SHILLONG AIRPORT

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ten minutes before touchdown, the ATR was tossed around in air pockets.

It complemented the essence of leaving metro life.

The turbo-prop was flying as it used to be before technology stole aviation.

The airport below was similar.

It was a small building.

The arrival area was a single room as small as a Mumbai apartment, with attached toilet.

You waited for the baggage, picked it up and left. No conveyor belt, no sitting around.

Nearby a new terminal of glass and steel was being constructed.

A few taxis lay parked outside for the 32 kilometer-ride from Umroi to Shillong.

I got into a state transport bus. It charged less.

There was a brief wait for the plane to take-off, the airport staff to pack up and the bus to leave with everyone – staff included.

It was the end of a working day at Shillong airport.

Its only flight had come and gone.

Days later, my work done, I was ready to fly back to Kolkata.

At Shillong’s bus depot, I waited for the bus to the airport.

Nothing drew up.

Seeing one of the airport staff from my earlier trip, I asked her about the bus. She guided me to the assigned vehicle. We spent the next ten minutes discussing Meghalaya.

“ I wish I was busy but there is only so much work here,’’ Saira Khar Karang said. Many years ago, the government owned-airline, Vayudoot – it disappeared without proper successor for its invaluable role – flew small aircraft to Shillong. Later the ATR came. Flights used to be cancelled for want of passengers. During rains the plane may skip Shillong and proceed to the more reliable Guwahati airport. Passenger traffic had since improved but the monsoon’s grip remained.

Yet, Saira didn’t wish to leave Shillong.

“ Khasi people are open hearted,’’ she said, wary of big cities.

Every small city eventually becomes a big city.

 It’s the phenomenon of our times.

 “ Who knows what Shillong will be?’’ I asked.

Some more of the airport staff trickled in.

“ Flight is one hour late,’’ a young lady said.

En route to the airport, we picked up others I recognized from the bus ride, the day I arrived.

It was a small world.

The security personnel at airport were a mixed bunch speaking languages of the North East, Hindi, Kannada and Malayalam. A lone X-Ray machine sat in the departure lounge, which had aluminum window frames for modernity. No air conditioning. Next to the X-Ray machine was Air India’s ticket counter, a kiosk. Ground service had been outsourced to a local travel agency. A weighing machine with attached electronic meter checked for excess baggage. Once some passengers had gathered, the officials ran the X-Ray machine, weighed the baggage, tagged it and issued boarding passes. All hand written, no computer print-out.

A TV provided passengers taste of impending metro inanity: the program quizzed Indian film stars on size zero while the streamer said Jennifer Aniston had denied she was on baby foods to stay thin. An announcement over the PA system informed that the delay had risen to near two hours. The TV channel switched to Doordarshan, screening a Hindi film – an Indian Tarzan with Ruby for Jane.

Then Shillong’s daily power cut struck.

Somewhere a generator hummed, fans whirled again and Ruby, Tarzan and elephants returned.

There was fuss around the VIP room as a politician arrived.

Half an hour later, we queued before a room marked `Security Hold.’ The CISF personnel took us through security check then joined the airport staff in inviting us for tea and snacks. The manager apologized for the delay and the time it took to fetch snacks, the airport being distant from town. A CISF jawan took an elderly passenger’s water bottle and filled it for her.

Shortly thereafter, the lone plane for which the airport existed landed.

A quick frisking before boarding, seats taken and we were off like clockwork.

As Meghalaya receded to green hills kissed by fluffy white clouds, I imagined an airport below closed for the day and a bus with staff and passengers headed back to Shillong.

Someday, that politician or another would inaugurate the new terminal, jet planes would land and Saira would turn busy.

Where next for the turbo-prop?

I wonder.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was written following a visit to Meghalaya several years ago. An abridged version was published in The Hindu Business Line newspaper. Shillong’s new terminal was inaugurated in 2011, reports on the Internet said.)

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