The immigration officers at Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport were a humorless lot. I was wearing the fatigue of thirteen hours in the air from Tokyo, with a brief layover in Kuala Lumpur, yet I was sporting my patented New Country Arrival Smile®. The officer’s stern face wasn’t saying ‘welcome’ so much as ‘what are you so happy about, fatty?’ Mr. Immigration didn’t bother to look up once. He stamped my passport like he was stamping out crime. Still not looking up, he waved me forward and officially, politically, I was now in India.
Maybe my smile was bigger than normal that evening. I mean, I had just arrived in India. The word, the concept alone demands its own paragraph.
Every new place is riddled with old associations and connotations stored up in your brain. For me, India came with more than most. Those pre-conceived notions rushed towards my frontal lobe and I expected to step foot into my mental India immediately after I stepped off the plane. Where was the anorexic cow I was going to strap my luggage to? Where were the beggars, the blue babies, the rivers of curry, the maharajas, the turbans, the saris, the rotis, the vivid colors, the chilled monkey brains, the yoga, the Magical Mystery Tour, the exoticism, the sitars, Ravi Shankar’s voice, the free-flowing mango lassis? Where was Vishnu?
Hyderabad’s airport is the shiny spawn of India’s modern success story. Every surface in the terminal was new and polished and the wear and tear of years of fast-moving humanity hadn’t set in yet. “Cyberabad” is one of the country’s IT hubs where all of the global high-tech names you know have offices, towers full of them. The high volume of international traffic has transformed a city of about seven million you’ve never heard of to a city of seven million you’ve never heard of with a slick new airport. But anyone in the Western world who has had to deal with customer support regarding almost anything has probably unknowingly been confused and frustrated by a resident of Cyberabad at some point. The city’s tourism bureau has its work cut out for them.
The terminal was a mix of headscarves, turbans and blue jeans and not a snake-charmer in site. I knew better but the exhausted part of me wanted just a sliver of exotic, unrealistic India to justify the thousands of miles I had traveled. Besides, entering any country by plane seems increasingly homogenous. Most airports look the same, contain the same tropes. How do you know you’ve really landed where the captain claims you have? My senses demanded more proof I had arrived in India and not Jackson Heights, Queens. Couldn’t I get just one Bollywood number involving the luggage handlers? Just a little candy?
I took the escalator down to the main receiving hall. Near the bottom, behind all of the Indian families patiently waiting for their loved ones, a fiery red beacon caught my eye. Sass moved toward the front and I saw her smile below her usual heap of bright red hair. We hugged and I was reminded how surreal it always is meeting someone you know well in a place so far removed from your reality.
Sass had been in Hyderabad training English teachers for several months at that point. She herself has been traipsing the globe for years teaching the huddled masses yearning to be conversant in the language of Shakespeare or at least one of his less articulate descendants. Her passport boasts some interesting assignments but India had proven to be the most challenging. More on that later.
It was a little after midnight in Hyderabad, and we had to wait at the airport for our mutual friend, Kory, who was flying in from New York about two hours later. The three of us were going to do India for a couple of weeks. I knew better than to expect to be able to “do” any place, whether India or Indianapolis, in just fourteen days but I knew we would try with varied success and maybe even redefine success along the way.
Sass and I headed towards a narrow airport bar somewhere on the western end of the arrival hall. I dropped my luggage to the floor and Sass ordered a large bottle of King Fisher beer for us to share. The waiter came back to the table and presented the bottle to Sass like a Beaujolais. She pressed her index finger to the side of it and then looked right at the waiter with a half-smile. “No, bhaiyya, it’s not cold. I want it very cold.” The waiter hesitated slightly as he turned and headed back towards the bar.
“‘Bhaiya?’ A friend of yours?”
“Bhaiya means ‘brother’ in Hindi.”
Our brother soon returned to the table with a bottle that seemed to please Sass’s finger and he cracked it open. We talked as long as I could keep my eyes open and well past that. Having my way with so many time zones in such a short span was nothing new but doing it after a final all night, highball-fueled romp through Tokyo with my brothers had left me about as engaging as a parking meter. As the King Fisher disappeared, the bar started to fill up with college kids and middle-class twenty-somethings. They were all wearing western clothes — no saris, no forehead adornment — and didn’t look they were traveling anywhere. We could only guess they were there just to hang out at the airport bar. Was this a sad commentary on Hyderabad’s nightlife or does room temperature King Fisher put the butts in the seats?
Sass and I marveled at that as we made our way back to the escalators our exhausted friend Kory was descending. She had left JFK over a day earlier and had arrived via Qatar. She had her own arrival smile but hers was the kind you have after a dental procedure; weary and half-numb. After our hugs, we headed to the long escalators that took us outside of the airport and to the taxi stand. It was about three in the morning but it didn’t mean anything. The night air was only slightly warm and breezes ran over us like cool silk. Sass walked to the taxis and car services and began to haggle with the smoking drivers. She held her own and got what she considered a good price on a ride to her place in town. The ride through the darkness was uneventful and felt like countless taxi rides for me. The view finally got interesting when Hyderabad’s buildings crept across the windows. It was fairly quite at that hour but there was still some commotion on the streets.
After about forty-five minutes of dozing in and out in the passenger side, holy Vishnu finally came into view. The Vishnu apartment building in what seemed a middle class neighborhood was where Sass hung her scarves. She told us that the other residents referred to her as Madame in the Penthouse. Madame led us through the compact parking garage. She introduced us to the caretaker who had been napping on a makeshift mattress next to a car. He seemed like a good guy from the twelve seconds I interacted with him.
Sass then led us to an old-timey elevator in the corner of the garage that had an ancient female recording telling us to close the door once we were inside her snug confines. In fact, Kory and I had to go up first because Sass couldn’t fit with our luggage inside. Two weeks of eating my weight in green tea Kit-Kats didn’t help either. Madame Elevator let us out on a huge rooftop terrace with room enough for two helicopters or a medium-size pterodactyl. You could see out to the surrounding neighborhood of Somajiguda, the uneven buildings lit up unevenly.
We went inside Sass’s massive, yet spartan, three-bedroom, three-bathroom spread. Just one of the perks of teaching abroad through a respected university is to be given an apartment big enough to accommodate an entire village. The place was barely furnished so our echoes bounced off the marble floors and ricocheted off the rigid hard wood. Too wired to go straight to bed, we caught up and exchanged some gifts. Then we crashed hard, each in our separate, spacious quarters.
We planned to really get out there and explore when the sun came up which was only a few hours away. The India I was somewhat hoping for, yet knew better than to expect, had to wait. The only thing tiding me over was that small statue of Ganesha draped in flowers and beads on a tiny shelf in the lobby across from the elevator. The Hindu god, usually depicted with an elephant’s head in some shade of red, among his many monikers, happened to be the god of beginnings. Not knowing that at the time and not being even a little superstitious, I thought it would make for a good photo and who knows, maybe a good omen.
WHAT: a well-adorned Ganesha, in Pepto pink
WHEN: December 15, 2013
WHERE: Somajiguda, Hyderabad, Andrah Pradesh, India