The flight lands in New Delhi. Before the wheels touch the ground, mobile phones are ringing and people are loudly explaining their whereabouts (“haan, bas abhi land kiya hai!”). The man I had helped before stands up and collapses. Hands reach out to support him, and my neighbours tell him to take it easy, no rush etc. Then I get pushed around again, and someone mutters about being in a hurry.

 It is 3am, and I am sweating in my heavy coat. I run into my Heathrow friend again, and she looks painfully excited at the prospect of meeting her little daughter. After we’ve made sure that we both have someone to pick us up, we wish each other luck and part ways. I barely have time to feel exposed before being enveloped by my parents and shuffled off home. I chatter excitedly the whole way, and our house is clean and colourful, and I tell myself it’s all really going to be okay.

Even a fortnight, even a month later, when the city is at war and at peace, I tell myself that I need to face these fears. Delhi scares me more than it used to before, I think, and I am completely out of my comfort zone. But I am here.

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