Monday, February 2, 2015

Delhi + Super Bowl + Lipstick + Kajal

Around 5 am I wake up at a hotel in the Aerocity region near the Delhi International Airport. I am back in this city after exactly a month. Outside, the dust and fog creates a dim early morning haze and the road leading into the hotels complex, with its obstacle course barriers laid out to deter would-be saboteurs, lies empty. There are a few cars in the main thoroughfare beyond and the lights of Radisson Plaza glimmer in the distance.

I am headed out for a quick one night trip to Guwahati. As I get ready to get to the airport, the Super Bowl has begun in the US. I cannot find it shown live on TV here, but I track its progress on the web. By the time I have washed up and am having my morning coffee, the Patriots are up 7-0. Around 6 a.m. I check out of the Holiday Inn and take the short ride to Domestic Terminal 1. I am rooting for the Seahawks and against the Patriots, if only because the Seahawks are coached by Pete Carroll who had brought USC back to its glory days in College Football in his previous job. I had attended USC.

Delhi domestic terminal 1 is a mess on Monday mornings, as business travelers get busy after the weekend. When the traffic is sparse, Delhi airport with its megaplex underpinnings, is a paragon of sleek efficiency. When the passenger count approaches a critical number, like it did this Monday morning, the place takes a different face and appears to be on the brink of collapse. I try to check in at the crowded automated kiosk machines, but I am flagged as being under a “watch list” because I had used a credit card. So I have to then go to the line for people who are checked in but need to do a baggage drop, and they fix it up for me quickly there. Nobody tells me this: I have to ask around, and things do get sorted out in the end. But this type of setup, where in the midst of an apparently smooth and efficient process, an additional and unnecessary twist ends up threatening your stumps is fairly common. The night before, I had disembarked from the United non-stop from Newark, and the staff did not have the customary immigration cards to give out to passengers, because the government did not get it to them on time and would not allow United to print them out either. So while the immigration lines were moving briskly once you were able to join the line, there was a helter-skelter mess prior to it as people ran around looking for forms that were in short supply.

With my luggage checked in and boarding card in hand, I check the web and the Seahawks are now tied at 17-17. While America watches the Super Bowl, I stand in a long, serpentine security line that folds back and forth about seven times, with the sinking feeling that I will miss my flight. I monitor the time on an overhead screen. It is 6:42 am and my flight is at 7:45 am. It takes me about 8 minutes to cover one fold of the serpentine line. I am worried. But things pick up shortly and the line speeds up. Moreover there is an accelerated bypass mechanism. When a flight’ sdeparture time is perilously close, a young representative in a smart thigh length jacket comes by in a loud voice: “Hyderabad Indigo xxx”. People way back in the line who are headed to Hyderabad raise their hands and press forward. They are allowed to go through.

I go through security by 7:10 a.m. and check the scores. Pete Carroll and the Seahawks are beating the Patriots 24-14. There is an undercurrent to this game. Carroll was coach of the Patriots at one time. But he was booted out after a miserable win record that was attributed in part to his persona being too “bubbly”. He then brought over his effusive nature to the college game as USC’s coach and—over the course of the next several seasons—turned USC’s, and his fortunes around, ending up as one of the greatest college coaches of all time. When USC teetered at the brink of a scandal regarding rules violations, Carroll jumped ship and went back to the pros, this time as the Seahawk’s coach.

We are bussed to the aircraft, and standing opposite me on the bus is a dapper European businessman--Italian perhaps--travelling to Guwahati with an Indian associate. The man is smartly dressed in a grey suit, a navy blue shirt, a deep blue tie with white dots, and a wristwatch with a black leather strap with white stitching along its borders. His suit has a check pattern and one of the interwoven threads defining the checks is blue, stylishly picking up a color from his shirt. A blue and grey folded silk kerchief projects from his coat pocket. His hair is gelled and he has an old world mustache straight out a Cary Grant film. If a man can be described as being “put together”, then here certainly was the defining example. Seeing him and the other passengers I realize there is a different kind of traveler to Guwahati today. Ten years ago this same flight from Delhi to Guwahati to Imphal would have had people carrying coconuts (or something similar) in industrial bags made of thick inter-woven nylon strands. There was a hardy type of traveler to the North-East who were the last bastions to the connection to the past at urban airports and they too, were now changing.

On the flight the Italian businessman is sitting in the seat behind me. As I return from a trip to the washroom, I catch a glimpse of his laptop screen upon which he is working at a powerpoint presentation, presumably for potential clients in Guwahati. Against a blue background the chart reads:
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for you.
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 1
2 lipstick + 1 kajal + 1 eyeliner for customer 2
Savings Rs. 1.75
Such are the ways of European fashion in Guwahati.

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