(First part online – other parts being written)
A Passage to India has always been one of my most hated books. Perhaps it’s because we were forced to read it in school. Perhaps it was the way in which our class had to take turns read out aloud the entire damn thing. Or perhaps it’s just because it was incredibly boring. The only moment of relief we had was at the beginning of the book when one character smokes a ‘hookah’, which we all thought was the funniest thing we’d ever heard.
In between reading that book when I was around 13 or 14 and now, I’ve learned rather more about India through judicious study of newspapers, magazines, books and documentary movies such as Lagaan. Furthermore, I’ve acquired several Indian friends at Oxford and Cambridge, one of whom I visited in late November 2004 while she was in Bangalore. This is a diary of that visit.
Tuesday 23rd November
For reasons of economy, my flight to India involves London Heathrow, Zurich, Mumbai (Bombay) and Bangalore. The Heathrow-Zurich-Mumbai section is by Swiss Air, and the internal flight is handled by Jet Airways. This all ends up as being around 20 hours including the interminable transfers, and for some inexplicable reason, I decided to book a flight that leaves Heathrow at 6:10am today. That meant I have to get to Heathrow for about 3am, and that meant I didn’t get any sleep.
I ended up getting to Heathrow at 3:30am and joined the queue at the Swiss Air check-in desk. Approximately 100 minutes later, and 60 minutes before the plane is supposed to leave, the check-in desk finally opens. To say that this irritated me is to say that I have a passing interest in Mars. Firstly, it turned out that they don’t open their check-in desks until 5am. Fine, I can see why they might want to do this, and how it might even make sense, providing that they told passengers beforehand, and that they actually open properly at 5am and start processing passengers. Naturally, neither such thing is true. In fact, I witnessed what I wrote at the time was a ‘magnificently incompetent’ bunch of check-in staff performing the most wondrous farce of losing keys, running back and forth, dropping stuff and generally slowing things down to the extent that the plane left the best part of an hour late. It’s almost worth laughing at apart from the fact that this sort of thing costs airlines enormous amounts of money.
The flight to Zurich was gratifyingly free of stress and I slept the entire way. Transferring to my India-bound flight at Zurich was scarily efficient. I don’t think I waited in a queue for longer than a minute there as we were quietly herded through the impossibly clean and functional vastness of the airport by the impossibly clean and functional Swiss.
It took 8 hours to fly from Zurich to Mumbai, and I filled the time by marvelling at how I had four seats to myself and watching I, Robot a second time (a pretty decent movie) and the Indian movie Main Hoon Na. I think Main Hoon Na represents the final product of the evolution of movies over the decades – the omega point, if you will – and is best described as a maddening mix of Ten Things I Hate About You, Kindergarten Cop, Die Hard, a romantic drama, a musical, and of course, a Bollywood movie. You may wonder how it is possible to fit such things into a 179 minute movie. Watch it, and learn. I was later informed by a friend of Shakti’s that as far as these things go, it out-Bollywooded Bollywood.
Before landing in Mumbai, I had to fill in an Indian immigration form. Invariably, when I visit another country, I stay with friends. Said friends will meet me at the airport and so about half of the time, I have no idea where I’m supposed to be staying in said country. This poses a problem filling in immigration forms. I recall this first happened was when I travelled to the US on my own for the first time. I was basically scared shitless when I realised I couldn’t fill in the form properly but then hit upon the idea of writing down a fictional address (it was ‘Best Western Hotel, Denver, Colorado’) which of course worked fine since the immigration staff never check that sort of thing out. I had to do the same thing for Mumbai except I was pretty sure that Bangalore didn’t have a Best Western Hotel. In fact, my knowledge of the city’s hotels was so limited that I had to claim I was staying at the ‘Bangalore Hilton’.
I’ve since discovered that there is no Hilton in Bangalore, and even if there was, I’m not sure whether they’d have believed I was staying there. Happily, I didn’t experience any problems with this.
Anyway, soon enough, it was time for me to leave the safe cocoon of the plane to land in Mumbai. I did a bit of research on the airport before my trip and discovered that a good number of travellers describe it as the worst airport in the world, and in one case, a ‘chaotic hellhole’. Now, the reality could hardly match up to a claim like that; sure, it wasn’t very clean and had useless signage, but in its defense, they had very quick baggage handlers and the immigration queue was much faster than what I’ve seen in the US. Perhaps I just caught it at a good time though.
The airport lounge was entirely devoid of interest and had rather more mosquitoes than I would have liked (i.e. it had more than zero). One of the first things I noticed was the smell – not unpleasant but very tangible. Maybe something to do with the nearby ocean. Maybe not.
Actually, when I think about it, Mumbai airport really is quite horrible when compared to places like Singapore or Hong Kong. I imagine the new airport in Shanghai will blow it away as well. To be honest, if India really wants people to take it seriously, it needs to go down the Hong Kong/Singapore/China route and make a kickass airport that travellers like. It may seem like a terrible waste of money but airports really shape lasting impressions of a country and, I don’t know, could help additional outside investment.
The internal flight down to Bangalore was quick enough and I landed early shortly after 5am on Wednesday 24th November (India is 5.5 hours ahead of GMT).