Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Power Play: Rules of the Game

It was the transit of the International Airport at Colombo. She was waiting for her turn to be called for the flight to Cochin. It was a long and tedious day after hours of flying and waiting. She was in her early thirties, tall, dark and beautiful. She tried to focus on the Grisham novel at hand, having an eye on her baggage. It was then that she was drawn towards the sudden hustle.

The flight to Chennai had been announced some time back. Chennai being her home town, she was thinking about her plans to meet her friends and relatives there as the announcement was made. So, she turned to look at the scurrying Airport official as he whizzed past her, commenting to his colleague: “The flight to Chennai was supposed to have left half an hour back; what the heck are they still doing?”

Her eyes fell on a group of five people – three men and two women – at the far end of the lounge, towards whom the officer was rushing with his colleague. It wasn’t exactly clear as to what they were doing there, but she could make out that they were in a hurry – and that they weren’t very comfortable in doing whatever they were doing. She felt that it was not a normal scene in an airport. She put Grisham aside, got up, pulled her trolley bag and started strolling towards the commotion there.

The officer had reached the gang of five and he was telling something – and he was clearly tense, as he was pointing towards his watch. The bearded man in the group seemed apologetic of something and was handling the officer, while another man was rushing things up.

As she walked closer, pacing slightly, she could see cartons of a popular brand of cigarettes being opened by the rest of the gang. They were being taken off the carton and were repacked – in 8 or 9 suitcases that were with the gang. She could see that the packets were covered in cloth and were distributed equally in all the suitcases. It was a lot of cigarettes. What were they up to?

As she walked faster towards them, the colleague of the airport officer noted her attention towards the scene. He turned around immediately and started pacing towards her. She knew that he was walking towards her. She wondered if she should act as if she was casually browsing through the lounge, but couldn’t really make her mind up. By then, he had arrived.

“Yes, ma’am, what can I do for you?”

“Well, nothing, I was just killing time strolling around and . . .”

“Would you please be seated in the designated areas? It would be better if you could oblige!”

His voice bordered on intimidation. It was almost a stern order. She could see from his badge that he belonged to Airline X-Air that she used to fly frequently in. And he was standing in such a way that he blocked her view of the commotion at the other end. Still, she could see that the unpacking and repacking were all but done by then and one of the women was now carrying the empty cartons towards the rest room. They were smugglers!

The woman came back, joined the rest of the gang that was now heading towards the Gate. And they left to board the Chennai bound flight, which was actually delayed, as she could see now, to take these smugglers in!

“Would you get to your seat ma’am?”

Her thoughts were interrupted by the impatient voice of the officer. The other officer who was with the gang was accosting her now. And she wanted no trouble in foreign soil. She turned back and walked silently back to the lounge. She could hear the two officers discussing something behind her back.

As she got back to where she was seated, still in shock at the cold blooded smuggling of cigarettes, with two abettors of X-Air, she felt more disturbed as a scene ran through her mind now.

It was at her port of origin the day before, in the Middle East, that she saw a man pleading with an officer of X-Air at the baggage check-in counter. She was awaiting her turn then as the man, obviously from the working class, and apparently getting back to India on his holiday, was pleading to take a small pack along with his baggage.

The officers at the counter were ruthless.

“This weighs more than what you can carry, my friend. Rules are rules! You either pay for your excess baggage or drop the bag here and proceed!”

After almost a quarter of an hour of argument in vain, the man took the bag back, walked with dejection written all over his face, with drooping shoulders, towards the garbage bin near her. He dropped the bag in the bin and went to the baggage counter, got his boarding pass and proceeded without looking back.

Curiously, she peeped into the garbage bin to see what he had dropped. And in the bin, she could see a father’s love, a husband’s affection, a part of a poor man’s dream. There were sweets and savouries and snacks almost filling the garbage sack.

As she looked for the man again, he was ambling with his hand baggage towards the security checks. And she could almost hear him desperately trying to invent a consolation for his family and kids as to why he couldn’t care to buy a single sweet or chocolate for them, getting back home after years of sacrifice!