India can be exasperating but it is never boring. It rarely fails to challenge one’s preconceptions . The monsoons are not the most comfortable time to travel there. Delhi in August can be stiflingly hot and humid. A sucker for punishment I found myself visiting a friend there in 2013 during that very time. Soon it was time to leave.
Rajiv’s chauffeur dropped us off at the Indira Gandhi airport. We were uncharacteristically early and having checked in and got our boarding passes we decided to grab a drink as the boarding time for our flight to Varanasi was 7p.m., a good forty five minutes away. Rajiv was keen to impress me with India’s progress and insisted we have a beer.
“Uncle, we too are modern now,” he declared proudly. All around were pretensions to modernity with American style burger bars, gleaming coffee shops with hissing Barrista coffee machines and uniformed staff in baseball caps…….cafes with aspirational names like Baker Street Café and Lite Bite. There was even a pub. But behind the façade lay the old India. A woman on the neighbouring table secretly reached into her bag to bring out spoons-full of curry and rice and swiftly put them in her mouth hoping nobody would notice. I could see why; we paid a staggering 395 rupees (almost $6.5) for a warm beer. Prices were exorbitant.
“So Uncle, do you think we will be a superpower soon?” It really was a rhetorical question. He went on, “ Of course, we are . We have a space programme. We are a nuclear power too. The West is carping about sending us aid …well, we aren’t asking for it. They can keep it! We’re fully aware that their total aid budget is a tiny fraction of what they spend on dog food. Aid comes with strings, makes the donor feel good about himself and perpetuates dependency.”…and on and on and on he banged. I nodded trying to look attentive while attempting to observe the amazing goings-on around us. Time just slipped by until I sneaked a glance at my watch. It was 2 minutes to 7. I said, “Think we’d better get going, Rajiv”. At this point we heard a voice on the public address system: “ This is the last call for Mr D’Souza and Mr Patel on flight SA105 to Banares. Please proceed to gate 6 immediately!”. That was us they were calling!
We looked at each other in amazement, grabbed our things and dashed for the gate. The uniformed Sikh man in an immaculate white turban at the gate shouted : “ Come on, come on, hurry up Sirs. Come on!” He was like a teacher urging reluctant boys on a wet cross-country run.
“That was never the last call for us. It was the only one…besides, our tickets say the boarding time is 7p.m. and it’s just gone 7!” protested Rajiv.
“This is why we are being calling, Sir. Please don’t argument, Sir….you are holding up plane!” he shouted, feigning anger.
When we got on to the plane, everyone else was seated. We were the last on board. Panting, we dropped into our seats and strapped in. Doors were shut, the flight staff prepared for take-off and then the chief stewardess announced: “ Ladies and Gentlemen, SpiceAir is happy to announce yet another early departure! Have an enjoyable flight.”
We looked at each other, astonished. Did we hear that correctly? Early departure? I looked around; nobody else seemed amused, perturbed or bemused at this announcement.
We then waited strapped in this aircraft, without air conditioning in the stifling Delhi heat for the next forty five minutes. The plane eventually took off at the scheduled time!
As we pierced the clouds I wiped my brow, turned to Rajiv and said: “You know what, Rajiv? India will definitely be a superpower soon.”
He read my ironic smile and we killed ourselves laughing for what seemed like an interminable minute.
*’Uncle’ is a term of respect and endearment in India
*Names, places, times have been changed to protect the identity of people involved.