Wednesday, March 10, 2010



Thursday afternoon, with the empty roads, the drive to New Delhi station is smooth till the cab hits the CP then crawl, especially at the entrance to the station with people , cars, taxies, buses, autos... an amalgam of men and machine, in desperation to somehow catch their respective trains departing Delhi more or less simultaneously.

I am told the Mumbai Rajdhani leaves from Platform No 3, I rush, bag in hand, a bit too heavy for me yet too light to merit a Coolie, a tribe that I try to avoid, jostling and being jostled, pushed and pushing, up and down the high over-bridge, with innumerable steps to climb and descend . I land at near end of the long train. Huffing and puffing, ultimately, I manage to locate Compartment ‘I A’ at the far end and to next to the engine.

Compartment ‘C’, with me as the sole occupant, the AC humming pleasantly, the double glassed window isolating the noise and the typical, unsavoury, aroma of Indian railway stations, after the torture of the last half hour and so, is heaven indeed. And now starts the pampering: aromatic, cool, wet napkin to sooth the by now burning forehead, welcome glass of apple juice and a soft pillow to lean on. Soon the attendant unfolds a table and sets a tea tray; real crockery and cutlery with a plate full of sandwiches, samosa and sweet from Haldiram.

Dinner is served early, four courses; with soup then a starter, a starter of a full meal, followed by a typical North Indian main course (Chicken and Dal makhani) to gorge on and to top it all Ice-Cream along with a packet of mouth freshener. Railways just forgot to provide a tooth brush and paste to nicely round it off.

The bed is dropped down and the bedding spread followed by frequent queries from the indulgent staff about the creature comfort, evens the temperature of the AC.

I visit the toilet. From the half open window, the unseen vista, blanketed in the pitch dark outside, falling rapidly behind, the train hurtling forward at breakneck thundering speed, the frequent tooting by the massive engine, the rattling of the wheels over the not so smooth rails, the swaying, swinging, the up and down movement of the small enclosure in all its three dimensions making it difficult to balance; all combine to create an unnerving and uncomfortable feel accompanied with a perceptible tension forces me to soon return to the benign environ of the sealed cocoon of compartment ‘C’.

From Bombay Central to Hotel in Andheri (East) even at 8.30 in the morning it takes, with traffic snarls, jams, a stop and go cycle of just creeping ahead, a torturous two hours.

Mumbai looks so different than the Bombay of yore that I remember: unswept, stinking with debris of crumbled buildings, diggings on either side of the road with the centre verge taken over by under construction ‘Mumbai Metro’, ‘Mumbai Mono-Rail’,’ the Elevated Road’ from East West highway and the innumerable partially dug, water filled trenches housing assorted cables, strangely with no activity visible then and even when visited later.

Bombay as I remember, always had Jhuggis, resting cheek and jowl with ‘High-Rise’s’ in posh areas. Mumbai as I see has ubiquitous Jhuggi clusters with an odd shining hi-rise, a glass and marble edifice, bang in the middle of the cluster. It makes a bigger eyesore, in an eyesore.

Trying to escape from the artificial environ of the Central AC , I come out of the gated hotel to catch some fresh air to be hit by the foul smell emanating from stagnant road side pools and the sight of filth around to promptly retreat to the room: a room with a view through the large picture window but sadly the vista is of a sea of Jhuggis spreading far to the horizon and climbing up the slopes of the distant hill.

With the Air India pilots on strike, the ride to the airport is tension filled with uncertainty of the journey back to Delhi, the long delay at check-in, with three AI flights combined; the information system is in disarray with the system now on manual mode. I am made to rush from counter to counter for confirmation of the seat before the boarding card is issued.

Baggage checked in, boarding pass in hand, the security check done, I wait along with other impatient, harassed and distraught passengers of different age and genre.

With all the late night Garba and Dandia beats that would somehow creep into my room, Mumbai did not seem to be worried much about the Swine flu. I can see just one sole and paranoid young lady donning the surgical mask, certainly an aberration in the complacent crowd.

Hunger pains and rumbling stomach, due to the missed breakfast, lead me to the snacks stall. After munching at the Rs 40 frozen samosa and sips of the Rs 20 tea, a bit of browsing at the book stall, books selling at Rs 600 plus, I return to take one of the still vacant hard bottom seats and await the boarding call to witness, with amusement every now and then the long lines of impatient passengers forming to an unannounced flight and after a long and fruitless wait disintegrating in to chaos: Cattle of Cattle Class!

Announcement! Then the mad rush to the first bus in line, somehow to squeeze in, as if the flight will take-off, leaving those in the second bus, in line, stranded.

Welcome, 'Namaste', from someone as old and ponderous as the AI Air bus itself, followed by the long walk I locate 26 A the window seat. Soon my point is proved: After the door close and head count - one passenger is found missing. A long wait ‘til the missing culprit, sitting nonchalantly in the terminal, is located and rushed back in a staff car, who now with a sheepish grin on his continence and to frowns and jibs from the frustrated and impatient passengers finds a seat to plonk himself down.

More than one hour lost. At last the two massive GE turbines start to whine, the Air bus shudders and creaks as the whine increases to a screech and the wheels start to move the aircraft with some effort. Lining at the top of the runway for the take off, the pilot, with full brakes on, pushes the throttles forward to test the engines at full power, satisfied, brakes and flaps are released freeing the bird for the takeoff run. The slow trundle suddenly changes to a sprint, with the massive surge of acceleration pushing the aircraft faster and faster. I see the runway markers flashing past with ever increasing frequency till the rumbling and the jerks stop suddenly and the plane becomes unusually quiet now. A free bird in flight, climbing with its nose up at a steep angle and me sitting near the tail of the aircraft gives me an uncanny feeling of being left behind. The climb continues till it reaches 37, 000 feet, the operating altitude and aligns itself now towards the far away Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, flying at 800 Miles per hour.

With nothing to see from the window but the thick cloud carpet of the receding monsoons, I turn my attention to flick thru the pages of the in-flight magazine ‘Namaskar’ only to be distracted by the floating aroma from the snacks trolley. After struggling with the sachets of sauce, sugar, teabag, jam, butter one after other and cellophane packets with scone and bread, leaving the channa untouched, somehow, I finish the breakfast and shift attention to the faded frames of the movie ‘Delhi 6’ on show, flickering in silent mode. I struggle with head phones but soon lose interest in the tinny quality of sound and in the process also in the movie.

I sense a slight tilt in the nose of the Aircraft and a few more now discernible features of the terrain down below, the descent becomes steep and Delhi, though visible down below, look so different with ever changing and unrecognizable landmarks springing up so frequently.

Lots of banks, turns, twists, up and down nose-tiltings later the pilot manages to align with the approach to the airport and descends fast to level a few feet above the runway, still moving at high speed. Eventually the wheels hit the tarmac with a thud, accompanied with a collective ‘Ah’ from the, ‘til now, tense and silent passengers. The brakes seem to be losing the fight with speed as the aircraft continues to hurtle forward unchecked until the brakes win and it comes to a gradual halt.

Everyone is up and in a hurry; cell phones are switched on in unison, despite instructions to keep them off, informing the near and dear ones about safe arrival with a cryptic. ‘Just landed!’ The ground staff, unaware or unconcerned of the frenzy inside, take their own time to attach the ladder. As one exits, the welcome ‘Namaste’ is now replaced with a plastic smile and a farewell ‘Hi’ or a nod.

Having enjoyed the privilege of flying by an international carrier we find ourselves at the International Terminal of the airport. Then begins a 45-minute inspection tour of the parameter wall. A jerky, uncomfortable, hanging by the overhead strap bus ride to 1A, the Domestic Arrival Terminal.

Once again the mad rush to the turnstile for the checked-in baggage, as if it had accompanied us in the bus itself. It arrives rumbling… much later following the same route by a slow moving tractor-trailer combine that too by two trips back and forth.

I had left Mumbai hotel at 7 AM; it is now 3 PM on the Dusshera day. The taxi is driving me to Sector 21, Noida, on the nearly deserted green canopied roads of New Delhi, a complete contrast to Mumbai. I feel good. Delhi looks so good and inviting. I am happy with my Delhi. Mumbaikars are more than welcome to keep their Mumbai with them.

Mercifully with the IETE Annual Technical Convention over there are no more frequently ringing phones, no more incessant ringing of the door bell, and no more couriers’ knock at odd hours. Now, back in my favourite easy-chair, with my loyal companion The ‘Times of India’ in hand, I, in my small world, am at peace once again.

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