September 22, 2009. Morning.
12192 meters above the ground, I am a flight from Beijing to Delhi via Singapore. Kokil is in Singapore but I do not have a Singapore visa although I have a halt for 3 hours and 45minutes. Initially, when the ticket was bought, I was given to understand that I would be able to get a 4 hour visa and would be able to go out briefly and meet Kokil. However, subsequently, on making inquiries we discovered that it is virtually impossible for (a) me to go out or (b) Kokil to come into the airport. Their rules are strict, no crossovers possible. So what do we do? At best, they tell us, you can wave to each other through a glass wall.
So here I am, 40 minutes away from Singapore. 40 minutes away from meeting Tota through a glass partition. Oh well, it is going to be a meeting of a kind, I guess. The weirdest reunion of a mom and daughter in a different country. And how will we meet? Well, may be we can wave, yes, we will wave to each other. And blow flying kisses, perhaps. But what else? Perhaps we can mime a jig through the distance, dance some step in unison, mime each other’s movements, play the fool.
Perhaps I could do some theatrics – pretend to faint or have a seizure or simply collapse. But then it might just lead to further complications – like how will I tell them I need to be with Tota if I am supposed to be in a faint?
Something else, something else. But what?
Try some emotional atyachaar? Appeal to the officers in charge, shed a tear or two, tell them how I miss my baby? How I want to hold her close?
No, I don’t think anything will work. So let me just let things be. Take the situation as it comes. I have a packet for her and I wonder if I will be able to get it across.
We are nearing our destination and the cabin call tells us to prepare for landing. Tota, here I come. Through the glass wall we shall talk.
September 22, 2009. Afternoon.
Kokil is on the train, heading for Changi airport. All the while she is thinking of how to the situation. She would be face to face with Mummy through the glass wall. Perhaps there would be an intercom. Perhaps not. She would wave to mom, mom would wave back. Then she would blow a flying kiss, mom would blow back another in return. And what then? Koki, with her sense of fun, thought she would thumb her ears at mom. And knowing mummy, she would thumb them right back. And then perhaps, running out of ideas, Kokil thought she would mime a dance pose – like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The right knee bent, hip protruding sideways, right hand up, pointing towards the sky – freeze! Perhaps mom would mirror the image, bend her left knee, point her left hand skyward and freeze right back.
And then Kokil thought she would stamp her left foot and jiggle her shoulders. Mom would stamp her right foot and jiggle her shoulders too. Kokil would place her hands on her hips, pout and sway to the right, Mom would sway to the left. She would wiggle her hips and mom would wiggle hers. Kokil would do the shimmy across the floor. Mom would probably follow suit. Or may be they would do the shimmy together -- the 'yahoo' kind that Shiamak Davar has revived in recent years.
And then, when they would tire of these antics, they would notice the people thronging around them – the transit passengers on mom’s side of the wall and the incoming visitors on Kokil’s side. There would be curious glances, raised eyebrows, soon, perhaps, a security official would come down the aisle and put an end to the pantomime.
Ma have to do something before then. Perhaps she would clutch at her heart and collapse. But she had never been good at theatrics and would probably burst out laughing – which would be counter productive! And then, if she collapsed and fainted, how would she ask for Kokil?
So these are thoughts when I land in Beijing. The night before I had almost despaired of seeing Tota. With a lump in the throat I had decided to call her and tell her not to come to the airport. It would be too upsetting to see her and not to be with her. But then, caught up with other matters, I forgot to call her and now here I am at Singapore airport finally, wondering what the day will be like – with Tota or without?
But it wasn’t all that bad. As I got off the aircraft I received her message telling me she was on her way. Come to level 3 of Terminal 2, she tells me. A few minutes later another sms – “ the glass has an open space,mummy, we can even talk!”
I respond, telling her I am going to try patao-ing the Immigration wallahs.
I walk to the Help counter and make inquiries from the girl – she looks like an Indian and seems to be friendly enough. I introduce myself to her –
“Good morning, I am a university professor, on my way to Delhi after a conference in Beijing. I am on transit, I have a four-hour halt and I do not have a visa for Singapore, but I would like to go out of the airport for a while. Is it possible?”
She looked sympathetic: “No, ma’am, I am afraid not. You would, however, be ableto talk to her through this glass wall.” And she pointed to the other side of the hall that was partitioned away by glass. I looked around – the glass separator stretched through the entire length of the huge hall. I wondered what would be the best place for Kokil and me to gesticulate at each other. May be we could walk together for a couple of hours, she and I, she on that side of the wall and I on this. Walk up and down, up and down until we were both tired. Then we could sit down facing each other and wait for my boarding time.
I sighed: “And is there any way I can give her a packet that I have for her?”
“I am afraid not, ma’am.”
And then she added, bless her, for she must have seen the disappointment on my face: “Do you have any other visa?”
“Yes, a US visa that is valid for another two years.” And handed my passport to her.
“Then I suggest you go down one level, try the Immigration officer. He might give you a visitor’s pass.”
I rushed down to a level below. The Immigration and Customs desks where the incoming passengers had lined up for clearance. There weren’t too many people. Half the desks were closed. The other half had officials on duty. I chose one which had a man who again seemed to be of Indian origin. Somehow it is easier communicating with fellow-countrymen. Language is a problem with the locals.
I walked up to the desk when my turn came.
“Good afternoon, sir, let me explain….” And I repeated what I had told the girl on the upper floor.
I saw his eyes narrow. He peered at me through his glasses and asked for my passport. Looked at it, each page very carefully. It is a well-used passport, I am aware, and the old one that expired ten years ago is also attached to it.
After satisfying himself, he looked up sternly and said: “Madam, you do not have to flaunt your status…”
“I beg your pardon, I didn’t realize I was doing so.”
“You said you are a university professor but for us everyone is equal, whether it is a university professor or a minister or a politician or an illiterate person. We just go by the rules. And we do not bend the rules for anyone.”
“I am sorry, officer, I was just stating my case and identifying myself.” Help, I thought, don’t let anything go wrong. I do wish to get an out-pass! So I try and sound as contrite as possible.
He does not relent. Knowing that he has an upper hand, he continues to upbraid me for being proud of my position (never before had I known that one is so privileged being a professor). I listen silently – as silently as I can for, with my temperament, it is difficult indeed to remain quiet when being scolded unfairly.
“Where do you want to go if I allow you into Singapore?” he asks.
“Nowhere,” I tell him. “If you note, I have mentioned in the form that I will be at Changi Airport. My aim is just to be with my daughter. She is a student here at NTU.”
Again he scolds me: “I am not asking you what your children are doing how well they are placed. I just want an answer to my question. We have our rules.”
Good God! I feel like banging him on the head but force myself to smile and say, “Certainly, sir, I wouldn’t like you to bend your rules for me. Please follow your rules, and if it is possible, please allow me a few hours’ liberty.”
He has a frown on his face and I am holding my breath, wondering what is going to follow.
Finally he looks at me over his glasses and says, “Ma’am, I am giving you a 96 hour visitor’s pass but the boarding time for your flight is in three hours. Make sure you do not miss it.”
Yes, yes, yes, thank you, sir. And I run before he can change his mind.
I am heading for Terminal 2 where Kokil is waiting at the intercom. I take the train from Terminal 3 to 2, ask for directions and move on with mounting excitement.
As I near the ‘Intercom’ as it is called, I see Kokil standing with her back towards me, facing a glass partition, looking over the counter. I have my camera ready to catch the surprise in her face when she seems me on her side of the glass.
“Let’s go,” I tell her. “I am free to be with you for three hours.”
“How did you manage it?” she is incredulous.
“I really don’t know,” I tell her. “I simply told them I have a daughter here and I wish to meet her. And here I am!”
She cannot believe it at first. She has to call her Papa and then Bulbul to tell them both – “Hey, mom is so cool, so cool, she even managed to come out!”
We sit at a restaurant in the airport for a while. Sipping a cool drink, she tells me excitedly of the various things we can do in the given span of time. And then we decide to take a cab, drive around for an hour and come back to the airport.
The cab driver takes us to along the coast, then up a hill. This is a new area for Kokil, too. She has never been to this little “Jewel Box” as it is called, up a hilltop. The view from the top is truly magnificent. You can see the sea all around.
“That is Sentosa,” she tells me. “And that side is Malaysia.” She has another story for me – how two days ago she was getting bored and decided to go to Malaysia for a dayspend. Took a bus. Five hours on the road, five hours in Malaysia, and another five hours on the way back. She had gone all by herself and enjoyed it. She sounds happy and I am happy in her happiness.
The islands in the distance look almost as though they have come out of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Two islands joined with a narrow neck of land. Both islands are covered with a lot of foliage. It is the kind I have seen in a diagrammatic representation of Golding’s book.
Signs of hectic construction dominate the scene. It looks as though a lot of capital is being invested in buildings. Kokil explains what kind of condos they have, the laws that govern rentals, and how families rather than live-in couples are preferred as tenants. She tells me about Raffels who
was responsible for the growth and
development of Singapore, of the F-1 Grand Prix that is around the corner, of the bicycle track and the way they go cycling around the island through the night on certain days. Apparently Singapore is a safe place.
This is the world in which Kokil lives. She seems to be
well-adjusted and happy but looks forward to getting back to India.
By five o’clock we are back at the airport, having coffee and snacks at Starbucks. A quick hug and good-bye, I leave for my flight and Kokil heads back home. Different directions, different worlds, but worlds that are linked together. Worlds that support and nourish each other.
I leave Singapore behind as the aircraft soars above the ground. The sky takes on different hues and the ground assumes shades of blue and grey.
I am going back home where Raju waits. Waits silently, without complaining, without demanding.
PS: THE PACKET, THE PACKET! Yes, it was handed over personally to Tota while on the taxi ride. She put it in her shoulder bag. The contents, incidentally, were -- a box of Chinese sweets, one chocolate, a blouse to wear with her trousers. (and lots of love, intangible, but in evidence!)