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Opinion | Diary of an airport anthropologist

Live Mint - 15 March, 2019

There’s no place like large city airports to get a sharp yet nuanced sense of what India today is all about. In cities with two terminals, this is especially true of “low cost" terminals rather than the newer “global" ones, which are great to experience, but lack an Indian soul—just like those very upmarket shopping malls. Some would argue that this is exactly what these airports are, only with an airstrip or two attached.

On a bus ride to the aircraft at Ahmedabad airport was a group of four loud and excited Gujarati-speaking men with a 10-year-old boy in tow, clearly from small-town Gujarat. Remember the bygone days when people wore suits and ties to get on a plane? They wore traditional weave kurtas and shawls with narrow pants, embroidered mojris and ear studs with great confidence, not self-consciously trying to become invisible in a sea of Western attired men. The child had a fashionably chic haircut and dispelled any doubts about the demand for or supply of latest Bollywood fashions in small-town India.

Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

On the tarmac, as we were waiting to board, a selfie and photo op rush began among several very diverse passenger groups. Hats off to IndiGo, an airline which seems to know when to indulge its customers and when to get tough with them. Except for a few amused smiles, nobody batted an eyelid or looked embarrassed over their “uncool" behaviour.

In fact, “be yourself" without any worry of “log kya sochenge" seems to be the new cool. I guess in a society where electronic self projection is the norm across socio-economic strata, what people will think is a strange question.

Now for the food. A familiar sight at the airport is the row of kiosks with all kinds of Western and Indian food. Despite data on the broadening of the young Indian palate, the kiosks with idli, samosa, cheela chaat and masala chai are always the ones with the longest queues—eat your heart out, sandwich bars! It’s the same on aeroplanes too. The box of almonds now has a stiff fight with the box of makhanas, and it’s a toss-up between Maggi Masala and upma for the preferred light snack of the “just add hot water, wait a bit and eat" variety. Green tea, though, seems to have busted out of the foreign food box and is now a full-fledged biological sibling of masala chai.

India is a young country and we see that from the crowds at the airport. Add the young population and early-to-bed and early-to-rise culture of Tamil Nadu, and you can see the result in the long queues to enter the airport even at 5 am.

All of us SoBo—i.e. South Bombay—types also need to notice that bright children and well-informed parents still talk to each other in the vernacular despite ubiquitous English medium education and the topics of discussion are the same as those we hear in English-speaking families: Whose picture is that on the wall? Why is it here? How does this plane fly? Why are we in a bus?

Airport security affirms what we always suspected—that we haven’t yet figured what being “gender friendly" actually entails. So, yes, separate security channels that have female security officers do make it more comfortable for female passengers.

But the body screening booth has a curtain that needs to be manually opened and closed each time a passenger enters. Female security officers end up doing a far more physically (and needlessly) demanding job than their male counterparts. I have asked female officers why they don’t ask for better designed booths so that this curtain opening and closing activity is eliminated, and they all had the same answer: that they asked their supervisors, who are men, and they didn’t do anything about it.

Interestingly, the number of female pilots is on the rise, and today, no one on a plane registers any surprise when passengers are told that it is an all-woman crew or when a female voice from the cockpit tells them to fasten seat belts in scary weather conditions. Aren’t we Indians confused about gender equality?

What I find most interesting is how you can tell the character of cities apart based on the traveller profile at the boarding gate. My favourite is Coimbatore. South saris, twinkling diamond nose rings and veshtis as expected, and many people whom you would expect to see at a National Centre for Performing Arts play or literature festival, going to an Isha Foundation event or to their second homes in the Nilgiris.

You also see foreign businessmen (not the corporate suit-wearing kind) on their way to Tiruppur, and vacationing middle-class families and groups from all over India speaking a medley of languages, travelling to Ooty.

Also visible in full force is young India, slogging late nights and early mornings on their mobile phones, all so comfortable with global business phrases delivered in varying accents.

And we do seem to have become a weekend culture. With our airports jammed with young people on Friday nights and Monday mornings, I guess long-distant relationships are on the rise.

Flying business class can now help you short-circuit the security check queue, which was earlier only the prerogative of government or political big shots.

The market economy is indeed here in all its avatars.

Rama Bijapurkar is a Consumer India watcher and author of 'We Are Like That Only' and 'A Never-Before World'.