Sunday, March 20, 2011

Random rantings from the airport

A stand-up comedian had once described landing at the IGI Airport in Delhi after an overseas trip was like returning from a honeymoon with Aishwarya Rai to find Mayawati in your bed. Now that most of the metro city airports (and even some of the mini-metro and B-town ones) have undergone a major facelift – the experience of arriving at Calcutta’s NSCB Airport is a similar anti-climax.

But, like everything else in the city what irks me is not the lack of swank, glamour or glitz – but the sheer attitude of the people. The “priority” tagged bags invariably arrive last. And, on complaining – the Baggage Services staff of even Jet Airways would plead “helplessness” – putting up a lame excuse of not being able to handle the load of more than one flight at a time. If you point out to them that, Mumbai and Delhi have a dozen flights landing together – they have the ready answer of “there they have more staff” – we are a “small airport”. You don’t have the heart to tell them that even smaller stations like Guwahati and Raipur do a far better job – because you realize that they are as frustrated as you are.

The airline loaders sit around chatting and the ground staff can’t get them to move their asses even by pleading – as they are all “unionised”.

As you leave the airport – you are greeted with the shabbiest sight – worse than any railways station and chased by ‘professional beggars’ all the way to the car. What a first impression we create for visitors to the city ? Though some may even argue that – in Bengal we don’t try to ‘window dress’ reality and give it the way it is from the word go.

Mornings are veritable nightmares – with mile long serpentine queues at security that can take anything up to an hour to negotiate. Again the excuse is too many flights and too few security channels – when the reality is that Mumbai has as many or less channels and X Ray machines with many more flights leaving at the same hour. It’s amazing how the efficiency level of the same CISF staff fall dramatically when they are posted in Calcutta.

Will Mamata Banerjee’s promised “paribartan” change any of this ? I bet not. The genetic code of Bengalis have been permanently mutated – giving rise to jokes such as the similarity between Bongs and sperms (only one in a bloody million work !!). As a race we are suffering from mass dysthymia and need compulsory universal administration of Prozac. Till then, there will be little to chose between Didi and Behenji.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Siliguri connection

Calcutta still manages to throw up a few pleasant surprises. Sealdah station was one of them. Was there last week to board the Darjeeling Mail for a team meeting at Siliguri (NJP). The new platform was so much more cleaner than Howrah. It’s far less crowded and even at the entrance one could find place for parking a car.

West Bengal is probably the only large state in the country that never had a second large urban center to boast of. Older District Towns like Burdawan, Behrampore, Malda had long passed into irrelevance. And, Bidhan Roy’s vision for creating alternate industrial centers and satellite townships (like Durgapur and Kalyani) to take the pressure off Calcutta – never fructified in the hands of successive governments.

Siliguri redeems this reputation to some extent – though’ more by default than anything else. Without any real manufacturing industry to boast of (despite the Left Front Governments half-baked attempts to create industrial zones such as Dabgram) and tea being on a decline, it has really thrived on dubious cross border trade through Bangladesh and Nepal.

But, it was nice to see some signs of economic resurgence. For a long time – The Sinclairs was the only livable hotel in town. Now, it has a smart new 4 Star The Royal Sarovar. 2 large malls and multiplexes have come up. But, the real eye-opener was a 400 acre gated community – Uttarayan – very tastefully laid out over what once used to be a tea garden.

But, the Bagdogra airport is a shame. It’s the second of the only 2 commercial airport in the state and as the gateway to the entire North Bengal, Sikkim and Bhutan it has a sizeable traffic – a large number of them being foreign tourists. Now with the advent of the low-cost airlines – the number of flights have gone up exponentially. It has only one X-Ray Machine at the security and only 2 boarding gates. As it’s essentially a Defence Airport – commercial flights operate only around noon time – when it turns out to be a veritable mess – not entirely unexpected considering that Calcutta is only a shade better. The Dhaba kind of atmosphere and food in the airport cafeteria run by the Employees’ Co-operative (in true Marxist style) completes the picture.

The Darjeeling Mail itself was a nice experience. The AC I coach was one of the best I have traveled on - in recent times. New and well kept – the beddings were laundry fresh and the toilets in great shape. We were some 11 of us together crammed inside a 4 berth coupe – gorging on fried chilly chicken from Chung-Wah over Old Monk and Whiskey – followed by Kasha-Mangsho and Rooti.

The weather in Siliguri is still very pleasant in the evenings – slightly nippy but not sharply cold any longer. Just right for a grand meal of Chitol Maacher Peti, Mourola Maccher Chocchori, Chyapa Shutki’r bharta (sourced from a local restaurant called ‘Bong Connection’) in the open terrace - warmed up by generous doses of distilled spirits.

These are moments when you feel – life’s not so bad after all – even in an impoverished state. So you tell yourself – stop cribbing and enjoy what you have !!

Read related Blog: Gorkhaland Express (by clicking here)

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Life on a rewind..

Life’s on a rewind mode (the wife says - it's a 'winding down' phase). I am in the throes of moving work base to Calcutta – once again, taking up a new assignment (in Sales) within the company. Straddling between 2 charges for a while, travel has been crazy over the last 2 months and showing no signs of let up – as the demands of the job can only increase in a tough market. At 50, that’s going to be a difficult transition – but, I guess, being away for 3 years from front line action was getting a bit tiresome.

It’s no secret that none of us (me, perhaps, a little more than N & J) would like to leave Bombay – which has always been our favourite city. After 3 years of rather a pigeon-hole existence – just as we were beginning to get comfortable in our new home – when the news of this transfer came along in December. Jaya’s Class 10 (ICSE) exams are going on now. So, it won’t be before the results come out in May and we sort out her next steps – that we can physically move residence. Till then, I will have to continue the inter-city weekly commute. Having done that for long periods in the past (nearly 2 years, when I used to be with HT in Mumbai and N & J stayed back in Cal) know how stressful it can be.

But, there’s always an alternate way of looking at things - and with age one does tend to become a bit sentimental. In 2009, I was literally drafted in - out of the blue as it were - to trouble-shoot the tricky IR situation at our company’s new plant in Mejia, Bankura. This required me to camp in Calcutta for 2-3 weeks every month for the better part of the year. Looking back, I feel there could have been an underlying reason for it – as otherwise I couldn’t have spent as much time with my mother – little knowing that she would leave us so suddenly before the turn of the year.

This time around too, what I am enjoying most is the time I am getting to spend with my father – whether sharing a quiet drink in the evenings after coming home or having breakfast or dinner together. It’s amazing how – at 81, he has pulled his life together – trying to maintain his routine and keep the house just as my mother had left it. It’s touching how – he goes out of his way to make my stay comfortable taking care of every little detail – from my food to laundry and even making the bed – as if he is standing in for Amma. And, me shamelessly lapping it all up as the spoilt only child. But, it’s father-son bonding like I have never experienced in all these years. Or, may be it’s just time created for my unfinished lessons in growing up.