A day in the life of a zip-fasteners smuggler
And then, the monster. The extreme interfaces of Indian airports are nice. People at the check-in desk are nice. Stewardesses are nice. Now, in between these two lies no man's land, an amorphous mass, a gigantic belly that devours and spews up things and people at random. Four different people tell me seven different things about where I have to go next: 1) go through immigration; 2) don't go through immigration, never ever, you'll never get back; 3) go to transit above; 4) go to transit below; 5) wait for Air India ground staff (nowhere to be found); 6) go to domestic terminal; 7) drop dead (ok, no one said this, but it's by far the easiest way out). So I go through immigration, after all, that guy _is_ the one who is supposed to know the rules. Sir, you go pick up your bag. Am I in the right place? Yes, yes, go retrieve your luggage. Am I in the right place. He insists on my being reunited with my luggage. But London checked-in my bag all the way to Calcutta. In spite of this, I find it in a pile next to a belt which was already spitting out the next flight's cargo.
Time for a cigarette. But for this you have negotiate Cerberus Kumar Singh at the gates. He takes a look at my exotic passport and shouts at me in Hindi. C. Singh thinks it's the most obvious thing on the planet that anyone holding a Romanian passport can speak Hindi. No surprise shown when I answer in Hindi. His doubts have been cleared. My Bollywood is great. Getting out was fairly easy, but getting back proves to be more difficult. I have to go upstairs. I beg to differ. Upstairs. I object. He shrugs and takes the next boarding card. I'm not important anymore. And I'll be damned: I did have to go upstairs!
Although the flight is not listed anywhere, this is the right place, gate H, I am told by a nice person. At least he knows. But there are about 70% of staff whose jobs are utter mysteries: take-boarding-pass-seven-yards-after-the-gate-guy, stamp-vigorously-boarding-pass-and-look-mean-guy, check-boarding-pass-and-nod-guy, give-out-customs-forms-ten-yards-and-a-half-behind-escalator-guy (we'll return to this later). Cerberus Pramod Singh fails to understand why I'm at the International Terminal when I'm flying domestic. I share his worries. He lets me through nevertheless. He doesn't tell me I'll never get out of there.
Aimlessly wondering about is nice. Especially when you haven't slept for about 38 hours by now. Perhaps another cigarette would take the edge off this boredom. Cerberus Kartik Singh thinks otherwise. I'm not allowed to leave the terminal. He's got a gun and is increasingly angry. Isn't there any way? Go to gate one (he probably has an old rival there, let him get into trouble). Being able to get out at gate one (all the gates lead to the same forecourt) proves to be an illusion. I return to look for my flight. Few hours later Air India counters show sings of life. And they actually know about a flight to Calcutta. Counter-guy admonishes me: "you were never supposed to leave transit, what are you doing here?" I recount my odd-ysey. "Sir, I am telling you now, you should be in transit."
And here comes the best part, the one that made all this and what is to come, worthwhile. I get a slip: "Declaration of domestic passengers travelling by Air India flight". I will bury this and let next generations of epigraphists wonder what on earth this was supposed to mean. I have to declare items for which I do/do not possess valid customs clearance documents. 1) Watches, watch movements or parts thereof. 2) Transistors and diodes. 3) cameras etc. (fair enough so far, although diodes might strike you as a bit odd). Item number 6), however, is the most bizarre entry ever: Zip fasteners (for effect: जिप फस््नर्स). I ask the person whether I have to declare the ones that are on my person (and whether anyone wishes to inspect these personally, in which case I shall protest), or the two-thousand others that I am smuggling in from Hungary to ruin the Indian zip-fastener industry in a day's time. A blasé wave tells it all: there will be someone in charge of zip-fasteners, after immigration. It's his problem.
I eagerly embrace the prospect of meeting zip-fastener-guy and rush through passport control. This person I have to meet. Sadly, no-one is interested in your zippers after passport control. Not a soul. To my utter disappointment zip-fastener-guy fails to show. To my utter despair, so does my flight. In this, yet another, level of what makes Dante's purgatory and Buddhist hells seem like a pleasant weekend outing activity, no one has ever heard of a flight to Calcutta. Helpdesk even claims that they don't work with Air India and sends me to gate 1. Gate 1 sends me to helpdesk. After all, why should the airport of the capital know where government-owned flights are operating from?
At least they do have a smoking area. I retire here to mull over what to do next. Since lighters and matches are prohibited items, the smoking room is thoughtfully equipped with the modern reincarnation of the supari-wallah's 'electronic lighter'. This device, which I perceived in Pondicherry to be an ancient remain from the time matches were a luxury, is basically a piece of wolfram (I think) which, when a button pushed and electricity allowed to heat up the metal, glows, and thus becomes able to light a cigarette. Naturally, such complex devices (perhaps a software glitch) break down often, and it's out of order. I break the law as I pocket a box of matches I see on a table, but I do so for other than selfish reasons. I increasingly have the feeling that if one was so inclined one could easily hijack the entire airport with a toothbrush, let alone a box of flammables.
Few more hours passed and I was lucky to be at a particular gate where a man shouted 'passengers to Calcutta'. The loudspeaker was silent of this affair. A bus took us to the most obscure corner of the airport where a plane proudly wearing an "Indian Airlines" inscription in late 70's devanāgarī turned out to be Air India no. xyz. From here everything became normal again. Well, save half of Calcutta cooking under your window and fake Bauls screaming their lungs out on heavy-duty loudspeakers right across Jay Ma Kali Cyclestores. But if you think that I will drop my current business and take up the study of Nordic Sagas in order to visit only efficient and spotless Scandinavian airports, you're very much mistaken.