Kumud M. Srinivasan is well-traveled internationally. In this essay, she describes one precarious night spent in the Mumbai Airport while trying to get home.
Once every eight to ten weeks, I flew to the US for a check-in with “headquarters.”
I was in India after a gap of more than thirty years, having made the US my home once I went there for graduate school. I was “back” by myself on a three-year expatriate assignment as the head of a multinational corporation, with sons in college in the US and a husband who had stayed back so they had a home to return to during breaks.
Returning from the US, I had the routine down pat—off the plane, through Bangalore’s busy customs, out the terminal to my always-courteous, always-smiling driver, into the comfort of my Mercedes, on an hour-long jostle over pot-holed roads to, finally, home. When I walked through that wide door into my clean, spacious, sparse yet elegant, apartment, I collapsed with relief.
But in my second year, I found myself returning via Mumbai. Mumbai had been in the news during that time for the verdict on a gruesome rape. The death penalty had been handed down to three repeat offenders in a case in which a 22-year-old photojournalist, who was interning with an English-language magazine in Mumbai, was gang-raped by five people, including a juvenile. The incident had occurred when she had gone with a male colleague to the deserted compound of an abandoned mill on an assignment. The accused had tied up the victim’s colleague with belts and then raped her.
With its five-hour layover, Mumbai was an unwelcome stop. A flight to Bangalore still awaited me. I strode down the airport’s long hallways, impervious to its impressive art display—the wooden totems from tribal Nagaland, the painted masks from Kerala, the carved façades of homes in coastal Gujarat—through its mercifully brisk customs, until I reached the transfer counter of Jet Airways, the airline that would take me home. There, I handed over my ticket and waited for instructions.
His eyes went from the computer screen to my ticket and back while I watched in growing impatience. Finally, he looked up and said pointedly, “Madam, your ticket is for a flight that leaves tomorrow.”
I pulled the itinerary up on my phone and discovered with dismay that the date of the domestic flight was indeed for the next day. My travel agent had bungled the dates and I had failed to catch the error. My flight to Bangalore was more than twenty-four hours away. I would have to make my own way to the domestic airport.
I had not imagined this. I did not know how to navigate this city by myself in the middle of the night. I came to Mumbai occasionally on work, but, as the local company head, I functioned within tightly scripted itineraries. Drivers with sign boards bearing my name greeted me when I emerged from the airport, and my activities outside work were well-shepherded.
I moved toward the exit and pondered my choices. It was too late to call the travel agent in Bangalore or anyone in my office. I could check into a hotel and, in the morning, get the office to fix my schedule, or I could go to the domestic airport and secure for myself a flight out.
The hotel, with its clean bed and bath, beckoned. I could be asleep within the hour. But which hotel? What if the first one I tried was full? I did not fancy wandering from hotel to hotel in a taxi, all by myself. And did I really need to coddle myself that way? I was no naïve tourist. I had grown up in this country. I even spoke Hindi; not quite the Bombaiyya dialect, but close enough.
I stepped out. A blast of warm, muggy air engulfed me. May in Mumbai was the worst, its hottest month, the month when the elements hunkered down to await the thunder of the monsoons, the month when the skies were muted and the sea breezes dormant, the month when the malodors of slums, sewage, and rotting fish hung in the air and bore down on one’s senses, the month when schools shut down and families fled to cooler climes.
May in Mumbai was the worst, its hottest month, the month when the elements hunkered down to await the thunder of the monsoons … the month when the malodors of slums, sewage, and rotting fish hung in the air and bore down on one’s senses …
Despite the late hour, the place had a comforting buzz about it. Families milled around, waiting for their pick-up. Baggage carts vied for space. Taxis moved in and out briskly. Off on one side, a pack of stray dogs created a cacophony. I felt reassured by the normalcy of life around me and picked my way to the taxi stand where I clambered into the cool inside of a taxi, grateful for the respite from the sauna outside.
In no time, we were at the domestic terminal, an older, shabbier building. A whiff of sewage stung my nose as I emerged from the taxi. The heat clawed at my clothes. A small crowd of men stood by and watched idly. I steered around them carefully over to the Jet Airways window. But, what do you know? There were no seats, even in business, because it was summer vacation. I walked over to the Indigo counter and suffered through a replay of the script. This agent was more helpful. He suggested I try Air India or GoAir.
“Where?” I asked.
“Over in that building,” he said, and he gestured towards the dark.
I looked to see a foyer lit a short distance away. It was an odd layout—a good five-minute walk across a broad patch of tarmac. I hesitated. But, having come here, why not exhaust all my chances? The sky was overcast but the path was dimly visible. A gust of breeze brought forth a fresh odor of sewage. Or was it the fish? The damp air settled over me and weighed me down. I needed to peel off a layer of clothes but remembered that I had on only a skimpy T-shirt under my sweats, I decided against it. I hefted my backpack and lumbered forward, clutching my jacket and trailing my roll-on. It was going to be a slow haul.
“Do you want a ride, madam?” a voice called out from the dark.
I jumped and turned to find an auto—a three-wheeler—right by my side. I could barely make the driver out in the dark. How had he come so close so silently?
I mumbled, “It’s okay. I am going to that building there.”
“I know,” he said. “But it’s a sultry night. I can take you.”
I was surprised, given the low fare involved. But I wasn’t going to complain. I threw my stuff and myself in.
He said, when we were on our way, “I know someone who has tickets. He is a travel agent. He has an office right outside the airport. Do try Air India and GoAir first, but if they don’t have anything, I can take you there.”
I thanked him but silently dismissed his offer. Leave the airport to find a ticket? I wasn’t ready for that. When we got to the foyer, I asked him, “How much?”
He said, “Go on and find out if they have any tickets. I can keep an eye on your stuff here.”
The foyer was small, the service windows just a few steps away. A handful of men stood around. He can’t just drive off, I reasoned. So, I walked up to the Air India counter, the better reputed of the two airlines.
But before I could say anything, the guy shook his head and said, “Try GoAir.”
GoAir had a seat open on their 6:30 a.m. flight. This was not an airline my company patronized—too unstable and unreliable. But I brushed that thought aside and asked him with relief, “How much?”
It was two times the going fare.
“So much!” exclaimed the auto-driver from the curbside. “My friend can get you an Indigo ticket for much less. Do you want to try?”
It was 2:00 a.m. I replayed in my mind how he had followed me silently in his auto, how he had seemed to know about my predicament. He must have observed me try my luck and come up short. I looked at him carefully. Was be being pushy or was he merely being helpful? Middle-aged and heavyset, in a long cotton shirt and billowing trousers—the native kurta-pyjama—he had a decent, easy air about him. From under the cloth wrapped around his head, his round face looked out genially. His gaze was straight-forward, his voice evenhanded and relaxed. I didn’t see any cunning there. He just seemed to want to help.
“It’s a just a two-minute drive, madam,” he urged. “These agents buy up lots of tickets in advance. He will have one for sure.”
I sensed others watching us. Did I dare?
Before I knew it, I was back in the auto, saying, “Chalo, let’s go.”
Like a giant bug, the auto crept its way out of the airport, down the clover-ramp brightened by the sudden moon, into the shadows of the city roads below. The palm trees and landscaped terrain gave way to a hodge-podge urban landscape, a crowded mass of concrete and shanties in grays and browns, a ghost town. The twenty million residents of this metro were asleep, visible only in the huddled and swaddled bodies on the sidewalks, under the faint glow of grimy billboards. In the distance, a dog howled. Steadily, the auto descended until it emerged onto a side street of shuttered storefronts.
“Open the store,” murmured the auto-driver into his phone. “I have a customer.”
By the curb, we stopped and waited. A shutter lifted. A light switched on.
“Come,” he said.
My mind stopped working. I felt as if I had taken leave of my body and was looking curiously down on myself.
My mind stopped working. I felt as if I had taken leave of my body and was looking curiously down on myself. He led the way over and stood aside to let me in. I saw a small, plain office, brightly lit and furnished with an uncluttered desk, a couple of chairs, a computer, and a printer. The man behind the desk, in a T-shirt and synthetic pants, looked young and remarkably alert for that time of the night. With a brief glance in my direction, he motioned me to a chair, switched the monitor on and asked where I wanted to go. Within a few clicks, he located a ticket. It was on Indigo, my preferred airline, for their 6:00 a.m. flight. He told me how much it would cost. It was more than their regular fare, about half as much more, but still cheaper than the GoAir ticket I had found back at the airport.
I brought out my credit card, and he hesitated and said he would have to add a transaction cost for the card. It would be cheaper if I paid by cash. I told him I didn’t have enough cash on me. From his perch by the entrance, the auto-driver offered to take me to an ATM nearby.
All of a sudden, I became acutely aware of my precarious situation—a woman in an office with two strangers, in the dead of the night. I felt an on-rush of panic. The office began to close in on me. Recent media reports of ATM assaults flooded my mind. The driver at the exit took on a menacing presence.
“No!” I cried out. “Just take my card and give me the ticket.”
The guy shrugged, rang it up, and handed it back with a receipt and a printout for the ticket. I looked at the printout and asked him how I was to know if it was valid. He pointed to the airline ticket number and the reservation code. I hurried back to the auto with the driver in tow. The auto made a U-turn and headed back to the ramp.
“Do you want something to eat?” the driver asked on our way up. “There is a popular, reasonably-priced restaurant nearby.”
“No, no. I just want to get back.” I said. “Thank you,” I added.
When we reached the airport, I scrambled out and broke into a smile. I had made it. I was safe. I gave the guy a huge tip. He bowed his head, took the money, got back into his auto, and moseyed away.
I turned around and entered the building, but right away, I was assailed with doubt. What if, when I go up to the counter, the printout turns out to be just a piece of paper? The Indigo counter was closed. Have I fallen for the oldest trick in the book? Have I been a naïve tourist after all?
As soon as the counter opened, I leapt up and with my heart in my mouth rushed over and handed in the piece of paper. In exchange, I got a boarding pass. The ticket was valid!
The sun was coming up as the plane took off, and the window filled with the whiteness of the sky outside. The skyline of the metropolis came into view, a towering concrete sprouting up from the sea, with buildings and towers swathed in the rising sun’s glow. Beyond the huge city, the blue strip of sea winked and blinked. The plane began to veer away, homeward bound. I peered down and imagined the sun’s rays on the shanties and sidewalks, rousing the dwellers from their transitory beds. I pictured the auto-driver returning to a home in a basti somewhere.
Down through the drifts of clouds, I mouthed a shout-out for the simple humanity I had encountered—of ordinary folks being helpful, of ordinary folks doing an honest job.