“Welcome to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport”. What effect those words have on each passenger sitting in an aircraft, is probably the subject of a study that would thrill many behavioural scientsists. What do those words mean to you?
For me, it means the end of a holiday, a not very pleasant feeling. This then means you have to steel yourself for what used to be the walk of shame from your aircraft to the immigration counters. It was particularly horrible walking thru what seemed like bombed out corridors when the building was being renovated. Now this has changed for the better, you now have an Art Walk, walking past large, pleasant and some rather good oil paintings by some of India’s better artists ranging from Anjolie Ela Menon to Brinda Miller. Not bad.
For me it also means that you now have to walk fast, very fast to get to the head of the queue at Immigration. This walk, after lying almost comatose in the aircraft for the last 8 hours eating and drinking yourself silly, is invigorating, gets your blood flowing rather quick. Is this the reason why the airport authorities have placed several Heart Defibrillator machines along the walls at the airport? I am serious, have a look at these!
It also means that you have to get ready to get your immigration card, its smaller tear off portion and your Passport stamped. Then, you need to hold your Passport open to the page with the stamp and show it to yet VIP [Vagabond In Power], and finally enter the baggage claim area.
Here you will see creatures in white. They are not ghosts but are in fact employees of the Government of India’s, Ministry of Finance’s Department of Revenue. To understand what they are supposed to do I suggest that you read their citizens charter. It’s pretty long. Hilarious, to say the least.
It means that after you have collected your bags and passed thru the Customs inspection you have to now be ever vigilant to hand over that tear off portion of the landing card, to a waiting police constable. This can be a challenge. Lots of time has passed since that tear off was handed to you, in the meanwhile here has been much excitement, you have collected your bags, X Rayed them and are walking out when suddenly this Constable asks you for that slip. Many poor unsuspecting foreigners, who cannot understand the guttural utterances of the constable, have no idea what all this is about.
Once you hand over the slip, you can finally exit into a teeming seething mass of humanity. This always amazes me. So I tried to do some research on this. Heathrow Airport has a very informative site. It says that for Terminal 5 alone, which is the newest, largest and is used almost exclusively by British Airways, 23.4 million passengers passed thru it to arrive or depart on a total of 166,940 flights. Mind you Heathrow is closed during the night, so all flights and passenger movements happen only during 18 odd hours of operation. Unfortunately I could not find comparable figures for the International Terminal of Mumbai Airport; however the official website of the airport states that Mumbai Airport [Domestic and International] handled 29.1 million passengers in the same period. Assuming, while it cannot be the case, a 50% - 50% split between domestic and international which would mean 14.5 million passengers in the International terminal in Mumbai as opposed to 23.4 million in Heathrow Terminal 5, the sheer numbers of people outside the airport is, as the cliché goes, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, Why do we have so many bodies outside?
Amid all this confusion and humanity you spot your driver and feel such a sense of relief. That is the time I am comfortable again, and feel I am home, when I see the driver. Is this how the immigrants felt when they saw the Statue of Liberty when docking at New York? I wonder.