Descent began around 5:00AM local time. Slowly but surely, the black abyss of the Arabian sea gave way to the sea of lights that is metropolitan Mumbai. The plane jerked slightly in the morning wind, and I felt my guts distend to intangible depths as we descended in ever tightening circles towards the shimmering carpet underneath. The by-now familiar thud of the landing gear lowering from its cage signaled our final descent. The air acquired a sense of urgency. Assorted high pitched whines and screeches broke through the loud silence of crying babies and yawning adults as hydraulic fluid raced across the plane, tilting ailerons and lifting flaps. The engine joined in, squealing loudly as the pilots reduced speed and glided towards the tarmac. I looked out of the window, peering over two rows of seats and making my co-passengers visibly nervous ("Honey, that strange man is staring at us again..."). The lights drew closer. The lights became shapes. The shapes became buildings. The buildings became hotels, warehouses and terminals. Toy cars and toy people appeared fleetingly on the dimly lit streets as we raced past towards our final destination. A screech, a bounce, another screech. A sudden jerk as the air brakes kicked in, pinning us to our seats (thanks for nothing, Newtonian physics...). Rumbling tires, shuddering wings, flickering cabin lights, a visual and aural crescendo signaling the flamboyant end to our long journey. A brief ping as the cabin lights sprang back to life. An interminable wait, hushed silence and the still-crying babies. Cracked messages across the intercom, a hundred clicks and thuds as seatbelts unbuckled, overhead compartments sprang open and bags tumbled out into the clumsy hands of sleepy travelers. Welcome to Mumbai.
The air-conditioning strained to keep the salty sea breeze from polluting our cabin's sterile interior. It lost. Mumbai trickled in, asserting its presence and defying HVAC science everywhere. The cabin doors sprang open and we shuffled out into the balmy winter morning. The industrial size air conditioners lining the gate's corridor did a much better job filtering Mumbai's musky scent than the plane had, though it did nothing to lower the temperature. But none of it mattered. I was still battling this strange sense of nothingness that had crept up on me sometime during the flight, and I was losing. I felt nothing. No joy, no elation, no excitement. I was returning home after two and a half years and all I could think about was whether my checked luggage had made it safely through.
The Bureau of Immigration did its best to show its utter disdain for returning citizens. All communication was in hand gestures. Spoken word is apparently forbidden in those hallowed flexi-barrier corridors. Three concerted attempts at "What does that mean?" elicited no verbal response and were greeted each time by the same L-shaped hand gesture. An impatient stranger waiting behind me helpfully suggested that I hand over the information card I had filled out during the flight. I handed it over. Another L-shaped hand gesture. This time, I handed over everything I had, boarding pass, passport, and a stick of gum that had somehow made its way into my hand. Two quick thuds as a heavy stamp granted me legitimacy, and I officially stepped onto the motherland. It welcomed me with "Saheb, $50 mein bina tension customs clear kara dete hain. Kya bolte?" ($50 will get you past customs without hassles. What say?). Four separate airport staffers asked me this question within 15 minutes as I waited by the baggage carousel. I sighed the sigh of resigned indignation that impotent Indians usually do, picked out my bags from the belt and proceeded to the exit.
The adrenaline hit me with the same urgency as the musty Mumbai air. All at once, I choked on the heady mix of salt, sea and sulphur dioxide as I spotted my beaming parents across the sprawling arrivals lounge. I felt my face form a wide smile, my arms form an empty embrace. Everything from the preceding 22 hours melted away into one incoherent, irrelevant mess.
A nondescript placard lying on its side in a corner summed things up."Welcome to Mumbai. Welcome Home."- S
December 22, 2009
Finally - after much-much time (which is what happens once people get their own blogs) - I get a guest post for ze blog. Says 'S', 'If you want what it feels like to land in Mumbai, here's my take...'