The Creative Section (Vol. 5, No. 1) is on its way and will be published by the end of May, 2024.

A MATTER OF EXISTENCE

 


A MATTER OF EXISTENCE

-         Sreelekha Chatterjee (India)

The flight numbers that were scheduled to arrive or depart within the next couple of hours flashed on the plasma screen before me. I noted them down reluctantly in my office diary.

I’d been visiting the Indraprastha airport for the past few weeks to conduct a survey on advantages–disadvantages of trolleys used by the passengers. Almost like a daily ritual, I’d spend at least a few minutes gazing in awe at the domestic terminal building which was no less than a world-class airport—the white–grey walls adorned several plasma screens displaying information about the arrival–departure of morning flights; numerous tiny florescent bulbs from the ceiling brightened the entire area and the floor gleamed and reflected the light all over, almost bathing the environment in an unfaltering boom of luminance; the automatic sliding doors opened and closed every now and then, catering to the needs of the moving passengers; the counters of different airlines buzzed with cheerfulness and eagerness to receive passengers who needed any kind of assistance; smartly dressed airlines staff and security personnel moved about busily, carrying walkie-talkies from which voices delivering messages could be heard; the sound of luggage wheels rolled gently across the slippery floor and mingled with a continuous chatter of moving passengers. I heard snippets of conversations revealing the emotions of people travelling for different reasons but with some definite aim, unlike me who was perhaps the only person present there without a set objective in life at the time. The soothing, soft classical music which played in the background was unable to ease the tension about my future and relieve me from the seamless flow of worries that kept on weaving in my head.

A pleasant, mechanical female voice announcing the arrival of a flight from Mumbai echoed all over the place. I sauntered over to the area near the conveyor belt.

I waited quietly at one corner till a surge of passengers flooded the spot. The clamor of suitcases being dropped onto the black conveyor belt gathered my attention, which was soon followed by voices of passengers—either thrilled to visit the city or ruffled by the delay in receiving their luggage—accompanied by the whir of wheels of moving trolleys loaded with baggage. All the noise and excitement were intermittently punctuated by the rumbling sound of airplanes taking off or landing on the runway outside the terminal building.

I mentally rehearsed the questions that I was about to ask to the willing passengers who would stop by to respond and fill up my survey questionnaire.

I saw a middle-aged man pick up a small suitcase from the conveyor belt and place it on a trolley. I rushed towards him to get his feedback.

“Good morning, sir!”

“Good morning, ma’am!” He looked at me with an arch expression. He’d a thin, clean-shaven face; neatly dressed in a grey suit; and smelled of after-shave which was probably used luxuriously.

“I’m conducting a survey on trolleys. Would you please spare a minute?” I tried my level best to grab his attention while his eyes wandered around his luggage, co-passengers and flight assistants.

At first, he wrinkled his large nose at me out of irritation, closely observed my ID card that was firmly placed on my white shirt, little below my right shoulder, and then smiled.

“Sure.” He said in a pleasing tone.

He took the one-page questionnaire from me and filled it up with his answers in no time.

“So, what do you do?” He asked all of a sudden.

It was a question that was haunting me for the past so many days. I’d completed my post graduation a few years back and joined an NGO as a consultant. Initially, I got an opportunity to work on government-sponsored projects on food and nutrition of the underprivileged. The recession took a toll on some of the major assignments which were discontinued due to non-availability of funds. Also, the chance of receiving one in the next few months seemed to be a distant possibility. The only project that gave employment to temporary employees like me was the airport trolley survey which was bound to continue for a while.

“I’m a consultant.” I replied in a leaden voice as though guilty of committing some crime and had been caught red-handed.

“Consultant!” He repeated with a slightly mocking accent.

“Food and nutrition consultant!” I elaborated.

The man let out a loud guffaw as if I’d uttered some kind of a joke. I felt awkward noticing that a few people were staring at us.

“What has food and nutrition got to do with trolleys?” The man continued laughing, irritating me to the core.

“Excuse me!” I said, ignoring the inquisitive effrontery of his questioning.

I almost snatched the questionnaire from him and marched towards another passenger who was fidgeting with a handbag.

A lady dressed in salwarkurta, probably in her mid-60s, greeted me with a charming smile.

“May I help you?” I asked pointing to the bag that she had cradled in her arm.

“I’m unable to straighten the belt of my handbag.”

“Sure, ma’am… I’d like to have your views about the trolleys.” I handed over a form fixed on a clipboard to her.

“You see that I’m carrying a small bag and don’t need a trolley.” She sounded unsure and confused whether she should give her response when she was actually not using one of those.

“I’ll fix the belt and in the meantime if you kindly fill it up for me. You must have used these at some point of time in your life.” I made a deal with the lady, as it was difficult to find people who would spare a moment to participate in any survey.

We finished almost simultaneously. The lady returned the filled-in questionnaire and smiled on seeing her bag fixed.

Next, I proceeded towards the lounge where some passengers had settled down and were probably waiting for their family members to arrive, or to catch the next connecting flight that was scheduled to depart shortly, or may be to relax for some time.

I took a seat at one corner—in the last row, towards the wall—ensuring that I wasn’t visible to anyone coming in from any direction. I hid behind the clipboard, peering occasionally at the moving passengers, airport staff.

My restlessness about my future was replaced by embarrassment which I was trying to conceal beneath an outward calm. I always said that no work was insignificant, and it was always the level of sincerity and dedication that mattered. All that I’d reckoned and preached earlier seemed meaningless and lost in midst of my noticeable discomfiture on doing a work which I considered was below my status.

My world was filled with an eternal, ineradicable gloom of dissatisfaction since the dream of working as a nutritionist was crashing before my own eyes. My thoughts were interrupted by a group of Bollywood film stars standing almost at an arm’s length and conversing amongst themselves. I recalled that when I was in school I once got an offer to work in a Bollywood film. But my parents objected to that and prophesied that I’d become an academician, but seldom did they know that one day I’d be at the airport conducting a survey. I’d have become a famous actor by that time if I’d availed that opportunity while in school. 

My imagination overpowered me and soon I was enveloped in the warmth of cherishable moments of the life of a celebrity that I didn’t have. Fantasizing the dynamism of a great personality in me, I observed countless heads surrounding me wherever I went, people quarrelling amongst themselves just to have a glimpse of me and feeling blessed on receiving my precious autograph. I was visiting Indraprastha after a very long time and therefore, had to oblige my fans. I started walking towards the lounge area, and almost intoxicated by the mouth-watering aroma that came from a restaurant, I advanced towards it like one possessed. The restaurant had all kinds of cuisine—Chinese, Italian, Indian, Thai. It felt as if I’d not eaten since ages. My table was full with chicken preparations, noodles, fried rice, biriyani, lamb stake, deserts, and many more. As I was about to dig into the food, a lady shouted from behind—“Stop. You’re on a diet and can only have this.” I turned around and found my manager holding a plate of dry vegetable sandwich. Being a filmstar, I’d money, fame, recognition, but was denied the privilege to eat whatever I wished and had to maintain a strict diet. Was a life worth living without being able to eat what you wished? The very thought dragged me back from the world of a starving celebrity to my world of abundance where all kinds of delicious food—irrespective of the spices, fat content, calories—were provided by my family and I’d no professional inhibitions for having them.

My eyes spotted a pretty lady neatly dressed in black trousers and a yellow shirt. At the airport everybody seemed to be like a star—dressed in their best attire and putting on vibrant, attractive smiles.

I walked up to her.

“I’ve heard that Indraprastha is under high alert. I hope this airport is having adequate security.” She said apprehensively, mistaking me for an airport staff.

“Don’t worry. There is tight security over here.” I said in a matter-of-fact manner, as I was caught up in my psychoses of personal problems and didn’t have enough room for others.

“You’re not working for the airport?”

“No. I’m conducting a survey, ma’am. It’d be very kind of you if you…” I took charge of the trolley that she was pushing before completing my sentence and handed her the clipboard with a one-page questionnaire and a pen.

Her lips twitched with amusement on seeing the survey sheet as if she’d been asked to answer a crossword puzzle. I fixed my eyes on her, trying hard to read her incomprehensible expressions, and wondered whether she would fill it up willingly or give it back to me. She took the pen in her hand, which relieved the tension and uncertainty that were lingering on my mind.

Before concentrating on the form, she passed on the newspaper to me that most probably she’d been reading during her flight. I glanced at the very first page which had the headlines written in bold—“Indraprastha on High Alert.”

My eyes fell on her suitcase where her name was mentioned—“Anita Kumar, Architect.” I seldom knew that people mentioned their professions on their luggage. Perhaps it helped in identification purpose.

I recalled that I was good at drawing and whenever I sketched something it’d to be something related to buildings—modern skyscrapers, one-to-three–storied houses, monuments. My father often said that I had a knack for drawing buildings and perhaps could become a successful architect. I always laughed at that and never considered his opinion seriously. I wished I had listened to him and become an architect. Then I wouldn’t be doing what I was doing at that time.

Anita prattled on about her plane journey while filling the questionnaire and had almost finished answering it when her phone beeped.

“Yeah! I know, I know,… and that’s why I’m here. We’ll sort it out.” Her hands holding the mobile trembled with nervous agitation.

“I told you that we’ll find a way out.”Her brow darkened with anxiety, and she almost screamed.

“Now what can be done if the building... Look I’m at the airport now. I can’t talk. I’ll be there within half an hour.”

She hung up. Her face shriveled up and turned white with some kind of concern.

“What was wrong with the building that she was talking about on the phone?” I wondered. My eyes fell on the newspaper and this time on the news printed in small font at one corner of the front page—“Building collapses in Western part of Indraprastha: Who is to be blamed—sub-standard building material or unprofessional architect?”I discerned that her disturbed look had something to do with a defective construction.

“I’ve to rush. Thanks for the survey.” She gave me the filled-in form, took her suitcase from the trolley and disappeared amongst a crowd of people moving towards the exit.

“Thank God! I didn’t become an architect.” I uttered aloud.

It was almost lunch time and I was satisfied that I’d a chance to speak to almost 50 people. I was planning to take a break and have lunch when my mobile rang. The number displayed was that of my boss.

“Good afternoon, sir!”

“There’s good news for all of us.” His voice beamed with happiness.

I was only interested in any kind of good news that concerned me.

“We’ve received a major project this morning.”

“Really…” I was excited but my enthusiasm dropped on thinking whether I would be given a chance to work on it.

“Now listen carefully. We need you in office as we’ll have to start work on the project immediately. We’re sending someone else to continue with the airport survey.”

“Thank you so much, sir!” I felt the gratitude overwhelming me.

I observed a fresh enthusiasm within myself as the dark cloud of despair and self-doubt was suddenly blown away by a strong, cool wind of hope. I quickly finished having my lunch and continued with the survey work with an unusual interest and energy that I lacked before. I no longer felt uncomfortable or sad about doing it. The joy of going back to something I enjoyed doing triggered the interest to complete the last bit of the job with perfection. All the questionnaires were exhausted and my quota for the day was completed within the next couple of hours.

I glanced at my wristwatch. It was almost 5 o’clock. I looked around for the very last time before leaving the airport—the place where I both lost and regained my belief in myself.

 

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