The technical snag
01:20 a.m, Gate 5, first floor lounge, Chennai International Airport:
In dulcet tones that dripped with unapologetic regret and brooked no argument, insulated as it was by having originated from an abstracted and unidentifiable location, a female voice radiated across the lounge: “Attention, passengers travelling to Singapore on Air Jatayu’s AJ 342, kindly note that the flight has been delayed due to technical reasons. The estimated departure time is 0415 hrs.” And with that token advisory reiterated in three different Indian languages, and a polite gong, the announcement system once again slipped back into the ether whence it had emerged.
It was 01:50 a.m., a full hour and five minutes past AJ 342’s scheduled departure time and Mihir’s blood, having begun to simmer dully when the nymph on the other side of the veil had begun to drawl of slight delays and technical reasons an hour-and-a-half ago, had reached a full boil. If this was the extent of information the authorities thought the average incensed air-traveller sought after their flight had been inexplicably postponed for three-and-a-half hours, the authorities needed to re-examine their lives and careers, Mihir pontificated mentally. For the last hour-and-a-half, a standard trite announcement was being relayed once every ten minutes, and this latest communication was no more informative than its eight equally secretive predecessors.
Initially, being told to sit back down after having queued up at the boarding gate hadn’t been as much an outrage as an exciting aberration. Amid grumbles and mutterings about Air Jatayu’s declining standards, the passengers had dispersed themselves back among the waiting-lounge chairs, wondering what this was all about with a sense of irked amusement. Mihir, the eternal optimist, had actually seen this as a sign from God to allow him to finish the pre-flight prayer chant he had begun before being interrupted by the gate attendants announcing that the flight was ready for boarding. He had soon sought out a secluded seat and, sinking into it, resumed the verse from where he had left off. These delays didn’t last long generally, reflected Mihir nobly: We’ll probably be good to go come departure time. There were still twenty minutes to go. So, with nothing to do but wait for the announcement for boarding, he had unsuspectingly slackened his situational awareness and immersed himself in his mantras, reciting them under his breath.
As minutes turned into more minutes, some of the detainees had started to become jittery and set off to procure high-priced airport-lounge snacks as a means to dissipate their nervousness. A few had begun pacing, mouthing unparliamentary sentiments about Air Jatayu, while the more phlegmatic ones had opened up their laptops, seeking to pass the time by being broad-minded about the whole thing. Soon, Mihir had become so accustomed to the humdrum din of people tapping on keyboards, berating the airline, chomping on gilded sandwiches and stomping around in sullen boredom, that he had failed to observe that the scheduled time for departure had come and gone like a Yusuf Pathan cameo innings.
When he had finally shut his prayerbook, having dutifully sought forgiveness from Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning, for any unintentional syllabic, syntactic, or metric errors on his part during the sotto-voce chanting, he had noticed that there was a marked spike in the steady drone that had pervaded the floor till a while ago.
That spike had been caused by a single gravelly voice remonstrating with some vehemence. The voice had all the qualities Adolf Hitler would have prized in his grandstanding technique. The anger that suffused this voice was of such intensity that Mihir had a fleeting feeling that the Great God Rudra, pleased by Mihir’s ardent prayers, had Himself journeyed down to the mortal plane and was demonstrating His wrath in the fiercest earthly tenor possible. However, once he had oriented himself better with his surroundings and realised that the G.G. Rudra, while apt to bring mountains down with his enraged dance, was not one to scream remorselessly at a cowering airport official, Mihir surmised that the screeching voice must belong to a highly disgruntled passenger. He had to make do with surmising because the disembodied rant was ensuing from behind a thick pillar that obscured the source.
“What is the meaning of this, I say?” the voice was bellowing. “How long do we have to sit here like idiots? This gatekeeper tells us to wait for some time because the flight is delayed… this was at 12:15 — after we’ve been told to queue up for boarding! And that’s the end of that! Not a single word from you guys about why it’s been delayed!? And then you start saying the estimated departure time is 0415 hrs! What is going on?” Then, apparently warming to his newfound role as the seeker of justice for the teeming masses left behind by the ark, he shouted: “Women and children… old people… all waiting here in this… have you any thought for the old, battered people who just want to go to Singapore!?”
Already, a curious group of bystanders, ever the sucker for histrionics, had gravitated to the epicentre, and was milling about the scene, lending numerical support to their noble champion. The bystanding mob has historically been one of the more dormant but significant contributors to all great actions. With their sheer number, they place a populist force at the leader’s disposal. And with their silent stares, they create tacit approval for the protagonist — and there’s no approval like the tacit one, as any child familiar with the Tamil phrase, ‘maunam sammadam’, will attest.
The grating voice was in good fettle that day, it appeared. Each word was laced with a thorny, venomous texture that seemed to physically corrode its adjacent environs. The actual content matter of his words was quite postural and cavilling, but it was way in which he delivered the diatribe that captured the attention. There was a callous disregard for the decorum of an airport lounge in the way he allowed his cadence to twist and wrench. He had a piercing way of landing the verbal blows, adeptly stressing those syllables that would bore deep gashes into the opponent’s self esteem. His words were not just intended to emphatically put across his point; they were meant to wound and sting. Mihir was acutely conscious of a feeling that he was witnessing a to-do of some eminence.
The target of the outburst, the lowly airport official, was blubbering inanities, unprepared for and unable to withstand the tornado he had run into after having dashed across the lounge to get a cup of tea. “Sir, there was an announcement that t..th… there is a slight del.. delay… It was announced on the p.a. system, Sir…”
“Hello! This is not some movie, man! What is this b*******?” thundered the Alpha Male, advancing menacingly towards his prey and being revealed, anticlimactically, as a scrawny, greying weed of a man as he came into view from behind the pillar for the first time. “You can’t just get away with saying ‘slight delay’! This is an international flight, dammit! You need to give some explanations! Who will give explanations to all these elderly travellers, women and young kids? Your grandfather?!”
Till that point, the airport official had attempted valiantly to handle the situation on his own, seeking not to call in his superior for a problem that could be eased by a few simple words. But this — the attack on his family — the official saw as unwarranted. Throw unrequited cravings for tea his way and he could grin and bear it. Let him encounter an irate traveller egged on by the surliest of mobs, and he would stiffen his upper lip and tackle him bravely. But dragging his kin into the fray, he seemed to feel, was below the line, and he would not stand for it without his manager absorbing some of the blow: “Sir, I assure you, I am only telling you what my manager has been informed,” he said with great moral fortitude.
This deft deflection of responsibility may have stymied a lesser man, but the self-made Alpha Male, bolstered by the army backing him, immediately retorted: “Call your manager, man! You call him! I want to speak with your manager!”
The poor official slunk away in search of the manager, visibly bitter over not having got a chance to slake his thirst with a cuppa, but clearly gratified for the respite this errand afforded him. Along with a trail of disappointment, he left in his wake a host of unanswered questions.
Why? Why was the flight delayed? And so ineffably at that? What were the winding political injunctions at play that any and all information was being so stoutly withheld? Did the problem lack a justification reasonable enough not to cause a panic? What was the ‘technical’ reason for that matter? Was the aircraft still circling above, unable to land due to runway clearance issues; had a flange abruptly fallen away from the fuselage when the pilot had been taxiing the plane in; or was it something more serious like an airhostess having got her sari stuck in a vacuum sucker or the aircraft turbines? Why had no airline representative come round to us, ‘guests’ marooned at Gate 5, and tried to assuage our rising tempers? And what of the Asian Vegetarian Meal that Mihir had booked for this flight? Who was to ensure that it wouldn’t go bad?
As these and many other questions were brewing up a heat wave in Mihir’s paranoid mind, the manager, wearing a fluorescent yellow safety vest, made his entrance. Now thoroughly engaged in the workings of this rare little drama unfolding before him, Mihir abandoned his distant perch in the waiting lounge and made for the dueling ring to join the army’s flanks, reinforcing its periphery as a silent spectator.
Before the manager — who, by the looks of him, had just about chosen airport management over a career in Carnatic Music to please his insistent parents — could get his greetings out, the Alpha Male brashly rode in like a battering ram: “Finally, this is when you deign to come to our rescue! This is an unpardonable situation! What kind of an airline leaves its passengers in the dark for over an hour after the scheduled departure time? What kind of management are you carrying out behind those closed doors? Why have we not been told what is happening with our flight? I highly doubt we will be getting to Singapore if this is the way the flights are being run in this part of the world! Back home, air travel is like clockwork — you buy your tickets means you’ve reached your destination! We don’t have to sit in airport waiting areas like ducks and wait for our fate to be dictated by incompetent airport authorities! Do you know what time we were told there was a delay? 12:20, I tell you! And then your lady voice says, one hour later…. cool as you please, huh…. the estimated departure is at 4:15! As paying customers, do we or do we not want to know the reason we are being treated like children in a playpen? And what time is it now?”
Nothing was said for the next few seconds — as the Alpha Male stopped to catch his breath, the manager paused to regain his, having been robbed of speech by the force of the tirade. Then, slowly gathering himself, he offered, “Sir, as you know, the aircraft has run into some technical issues. They are being addressed at this very moment. A team of engineers and technicians are being employed to resolve the problem. We’ll have the flight ready for take-off by 4:15.”
“But why is it taking that long? What kind of technical snag is it that you have to bring a team of engineers to fix it? Is it serious? Why can’t you give more details about this? All this secrecy is very odd, I say!” Looking around now for the first time, wishing to avail of all the tacit approvers around him, he gestured for his entourage to reinforce his point.
The circle of onlookers, thus called into action so abruptly, shuffled awkwardly and gave out scattered wisps of protest and askance. Finding all his hard work being diluted away by this feeble display, the Alpha Male immediately wrested the mike back and raged on, now shooting disappointed looks at his hapless supporters every so often to reprimand them for failing their spokesman when required. A look at the crew, and Mihir knew why this scrawny man had been elevated to the post of spokesman.
Ranging from ages 24 upwards, it boasted members of diverse colours, dress codes, and body art, but none who seemed to have much in the way of gift of gab. If anything, this bunch was the quintessential bystanding mob — the strong and silent type.
A youth with a scraggly ponytail and a multi-coloured ‘Sudheer’ etched on his arm stood ready to jump in at the slightest sign of the encounter getting physical. A puny bespectacled man in an oversized black overcoat preened his moustache with a scowl. A well-fed looking pot-bellied man with a supercilious mouth kept trying to contribute in the currently one-sided debate but seemed like his sense of etiquette was preventing him from butting in. Though, it was more likely he was overwhelmed each time by the sheer brute force of the Alpha Male’s unstinting oration. Others looked as though they may have held their own in a tamil vernacular patti mandram but were out of their depths in an English joust. (Mihir, of course, was a staunch perceiving subject, and kept his mouth shut and mind open, taking copious mental notes to be able to write a humorous account of the event at leisure.)
“Appalling! Ridiculous, I say! If it’s such a big technical problem, shouldn’t you have known beforehand? And even at 4:15, how can we be sure the technical snag will be sorted out for good? Are we safe? Mr. Manager, we are all paying exorbitant amounts to travel, so the least you could do is make sure your department isn’t snoozing at the wheel!”
The manager, evidently better at holding his own than his earlier subordinate, spread his hands placatingly, and vigorously shook his head as if to say that the Alpha Male’s loathing assessment of his department may be a fair one, but he would be more understanding if he but spared a thought to the manager’s own straits: “Sir, actually my hands are tied too. I myself have not been given much information by the technical team. But I can promise you a safe flight. The pilot is planning an alternate route via Port Blair, as a land route will be more prudent in the event of any emergencies… which is unlikely in any case! But if you will allow me my experience in this field, I beg to tell you that I cannot press the techies for information beyond a point.”
At this, there was a lull in the intelligible back-and-forth as the mob, at long last, suspended its mute bystanding and began to vocalise. It was a wild, unregulated outburst. Some shook their fists in contempt, others gesticulated in rapid semaphores. The man inside the black overcoat abandoned his moustache and joined the fist-shakers. ‘Sudheer’’s flailing arm was a colourful blur as his tattoo flashed in rich technicolour. Though no coherent sense was actually being made, the garbled frenzy on the first floor lounge may well have echoed all the way out to the runway.
The Alpha Male was dumbstruck. He seemed taken aback on two counts — indignation over the manager’s presumption that he could expect his ignorance to be condoned, and pride that his hitherto dumb devotees had finally found voice. Ah, my pretties, he appeared to be thinking with tears in his eyes, I’ve taught you well after all. Now show this wretched manager what’s what! And he withdrew into vaanaprastha, satisfied that his wards would rule the kingdom justly thence.
With the Alpha Male having removed his stakes, the pot-bellied man looked about and found himself promoted to the spokesmanship. Like a democratic new leader, he waited for the crowd to expend itself. Then, with a snobbish tweak of the brow, he made the first articulate remark to be heard in a while: “Excuse me, Mr. Manager, but I think on our behalf, it is your duty to have all the information about any issue. You cannot possibly tell us that you aren’t aware of something as pressing as this. With all due respect to your age and experience, I cannot believe you would dare to plead ignorance in a situation such as this. We passengers are dependent on your expertise to know what is going on! You’re now talking about going over Port Blair and whatnot! As I see it, there’s no meaning in shifting the route. Once airborne, it won’t matter if we’re over land or over sea! Now, the question is, are we safe, period? You have to address th….”
The manager had been held rapt by this eloquent speech, nodding intelligently the whole while, but suddenly, his attention snapped as he turned towards the waiting area entrance, where a quarry of airport staff was filing in with an air of bearing important tidings. The newly self-anointed pot-bellied Alpha Male, however, was creating an interesting spectacle. In sharp contradiction to his earlier confident demeanour, he appeared nonplussed now he saw he had lost the manager’s attention. He was in too deep, and was finding it hard to stop talking though his audience had waned. With a dazed look on his face, he was now desperately speaking as though having got the floor with such difficulty, he was unwilling or unable now to give it up. With the manager now engaged in positive-sounding conversation with his staff, the man continued to babble petulantly.
“…the Maharaja Lounge is in appalling condition, Mr. Manager. I walked in there this evening and all I found was a Carlsberg boy sitting on a chair… You can come with me, if you don’t believe me, I can take you there… you see for yourself… this boy is wearing a tattered old banyan… I don’t know who gave him his….”
The manager, meanwhile, was now listening to his staff-member with a quizzical look. Slowly, his eyes broke into an amused crease as he began to openly chuckle. Then realising he was being scrutinised by a loungeful of people, he cleared his throat profusely and dragged his face into look of steely professional grimness. He continued nodding to his confidante whilst determinedly holding his now obvious mirth in check. Suddenly, he seemed to detect an irksome presence in his left ear, and turned politely to the fat man, who had been conscientiously yapping away all along: “Sir, I personally take responsibility for that boy. His uniform shall be looked into.” And turning to the mob at large, he announced: “As for the problem at hand, I am happy to tell you that the technical snag will be resolved in due time. AJ 342 will take off at 0415 hrs as per the schedule! Please feel free to help yourself to refreshments that will be served shortly at the Maharaja Lounge.” With that, he strode out of the battleground, resolutely ignoring the gaping, skeptical mob, who seemed to have more questions now than they may have had before.
A shaft of cool breeze blew past Mihir’s left ear, grazing it teasingly. He reached up and twisted the air jet nozzle towards his face and sat straight in his aisle seat, his seat belt buckled on diligently as the last few passengers made their way down to their seats. He had hoped his would be a window seat, but after the recent drama had saturated his bladder, maybe freedom of movement and accessibility to a chamberpot was the main concern. He sat right next to the curtain separating the economy- and business-class compartments.
A glance at his watch told him the flight was leaving on time as the manager had promised. Still, the reason for the flight’s mysterious delay remained yet untold. Oh well, I can always concoct some implausibly funny ending to the story when I write it, he consoled himself.
A lugubrious airhostess was finishing educating the man nearest the cabin door on how to behave in the event of an emergency evacuation. That mandatory procedure completed, she hastened to take her seat reserved for the cabin crew. As she strapped herself in, a colleague of hers came over and whispered conspiratorially in her ears. Mihir strained forward in his seat anxiously. What last-minute surprise could this evening spring now?
“Hey, Suchi, the boss said not to worry about it. Says you can leave your torn sari with her and use the new one till you get it re-stitched. And Ravi said don’t worry, the engines have had worse things stuck inside them! But stay away from the turbines for the next few days, especially if you’re wearing a long dupatta or sari, or when the boss is around, OK?”