Get up," said my husband, shaking me awake in the dark.
"What do you want?" I mumbled groggily.
"I am making you peanut butter sandwiches," he said. "You are to go on that new no-frills flight to Mangalore today, remember?"
Half an hour later, I walked out of our home carrying a backpack he had filled with a carton of sandwiches, a bottle of juice and sundry other emergency items.
"What's this?" I asked suspiciously, fishing out a deflated air cushion.
"That is in case they ask you to sit in the hold and the luggage is pokey," he replied.
The last thing I heard as I ran down the front steps of my house was Amala, my seven-year-old, hollering, "How dare you give her my Barbie snack box and bottle?"
I was taking a round trip to Mangalore and back on Air Deccan's newly launched half-price air taxi service. I rushed into the airport at a dead run from the parking lot an hour later, just five minutes before take off time. A visiting foreign prime minister was responsible for my late arrival: there were traffic blocks all over the city.
"The flight is half an hour late, so you are in luck," said Air Deccan's Airport Manager G Pramod. "A small technical problem."
He handed me a boarding pass, and I walked through security check into the departure lounge, assuming that was the last time I would see him that day. How wrong I was!
The departure lounge was full of passengers traveling on two different airlines, both to Mangalore. Only, one flight was priced at just over half the cost of the other one.
"I chose this airline because it is from our state," said elderly planter Ramesh Rao, who lives on a coffee estate three hours by road from Mangalore. "I really like supporting local endeavours."
An Air Deccan aircraft rolled into the hangar. We smiled triumphantly at one another and shuffled our feet, ready for the departure call. But the aircraft rolled out of the hangar again in minutes.
That was the beginning of what looked like a wait without an end. The minutes ticked past. Slowly, they became hours. Pramod appeared before us, sweating profusely, his smile rather shaky.
"There's been a technical snag," he said. "The engineers are fixing it. We should be in the air in half-an-hour."
An assorted group of mostly male passengers crowded around him. "We were prepared for a delay of an hour or so, since we knew this was only the second day your airline was flying," said theatre personality-turned-businessman Bimal Desai. "But this is hard to take. I have clients waiting for me in Mangalore."
"I haven't had breakfast," said Shantha Rao, the coffee planter's wife. As I unzipped my backpack to give her some of my emergency sandwiches, Pramod quickly announced, "We are serving everyone some snacks at the airport canteen."
As we walked out of the departure lounge, a tentative bonhomie built over a shared anxiety became stronger. Ramesh Rao began talking to Chritopher Gabriel, a young physiotherapist on vacation from the US, about his wife's recent knee replacement surgery. Businessmen exchanged cards and stories about other delayed flights.
Minutes later, my husband called. "You on your way home?" he asked cheerily. "I can hear you munching my sandwiches."
"Nah, I'm eating out with friends," I replied loftily.
By this time, Rajeshwari, who was taking her first flight to Mangalore on work, was busy with her mobile telephone, telling a colleague waiting at the Mangalore airport she would reach there any time.
"No, I don't mean any time now," she explained quickly. "I mean any time today."
We walked down the canteen steps, taking our first collective decision as a group. We would not go back into the departure lounge. We would sit in the main portion of the airport and watch passersby.
We settled into one big circle, comfortable with one another, having already quickly swapped life histories and family secrets in some detail.
"You said you had promised to pick Amala up from the school bus today," said the motherly Shantha Rao anxiously. "My granddaughter hates to be let down at such times. What will you do?"
I dialed the old reliable husband. "I am just talking to some American clients," he said excitedly. "They want to buy some of our most expensive software."
"Stop talking to them," I said. "There are more important places for you to be at, like the school bus stop on our street."
I hung up on his spluttering voice.
Two hours later, it was lunchtime and the aircraft was finally ready to go. "Do you want to eat at the canteen again or shall we go?" asked a crumpled, weary Pramod.
"Let's go," chorused everyone.
We walked across the hot tarmac to the waiting plane. "We apologise for having made you wait for almost five hours," said the two smiling, pretty air hostesses, Monali and Eunice.
The predominantly male passengers, who had expected a flight without air hostesses, brightened visibly, and almost cheered when Monali added: "Please give me your visiting cards so we can send you free, open-ended air tickets to compensate you for the wait."
"Who cares if there is no free lunch," muttered passenger Ashwin Paul, swapping his regular spectacles for some fancy glasses with a telescope attached to the lenses. "A free air ticket is far better!"
I said nothing, rendered speechless by the apology for a sandwich in my hand. "It's peanut butter and chocolate spread," I remarked to no one in particular. "Does he think I'm seven years old too?"
Pramod made one last perspiring appearance, this time inside the aircraft. By now, there had been a subtle shift in the balance of power between the airline staff and the passengers. The passenger had the upper hand.
"Don't look so worried," Ramesh Rao told Pramod in fatherly tones. "I'm sure things will be better next time."
Pramod disappeared, the aircraft doors closed, and we took off. "Young woman, some exit has not been closed properly," called out an older passenger.
"Where? What?" yelled all the others, craning their necks.
"Go look, girls!"
The airhostesses, who wore unfashionably long grey skirts, jackets and yellow blouses, ran to the windows.
"It's only the wheels," said Eunice in relief. "They are going into the plane."
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh