Gunning it for Gandhi
THE soldier and airport security guy are pointing. What do they want? It’s my pen. A Paper Mate soft grip. Seethrough plastic, flattened cap. And my wallet; they ignore the ID and get to work on trying to strip out the little pockets that hold my cards.
‘‘ Hey,’’ I protest. This brings instant reinforcements. Sullen faces. Khaki turbans. Guns under armpits, nightsticks stuck to hips. My plane is loading but I’m taken out of line. Do these guys need a bribe?
It is late May in Srinagar, Kashmir, in the disputed border territory of northern India. According to the signs, this minor airfield is more scrupulous than Baghdad. Tougher than Tel Aviv. The ‘‘ world’s strictest airport security’’ is at work.
I believe this boast but I wish I could learn from the drill. Like almost anyone who flies these days, I’ll do what I’m told if it will make planes safer. But being in Srinagar makes me realise my obedience has limits.
I’ve been frisked four times but no one’s glanced at my passport. As far as I can see, Osama bin Laden would be welcome to board (minus his pen and wallet).
I’m one of a smattering of foreigners caught up in separatist shootings and grenade blasts in this city of Himalayan views. Militants are striving for statehood. I’m anxious to leave them to it, along with the sullen Indian soldiers and their security safeguards.
My suitcase is radioactive, thanks to epic X-rays: at a checkpoint on the airport road; at the gate to the airport itself; entering the terminal building and again at check-in. I aminformed that before any baggage makes it on to a plane, passengers must identify it out on the tarmac. I need a final stamp on my ticket stub and on a special tag.
The gate agent snatches my much smaller carry-on pack as soon as I arrive. She puts it on her scale. I snatch it back. It has a ring for my wife inside. I lose the tug of war. ‘‘ You are a man,’’ she says. ‘‘ It is forbidden for a man to bring any bag on the plane.’’ This is when I first protest. It is when I have to give up my wallet and my pen.
What does any of this mean? I imagine some militant in a field not far from the airport ready with their rifle or missile.
I see a woman with her permitted carry-on: I envision it stuffed with explosives.
I hear an announcement that my flight to Delhi is closing. I pull out two crumpled 500 rupee notes. I watch the paper portrait of Gandhi as it passes from my hand to theirs. It may just be folds along his forehead, but I’m sure that the Mahatma is unhappy. Angry at uniforms and guns? Or frowning at what I have done?
There is a conference between caps and turbans. My cash is gone, but instead of heading to the gate, I’m marched to the side and through a service exit. One of the soldiers grips me by the arm and hauls me behind a pile of suitcases.
I’m made to bend down. ‘‘ Now!’’ says the soldier. I am given back my pen and my wallet. I amtold to root around and find my smaller pack. What’s this? I am allowed to bring it with me.
I have made it through the ‘‘ world’s strictest airport security’’. I get the final stamp on my ticket. Now I understand that security like this has meaning, has its cost. It’s about the price of a chicken tikka dinner with a nice dessert, a pot of tea and maybe some Indian wine.
I say a silent apology to Gandhi. I amout of rupee portraits. But I am going aboard.