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A Delhiite at the Delhi Airport

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 1, 2010 1 Comment

I spent a couple of hours at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport today, where I’d gone to pick up someone special. Unfortunately, due to a malicious, evil blanket of fog and zero visibility, the flight was diverted to Mumbai, and it won’t arrive for several hours. I remember almost exactly a year ago, when fog wreaked havoc on my vacation plans—when a British Airways flight I was to take to return to Berkeley ended up being (an impossibly) 72 hours delayed because of the dense fog. The “interesting” aspect of the wait—for it wasn’t till about an hour and half after the ETA flashing on the info screen that we were informed that the flight was “diverted”—was getting a chance to observe life in the Arrivals area. As someone who “arrives” and “departs” but is never the one waiting for or seeing someone off, this was a novel experience.

There are two waiting areas at IGI Arrivals-a ticketed section, where I was, where you can wait closer to the passengers’ exit in the toasty comfort of central heating, and another general section outside, where people must brave the elements (but get the best street coffee!). I stood by the railings that flank the passengers’ exit for the better part of an hour and a half on unfortunately high-heeled feet, creating a veritable right angle with my body in an attempt to get a better view of the exiting passengers. As what seemed like an endless stream of British Airways passengers exited the airport, I waited impatiently, looking around, trying to get a linguistic feel of the place.

Across from me, behind the parallel railing, most people were carrying English signs welcoming non-Indian sounding names. A huge family of Punjabis kept up excited chatter around me, awaiting the arrival of someone they hadn’t seen in a while. Having grown up in Delhi, and by virtue of the fact that my brother-in-law is Punjabi, the language is very close to my heart, as are the people. There is something very lively about it-perhaps because I associate it with some of the best food in the world, and the peppiest music. It was a gift to be able to eavesdrop (more phonetically than content-wise) and let the language wash over me in waves.  On the other side of me, a couple of North-East Indian girls indulged in what seemed like gossip, in a tongue I had never heard the likes of before, sounding so brilliantly exotic to my ears. A Tamil couple behind me was yelling loudly at their child, who was insisting on squeezing through the railings into the restricted (and prohibited) area, absolutely unmoved by the scary-looking mustached airport security personnel. Two older Bengali men engaged in a heated debate about the merits of the Central government’s job scheme for India’s poorest, hardly stopping to look at the arrivals info screen, so absorbed were they in their debate. The PA system would intermittently inform us about which conveyor belt was “receiving” luggage for which airline, alternating announcements in Hindi and English.

I ended up talking to a few people who were waiting in the same section. One man, awaiting his daughter’s arrival from Canada, had a distinct Hindi accent that I couldn’t place, and he disappeared before I could ask where he was from. Usually you can tell where someone’s from by his/her Hindi accent (which varies from region to region, even for first language speakers), but his was unlike any I’d ever heard before. Another man, definitely a Delhi local, waiting for the same airline as I was, was a lot of fun to talk to. I forget that though I visit Delhi often, I don’t always get to have conversations with locals beyond brief exchanges at bazaars (usually only involving bargaining for this and that). How nice it was to exchange pleasantries in a dialect that resonates so deeply in my heart!

Eventually, as a group of us got together and cursed the notorious Delhi fog, the IGI (lack of) information services, and Indian infrastructure at large, we all bonded in a moment that I can only call “shared knowingness.” This was our city screwing us over, yet again. (But we love it). Suddenly, in a moment of flashing clarity, immersed in “Dilli” Hindi, and “regular” “Dilli” talk, with “real” Dilli people, I felt like a real Delhiite again. It was as if I’d never left, and all the dysphoria of recent days, the feeling of disconnectedness—from my hometown and Hindi—receded.  It might be a fleeting sense of belonging, but I am holding on to it as long as I can. It’s good to be home.


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One Response to “A Delhiite at the Delhi Airport”

  1. daveski on: 5 January 2010 at 11:32 pm

    A very nice post, and one that brings to life the always mixed and sometimes chaotic feel of the arrivals lobby. It’s interesting, too, the connection we can feel with others when we’re all waiting…together. Did you start up conversations with any of the people around you before the group “got together”? How did it get together–what folks and what languages/dialects ended up gathering?

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