Monday, November 01, 2021

The man who lived at the airport

The British journalist Dennis Potter once said he understood the dreaded expression ”terminal illness” only after he saw Heathrow. Mind you, the gigantic Terminal 5 hadn’t even been built when he took this swipe at the aerial gateway to London. Hell, the humorist Dave Barry observed, is Concourse D of Chicago’s 0’Hare Airport, till 2005 the world’s busiest airport in terms of take-offs and landings. My own personal ”favorite” is Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson, which, as the world’s busiest airport in terms of passenger footfall, has more the feel of kumbh mela than an airport. On the flip side, there’s the airport I once landed in on the tiny Caribbean island of Canouan in the Grenadines, where the runway begins at one end of the island and ends at the other, and the entire population of the territory can probably fit into an Airbus-380.

By and large — mostly large — airports are humongous, cavernous beasts, increasingly in the scale of mini-cities that hold mega-malls with outlet stores, fast-food joints, and miles and miles of escalators and walkways, terminals and gates. Some airports have tried to embrace the ambience of a museum. The leader in the area is Amsterdam’s Schiphol, which has an outpost of the Rijksmuseum. Several American airports have outstanding works of art, none better than Denver, which hosts a 9000 lbs fiberglass sculpture of a mustang with gleaming red eyes by New Mexico artist Luis Jimenez. Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson too, despite it being the world’s busiest, hosts some phenomenal works of art, including 20 stunning pieces by Zimbabwe’s top sculptors. New Delhi’s new airport ramped it up by hosting the works of M.F.Husain and Ayush Kasliwal’s mudras.

While it’s possible some airports will soon begin to have classroom instructions and quiz shows — learn how to make biryani in 20 minutes! Win free ticket with trivial pursuit! — don’t expect them to become centers of learning or reflection. You don’t meditate or deliberate much at airports, even though more and more have prayer enclosures and massage centers. The few prayers you might utter are restricted to pressing matters like your flight being on time, your baggage arriving safely, and making a connection with minimum fuss through security. Even during lengthy layovers, all we want these days is for the airport to have good wi-fi connectivity so that we catch up on e-mail and social media after a mandatory sweep of duty free shops, and some nice couches where you can catch a few winks during transit if you are not privileged to have lounge access. An airport is definitely not a home.

But a recent story involving an Indian that suggests otherwise caught my eye. A Chicago county court judge last week found Aditya Singh, 37, not guilty of felony criminal trespass after he was discovered living at O’Hare International Airport for three months before he was detected. Singh told authorities that the coronavirus pandemic left him too afraid to fly and so he instead remained in the airport, hiding in a terminal area with access to shops, food and public bathrooms. The judge appears to have taken a sympathetic view of his fear.

Singh is not exactly a homeless delinquent. Apparently, he  completed a master’s program at Oklahoma State University in summer 2019, and lived outside Los Angeles for several months before he boarded a flight to Chicago en route to India. But he got cold feet before he got on the flight — maybe Delhi’s pollution and traffic panicked him? — and decided he’d hang out at O’Hare. From the airport he told a friend in California he spoke to a few times that he had experienced a spiritual awakening, and he was accosting passengers with lectures on Buddhism and Hinduism, and trying to improve their lives.

“I need to complete my karmic lessons that I’m learning here. Then I’ll be able to go back home to India… I’m actually growing spiritually due to this experience and I know I will come out stronger,” the Chicago Tribune quoted him as telling his friend. Mercifully the ordeal — mainly of passengers at the receiving end of his spiritual discourse on the concourse — ended when two airline employees spotted him wearing a badge that was reported missing.

31/10/21 Chidanand Rajghatta in Ruminations/Times of India

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