Sole flier to Shillong
Thursday, June 24, 2021 5:58 PM

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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 as flying used to be before technology stole aviation. The airport below was similar.

It was a small building. The arrival area was a single room with attached toilet. You waited for the baggage, picked it up and left. No conveyor belt, no sitting around. A few taxis lay parked outside for the 32-km ride from Umroi to Shillong. Nearby a new terminal of glass and steel was being constructed. I got into a State transport bus. 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 aircraft 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, Vayudoot — it disappeared without proper successor for its invaluable role — flew 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. Now passenger traffic has improved but the monsoon's grip remains. Still, Saira doesn't wish to leave Shillong. “Khasi people are open hearted,” she said, wary of big cities. Every small city eventually becomes a big city. “Who knows what Shillong will be?” I asked. Some more of the airport staff trickled in. “Flight is one hour late,” a young woman said. En route to the airport, we picked up others I recognised. It was a small world.

The CISF 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 aluminium window frames for modernity. No air conditioning. Next to the 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 handwritten, no computer printout. A TV provided passengers taste of impending metro inanity: the programme quizzed Indian stars on size zero. 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. Then Shillong's daily power cut struck. Somewhere a generator hummed, fans revived and the TV returned to life. 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 apologised 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 flight landed. A quick frisking before boarding, seats were 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.

Some day, that politician would inaugurate the new terminal, jet planes would land and Saira would turn busy. Where next for the turbo-prop? I wonder.



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