Two Steps

Two steps. Two steps are all it takes to get you from the entrance of the Hubli airport to the check-in counter. From the looks of it, only one plane departs from this airport.

Ditto in the case of arrivals.

Air India operates a Bangalore-Hubli-Bangalore sector every day. The government made them do it. The plane from anywhere else is the plane from Bangalore. Try to fly into Hubli from Bombay and there is a 22-hour layover in the Garden City.

You might prefer to walk.

I get out of the cab and take the two steps to the check-in counter, where I hand my e-ticket over to the lady sitting there. As she takes it, she looks up at me and smiles warmly. I blink in surprise. They almost never look at you anymore. If they do, they don’t smile. If they smile, it’s an e-smile. To go with the e-ticket.

‘May I have a window seat, please?’ I request.

While the lady has been smiling at me, she has also been issuing my boarding pass, it seems.

‘Window seat?’ she asks kindly. ‘Oh, okay.’

She tears up the boarding pass and issues a fresh one. This one has ‘12 A’ printed on it. I don’t know what to say. How do you thank someone for kindness that is thoughtless and instinctive? They won’t know what you are talking about.

I want to tell her that I don’t feel like stepping on that plane and leaving her beautiful little city. That I want to stay on a few days more. That the air is dusty in Hubli, but there are no traffic fumes to darken it. I want to tell her that her people are simple and affectionate. That they speak a funny, lilting Kannada that I am starting to get the hang of. And if I stay another day or two, I might even be able to speak it the way they do.

I want to tell her all these things. Instead, I turn away from the counter and let the next passenger have his turn.

Two steps and I am in the outer waiting area. I arrange my bag and sit down. No sooner does my posterior touch the chair, than a lady’s voice comes anxiously down the public address system: ‘Passengers flying to Bengaluru by Air India Flight something-or-the-other, kindly proceed for security check!’

She sounds ready to cry. I wonder why she bothered with a mike. The room is small enough that had she stood in the center of it and whispered, we would have heard her, all eight of us passengers. Not wanting to upset her further, I quickly stand up and hoist my sling bag onto my shoulder. The others in the room do the same.

Two steps bring us to the security check area. A man comes forward and glances at our boarding passes, then loads our bags into the X-ray machine. I am politely frisked by a lady security guard, then allowed to leave the cubicle.

Two steps bring us (my bag and I) into the waiting lounge. There are no gates here. No Gate # 1, 2, 5, 16… There is just a single glass door, and it is shut tight. The front face of the waiting lounge offers a clear view of a small, clean tarmac and a charming row of hills beyond.

When there are about fifteen of us in the waiting lounge, the man who had been conducting the security check suddenly hits a button on the x-ray machine, stopping the bags in their tracks. He wanders up with a remote control in his hand and aims it at a wall-mounted television in the waiting lounge. In a room with one ancient water dispenser and two toilets, this 42-inch-screen Sony TV is probably the only thing from the 21st century. There are no food stalls to be seen anywhere. But if you get hungry enough to mention it, the airport staff will probably whip out their tiffin boxes and share their jowar rotis with you.

The press of a button on the remote control brings the Kannada news to life on screen. MLAs, IT raids, a teenager kills himself. The passengers look away, bored. The security man observes us for a moment, then switches the channel. This time it is Udaya Music. The worthy Shivarajkumar, sporting a pair of Ray bans, is gyrating with a heroine half his age. Eight or nine people look up from their smart phone screens. In a room of twenty-something, this would probably count as overwhelming response. The security guy nods his approval to himself. Deeming his work here to be done, he wanders back to the x-ray machine and gets it going once again.

An hour later, the air in the room is soporific. Shivarajkumar has come and gone several times, and now the gentle peace of the tiny waiting lounge has started to go to our heads like hafeem. The only thing that has happened to break the monotony this far, is the appearance of a small, 60-seater aircraft (not much larger than a public transport bus), its rotors whirring proudly. I want to stand up and clap. It looks like a little boy in the school yard doing tricks to impress its mates. People watch as it pulls up outside the terminal and comes to a halt. Then they go back to their smart phones.

Some are starting to nod off again, when the anxious voice of the announcer cuts through their stupor.

‘Ladies and gentlemans!’ she cries in unmistakable distress. ‘Air India flight so-and-so to Bengaluru is ready for departure. Pleeeease proceed to the aircraft for boarding!’

The long drawn-out please has people jumping to their feet. No one wants to trouble her more than they can help it. The glass doors are thrown open. Two steps, and we have passed through them.

We half-walk, half-fly across the tarmac, strongly aided by a buffeting wind. To climb the tiny ladder leading up to the aircraft, one has to hold ones bag straight ahead of them or directly behind. A person and his bag would never make it up that ladder together side-by-side.

Inside, the flight attendant bows and smiles. The lady assisting him is dressed in a sari that is designed like the upholstery of a Telugu movie set. Aah. It takes me back to the old days. The days before air hostesses were below the age of thirty and wore smartly fitted skirts and blouses. Never mind. Genuine kindness and hospitality has to count for something.

I take my seat – 12A – fasten my seat belt and then turn my head wistfully to the window. Outside, the entire Hubli airport staff has lined up at the glass door. They have come to see us off! On the other side, the hills stand by, calm, complaisant in their permanence. Suddenly they start to move! I stare and stare again. But then I blink, and I realize that it is the plane that is moving. I sit back and close my eyes against the fleeting regret at leaving behind so much peace and innocence. I know that in an hour, I will land in Bangalore, into the heart of the noise and bustle. Hubli and its little mate Dharwad will recede into a space of dreams, vague and indistinct in the face of traffic jams and bright city lights that no longer allow Bangalore to sleep at night.

Our tiny airplane suddenly gathers speed. We take off into the air, a full ten minutes before our scheduled departure time.

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