Gun­ning it for Gandhi

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

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