An airport is a life in fastforward. Here in the span of an hour all the stories of our little lives are told, the tearful welcomings home and the never-to-be-seen-again goodbyes. Here all the plays of Shakespeare are compressed, or, more aptly in South India where today’s first flight takes me, all the scowls and postures of kathakali. All the airport’s a stage.
It has occurred to many other travellers to reach Kolkata airport absurdly early, and thus to sidestep the strikes, so much so that the canny authorities usher us into the already crowded arrivals lounge to wait. A beautiful young woman of oriental countenance, no doubt from Manipur, Arunachal or another of the far northeast states, carries in a loop of cloth across her shoulders an equally beautiful boy of eighteen months with a short Mohican of a style only carried off by far eastern faces. Buoyant, youthful colleagues in airline uniforms greet each other with jokes and complex coded handshakes while women soldiers bustle past in khaki combat saris.
Swish, white young India in stylish clothes and shoes reads from its electronic tablets while yards away an older India, wiry slight, moustached and dark of face, hauls suitcases, sweeps floors and sells the tea. All change and no change. Nearby in a secluded corner, devotees of Krsna, east Europeans in uneasy Indian clothes, tell their japa malas and raise their minds to another truth.
Sitting beside me on the tiled floor greying Dutch tourists fart antiphonally, India, in one sense at least, not having agreed with them. Past them sways a severe, bulging matron in a sumptuous sari of royal purple, edged in gold, and gold slippers. A smog of mosquitoes gathers around me and Alan Bennett’s memoirs, through which I am racing in delight, serve a second purpose as a fan to keep them off.
Later, during six hours stalled in Chennai before my flight to Sri Lanka, Bennett keeps me busy, keeps me chortling, the only other distractions being feral pigeons wheeling past and a white-browed wagtail without a tail (making it presumably a white-browed wag) which drops momentarily onto a concrete pillar outside the airport terminal. The wagtail’s scientific name Motacilla maderaspatensis places it firmly at home in the city until recently still known, post-colonially, as Madras.
Much of Bennett’s writing is painfully funny but not suitable for repetition here. Page 301 is particularly good. Reading his chapter on The History Boys, I find myself quietly singing Bewitched from Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart's Pal Joey, which, I’m told, makes a mournful appearance in the film of Bennett’s play. It made its appearance in my life some months ago on a CD from a friend which quickly bored its way into my psyche. The song resurfaces often, as do many favourite tunes as I am blessed with a cerebral iPod. Today Purcell’s Come Ye Sons of Art, Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah have all come and gone, but Bewitched has been the theme of my day. As of my whole winter.
I’m wild again, beguiled again, a whimpering, simpering child again. Bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I.
From Pal Joey by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart
It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again.
The God of Small Things
Today’s new bird