A night to remember

What happens when you return from a super short trip to your hometown? No guesses here. The sudden knowledge of my missing mother and her home where I still feel pampered after 4 decades of existence shatter my dreams and I am brought to life with the shocking discovery of ‘fend for yourself’.

However, some trips have adventure and fun written all over them. Like my daughters and their cousins – all 5 of them, aged 10-26, cramming the back seat of a sedan to spend as much time together, as possible, talking, laughing, crying in their final 45 mins, which makes our ride from Mom’s place to Mumbai airport.

And while I take my smooth ride to the airport as a cue for the rest of the journey to be equally fun, the ride is about to get bumpy. But who knew that?

Fun begins at the security check. It is lame to assume I would leave passports at home. I am never that blur. It’s business as usual, bring out laptops, chargers, phones, belts, shoes, rip off your soul and let it pass through the scanner, lest you are still carrying any of your Indian-ness along.

We do the needful and walk past the attendant who does a physical scan. Then we wait. And wait. And wait. The officer is dealing politely with some white woman who has publicly demonstrated her packing skills opening every handbag and cabin luggage in her possession. While the man in charge is high on patience, I was born with only a teaspoonful. And that ran out before my kindergarten even began.

So I grunt and sigh and keep staring into my basket hoping it will miraculously make a leap in my direction, making me Matilda alive. Only if wishes were horses!!

After some 10 minutes of some more women baying back and forth with the topi-clad officer, it is finally my turn. He maintains his composure, looks at my tray and then looks at me.

Time for gyaan – “Madam if you stack 3 laptops, 20 phones and 5 kilos of cables all together, the best scanner of the world will fail. You need to lay them out in separate trays”.

I nod apologetically feeling like a fool who has been travelling for 2 decades without basic gadget etiquette and taxing a poor married man’s patience more than he already deserves. As the next tray shows up, I smile, “That bag belongs to me too”

“Yeh bhi aapka hai?” (Oh so this is your too?),  he utters now showing clear signs of losing his composure. He then shows me the scan.

“Is there meat?”

“Nahi, Gajar Ka Halwa hai”, I say scared, hoping I don’t have to distribute it to the staff here tonight. He resists rolling his eyes.

Totally losing it, he checks, “Are there are sharp objects?”

Before I can utter a confident “NO”, I feel a frantic tug at my shirt. My girls sheepishly confide there is a small bag of last minute gifts from the neighbors. We hand over the 10-inch paper bag to the now shaken officer who is ready to punch my face. Instead, he quickly rummages through the thousands of clips, hairpins and necklaces, gives up on his quest to find something hazardous and lets us walk, free.

At that point, I feel I owe a public apology to him. If I were to step in his shoes, I wouldn’t last the job for an hour, leave alone a day. Dealing with women like myself, loaded with gadgets, cables, halwa, and hair clips, plus the audacity to reason it out, even gods would fail. It is for the first time in life that I realise how much space my hello kitty cabin luggage has, and how adept the three women of Deshpande clan are at cramming it to every last millimeter. With all the power banks in my possession, we could light up Mumbai airport for at least a night.

Hiding my shame and promising to do better next time (no no, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean carrying gadgets for an entire neighbourhood), we clear immigration. That’s a breeze.

And then we spend the next hour, sauntering around the waiting area, breathing every last bit of Mumbai, eating, drinking and clicking pictures. By midnight, we are famished, ready to board and reach home in a wink, just like Cinderella. But adventure toh abhi baaki hai mere dost.

Right before boarding begins, we hear an announcement, “Deshpande family, please come forward”

We expect at least 10 other Deshpande’s travelling with infants and elderly to show up. But when no one else does, we march forward, exposing our true identities to hundreds of strangers. Wait, are we getting publicly shamed for our little tiff at the security? Now, I need to take back all apologetic behavior.

Soon a member from the airline staff approaches us, asks us to identify one of the cartons we are carrying. Shh, I still have some shame left. So, I won’t confess what the box was filled with. Moving on, the airline announces boarding open. People queue up like there are no designated seats on the flight but a first come, first serve. My girls and I chill it out with an air of non chanlance. We decide to board last.

Our attitude is short-lived. Soon, a staff member returns, informing me that my checked-in luggage has power-bank inside. She wants me to follow her to a restricted area of the airport – Level 4. Now, I am secretly cursing my better half.

For the past couple of decades, he has been the one packing for every trip. For one, I hate anything organised. And two, his work has led him to travel extensively. He is always living out of a suitcase. So I mostly focus on the fun… like boarding flights, binge eating, enjoying the stay and feeling pampered.

Back to Level 4. The staff keep pushing the baton to one another on who should escort me to level 4. That’s how they keep referring to the place. After a few rounds of “I don’t know, Can I go learn today and No you start boarding for other passengers”, one lady, completely confident she can lead the way, takes initiative. I am given a stern look and serious tone.. “You cannot carry any phones there. No purse, no nothing. Only Passport and boarding pass”. For a second, I am confused if this is Mumbai airport or US embassy.

This gets my girls a tad nervous. Although, I am all smiles. Is my little mistake leading to an adventure now? Where is this woman taking me, and what is Level 4 that most staff members wish to evade? I assure my girls I would be back, hand them my 10 pound heavy handbag, loaded with lipstick, Indian coins, some international currency and my entire wallet. The two look like babies on their first day at school, while I march off with spirited steps and a mischief-laden smile like that of the baby from Baby’s Day Out. By the way, if you haven’t watched that movie with your kids, you have done them a disservice.

Moving on, little did I know this Level 4 was a the secret to burning calories I had added, nope multiplied over the past week with all of my mom’s comfort food. The airline staff makes me walk, then brisk-walk and finally jog. We enter the food and shopping area using  some shortcut with staff-only access. Then, we walk past a guard who she mentions, “Level4” to. It sounds like something a spirit would utter in the hallways of Hogwarts but Harry Potter would catch uncannily.

Next thing we know, we are in a lift. It looks darker than the rest of the super lit airport. And it is just the two of us in there. After the longest 10 seconds, we make it to Level 4. A door to the left ushers us into a long, empty passageway. It stretches at least 100 metres in length. A lone guard is stationed there occupying a metal chair. He asks for my passport and boarding pass.

Now my mind wanders and I feel like I am about to get transported to some refugee camp. I would be driven to some god forsaken border and handed over enemy camp. I would find other women with dirt plastered over their faces, looking meek and vulnerable, waiting to be released to go back home. But to my disappointment, we move on, soon after the check. No drama involved.

There is one more door to the left from that passage. We enter in. This time, there appears an even longer passage that sprawls on both sides; a sign board that reads some numbers with English and Roman numerals mixed. They don’t make any sense to me. And the woman escorting me looks even more confused than yours truly. She asks the guard for direction. He signals, and we march left. 10 steps later, we enter a room on the right. It is a rather tiny room with a scan machine, like the one at security. I roll my eyes – seriously, security? Again?

There are some 8 or 10 bags like mine; a fat, rather well-fed, busy officer, 2 assistants and the two of us. And yes, a table. He calls me across the table, asks for my passport and boarding pass and my name. This time I feel like the main character in Stranger Things. I want to tell them I am 44. 11 wouldn’t be original right?

I was hoping for a strict interrogation with why did I not follow rules and bundled in power banks despite reminders at the check-in counter. I was hoping for some default penalty like having to use backdoor entry and taking the flight dumped with baggage. And the movie Snakes on a Plane instantly begins to play in front of my eyes. And the thought of me getting stuck with bags and snakes is creative enough to raise the hairs on my arms.

But to my misfortune, the officer here is just as polite and patient but good at his job like the one I encountered before. He asks me if I have any power banks. I tell him I have no memory but I am willing to check.

Then he checks with the lady escorting me, “What time does the flight depart?”

“In 10 minutes”, pat comes the reply.  She looks rather anxious, her palms sweating, it is apparently her job to make sure I board the flight and in time.

My mind drifts again – board the flight with only passport and boarding pass; no money, no children and most importantly, no phone! How would I make it to Singapore without a phone? And where would I exit the flight? From the Odd Size luggage belt? Would there be mosquitoes?

Back to the present, this officer scans my bag again. This time his machine conks off. We now have only 8 minutes to take off. He sends my bag with one of his assistants to another floor to get it scanned. In the meanwhile, there enters another Chinese passenger with a different escort for the same crime as mine. She is quickly done though. She identifies her power bank in under 5 seconds, signs the necessary papers and storms out. With only 5 more minutes to flight take off, the assistant gets back with my bag mentioning, not one but 2 power banks. The officer calls the other level for a whatsapp pic to identify exact location of the bank. I am finally asked to rummage my bag a second time. Shame is the name of the game. I have no clue I packed a power bank inside. After turning all my clothes and some food packets (my obsession with mithai) up and down and messing up my already messed up, not at all organised bag, I find the 5cm silver gadget that has been the cause of everybody’s misery tonight. As a silver lining, it is carelessness like this that is putting food on the table for the officer in charge right now.

With 2 minutes to take off, we are yet to find power bank no.2, something I don’t know I have. After murdering all badly folded laundry, all I keep finding is the battery of my 11-year-old’s halloween t-shirt that she carried to flaunt to her cousins. But that did not take me on similar scrutiny in Singapore. So why now?

I inquire if it was this fake sign has led the scanner to believe otherwise. The officer receives the image and finally lets me off the hook. I quickly autograph and we leave. Out of the scanning room, 10 steps to the right, followed by another right. And to my shock, the lone-guard now has female company. Who knew 10 minutes could change the world?

The female guard is standing aside a makeshift shelter to scan my body, akin to the ones found at mall entrances in India. Once again, my passport and boarding pass, my most important currency gets checked, and I am declared free to board. Now, the airline staff escorting me warns me with a tone of urgency, “We really need to rush Mam. All passengers have boarded. You are the last one!”

What a wish come true! With an air of nonchalance, boarding last!

As we step out of the dingy lift that brought us to Level 4 and back into the overly lit shops and food arena, another staff member joins us and we start back with a walk, that snowballs into a light jog and finally a sprint. In all that chaos, I feel like the family from Home Alone running at the airport, not to miss the flight! Instead of Kevin, this time, it is the mother that goes missing.

The boarding gate looks so barren, I wonder if I had spiked drinks before I left this corner. It stands forlorn, decorated with only one attendant waiting deperately for me. She hollers from a distance, “Don’t stop Mam, go go go!”

Without losing momentum, like a Bollywood hero, I hand her the boarding pass, she tears a part of it and returns the rest to the escorting staff member while I fly down the final escalator now feeling like Mr.Bond, getting onto a flight to save innocent passengers from some international threat. The final passage before flight entry is long… really long. I feel great about my Onitsuka Tiger footwear as opposed to some stylish sandals or ultra feminine boots that wouldn’t saved the day, or night for that matter. I make the final leap, plunge my body into the aircraft, scrape through, and behind me, the heavy metal aircraft door closes shut.

I can hear my heart pounding in my ears. Last passenger to board, the infamous Mrs.Sangeeta Deshpande from Level 4. Fresh from the run, I smile when I am brought back to ground reality, away from my ideas of Bollywood and Bond, seeing scores of people still cramming the midriff of the aircraft, waiting to get seated.

And the most beautiful sight of my girls. Right ahead of me. Their worried faces heave a sigh of relief, followed by hugs in this human tornado.

“Oh mom we thought you would never make it”, says the younger one.

“Monu was so freaked out Mom”, says my teen.

“We were worried but the staff asked us to board. They said you were on your way”.

I smile and assure them they did the right thing. I would have made it to Singapore, sitting, standing, hanging by the ledge, any which ways.

P.S. As I sit there, Masala tea in hand, I smile at the dimming Mumbai lights during take off. All the fiasco I caused in one evening flashes in front of my eyes and I feel grateful to everyone who made it smooth for me despite my carelessness. I recommend a special 13th month bonus for everyone who put up with my clumsy packing! And I am glad my athletic abilities made sure the flight did not delay.

Picture credits – Designed by pch.vector / Freepik

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