“Down with Air India! Down with Air India!” The crowd of forty outraged, frustrated, turbaned men chant loudly as they march up and down the otherwise empty domestic terminal concourse of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. Hundreds of wives, children, and other men cheer them on. Everyone looks weary from waiting hours for a plane to take them home to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar, in northwest India’s Punjab. Tomorrow is India’s Republic Day (think USA’s Fourth of July), with traditional parades and festivals across the country.
Standing on the edge of the crowd, I chat with a man from Boston traveling with his wife and a little boy in a stroller to visit family. The man smiles at his fellow protestors, telling us that many in the crowd have been stuck here for fifteen hours, due to a series of cancelled flights. My heart sinks.
Our Gang of Four travel companions––Indian friends Eva Ray and Suresh Ghosh, and my husband Rick and I––are also on our way to Amritsar to visit the fabled Golden Temple complex, the most important holy site for the Sikh religion. We’re beginning the last leg of a month-long trip in this part of the world. I’m beginning to feel travel-weary and impatient.
Earlier this morning, we dragged ourselves out of bed at four o’clock in Kolkata to catch an 8:00 a.m. flight to Delhi, with connecting tickets to Amritsar. We booked these early flights to beat the air traffic rush for the holiday.
An Air India agent met us as we deplaned in Delhi. Our flight’s been cancelled, and we’ll be rebooked on the next one out. Another annoying travel delay. They happen. Only this delay turns into a major drag.
What’s going on? We cornered the agent for an explanation. U.S. President Barack Obama flies into Delhi today for high level diplomatic meetings. (Tomorrow he’ll announce new trade agreements between India and the United States.) Apparently, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation grounded all air traffic in and out of Delhi for an unspecified time. Ugh.
So here we are at the gate waiting for an undetermined future departure time. Frustration and exhaustion show on hundreds of stranded travelers’ faces. Men are yelling, children are whining, and babies are crying. Families park themselves on the floor nearly inhaling food from airport vendors. Dozens of men form a protest demonstration and take to the concourse to shout their displeasure.
I’m amazed. For a moment, it’s all entertaining theater. My Bostonian friend tells me most of these travelers come from USA, Canada, and England, and they’re heading home to spend holiday time with their families. I assume most are educated and professional, so this level of civil disobedience surprises me. I can’t imagine this situation developing in an American airport. Obviously, several Amritsar flights were previously cancelled to produce this huge, disgruntled crowd. Rick and I are the only Westerners in the horde.
Ranking fifth in numbers of adherents among world religions, Sikhism developed in the fifteenth century as a reaction to Hinduism’s caste system. Even though Sikhism is based on the principle of peace and equality and condemns all forms of discrimination, it’s also steeped in a strong martial tradition, based on defiance and self-defense.
So that explains the in-your-face protest.
I feel sorry for the young, slightly statured male agent whom Air India cruelly sends out to the terminal desk to answer questions and calm the overexcited crowd. Except it seems as if he has no answers, as he is swallowed up by a circle of much larger men surrounding him, their angry faces in his.
An hour later another agent arrives to announce boarding. A stampede heads to the gate as people push and shove to get close to the agent. A cacophony of Punjabi, English, and Hindi fills the air heated with stale breath. Of course, seat assignments for previous flights mean nothing anymore; it’s “first come, first to grab empty seats.”
Taller than most, Rick grabs Eva’s hand and dives into the crowd, elbowing his way to the front of the throng to surrender our boarding passes to the all-powerful gate agent. Suresh and I follow close behind dragging luggage through the temporary gap made by Eva and Rick. It’s a miracle we’re able to board and find seats. Seven hours after arriving in Delhi, we take off. Passengers cheer.
Exhausted we head to our next adventure––the Golden Temple in Amritsar, the revered center of the Sikh religion. This magnificent gold-painted structure sits in the middle of a huge rectangular tank of water. An unexpected bonus awaits… a trip to the India/Pakistan border for a raucous Republic Day celebration and the nightly ceremony to close the gate between the two hostile countries.
But that’s a story for another time.