If I would be in a queue, it was evident that the “Lunch” board would be shoved at the counter just as I would reach the counter. I am the only girl perhaps whose birthday skirt would be stuck tight at the bummy, inspite of the repeated trials earlier. The only time I actually brought home a huge chocolate cake for my birthday proved to be a disaster as well. The cake turned out to be stale and smelly and a mad rush to the shop for a change greeted us with a closed shutter.
I appeared for an admission test at a reputed convent school. My name did not appear in the list of selected candidates. So sure was my father about my abilities that he challenged the authorities to show my paper. A search proved that out of the 223 that appeared for the test, only, yes, only mine was lost! I was given a special permission to write the test all over again, in front of the principal. It was a different matter that I scored a perfect 100. But the fact remained, that when it came to luck my balances were always tilted towards the disaster side.
So, when I finally made to a course in Switzerland for a few months, my parents were jittery till I finally made a phone call back home, assuring them that I reached safely. My stay was not free of disasters as well. My friendly room-mate turned out to be an alcoholic. One night she even attempted suicide right in front of my eyes! So shattered I was with the incident that I actually had to go to a therapist for nervous breakdown!
But all said and done, those few months gave some of the beautiful moments of life.
Finally, it was time for me to return home. My return ticket was scheduled in such a way so that I would reach home by 23rd of December – in time for Christmas with my family. It was a three flight back home – from Switzerland to France; from France to Mumbai and from Mumbai to Kolkata.
Many hugs and sobs and farewells later, I was happy to board the flight from Geneva. As the flight touched Paris, my heart fluttered in anticipation.Another night, and I would be back with my mom! My flight from Paris to Bombay had a time gap of 2 hours. As I struggled to pull along my trolley bag to check-in for my flight to Bombay, a polite announcement informed helpfully that the flight would be delayed by four hours. The only happiness tagged to this dampening announcement was the lure of a free lunch from the airport lounge at the buffet counter. Food, being always my weakness, I was ready to forgive them. I enjoyed a hearty lunch and even donated a few extra changes to a key-chain seller! “Le beta, aish kar”, I told the bewildered man! I looked at the watch and knew it was time to check-in. I hurried along. There was a huge line already at the check-in counter. I helped an old couple stand ahead of me. Pointing to my protruding tummy under the over-coat they asked when I was due. I gulped. I had to explain to them that it was pouch-belt which was adding to my tummy (I did not dare mention the scrumptious lunch I had, minutes earlier!).
They checked in and waved. I produced my passport and my ticket.
“ Sorry Madame”, the red-lipstick at the counter smiled.
“Excuse me? Isn’t this the counter to check in for this flight?”, I waved the ticket in front of her.
“ It is. But, sorry Madame, you cannot board the flight now.”, the red lipstick was as tight lipped as before.
“Why? Do I look like a terrorist?”, I had a good mind to scream back. My hand automatically reached my pouch-belt. Could this be the reason, I wondered.
The people behind me were growing impatient by the minute.
“ Let me explain”, a handsome airport official came to the rescue.
“ Actually we had overbooked the flight and as a rule we have to off-load some passengers.”, the Nicolas Cage look alike ignited the bomb mildly.
“And?”, I wasn’t sure I was hearing what I was dreading.
“And unfortunately, from you onwards we have to offload for the day. You will be put up in a five-star hotel for the night. Food is free. Transport to and fro – everything free. Just this night. And then tomorrow you shall be catching a flight back home”.
The Sardarji behind in the meanwhile threatened to sue the airlines. Nicolas Cage got busy pacifying him, leaving me dazed. I could see Santa swishing away in his sleigh in front of my eyes! Technically it would mean that I would actually land home on Christmas eve!
The airport authorities at Bombay aka Mumbai airport were more than helpful.
“ You all will be put up in a good star hotel for the night. Relax, have dinner. Just come back in the evening to have your ticket stamped for an early morning flight to Calcutta tomorrow. I assure you – you’ll be home before the crow sees daylight.”, the friendly official explained. He probably could sense the frustration of having to spend yet another night in a Hotel bed, after the Paris fiasco.
And frustrated I was. But perhaps more tired than frustrated, I gave in. Young that I was, I barely had any strength to fight on.
Yet another hotel. Yet another buffet. I was lonely, tired and missing my home. And having been allotted a room on the fourth floor where there were hardly any people, I was all the more lonely.
I decided to have a wash before having my dinner and going down to the airport. I closed the door behind me, it autolocked. I went to the washroom and had a good bath – inspite of the December cold. I just wanted to wash off my stress. Destressed, as I turned the knob of the washroom from inside I realized the rusted goddamn lock was jammed tight and wouldn’t move.
“Relax, calm down”, I told myself, as I went on to turn the round blob of knob again and again. It wouldn’t budge an inch!
“No worries sweetheart. Just use the intercom in the washroom silly”, I chided myself.
I picked up the intercom, only to realize that it was broken and non-functional.
“Okay, now what?”, I asked myself.
The room was autolocked from inside. And within the autolocked room was my washroom which was locked from inside. There was only a mild slit of a ventilator which opened inside the room, not outside. And the room being in the isolated fourth floor, there was hardly a chance of anyone walking past. And even if they did, would they be able to hear me out, even if I scream my lungs out?
I looked around the washroom. There was just a stone ashtray. Just an ashtray! Parched, I drank water from the tap. And then screamed my lungs out. As expected, there was only the noise of silence. I thought again. Then with all my might kept on banging the metal knob with the stone ashtray. It made a louder noise this time.
God, let one man hear atleast, I prayed fervently.
I kept banging till it hurt my fingers. Bang and silence. Bang and silence. Just in case I miss the sound of someone outside.
After many ages, I could hear a faint muffled sound.
My heart stopped for a second.
“Is there someone”, some one’s faint voice wafted in.
I placed my face in the small opening under the door and screamed out.“Yes, yes, I am locked in. Please help me”.
There was no response.
Tired, I sat down to rest for a while. Then I continued the bang-bang method for many more minutes till there was sound of a few more voices outside.
“Ma’am , are you locked?”, someone enquired.
No, I am practising Howling Yoga! I had a good mind to scream back.
“Yes, I am”, I answered.
“ Just push the door hard”, another moron offered another insane advice.
“I am locked inside the washroom”, I tried to reason.
“Uh..okay, we’ll talk to the reception and get the spare keys” , a sane soul calmed me.
I was too dizzy by then.
It took another 30 minutes to retrieve me!
As I rushed down to the reception, a pink lipstick smiled profusely.
“Room 404 ? Srichandra ? Your parents have been trying to contact you for over an hour.There was also a call from the airport. You have to get your ticket stamped. Where were you? Another 20 minutes and they will shut the counter”. She gave a bum-chum smile, oblivious to the happenings so far.
“And how do I reach the airport?”, I enquired.
“You can hire a car from here. But ofcourse it would be too costly.”, she smiled sympathetically.
Coming from abroad, I hardly had any Indian currency. And it was too late in the night.
“You can hire an auto from outside. It would take about 30 minutes”
“But you said they would close the counter in another 20 minutes”
“That they would. There is another way out. They are constructing a new fly-over, if you can walk- walk fast that is, you can reach in twenty five minutes – may be. The fly-over is not yet open to vehicles, but people can walk across”.
It was seven thirty in the evening and it was too dark for a December night. I located the fly-over and began my walk, only to realize that my co-walkers were mostly drunkards, looking for isolated spot to finish off their bottles. It was definitely risky. But I had to reach home before Santa. There was a group of college guys. Safer evil perhaps, I reasoned. I shadow-walked behind them, without making them realize my presence. Once I located the airport from far away, I increased my speed. I almost ran. The boys were puzzled to discover my presence.
“Hey, don’t trip and fall”, one of them smiled.
I smiled back. I felt safe.
I ran with all my might, locating the counter window from far away.
But just as I reached the window, the man at the counter slid down the glass shutter. But just about. I pushed my ticket book through the little slit that was still left.
“Sorry bachha! Rule is rule! It is already 15 minutes past the closure time. And the system is already shut-down. They have also entered the list of passengers. Come tomorrow morning. You’ll be booked in the evening flight tomorrow for sure”.
“Pleaseeeeeeee Uncleji”, I nearly sobbed.
He opened his glass shutter to console me.
I grabbed his hands.
“Please Uncle. I have been suffering this for too long now. My mummy is waiting for me”, I was desperate.
His colleague joined him to explain why it was impossible for them.
My desperation and I joined hands to explain why they had to turn the impossible into a possibility.
That seemed to work. They called up different officials, pleaded with the senior officials. And finally they sealed my ticket. It was 9:00 pm by then!
“Maa, I am coming home”, I sobbed over the phone from the public booth.
My heart thumped in joy as I stood in the line for the security check-up for my flight to Kolkata. They put my baggage for screening. And as I was about to collect my baggage, an official from the customs department came.
“Excuse me, can you please step aside”.
My heart stopped. Now what!
They let the other passengers go while I egged my heart to carry on beating for the time being.
Three officers surrounded me.
“ Coming from Paris?”, one of the asked.
“Yeah. But originally from Geneva.”
“ Purpose of visit?”
“ What are you carrying in your baggage, can you give a brief?”
Hashish, Marijuana, Herioine….What not!
“In this particular baggage I have my books – my study materials. A few light clothings. A can of deodorant. Some toiletries perhaps”.
“How many books?”
“ Eight to ten perhaps”
“Can we open and verify?”
I was too puzzled to think rationally. I nodded my head in consent.
They opened, rummaged and took out my books one by one. They nodded and then pushed them back in the bag.
“Have a nice journey”, one of them finally smiled, zipping my bag to rummaged normalcy.
It was only much later that my uncle, who is a customs officer as well, explained that stacks of books often give the semblance of wads of currency notes during scanning. And such smuggling of currency through young students was not uncommon. So as a precaution……
*** *** *** ***
By now, destiny too had mercy on me perhaps. The adjacent two seats in the flight were unoccupied. The dawn was yet to touch brightness. I cared a damn! I adjusted myself in all the three seats and curled up to a nap. The flight duration was hardly three hours but my eyes just wouldn’t remain open. I never realized when a kind attendant had placed a blanket over me.
As I was fighting with a group of airport officials in my dream, there was a mild tap on my shoulders.
“Would you not like to have your refreshment?”, a smiling air-hostess whispered.
“Yes, yes”, I nodded my head in genuine eagerness.
I looked out through the little circle. The scene outside was breathtaking. I had never earlier witnessed a sun-rise high up in the sky.
The purple sky mellowed down to a orange hue. And then suddenly – all of a sudden – like a yolk popping out of the egg-shell appeared the orange sun. There seemed a sudden murmur in the surrounding sky and then there was a riot of colors.
“Amen!”, my lips spoke up.
I was suddenly thankful to God for this one Christmas Eve.
*** *** *** ***
A warm oil massage and a fish-curry later when I finally woke up in my bed, it was late evening.
“ Get up, get up….we are yet to buy your Christmas dress.”, my mother hugged me tight.
“Mmmm…let me sleep some more”, I urged.
“You don’t want to miss the Christmas fun after so much of adventure, do you ?”, my mother laughed.
“Hmmm…but Ma, why me? Why does it always happen with me.”
“Because you are special.”, my mother laughed.