Planes, Trains and Automobiles

When New York city went to sleep, loneliness caught me,

snow spread all over,

even the breeze got down from the ship and walked the shores (yeah. it was that lonely)

Inside the four glass walls, me and a candlelight,

Oh so lonely, such torture..

Eh? Actually none of the above was true for me, although Surya (in the movie Verrrry coool ya one louws) thought otherwise. For starters, the only 4 hours I was actually alone (in the hotel room) I was so sleepy that lighting any candlelights would have caused a fire hazard. And the only snow I saw was in the freezer of the fridge in my room. It was sunny and pleasant for most part. And I did not travel by the QE2 along side Mr Breeze. I traveled by a long tube crammed with Teutonic airhostesses who kept waking me up from sleep just to ask me “Vaat vood you like zu trink?”

So here goes The completely unoriginal saga of Planes, Trains and Automobiles

(The original title, incidentally, is borrowed from a decent Steve Martin movie, whose plot line was partially copied and made into an even better Kamal Hassan starrer called Anbe Sivam (Love is God) ). And while I am physically in Indian Standard Time, my body is currently in an indeterminate time zone approximately in between Eastern Standard Time and IST. So the narrative will probably be slightly dazed and confused.

Day of the Moon, 11.30 pm

I reached the Chennai airport and answered the following quantum mathematical question:

If there are N Indians in a crowd, how many queues will be formed?

If you guessed x=1, you are probably an impractical idealist with no grounding in the murky depths of reality

If you guessed 1< x < N, you are probably an underestimating non-Indian.

If you guessed x=N , you are probably a shudh desi

If you guessed x>N , hmm. That has been occasionally known to happen.

It seemed like the Airport Authority of India follows this ground rule – as the crowd increases, reduce the number of entries into the airport and also reduce the number of security guards to 1, so that he creates a bottleneck of massive proportions.

Day of the moon, 11:45 pm

I am on the serpentine queue (thankfully, just one queue) to x-ray scan my baggage for lethal items such as “hockey sticks, crossbows, baseball bats etc”. I am not kidding. Those items are on the list. Given the amount of luggage some people seem to be carrying, it strikes me that Baggage Drain is probably more of a problem than the brain variety. Imagine the amount of spices, pickles, pedhas, Mysore Paaks and rasgullas being smuggled abroad every day. Just the thought gives me ulcers and diabetes.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 1 am

I use the free telephone to inform home that I have been certified, as Rambodoc put it elegantly, a Security Virgin.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 1.10 am

As George Carlin once said (well, not in so many words), the Orgy of Unnecessarily Redundant Extra Verbiage began. Lufthansa announced the commencement of “the Pre-Boarding process” and then the “Boarding process”. It finally culminated in an advanced mechanical engineering lesson in the subtle aspects of using a belt buckle. I was now, seated in the plane. And muahahaha, thanks to a free operational upgrade, I was seated in Business class.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 1.10 am

“Vaat vood you like zu trink?”, asked a 6-footer Teutonic air hostess who held a tray bearing two kinds of glasses, ones that held a colourless liquid and ones that held a bubbly golden coloured liquid. For some reason, I went for the latter. A long tiring day + champagne inevitably = Incredible desire to sleep. So half conscious, I ate the dinner they served. It was some sort of Pulav and Navrathan Khorma served with a rock hard bun.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 3 am


Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 9 am IST, 6 am local time

I wake up to notice that we were flying over the Carpathians and I tried looking for Dracula’s castle, but I couldn’t find it. Breakfast (Fruits + juice + you guessed it, Rock Hard Bun) arrives. I check out their collection of movies and pick Zodiac, a thriller about a serial killer in San Francisco. And just when the movie got interesting, we landed in Frankfurt. Damn.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, Frankfurt airport

3 hours of loafing around. Incredible craving to hog Haagen Dazs ice cream but a cold/sore throat prevents me from doing so.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, LH400

Back in a plane again. Seated behind some Hasidic Jews (the ones who wear top hats and sport interestingly long and curled side burns that they tuck behind their ears when they get in the way). And since I was sort of getting closer to the USA, my mind started thinking purely in ethnic stereotypes. I wondered if they were diamond traders or Wall street hustlers. Theoretical Physicists perhaps. I fall asleep again.

I am woken up by Teutonic Air hostess #2 and asked “Vaat vood you like zu eet?”. Vegetarian? I asked. She said – “Vee only haf ze Cheeken Hot Dog”. Um. Ok. Fine, Ill take that.

Soon later, I was filling up my I-94 arrival form and suddenly realized I had no clue what NY address to fill in. It was a one day trip and I was just told that somebody would pick me up. So I looked around and copied the address my neighbour was filling in.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 1 pm EST

I am picked up by Irfan Raja, originally from Lahore in Pnjaaaab and now runs a limo company in NYC. He has been instructed to drop me off at the Marriott Residence Inn in Princeton, NJ. So we had 90 minutes worth of interesting conversation. We talked about the pointlessness of the artifical Indo-Pak enmity and the differences between the Biriyanis served in Hyderabad, India and Hyderabad, Sind. Did I mention that he was from Pnjaaaab? So here is a quick intro to Pnjaaabi English:

Sport – Not fun and games. Example correct usage – I sport Congress. Without CPI sport, this gorment will fall.

Spose – Not the person one is married to. Example correct usage – Spose I sattle in Brmnghaam, my son will get admishun in good iskool na?

Laiyyar – Not somebody who tells lies. Example correct usage – In this new job, I am not gatting any laiyyar time yaaru. Similar formations for Maiyyar, Trayyar etc

General Rules – If a word contains 2 vowels, swallow first vowel and extend second one. (E.g Sport, Spose and Pnjaab) For extra emphasis, add vowel to last word in sentence. (e.g Chal let’s go yaaru)

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 1.30 pm EST

Irfan drives me across the Verrazzano Bridge from where I get a beautiful view of Manhattan. I attempt to take a photo when I see a sign that says “If you see something, say something. 1-800-NYC-SAFE”. Puzzled, I ask Irfan what it means. He clarifies that bridges cannot be photographed. If one does so, SWAT teams will descend in Cobra attack helicopters, fire bunker busters will depleted uranium and then address the ensuing rubble with a megaphone and scream – “Photographs not allowed. I repeat. Photographs…”

Ok. I got the point. No photos. The last time I came to New York was in the first week of September 2001. We took lots of snaps at the World Trade Center. 2 weeks later, we all know what happened. But 6 years hence, I think NYC has lost more than just the 2 giants of the NYC skyline. It seems to have lost that sense of openness and fun. All I see now is fear, security mania and distrust. It’s hard to blame them though. Anyway, we digress.

The view also reminds me of the Great American Homogenity. For most people, views taken from any 2 cities in the US look more or less alike. One needs a landmark as large as the Grand Canyon to distinguish between 2 places. The roads, the road signs, the advertisements, public transport, the cars, the malls, the franchise restaurants, the skyscrapers. All alike. Whereas in India, one can see distinguish between places by observing the dressing styles, Vehicle registration numbers, languages, swear words, cuisine, pollution levels and turban styles. Just for starters.

Day of Tiw, the Norse God of War, 3 pm EST

Reach hotel. Work till 11.30 pm. Then zzz..

Day of Odin, the Norse Chief God of Asgard, 7.30 am EST

On a train from Princeton to Penn Station. Pnjaaabi lady talking loudly on cellphone. 2 white people sitting next to her getting visibly annoyed. The train is filled with so many desis that the only thing that makes this experience different from a trip on a Chennai suburban train is the complete absence of bajji, groundnut, raw mangoes and cutlet vendors. A series of stations pass us by – New Brunswick, Newark etc. I wonder what the first American colonists of Alpha Centauri will name their cities. Newer York? Newer Brunswick?

Day of Odin, the Norse Chief God of Asgard, 9 am EST

We get down at Penn station, pick up some coffees from a Dunkin Donuts (run by desis, who else) right under Madison Square Garden, and catch a taxi to Lower Manhattan. I notice one of those gutter grill thingies, but since

1. I am not a girl

2. and I was not wearing a provocative white skirt

I didn’t attempt to recreate the famous Marilyn Monroe scene.

Day of Odin, the Norse Chief God of Asgard, 10 am to 2 pm EST

Work time. We wear suits and ties and confuse some people for 4 hours. It went well though.

Day of Odin, the Norse Chief God of Asgard, 2.15 pm EST

Panic time. I am told that my chances of making it to JFK before 3.30 pm will exponentially reduce every moment I waste. Damn. There goes my lunch at Saravana Bhavan, NYC. I catch a cab driven by an overly quiet Palestinian and make my way to the airport (for what felt like the millionth time in 5 days). I catch yet another breathtaking view of the NYC skyline from the Brooklyn-Queens expressway while our friendly arab drives not too unlike my little brother does while playing Need for Speed.

We pass by Flushing Meadows, where I am told, an annual noisy Sania Mirza support frenzy occurs every year (for about one or two rounds) before the serious contenders start playing, and winning.

Day of Odin, the Norse Chief God of Asgard, Lost track of time

Soon enough, I am back in one of those flying tubes, being asked “Vaat vood you like zu trink”. I notice something called Campari and decide to try it out. Big mistake. It tastes like concentrated Bitter Gourd juice. I mostly sleep out the NY-Frankfurt leg thanks to the incredible quietness of German babies. Indian babies, I have often observed (on several Air India trips), tend to be noisy beyond belief. Plus, desi parents always seem to carry baby supplies in Saravana Stores and Pothys plastic covers that make enough noise to even drown out the airplane engine hum.

Again, 2 Hasidic jews are seated next to me, and are in a constant state of annoyance because Lufthansa has a shortage of Kosher meals. I find it very interesting to observe conversations between blond Germans and Orthodox Jews. They are so historically poignant that I can’t help re-imagine these conversations with subtitles

Blond German Air Host – Sir. I am very Sorry. Vee do not have any kosher meals left.

Subtitle – Can’t you eat regular food like everyone else, you Yiddish #$%^.

Jew – What do you mean shortage? I paid for this ticket. I demand my meal now.

Subtitle – Your grandfather might have been able to ship my grandfather off to Auschwitz, but now, I can get you fired for anti-semitism muahahaha.

Ofcourse, I am just kidding. I am sure blond German airhosts and orthodox jews are the best of buddies today.

ps: As an aside, I found this interesting example of kosher food – Locusts

The journey from Frankfurt to Chennai is far more interesting. Why? It’s filled with Indians. Here is a sample conversation, the kind that can happen only between 2 Indians in a plane.

Dramatis Personae

Girl (NRI types, american accent, disinterested look, ipod headphones) – Aisle seat

Guy (Desi, middle-aged, married, one obnoxious kid) – Window seat

Girl (on being asked for the millionth time to stand up and give way so that the guy can get out from his window seat) – Excuse me. Would you mind if I sit at the window seat? I am trying to catch some sleep and you keep asking me to give way. You could sit in the aisle seat and make it easy for both of us

Guy (genetically wired to say No to strangers’ requests, no matter how sensible they sound) – Hmm. No. I prefer the window seat

Girl – But then at least let me sleep without being disturbed

Guy (playing the I-am-an-older-guy-and-you-are-an-irreverent-kid-and-girl-to-boot card) – You just have to adjust and accommodate

( a few hours later)

Guy (he actually wakes the girl up from sleep) – Excuse me. Excuse me. I have changed my mind. Would you like to take the window seat?

Girl (with a wtf? expression) – No thank you. I am comfortable here.

The End.

Why are we so nasty to each other outside of our homes? I didn’t know. So I fell asleep again. I am woken up for breakfast, where we are offered a choice between vegetarian and turkey. I overhear two north Indians whisper –

Abe yeh turkey kya hotha hai ( Hey, this turkey, what it is?)

Mota sa murga hotha hai (It is like a very fat hen)

Chal chhod. Vegetarian hee leletha hoon. Yeh log teek se kuch bhi pakaathe hi nahin hai (ok leave it. Ill just take vegetarian. These peepul dont cook anything properly)

With that blanket generalization of Deutsche cuisine, we arrived at Chennai. Home sweet muggy humid home nonetheless.