This is a long one....
"Biman Bangladesh? You poor thing", said a fat classmate at Alliance Française, Kolkata, on my choice of airlines to Paris, couple of years back (she was flying on a hideously expensive direct flight to somewhere and had loads of sympathy to spare for me); It indeed was for pecuniary reasons that I had first chosen to fly Biman. But now, I find myself opting for Biman for more than one reason. Most importantly, Dhaka is just just half an hour from dear Kolkata and chez parents!) I quite enjoy it, as much as one can enjoy a long haul flight while travelling cattle class (economy). Never a dull moment on this flight.
The flight from Kolkata to Dhaka is shorter than it takes me to go Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport (previously DumDum airport). Ma and R came to see me off. In fact they were dressed and waiting impatiently for me to finish packing to set off for the airport. They travel considerably less than me and never miss a chance to drop/receive me from airports and train stations, like this time, even though they hung around only for the short duration it took me to check in and then waved goodbye as I walked into immigrations.
The half an hour flight to Dhaka was completely full. I had a 5 hour wait in Dhaka along with 4 others from my flight. We got pally during the dinner. Actually, the officials announced dinner for passengers to London and Rome. Nothing about passengers to France although Rome and Paris was the same flight! There was a geologist who now does something entirely different and mundane in Canada. She and her husband, some years back took (she rued) the decision to live somewhere abroad.
There was a young lady from Milan who spent two months with "Mother Teresa" (and not Missionaries of Charity) as a volunteer. Perhaps her English wasn't too good or she really meant it when she told me with a wide-eyed kind of innocence, "Sister Nirmala is very kind: She always wished us goodnight"! After dinner, the geologist left for her flight and I was left with the skinny chap from kolkata. When I cautioned him about not leaving his hand baggage around, he confessed this was his first flight ever and he was clueless about the proceedings. He was a folk artist and was invited to play with an Italian fusion group in Milan. The chief sponsor, an Italian lady had asked him for some nilgiri tea and he had spent an enormous amount of time in between getting his visa, looking for this elusive tea.Finally a small shop sold him some, which it claimed, was authentic Nilgiri tea. The two other ladies - one Milanese and the other parisienne dozed their heads off and woke only when I shook them awake to board their flight!
Aboard, I sat next to the dozing parisienne while Ms. Milan slept all the way next to the folk artist in the row just ahead of us. I sleep badly while travelling. For one my knees start hurting in the tiny leg space (I am tall) and I have to shift pretty often and secondly, my eye lids don't meet all the way when I close my eyes, the whites of my eyes show even when I am in deep sleep causing alarm in others who take me to be dead or dying or having some epileptic fit! And the usually chirpy bangladeshi passengers keep me awake with their constant problem with their seats, babies or general chatting up with co-passengers. Everyone seems to know everyone else. Cries of 'Bhabi', 'apa' or 'bhai' rend the air. The stewardess are always pleasantly plump and rather taciturn with the endless seating problems. Only once did I encounter two really svelte beauties aboard a Biman flight and I remarked so to A and was overheard by one of the two. Boy did we get some real good service that time! They even offered A second helpings of meals, who had to alas, decline since Biman keeps feeding the passengers! This time too, we were fed 3 meals, all different from the other and not the salad and hard bun meals as on most European flights, in the 6 hours between Dhaka and Riyadh. The steward even woke us up to make sure we were properly fed. When I picked up the coffee cup and returned the entire tray back to the steward, he clucked like a mother hen and returned couple of buns and jam and butter back to me!
The terminal in Riyadh is wonderful. It looks like some futuristic building from afar and an artists idea of abstract palm trees from near, beautiful either way. , Here, we halted for an hour and watched dawn break. The parisienne started stirring and making conversation. I was amazed to find her speaking English not only fluently, more importantly, willingly! Just try to find a French person willingly speaking English. (A lady who accidentally stepped on my foot in Dhaka, turned around and said "Excuse-moi" instead of a sorry)!
In between our 4th meal enroute to Rome, she told me about her two month trip to India and about places I had never been to (but I was not going to tell her that, was I and nodded very knowledgeably to everything she said) - Benares, Jodhpur, Udaipur and even Darjeeling (no I haven't been there yet)! She bought a perfume from the inflight duty free shop but ran short of 7E which I lent her. She said she'd take it out of an ATM at Fumicino, Rome. She didn't find a single ATM at Fumicino and while she rushed about looking for one, I found the folk artist walking around dazedly. The minute he saw me, he said "No one speaks any English out here", he said accusingly, "you said they did." (He had to catch a domestic flight to Milan and didn't know how to go about it). To appease him, I helped him make a phone call to his sponsors in Milan, and to my amazement, found the dial tone exactly like a busy tone elsewhere. He got through to his contact and I left him pouring his heart out to them. I do hope he is not still wandering around Fumicino with his bag full of folk instruments.
While waiting, I made another acquaintance, a bangladeshi gentleman also enroute to Paris, who politely pointed out plump Italian rats running amok in the transit lounge, oblivious to the 100's of feet. We became quite pally and he told me (in between our mutual moanings about visa problems) about his recent trip with his newly wedded bride to Darjeeling (not again) and his sighting of the snow clad Kanchenjunga. (Like the tigers of Ranthambore, only the very lucky get a proper glimpse of Kanchenjunga, which is mostly shrouded in mist). Two passengers on the same flight - one from Bangladesh and the other from France and both have been to Darjeeling and I, despite living in West Bengal for 12 years, have made it up to New Jalpaiguri (a night from Darj). Our 1 hour transit was stretched to 3 hours because of some passenger with some visa problems. Finally after an 18 hour flight and 5 meals (6 if you count the one in the transit lounge in Dhaka) and 2 crew changes later, at Orly!
I had planned a "joyous, leaping into each other's arm, riotous" sort of reunion with A, but that was alas, not to be. The girl ran at an incredible speed despite her tiny frame and motioned me to follow, searching for her father in the crowd, to give me the money. All I could manage was a cheery wave at A. And after she had left it was too late because an artist friend of ours had come for her suitcase that I had got from Kolkata.
Her brother had rung me up the night before to ask if I could carry a suitcase. When I got the suitcase next morning, I felt embarrassed at all the brouhaha about such a tiny, light, battered suitcase. I had hemmed and hawed about excess baggage, telling him repeatedly to keep it to about 5 or 6 kilos. He called me quite a few times first about its weight and then about it's missing keys .
I made baba weigh the suitcase before letting the gentleman who brought the suitcase go. I tried the key and opened the suitcase but not without difficulty. I suspect it was some other key and the suitcase was so old that the rusty locks had a mind of their own. Inside, I was very embarrassed to find a bunch of extremely odd stuff - a pair of slippers, a doll's china tea-set, a child's exercise book, some bed linen, old correspondence, a set of Gujarati horses strung in a row, a small jar of pan masala wrapped in silver foil.
Baba who was surveying the proceedings from behind, pounced on the jar. "What is this? WHAT IS THIS? No name, no brandmarks? You might not heed my advice but you might find yourself behind bars in France. And then don't say I didn't warn you".
Next, he turned to a table cloth. "What is this?"
Looks like a table cloth, said R.
"Hmpff", said baba (disappointed no doubt at so mundane and above suspicion a thing).
He picked up a row of tiny cloth horses, "What are these stuffed with, hmm"?
"Cocaine", said R.
"DON'T JOKE. You might not heed my advice but you might find yourself behind bars in France...."
"Shut the suitcase", ma mimed at us from behind baba and R snapped it shut, the pan masala being the only casualty of this inspection, as I left it behind on our dining table. (I do hope our artist friend wont be reading this). Anyhow, there she was clad in a madcap artistic way in a salwar kameez, a naga coat, a bandhni duppatta wound around her neck like a scarf, sneakers, socks and a purple bindi.
"Oh, my brother gave you a key? I never ever lock any of my suitcases and this one was lying with him for some years now. Wonder where he got the keys from?"
Phewww! That means, hopefully she wont miss the pan masala from 2 years back or did her brother put it in just now? Maybe, she'd come to know the minute she rang him or wont she?
My mind was awhirl with musings on pan masalas while my eyes took in, sort of unbelievingly, the spic, span and empty roads in our bus, wondering at the eerie silence after the cacophony back home.
I remember the geologist who after dinner, exchanged her neatly pleated saree for a more practical trouser and t-shirt. "So many people (elderly) come to see me off at kolkata, its easier wearing a saree". Yes I understand. Its not just a change of clothing. I find myself putting on my other persona, adjusting, fine tuning to suit the spic and span, quiet and efficient, sterile beauty of life in France.
(Actually, it was only momentary...this "stunned at the silence" thing. I have readjusted very well and in only 2 days managed to stuff myself with a lot of goodies that I missed back home...and its nice to be in a private world of one's own; This is just not possible back home, not only because of the population but also the culture...but about that I will elaborate in another blog).