Chinatown

I am travelling shoulder-to-shoulder with a stranger, in his car and in his pace, and it has struck midnight just now. Only hours before, I had an experience of friction with my father, the voices and noises from which are shredding the silence in the cab now. Though I can guiltlessly place the entire weight of the discord on him, I must admit I did have a role or two to play.

The repetitious nature of this father-son tussle is becoming irksome.

I am riding to the airport to receive a Chinese businessman, arriving to visit the company I work for. I don’t know how he would look, or what exactly would show him to me, but I don’t complain, because it is vaguely thrilling to flit over dark roads in a cab I needn’t pay for.

A disturbed soul briefly reflected as a daring ghoul.

The only conversation in the cab is centred on the driver’s lamentations of working by Ola’s rules. ‘You have to reach these many kilometres by this time to get what is, after all, your rightful earning. It is like a game, you lose real money if you don’t win.’

Corporate sharks jawing around small carps.

*

My first impression of the international terminal is that it appears like a stage set for a beauty pageant. A ‘U’ railing separates the crowd of white chauffeurs (from various ‘white’ hotels) holding white placards from the exiting passengers of different flights – most of them new to Chennai and expecting to be collected. If a walk from one end of the railing to another does not show the foreigner any board with his / her name, (s)he would turn to walk back to the start, now slower and more attentive, as if flaunting self to judges settled around with scorecards. Some walk back and forth and back before finding themselves and finally relieving the tired man, while others spot their names from a mile away and communicate to the happy holder with a gesture of the index.

The chauffeur from the hotel our Chinese guest will be staying in, a black man uniformed in white, meets with me at the edge of the crowd. He raises the placard and asks if the spelling of the guest is right.

‘What is your name?’ I ask him. I am in the mood tonight to engage strangers in pointless conversations. Probably to ease the short while, probably to bask in stories.

‘Nikhil.’ His manner is prompt, almost mechanical.

Nikhil is not a Tamil name. Nor is his face Dravidian. Upon digging I learn he is a Bengali who’s pitched in Chennai for more than 20 years. His father had a factory, in Howrah, which was cheated out of their hands by his own uncle. Lured by false promises to start a new factory, by his father’s friend, his family was shepherded all the way to Chennai, where they are now in various menial jobs.

A Lufthansa has arrived. I see people trickling out of the exit, some excited, some exhausted and the others equanimous. A young woman is the first I see. Her lips are bleeding and her hair bouffant. Seeing her luggage, I estimate her to be very wealthy, but seeing her clothes I think the other way. She is trying hard to be someone else, in her walk, outlook and all.

Next into view is a young man, awkwardly dressed. Seeing him the weary old man and woman behind me lurch, circle around the crowd, pass through a narrow gap somewhere and rush to him. The father is calm, standing dignifiedly away with his hands held behind, while the mother loses herself and hugs and cries and kisses her son, who smilingly nods to hose down the expression of her happiness.

First flight fantasies.

Close behind comes a tall, lithe, white man, seemingly in a trance. He is pulling one trolley and his other hand is shaped by his side as if it is holding another. After he is received by his chauffeur we all hear a shout and see the man rushing back into the exit shaking his head. He reappears minutes later still holding only one trunk, complains about the futility of travelling in Economy and entertains us all. His chauffeur turns to Nikhil and says, ‘Has drunk all the free liquor they provide up there and forgotten his other bag.’

Light-headed comedies.

*

I and Nikhil wait on the railing for a long time. The flight carrying our Chinese has arrived and even many unconnected brothers and sisters have swept past us, but we have not been approached by anyone yet. Every time a clueless flat face appears I urge Nikhil to raise the placard. He reassures me, but we are still standing.

I shift my weight between my legs, while Nikhil stays like a mannequin. It is insightful to see daily routines remodel a man. I think of my own, and then a lot of other things, but still no Chinese has walked towards us.

A tiny fat man beside me, wakeful and smelling salty, raises his placard reading ‘Gianni Schiavoni’ to all the Chinese men and women passing by. I want to let him know, but I keep silent.

My mind figures many explanations, some creatively curious, to reason the absence of the Chinese. I turn around and walk away to sit on a thick metal pipe installed for me. It is 2 in the morning and only the sky supports that; the crowd at the terminal is unflinching. As I muse about my sleeplessness, trying to balance myself on the pipe, I hear Nikhil’s voice and notice a small Chinese man, glassed and pleasant, nodding to him.

We shake hands, introduce and perform small talk with Nikhil on our toes. He feels very thankful for the reception and climbs into the car. I wish him a good night and turn the other way. As Nikhil drives away I book a cab for my homeward trip.

Another stranger. Another conversation skilfully kickstarted. His mother, the driver said, has been admitted into a hospital and it has become too late for him to get home. Since waking up again early in the morning to start his shift would be difficult he had decided to simply continue driving through the wee hours.

Riding over a short bridge I see hairy pigs, dark as the night, scuttling across to a thick bush and disappearing there.

A few minutes later I am paying the driver outside my house. Before closing the door, I want to mouth something like ‘Take care of your mother,’ but it is so unlike me and I wonder if I am mature enough to say that.

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