Air travellers, specially international ones, go through the routine of immigration & customs and then baggage clearance before taking a cab, a bus or a train to their destination in the city they have travelled to, almost with a bored air of having been through it all. No doubt there are good, average & somewhat poor terminals and the average length of time in going through the cycle mentioned above can widely vary across different cities. The overall experience can be anything from being a pleasant to a trying one.
Even if one is a frequent traveller, nothing would quite prepare one for the entire range of new experiences, sensations & moods that one can invariably experience while getting into or out of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport at Kolkata. Mere words would hardly suffice to bring you a true flavour of what lies in store for you. Here are some vignettes though which could serve as a prequel for those who haven’t quite experienced it yet.
Before the aircraft quite comes to a complete halt, most passengers, at least in most economy classes of most arriving flights, would have jumped out of their seats and wrestled their hand baggages out of the overhead baggage compartments, announcements & admonitions by the flight crew notwithstanding. If you happen to be occupying an aisle seat, you would be well advised to either follow suit or get out of the way to avoid being bonked on the cranium by one of these hand baggages on their involuntary downward descent path.
Once you have wrestled your way out of the aircraft, you are usually confronted by a ladder, apparently of World War II vintage, which subscribes to the open concept. If it happens to be drizzling at the time, accompanied by gusty winds, the ‘open’ concept is not exactly conducive to your reaching the terminal building in bone dry condition.
Once you have successfully descended, you are directed to get into a bus which, under other circumstances, is possibly used to ferry heavy luggage around the airport. After it has picked up its full complement of deplaning passengers, it chugs its way lugubriously towards the main terminal building.
Once you get off the bus, just outside the main terminal building, your acclimatization process starts. Dogs & cats can be seen sheltering under broken down trolleys housing dilapidated brooms. Once you have negotiated your way past these relics, you find yourself in a large, starkly painted room with no temperature control except a couple of whirring, somewhat noisy ceiling fans. Other than the immigration officers, this enclosure is manned by members of the Kolkata police who may direct you to one or the other queues snaking their way across, in between shouting out instructions and terms of endearment to each other.
The immigration officers are mostly taciturn, silent men who give you the occasional up-from-under look while riffling through your passport & associated documents. Any attempts at being friendly are roundly rebuffed and I have actually seen a person who thanked the officer on completion of the process, being chided.
Once you near the baggage carousels, you are likely to find that most functional trolleys have been taken up by those who got there ahead of you. You might still find a large number of trolleys lying around. Unfortunately, they have seen better days and as you will discover, are not quite in shape for ferrying heavy baggage from Point A to Point B. Unless you happen to be one of the first ones out of immigration, finding a functional trolley becomes a somewhat tense experience. While cooling your heels and running around to discover a functional trolley, if you want to relieve yourself, maybe just to while away the minutes, why, you only have to follow your nose to get to the right place. Signages are simply redundant.
Just when you may start breathing easy after having found a trolley which is generally in one piece, you would discover that your passage anywhere near the particular carousel where your baggage is supposed to arrive, has been cut off by a solid thicket of bodies, fenced-off by a forest of trolleys parked just behind them. You have very few choices other than hanging back and occasionally trying to sneak the occasional peep through the thicket of bodies. By the time the front-rankers have collected their baggage and departed from the spot and you have managed to edge in to a vantage point in the immediate proximity of the carousel, you may find that it is stationary and your baggage isn’t visible anywhere on it. Don’t lose heart though, for the ‘friendly’ baggage-handlers who mill around are wont to pick up certain pieces of baggage from the carousel and stack them in some unobtrusive corner where they may not quite be spotted easily. The parameters they follow in choosing certain pieces of baggage for this treatment is best known to them and to the airport management possibly.
What happens when you are planning to depart from this airport? Let me narrate one of my many experiences, which is fairly typical, with additional details wherever necessary.
Recently, while returning, since the flight was delayed, I virtually spent the better part of the night & early morning in that airport. I witnessed passengers in front of me at the gates being turned back by security because some bozo in immigration had stamped the wrong date on their passport earlier. While getting my boarding pass I noticed the guy at the counter taking over twenty minutes for one passenger. Now this boarding pass is issued at one of a series of counters which are situated in a cul-de-sac of sorts, right at the end of a hall. Both while making your way to the counters and then wending your way back to the immigration counters, you encounter myriad other passengers, for your & myriad other flights, either making their way to this cul-de-sac or rushing back from it after having secured their prized boarding passes.
Anyway, to get back to my story, at about 2-30 am in the morning, the stationary nature of the queue I was in was just a wee bit too much, so, after a while, I was energized enough to step out of the queue and let the guy have a short, sustained burst of monologue from me, telling him in no uncertain terms what I thought of him and his mode of operations. His supervisor then ran out from some room where he was possibly playing Pac-man all this while & tried to explain away the delay by fibbing that the response on the terminal he was using for ticketing was pretty slow that day. He then quietly took the guy’s place & I figured out that the earlier guy was a trainee who was actually learning on the job while the people in the queue kept shuffling their feet & gazing at the ceiling.
The overall experience, once inside, is further enhanced by hordes of passengers either aimlessly milling around or rushing for something or the other(often one can’t fathom what the rush is about in any case) while a horde of their family members & relatives crowd around outside the main entrance, waving vigorously and shouting out instructions, admonitions
and terms of endearment. Many of these guys revel in elbowing you, jamming their overloaded wobbly trolleys against your ankle or your nether regions & stamping on your foot when you have just stretched them out a wee bit and are trying to get philosophical about the ordeal you are undergoing while trying to complete the mundane, staid task of getting into an aircraft going someplace.
Once you are through with the security check, during which, going by the law of averages, you are fairly likely to encounter a mustachioed Jat or a Bhaiyaa from U.P. who is quite clear that his job entails checking out the shape, position and actual quantity of your nuts among other things, you get into a somewhat filthy lounge with filthier restrooms to match where you are supposed to cool your heels (after parking your derriere in a rather uncomfortable chair) till the gates open. Once inside, you truly begin to realize what ‘collective farming'( যৌথ খামার ) is all about and why Lenin and specially his latter-day flag bearers who have ruled the State for the last three decades are so enamoured of the idea. Since flights generally serve meals on-board you are not expected to gorge yourself while waiting for the gates to open. In case you have difficulties resisting the temptation to stuff your face, the fare available inside is severely limited in both range & scope. And if all that still does not quite manage to discourage you, paying through your nose for a tiny cup of near-cold coffee which tastes like dishwater, would do the trick.
By the time you get on-board, you are a suitably chastened, humbled person who has just had the wind taken out of his sails. Possibly Kolkata International airport is designed to have that effect on all who may happen to pass through its dysfunctional terminal.
- The messy, non-shining side of India (economist.com)
- How the revamp of the Kolkata airport terminal has been screwed up by the Reds.