Sunday, March 11, 2012

THE STORY OF MY LOST BAGGAGE….

The Marhaba Business-class lounge at Dubai International Airport (Terminal 1) was a hotchpotch of activities and chaos with restless passengers waiting impatiently for their flights to be announced and the thirsty ones making a beeline to the self-service bar to fix a stiff drink and gulp it down. There were also unruly children screaming and running between the easy-chairs in the lounge and making rude noises at those objecting to the intrusion upon their space while the mothers were sitting indifferently, ignoring the nuisance and inconvenience caused to other passengers by their children. It was a cold winter night on 20th January 2009. There were several outward-bound flights all leaving within the next hour or so and most of them to the sub-continent and some of them to Europe and the USA. There were an assortment of passengers waiting in the lounge impatiently, most of them Indians besides Arabs, Africans, a few Europeans and Americans.

There was an Indian family sitting in an adjoining settee, the wife sitting with a sour look on her face, probably the aftermath of a domestic squabble with her husband, who at the moment is sipping Heineken draught beer and pompously discussing the status of an ongoing project his company has been awarded, spraying a generous dose of saliva on the face of his hapless listener to his suffocating misfortune.I was reclining in my couch savoring a highball. It has been a long day, as I was called to the Office in the eleventh hour to tie up a few loose ends before coming home pack up and leave for the Airport. As a rule, I don’t attend Office on the day of my travel, a tradition of 25 years broken due to unforeseen exigencies at the Office. My first stop was Bombay to attend the wedding of one of Manju’s nieces. Manju, Shilpa and Madhu have already flown to Bombay a week earlier to participate in the wedding preparations and have fun, and all of us will fly together to Chennai after couple of days. Our travel itinerary was already planned to the last detail by Manju.


Eventually the Bombay bound Air India flight was announced, and I hurried to the Duty Free Shop to buy a few items that Manju had asked for and some for my own use. I purchased a BlackBerry as our present for the bride and groom to be given during the reception next day evening, a bottle of Chivas Regal Whisky (12 Years Old) for those guests who prefer to have a snifter before lunch at the marriage, a bottle of Jack Daniels Whisky for my use during the vacation besides an assortment of Swiss Chocolates for distribution to the children attending the marriage. I finished my shopping hurriedly, paid with my Credit Card and rushed to Gate No: 25 to board the flight.There was the usual melee and stampede, passengers pushing and jostling, forming more than one queue each running parallel to the other and the latecomers trying to be smart pushing their way ahead of the early birds, and some of the disorganized passengers fumbling for their boarding cards at the entry gate, searching at all but the right place, thus holding up the queue. Ultimately it was my chance at the gate and I quickly walked through the aerobridge and entered the aircraft ignoring the condescending and lifeless plastic smile of the portly Airhostess in her mid-fifties and looking for my window seat, right in the front section of the aircraft.



As a general rule, we have decided never to fly Air India due to the following reasons:


a) You can never be sure whether the flight will leave on the scheduled day as Air India is infamous for cancelling its flights in the last minute, without notice, without bothering to inform the passengers and you will learn about the cancellation only after reaching the Airport from their indifferent and rude ground staff.


b) You can never be sure whether the flight will leave on the scheduled time as delays ranging from 7 hours to 72 hours are not uncommon, and in case of unscheduled delays the AI ground staff will do the vanishing trick, to avoid giving the passengers Hotel Accommodation mandatory under the IATA regulations for delays beyond 6 hours.


c) You can never be sure whether the flight will reach the correct destination you have booked for, as it is customary for Air India to divert their flight to an unscheduled destination without notice. There were occasions when our Chennai bound flight was diverted to Kochi or Hyderabad (due to Technical reasons!!) and we had to pass through Immigration and Customs at Kochi or Hyderabad International Airport, transfer to the domestic lounge and wait impatiently with our luggage for close to 6 to 8 hours to check-in and board the Chennai bound domestic flight. And Pray to God all the time that the Chennai bound flight is not cancelled in the last minute!!


d) After checking-in the luggage at departure, you can never be sure whether you will see them again in tact unless you are extremely lucky.

However, I had no choice this time, as my leave was approved in the eleventh hour and all the sub-continent bound flights were running full, not to mention the overbooking due to the winter school vacation. It is with the greatest difficulty that I got a booking in the Air India flight and I couldn’t indulge in the luxury of picking and choosing my carrier.
I stowed my cabin baggage in the overhead cabinet and settled myself in my seat and tried to relax as I had a long day at the Office and had to rush to the Airport in the last minute. After an interminable delay, not uncommon with Air India flights, the aircraft started taxiing and soon we were airborne.The seat belts signs were switched-off and the cabin crew became busy pushing their trolley serving liquor and dinner to the passengers and I began to relax. I had two stiff scotches on the rocks, refused the bland and tasteless dinner that Air India serves its passengers and dozed-off to the soothing sway of the aircraft.Suddenly the seatbelt signs came on and the captain announced that the flight has started its descent and soon we will be landing at Chatrapati Shivaji International airport at Mumbai. Soon, the aircraft touched the tarmac with an unpleasant thud that shook us all and taxied on the runway. The P.A system came alive with a monotonous announcement first in Hindi and then in Desi English by an Airhostess who welcomed us to Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport at Mumbai, took us into confidence about the outside temperature and the local time, thanked us for flying Air India, hoping that we enjoyed our flight and expressed a fervent desire to be of service to us again in the near future.


Very soon the passengers scrambled out of their seats and the experienced old-timers ran clumsily to the immigration counter to be the first few in the queue, in order to finish the immigration and customs formalities as quickly as possible.


I walked through the Aerobridge, reached the Airport terminal, descended to the ground floor down through a creaking escalator and deposited my cabin baggage on a security scanner. The Mumbai Policeman in-charge of the scanner did not bother to look at the screen to check the contents of my hand baggage, busy as he was stretching his hands for bakshees. I paid him about 150 Rupees or so, walked ahead and joined, what I deduced to be the shortest queue at the Immigration Counter, which eventually turned out to be the slowest!!



MUMBAI AIRPORT SECURITY SCANNER

The lady at the Counter verified my Passport indifferently and asked ‘Kahaan Se..?’ with a bored expression on her face, although all the Passengers waiting in queues in front of the four Immigration Counters were passengers from Dubai, all from the same Air India flight because ours was the only flight that landed at this precise moment, an unearthly hour early in the morning!! Without waiting for my reply, she verified my name in the Passenger list uploaded in her Computer about an hour before arrival of my flight, affixed the arrival stamp on my Passport and I moved on.


I selected a trolley from the baggage area and moved to Carousel No: 12 which flashed our AI Flight Number from Dubai. Eventually my suitcase came and I removed it from the belt, heaved it on my trolley and took my time to carefully wipe all the Cross Marks made with Chalk on my baggage, a not so subtle signal to the Customs Officials at the Counter that my baggage may contain something interesting. Years of Air travel has made me wiser to these crude and ineffective methods followed by the Customs Officials at the landing point to hint the Customs guys at the Counter that ‘you may milk this gullible bakrah for couple of hundred Dollars!!’


I passed through Green Channel at Customs without incident and came out looking for Manju and children among the hundreds waiting, most of them waving their Placards with names of passengers expectantly at me. I spotted Manju and children, joined them and they lead me to the Car and we all rode to Novotel, Juhu, where I usually stay whenever we visit Bombay because as an ACCOR Platinum Club Member I have access to their spacious Executive lounge. I love to relax in the lounge with a tall Scotch or Gin and Tonic and some of the best hors d'oeuvres made in town, and avoid the crowd and noise at the bar, especially during Happy Hours.


We reached Novotel, Juhu and though I wanted to stretch and sleep for at least 4 hours, Manju cautioned me that I have barely one hour to have my bath, change as all of us have to leave for the Marriage Hall in order not to miss the early morning Muhurtham between 6:30 to 7:00 A.M.As we are leaving, Manju asked for the Gifts for the bride and groom and other goodies to be distributed at the marriage hall. I reached for my baggage and was shocked to find that I have lost the bag containing all the stuff I bought at the Dubai Duty Free Shop prior to departure. The bag is missing. Manju was quite upset about losing the BlackBerry and the Chocolates but didn’t bother much about my losing the two bottles of whisky.

I couldn’t quite participate in or enjoy the festivities at the marriage as my mind was preoccupied with having lost the gifts bag. I was thinking hard, where I could have lost the gifts bag. I certainly did not leave it behind in the overhead cabinet in the aircraft as I distinctly remember, pulling the bag out of the cabinet with extra care in view of the two liquor bottles in it and slinging it on the handle of my rolling-overnighter as I disembarked from the aircraft.

Did I leave it behind either in the Immigration or the Customs counter? I realized, rather too late in the day that the bag was not with me in either of the two places and I was only pulling my overnighter till I fetched a luggage trolley and waited at the baggage carousel. Then, possibly where I could have lost the bag?


Suddenly I realized that the bag was with me till I reached the security scanner at the entrance of the arrival terminal and I remembered first loading my overnighter and pushing it over the rollers of the scanner and gingerly placing the goodies bag directly on the moving belt, bypassing the metal rollers in view of the two liquor bottles.


I realized that, when the policeman in-charge of the security scanner stretched his hand for tips, I pulled out my wallet and paid him, collected only my overnighter and left the goodies bag behind in the security scanner.

I narrated the sequence of events to Manju and suggested that we will go to the Airport and look for it in the lost-baggage section. Manju dismissed the idea saying the bag would have vanished even before I reached the Immigration Counter, and the staff at the security would have shared the loot among themselves. I realized what she is saying is true and looking for a lost bag at the Bombay International Airport, especially a hand baggage without a Tag Number is a futile exercise and a waste of time. I stoically accepted the fact that I have lost the bag and will not see it again and we decided to shop in the evening to buy some gift for the bride and groom to be presented during the Reception.


We finished our shopping in the evening and were driving towards Holiday Inn where the Reception is held. I asked our driver to step on the gas as we are already behind schedule due to our unscheduled shopping and our car was moving in a crawl due to the peak hour traffic in the evening. Suddenly my Mobile rang and an authoritative voice asked for my name and said this is from Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport and ordered that I should come to the Airport immediately. I was excited and worried all at the same time.

Excited because this looked like they have traced my goodies bag and calling me to come, identify it and collect it. I was worried because how on earth it is possible for them to trace me as the owner of the missing baggage, amongst tens of thousands of passengers as there was no baggage tag number. Moreover, how did they get my Chennai Mobile Number which is known only to my family members as all my official contacts have only my Dubai number which has International roaming.
However, my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to go to the Airport and see what it is all about. I told Manju that I am going to the Airport immediately to find out more and I will join them at the Reception latter. I got out of the car, asked our driver to take Manju and children to Holiday Inn for the Reception, hopped into an Auto-rickshaw and told the driver “bhai saab, Mujhe Sahar Airport jaana hain”. All the Bombay Auto-rickshaw drivers are a very disciplined and friendly lot and my auto driver switched on the Meter without a word and turned the nose of his vehicle in the direction of Bombay International Airport.



We reached the Airport in good time and I paid the fare to my Auto-driver who promptly returned the change, a rare trait seldom found in auto-rickshaw drivers of Chennai, Bangalore or Kochi. I rushed inside to the Air India lost baggage counter. A spectacled middle-aged lady sitting at the counter was fielding the questions of an irate passenger with an air of nonchalance bordering on indifference which only frustrated her irate customer to an additional level of acerbity and he was seething with unconcealed rage. At this precise moment I decided to join the party, though uninvited, as it was turning out to be a free for all!!


I craned my neck and thrust my head between the irate passenger and the counter in an attempt to catch the attention of the lady behind the counter. The gentleman who has lost his baggage was not amused. “Hey, what do you think you are doing? Can’t you see there is a queue and I am talking to her?” he objected irritably. However, his bespectacled leading lady sitting behind the counter, took my barging-in as a welcome interlude in her otherwise dry and colorless working day and asked me “Kya chaahiye aapko?” much to the chagrin of her irate customer arguing with her.


I told her that I have lost my baggage and started my detailed account of my flight from Dubai yesterday night and my arrival at Bombay in the early hours of the morning et al. She stopped me abruptly with a wave of her hand and pushed a “Lost Baggage Claim Form” towards me with the same air of nonchalance she exhibited earlier which irritated my predecessor. The Form was in dull brown color ran into three pages and asked for practically all the information including which primary school I started my education, proof of first vaccination and marital status including number of children as also the number of divorces!!

I presumed, this is the precise point where the passenger is given the option to decide whether (a) to forget about his lost baggage and walk out of the Airport a freeman or (b) elaborately fill-up this form with all supporting documents in proof of what is stated by him in the form and live with the fervent hope that someday in the distant future, this form among million others will catch the attention of the authorities, some action will be taken and you will get to see your lost baggage, though at this precise moment all these looked very unlikely.

I chose option (b) and started with details of my Primary School when the lost-baggage lady once again stopped me with a wave of her hand. “Sirf, baggage Tag Number aur flight number likko” she suggested. I confessed to her that I don’t have a baggage tag number as it was a cabin baggage. “Kya, baggage tag number nahi hain aap ke pass?” her demeanor immediately changed and she grabbed back the dull brown colored baggage claim form from my unsuspecting hands.


She dismissed me saying “Agar aap ke pass baggage tag number nahi hain tho, aap ka luggage kabhi nahin milega” and focused her attention on her earlier customer. I interjected saying “Madam, I got a phone call from the Airport saying they have located my baggage” and showed her the received call number in my mobile. Madam became curious and asked for my name and flight details. When I told her “Air India flight from Dubai today morning” her expression changed from ‘unfriendly indifference’ to a ‘hostile frown’ and she dialed a few numbers in the 1950 model Telephone instrument in front of her and whispered something in Marathi on the mouthpiece. Within no time, a Policeman appeared by my side and asked me to accompany him. I followed my Policeman friend waving a cheerful ‘goodbye’ to lost-baggage madam. She ignored my friendly gesture but continued to stare with her hostile frown.

We reached the Office of the Chief of Airport Security, a Police Officer exuding authority and power, obviously of much higher rank in the Mumbai Police hierarchy than my police-constable friend who obviously would be the last box in the last row of the Mumbai police Organization-Chart, if they have one!! He dismissed my friend with a wave of his hand and asked me in a gruff voice to tell everything. I told him everything and he listened patiently.


I also told him the contents of my bag and how I might have possibly left it behind in the belt of the Scanner. He took my signature in about a dozen Forms including a few indemnities absolving Air India, staff of Chatrapati Shivaji International Airport and the Mumbai Police of any liability for compensation, should I notice that some of the contents are missing. He handed me my bag and asked me to check the contents. I gallantly refused saying there is no need as I am sure everything is intact. My gracious refusal was rebuffed with a thundering command “Check the contents now and here in front of me, before you leave this room” he bellowed. Reluctantly, I pulled out the whisky bottles, the BlackBerry and the Chocolates and told him everything is intact. I offered him a limp hand to shake which he ignored and bellowed “Next time when you travel, ensure that you have collected all your baggage and don’t leave anything behind. Your negligence has stirred up an unnecessary scare besides costing us a lot of time and efforts.”


I was perplexed as to how could two bottles of Whisky, a BlackBerry and some Chocolates stir up a lot of scare besides costing the Airport Police a lot of time and efforts. In the normal circumstances I would expect the bag to vanish the moment my back is turned and the loot shared between the Mumbai Airport Security personnel. The Police Officer was amused seeing my confused expression and his demeanor changed to a friendly smile, something I never imagined possible and he waved me to sit down. He lighted a cigarette, offered me one which I declined as I had quit smoking almost twenty years back. He ordered Chai for both of us and started talking.


As 26/11 happened less than two months back, the scars of its memories are still fresh in the mind of the Mumbaikars. So, when the Policeman at Security found a mysterious bag left behind in his Scanner, his first reaction was one of suspicion. He immediately decided that someone had planted a bomb and fear and suspicion spread like wildfire resulting in total chaos at the airport. None of the Security staff wanted to come anywhere near my bag and as the news spread, all the incoming passengers refused to pass their hand-baggage through the scanner. Immediately, the area was cordoned-off, another temporary scanner was arranged at a distance and all the arriving passengers were redirected towards the new queue. Still fear and suspicion prevailed as all were expecting the bomb to detonate any second and the entire Airport engulfed in flame!!

Very soon, bomb-detection squad accompanied by sniffer dogs arrived on the scene and it took them at least an hour to complete their procedures and give my bag a clean chit. By now, understandably, my bag has attained V.V.I.P Status as everyone in the Airport knew about this unclaimed bag and it became impossible for the Security staff to hide it and share the loot. As a result, the Security personnel had no alternative but to call its owner and handover the bag.


‘Sir, all this is fine, but how did you find that the bag belong to me and from where did you get my Chennai Mobile number’ I queried the Police Officer.

He explained “We knew that the bag belonged to a passenger originating from Dubai or transiting through Dubai because the contents are kept in a Dubai Duty Free Shop bag, but we had no clue as to who could be the passenger till 4:00 P.M in the evening. Today there are about six flights arriving from Dubai and it is impossible to check who it could be without the name of the passenger. We had our major break at 4:00 P.M in the evening when we found the Dubai Duty Free Shop Invoice and more importantly, your Credit Card slip for payment, both crinkled and sticking to the bottom of the whisky bottle carton which we did not notice at first.
Your Credit Card Slip had your name on it besides the date and time of purchase. We checked the flights leaving Dubai within an hour from the time printed on your Credit Card slip and found that your Air India flight left Dubai within 45 minutes from the time of your purchase and the next flight to Bombay was only after four hours.


We found your name in the passenger manifest of your Air India flight from Dubai which arrived today early morning. We contacted Air India Office and in no time they gave us your Chennai Mobile Number, which you had given to your Travel Agent in Dubai at the time of your booking, as your contact number in India. So, here we are and there you are. Good bye and I don’t want to see you in my office again.” He squeezed my hands with an iron grip and shook it and as I writhed in pain, he gave me a friendly slap on my back and dismissed me.

This is the story of my lost baggage, which surfaced again intact because of the Bombay Bomb scare created by Ajmal Khasaab and his equally disreputable late friends. I do hope the authorities either hang him immediately or finish him off in custody (not an uncommon occurrence in India) should our protracted Court procedures prolong for another decade, instead of spending several millions of rupees on his security not to mention the spicy Murgi Biryanis they are feeding the worthless s.o.b!!


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