Here I am, at 5.15 in the morning, suited, booted and waiting in a line to get inside the airport. The grumpy security guard wants some proof of my identity. I pull out my driver’s licence. He stares at it intently, trying to figure out if the person in that photograph is really me. I don’t blame him. I’ve had the same doubt for a long time. Even when I had collected my licence at the RTO I had complained to the person at the counter that my photo looked terrible. He had given me a curt explanation that just as they register cars on an “as-is-where-is” basis, they photograph people on an “as-is-how-is” basis.
In one of his essays, R.K.Narayan describes a portrait done of him by M.F.Husain: “When I saw the portrait” writes RKN, “I remarked that I didn’t look like myself. Husain had smiled at my lack of taste and replied that I wouldn’t know my real self. I left it at that." It is the same with me and my RTO photo. I don’t know my real self.
At long last, the security guard convinces himself that I have no immediate plans of blowing up the airport and lets me in.
I make my way to the check-in counter. I wait behind four other passengers. Just when it is my turn, I get a tap on my shoulder from a chap who wants to check in ahead of me as he’s late for his Delhi flight. What audacity!
Consider my state of mind. For my flight at 6.40 a.m. I had started from my house at 4.45 a.m. making allowance for traffic snarls, flat tyres (one each in the front and at the rear), CM’s cavalcade passing by, cranes toppling over during Metro Rail construction, Adyar River overflowing due to unexpected overnight rains and an assortment of other contingencies. I had carefully set the alarm for 4.00 a.m. but was woken up even earlier by my call-taxi driver. He dialed me at 3.15 a.m. asking for directions from a place that was a good 20 km away from my house. In these days of GPS, mind-boggling Google Maps and dozens of geo-synchronous satellites orbiting the globe, it is ridiculous that we should be woken up at ungodly hours by people wanting to know how to reach Point B from A.
You can see that I have sacrificed my sleep and subjected myself to much misery just to be at the airport in time. And I am confronted by this chap who insists on jumping the queue after spending an extra hour in bed, though his flight is scheduled to leave 30 minutes ahead of mine. I am simply outraged by this brazen display of aggression. I allow him to go ahead only because I don’t want to pick up an acrimonious fight so early in the day with a guy who possesses the biggest biceps and the most menacing looks I’ve seen.
Brooding over the unfairness of it all I collect my Boarding card and join the serpentine queue for Security clearance. After 20 minutes, I reach the scanning machine but somebody in a pilot’s uniform brushes me aside to place his luggage first. Why am I being pushed around by all and sundry this morning? Who do these pilots think they are? Why do they need to be given this special access? And why do they need such huge suitcases? Damn it, they don’t even fly the planes these days. I’ve heard that the cabin crew comprises a computer, a pilot and a dog. The computer flies the plane; the dog is there to make sure that the pilot doesn’t touch the controls; the only job of the pilot is to feed an occasional biscuit to the dog. That’s all there is to flying a plane. Perhaps the large suitcases are used to carry the dogs inside.
Clearing the security check after an eternity, I bump into my old friend Govindarajan. Good old Govind. The veteran traveller. Spends more time at airports than at home. Holds more frequent-flyer cards than his wallet can hold. Looks the same every time I see him. As we chat, it occurs to me that my last four meetings with him have all been in the security area of the same airport. The truth hits me now. He must be an airport ghost. Yes, that’s what he is. Govind, the Ghost. No wonder he looks the same always. Wife and family must be under impression that he’s on yet another of his long tours while his ghost keeps restlessly hovering around the security area where he had spent half his life waiting for some plane or other. I notice that Govind (or his ghost) is looking at me in a strange manner. Maybe he feels the same way about me. Perhaps most early-morning travelers are just ghosts trapped inside airport buildings. You never see them outside. Just the right theme for a Night Shyamalan movie.
I settle down in a chair and try to sort out the ghosts from the real people. Some of them look quite spooky. One tormented soul has his laptop open and is staring unblinkingly at the screen. Yet another ghost has been pulling his strolley all over the lounge without any sense of purpose. A third one has been yelling into his mobile phone and I suspect that he’s not even on a call.
The blasted announcements keep interrupting my thoughts and observations.”LAST and FINAL CALL for so-and-so, repeat, LAST and FINAL CALL.” Don’t they know that ‘last and final call’ can be given only once? If there’s going to be one more call after this, they need to call this the ‘SECOND-FROM-LAST and PENULTIMATE call.” Besides, where was the need to turn on the decibel level to an ear-drum shattering 120 dBa? Have they set the audio level to suit the hearing frequency of ghosts?
I rise from my seat once I realise that the so-and-so being called out is actually my name. I saunter through the aero-bridge muttering to myself that no society which inflicts these early-morning flights on its members can call itself civilised.