Beneath the thick gloss of lipstick, the check-in clerk's smile was withering. I didn't blame her. No one, not even staffers of a private airline, can sustain a smile under the onslaught of a dozen-odd irate Arabia-returned Malayalees.
At Bombay's Santa Cruz airport -- aye, aye, the same one that has been Indianised and dedicated to Chhatrapati Shivaji recently -- my colleague and I were checking in for Calicut. At least, that's what we had been trying to do for the past 15 minutes. But it was, in grand Kerala tradition, a free-for-all at the counter. (Pardon the jibe, folks, if it helps I am a true-blue Malayalee myself!)
A bald gentleman with his huge paunch jammed against the counter insisted in English-specked Malayalam that he wanted all his bags inside the cabin. Another, this one tonsured and minus the paunch, was abusing Hindi to convey that he had arrived before Mr Paunchy. A third, walled around by his five-and-half children and one wife, was agitatedly waving a huge bunch of tickets.
Poor thing, the check-in clerk. Used to sophisticated, queue-standing passengers, she didn't know what hit her and could only whimper 'sir, please sir, one minute sir.'
Meantime, the mob was growing. The newcomers elbowed aside the oldies. The strong won, were checked-in, and victoriously pushed their way out.
The punch line came when a lanky, clean-shaven character, who had been trying 'excuse me, please stand in queue' etc, threw politeness to the winds and started elbowing his way in vigorously.
Hey, did I hear someone say something 'bout doing as the Malayalees do when among them?
The next Malayalee thing happened after we arrived breathless and bruised -- my ribs definitely were sore -- at the departure lounge.
Our flight-calls came soon. The one in Hindi elicited few responses. At the second call, in English, a few more headed for the boarding gate.
I was wondering how the heck to let the rest of my fellow Keralites, who obviously didn't understand a word of what was being said, know that it was they who were being called when the airline staff rose to the occasion.
The speakers crackled again and a lady, momentarily suspending the Speak Only Hindi Or English rule, repeated the announcement in clear, ringing Malayalam, complete with a northern Kerala accent!
I have come to the conclusion that the Calicut flight is a punishment assignment for its crew. My observation stems mainly from the harassed, pinched faces they put forward en route.
There was no stewardess at the door to welcome us. Two were there in the pantry with their back to the passengers, jamming food trays with unnecessary violence into allotted slots. A few minutes later when one did condescend to appear at the doorway, she looked as if she could kill someone gladly.
Throughout the flight the crew looked strained. Smiles were few, admonishments aplenty. And though they didn't actually grind their teeth, they sure gave the impression of doing it mentally.
But nothing was more remarkable than a little incident just as we boarded. A burquaed lady, who had been lengthily harassing a ground staff about her luggage, got it back royally.
"Chup! Ek dum chup!" he shouted at her.
All these, however, were overwritten as we touched down. Miraculously the crew brightened. They overcame their exhaustion. And on my way out I am sure that I saw a stewardess at the door, saying goodbye through a smile that touched her from ear to ear.
Our wanderings in connection with a series on Islamic fundamentalism took us to the Malappuram police superintendent. That gentleman was busy meeting his subjects. On his table was a small plaque saying, 'Your time is valuable, so is mine.'
There were quite a few people before us. Looking half-asleep in his chair, the SP signed away official documents as complainants complained on. Occasionally he interrupted the exercise to produce a grunt or "Okay, I will inquire."
Our turn came and I requested for certain information. The SP, who had started being attentive when he found that I worked for a newspaper, unrolled a large bundle of red-tape and, before I knew it, had me bound hand and foot.
"You write down the questions," he told me solemnly, "Let me study them."
I replied that I didn't want a full-fledged interview with him, no, not even his comments, just uncomplicated information about his district. Like, for instance, the number of crimes against women.
Normally SPs are a jolly, dynamic lot -- at least, the ones I know are. But this IPS officer proved to be worse than a government clerk.
"No, no, I cannot give information like that. You will have to fax me the questionnaire. Then you can come and meet me on... well, next Monday."
I explained we were working against a tight deadline, so could he be a little more charitable? Alas, no! The SP was positive that he couldn't.
"You fax the questionnaire," he repeated as we stood up, "Let me study it first."
As we walked out, I looked at the little plaque on his desk. The SP's time was valuable, sure. But ours, apparently, wasn't.
Driving down from Calicut to Trichur in search of our next victim, a lady reputed to be Kerala's first woman mahout, my colleague Dominic kept looking out of the window and sighing. The view was superb, my Bombay-born-and-brought-up friend insisted. Oh, what he wouldn't give to buy a house here!
Of course, Kerala is beautiful. Breathtakingly. But the stretch we were traversing was hardly anything to go by. I thought of the green, tea-carpeted hills of Peerumedu, the lovely moss-covered backwaters of Alappuzha, the cruel, spectacular waterfall of Athirappally...
I guess we Keralites take such things for granted. It takes an outsider to make us realise how green our land is.
Senior Feature Writer Chindu Sreedharan travelled to Kerala to research The Jihad Within series. Illustrations: Dominic Xavier.
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