Looking for the old amid the new…

Many, many moons ago, I had been to Hubli in Karnataka on a school exchange programme. I did not remember much from those times but the little that I did were memories of a small, quaint, old- fashioned traditional South Indian provincial town.

I returned years later – in 2004 to be precise – to cover Uma Bharti’s arrest for inflammatory statements during her attempt in the Nineties to hoist the national tricolour at the disputed Idgah Maidan in Hubli. It was still a small town but nothing matched my memories from my school days. The town had leap-frogged into the 21st century and, after work, when I and my colleague went on a tour to explore the city, I found much of the old flavour missing.

Glass-fronted buildings similar to the ones in Bombay and Delhi had come up all over town and there was nothing distinctive from Hubli that we could take back to friends and family `back home’ – much of what was available in Hubli could be had in Bombay and both of us were greatly disappointed.

But when we mentioned this to a friend of my colleague who had married and settled in that small town, her family jumped on us in outrage. “You want us to remain backward? You don’t want us to progress and catch up with Bombay or Delhi? You think malls and plush, posh shopping centres are the exclusive privilege of metro cities?”

That is not what we meant at all but we did not know how to explain that we were merely regretting the loss of tradition, the loss of stores like Iyengar’s and Paneerdas to malls and multiplexes… though not for a moment did we wish to deny the pleasures of modernity and globalisation to non-metro cities or their residents.

This week I returned to Jaipur after more than a decade and I had the same feeling – of modernisation swallowing up the distinctive flavour of tradition. There was less of pink to distinguish this city and more of glass fronts a la Bombay or Delhi to make it as like as any other city in the world. But I was glad to discover that traditions in some cities take some killing and parts of Jaipur have retained the same flavour and that is where I took my sister to soak up Rajasthani culture and traditions.

I am writing this tonight just after returning to Bombay and as I sat at the Jaipur airport waiting for my flight to be called, I couldn’t but help recall when I was there the last time. It was during the weeks after the demolition of the Babri Masjid; I had actually come to attend a women’s conference but with many parts of the city torn by riots, I found myself in the thick of that turmoil. My Bureau Chief at the wire service where I worked at the time asked me to get out of the city as fast as I could and I found myself at the small, one-airline, two-flights-a-day airport with a wait-listed ticket and nowhere to go after I failed to get on to the last flight hopping from Delhi via Jaipur and Ahmedabad to Bombay.

The flight should have taken off but then they could not find the pilot. He found me before they found him — standing alone at the closed counter, forlorn and frightened about the city burning behind me with nowhere to go and no friend I could call for help.

“You are travelling alone?” he asked. “You are not accompanied?”

“No!” I said in desperation.

“But this is the last flight out of Jaipur…” he began. I cut in with a desperate, “Can I stay over at the airport tonight? I will try and take the morning flight or try the railways tomorrow. But I simply can’t go out into the night, into the burning city and look for a place to stay at this hour!”

“You just wait here. I will see what I can do. No promise. But I will try,” said my saviour just as a senior airlines officer descended upon him screaming, “My flight is already delayed! How much further do you plan to loll around before taking off!”

“I am not taking off,” said the pilot, coolly. Then looking into his officer’s shocked face, he added, pointing in my direction, “until and unless you find her a seat on my plane.”

“Impossible!” said the officer. “The Jaipur quota is full.”

“Then offload some one or accommodate her in the Ahmedabad quota. A lady alone and a lady in distress has to be helped out. That’s all I know. I am not flying that plane unless you put her on it!”

They argued back and forth for 20 minutes until the officer gave in. They resolved the dispute by giving me a seat from the Ahmedabad quota but not before the outmanoeuvred officer told me maliciously, “I wonder how much he will be able to help you when they discover in Ahmedabad that you have eaten up their quota.”

The officer had to personally reopen the counter which had been shut down for the night – my two pieces of baggage were loaded without even being checked and I was waved through the security check without, well, any checks.

I landed quite safely back in Bombay past midnight but never forgot either that pilot or the Jaipur airport. Today it is one of the best airports I have passed through in my recent travels, but it is very anti-septic with no room for a lone woman in desperate straits to be rescued by a knight-in-shining-armour kind of pilot. For one, she would not be noticed in the crowds; for another she need not be desperate any more — even as I was waiting to board my flight there were two other flights that took off before mine for Bombay and another followed mine.

But beautiful as Jaipur and its airport is today, it is still a huge part of my regret for the loss of everything old and good, that has been replaced by the good and the new!

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