Thursday, August 9, 2007

I stamped my way through an Indian airport

As I was getting ready to leave Kashmir yet another time, yet again for an entire year, I was dreading the thuds of old and germ-infested rubber stamps at the Srinagar airport. Now you might ask what in god’s name is a rubber stamp doing at an airport? I will get to that shortly. But before that I have to take the reader through a tour of what I call a typical airport in India.

I reached Srinagar airport in the afternoon; chaos welcomed me with open arms. Due to added security we had to get our luggage X-rayed at the entrance to the airport which is about half a mile away. The airport was being renovated so you can imagine that there was even more chaos. There is usually chaos at Indian airports, but with this renovation at Srinagar airport there was more and I knew that this was going to be my lucky day and more is always good, right? As I entered the airport, the first thing that I had to do was walk through a metal detector and while that was being done my luggage was shoved through yet another X-ray machine. I actually don’t mind all this extra checking and this extra security, especially in a place like Kashmir with its recent checkered past. It was good to know that they allow passengers to carry their laptops in the airplane. As I am writing, you have to imagine people running around in all possible directions. We finally checked in our luggage at the ticket counter and made our way through which I at the time thought would be our final security check, but there was yet one more to come on the asphalt near where the airplane was parked. In any case I sat in the departure lounge while my father was chatting with some people he knew. By the way, since Kashmir is a rather small place and if you and your family have spent a considerable length of time here, you will eventually run into someone at the airport. It is guaranteed. It is a law of Nature and should be included as one of the axioms we learn in our high school physics textbooks. So while my laptop bag was being X-rayed, I was body-searched (in Kashmir the official term for body-search is “frisking”) by one of the security guards and then he asked me for my boarding card and THUD, I got my first official oval-shaped, purple-colored, rubber stamp and while he was doing this I heard another THUD from the guy running the X-ray machine as my laptop bag was alright and he stamped the cabin baggage tag which I had attached earlier. Two beautiful and lilac-colored stamps in a matter of minutes – I knew this was too good to be true!

I sat in a corner of the departure lounge waiting for my airplane to arrive. It had been raining the whole morning and there was some “talk” that the flight might get canceled. Right there I acquired a new habit of nail biting. For those of you who have never bitten your nails in your life, I highly advice against it. I found the experience painful, but then the pain helped me to focus my attention away from the inevitability of coming back to the same airport yet another day and facing another round of the dreaded security checks, but perhaps I could do it just to see the shine and gleam of the rubber stamps one more time. As I was fiddling and twiddling around with my fingers I noticed this Caucasian guy who was dressed in bottle-green khakis, check shirt, a cap and a black-colored Kashmiri jacket. The moment I saw a bushy beard with no mustache, I said to myself, “What is an Amish dude doing in Kashmir all the way from Pennsylvania.” At first I thought that the bushy-beard sans mustache was an early morning shaving accident, but when I saw his three daughters and a son, along with his wife, my faith in my earlier deduction started to solidify. Holmes would have been proud. I guess all those years of reading Conan Doyle as a child finally paid off. His entire family was dressed in Indian clothes, though he wasn’t. I thought that that was very hypocritical of him. I started to judge him and it felt good. The one thing that you will take away from Kashmiri society if you spend a considerable length of time is that you have a free card to judge other people. I got a refresher and a crash course this past month on judging people. While I try to keep it to myself, others will talk and discuss how they judged people during the day with their friends and family. It is a pastime that has no rival there.

The departure lounge was actually quite nice. There was an old rickety wooden television box in the farthest corner of the hall where it was serving mostly the security guards who shouldn’t be watching over-choreographed and pelvic-gyrating Bollywood songs in the first place. I also noticed a lot of trash and food on the floor just a few feet away from a big trash can. Whoever trashed the place should have realized that he is not Michael Jordan and should have stopped using it as a basketball hoop. It was quite disheartening for I always get this feeling that we Kashmiris have been given this beautiful country and we have no sense of belonging. Would it have killed the person to take three steps and throw away his/her food in the trash can? What example are we setting for the people who visit Kashmir from other countries? This goes both for Kashmiris and the dreaded “yatris” (pilgrims) who trash the valley every year, in order to make their annual pilgrimage to Amarnath cave in the Himalayan mountains. I think their secret agenda is to trash the place than see the cave.

I was elated to see my plane land, but before I could board it, I remembered that I had to identify my luggage. You see the luggage is strewn and lying in rows very close to the departure lounge. I went outside and after a while found my luggage and asked the official in charge that I had identified it and he made some cryptic remarks and signs on a sheet of paper that he was holding and did the same on the tag that was attached to my luggage. Another obstacle was kicked away by the sheer brilliance of my deductive mind. Before I could board my sweet plane I noticed a line of passengers on the asphalt and they were being body-search, nay, frisked yet again. I too was body-searched and was asked to show my boarding card and THUD, another shiny, red-colored rubber stamp. Yes, this time it was red, though I would have preferred something in a pastel shade, but that would not have looked ominous, important and urgent enough. I was finally in the airplane, seated, satisfied with a big smile on my face! I successfully stamped myself and my luggage through one of the toughest and most chaotic Indian airports.

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