Should we go or should we stay?

In September 2001, I took my friends, Mick and Ravi, to India with me. It was just after the abomination that was 9/11, an event that was to have repercussions throughout our trip. Indeed, the reverberations of that event are still shaping our world today, and will no doubt echo through the decades and centuries yet to come.

As a consequence of the attack,  world tension was exceptionally high, and everyone was in a constant state of anxiety over whether George.W.Bush was going to overreact and launch a retaliatory attack on Afghanistan or Iraq, thus drawing the entire Muslim world into conflict. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had, but I just didn’t want to be there when he did.

The possibility of war was a particular fear of ours. Our trip included a week touring Rajasthan on the magnificent “Palace on Wheels” train, which goes all the way up to the very borders of Pakistan. The relevance of this was that India and Pakistan were having one of their regular bellicose disputes over Kashmir at the time. They obviously didn’t need the Americans stirring things up in Afghanistan added to the mix. More importantly, neither did we!

On a more positive note, it also meant that all the American tourists had been scared off and cancelled. Thus, we would have the train more or less to ourselves.

Although this book is a personal memoir of a trip that had a profound effect on my own very peculiar outlook on life, I like to think that it also touched those of Mick and Ravi too. Hopefully, we are all better people for the experience. I certainly feel that I am.

After 9/11, all flights throughout the world were disrupted for days and weeks, with most being cancelled. Unless of course, your name was Bin Laden, in which case George W would grant special exemptions for your family to fly back to Saudi Arabia. Nothing suspicious there then for conspiracy theorists to get their teeth into!

I had booked us Business Class on Air India from London Heathrow to New Delhi. Actually, I had initially scheduled myself Business Class, with Mick and Ravi in Cattle Class, but after a last-minute guilt trip, I upgraded them to Business Class. I am nothing if not a generous egalitarian, particularly when I have had a few beers.

Not being Arabs nor personal friends of George W and the Bush family coterie, or even minor sucker uppers such as Tony Blair, we spent the following days praying that things would return to normal for our flight on the 14th September. Given the tense world situation at the time, we also spent those same days praying it would be cancelled.

It was not until the morning of our scheduled departure that I heard from Air India that they were hoping the flight would indeed go ahead. We should, therefore, turn up later in the day just in case it did.

So it was that, on a cold, wet and windy Autumn morning, we set off from Peterborough, UK, to drive the 120 miles down to Ravi’s brother-in-law, also called Ravi so for our purposes always referred to as Ravi Heathrow. Once there, we would park our car, and he would drop us off at nearby London Heathrow for our six pm flight.

Heathrow Terminal 3
Heathrow Terminal 3

Such a simple plan, but naturally, with Ravi being Indian by birth and having the world’s largest extended family, nothing is ever that simple. When we arrived at Ravi Heathrow’s house, the entire UK chapter of the Pathak clan seemed to have gathered to see us off. This, of course, meant lots of introductions followed by generous hospitality involving much eating, drinking, and general merrymaking.

Sometime during the impromptu bon voyage party, it was decided that the entire extended family would come with us to the airport to see us off. There then ensued a further delay while they debated who was still sober enough to drive. Eventually, we set off in a convoy of half a dozen or more cars to Terminal Three to check-in.

Unfortunately, we had forgotten about the British obsession with pre-booking, and the lack of ad hoc parking facilities at Heathrow. After circling the complex half a dozen times, searching in vain for short term spaces, things were looking grim. Then Rakesh, the Coventry Rakesh, not the Peterborough one, remembered that he had a second cousin twice removed by marriage, who was a manager of one of the short term car parks. A couple of calls on Rakesh Coventry’s mobile and it was sorted.

When our somewhat tipsy party finally arrived at departures, the terminal was packed with a diverse melting pot of the world’s ethnic groups, all trying to get back to their native lands on the still minimal number of airlines that had been given permission to resume flying. Not a problem for us as we were flying Business class and so had special fast check-in privileges. Oh dear! Wishful thinking strikes again.

Three hours later, we were still stuck in the departure hall, queuing in a line of very agitated, and increasingly desperate people, all trying to get home when a bomb hoax spread panic throughout the airport. It looked highly likely that our flight would be cancelled. Personally, I didn’t care a toss as it gave me an excuse to go outside for a last cigarette and I was half-cut anyway.

Ravi Heathrow was happy though. He immediately offered to put us all up at his place and dispatched young Raj, a third cousin thrice removed, off to purchase enough booze to get us through the night. Ravi Heathrow was looking forward to a party!

Of course, our Ravi’s wife, Anita, was not at all pleased with the prospect of a cancellation.  She had been looking forward to getting hubby out of her hair for a few weeks. It was her intention to settle down on the couch with a large bottle or two of Sancerre, and watch her entire collection of Bollywood movies. Having Ravi whining on about missing EastEnders would be an unwelcome distraction.

As for the rest of our send-off delegation, they decided that either way, it was as good an excuse as any to get a few more drinks down their parched throats and so they set off on a mission to find an airport bar.

The next few hours passed by in a blur, with one of we three amigos, armed with a mobile phone (note that we didn’t have smartphones in those days), keeping our place in the queue, whilst the other two joined the, by now, very merry members of the Pathak clan in the departures lounge bar.

Unfortunately, when the call to board finally came, it was Mick’s turn on line duty. We had overlooked the fact that using any sort of technology falls under Mick’s “I don’t/can’t do that” list and he couldn’t work out how to call us.

By pure chance, I noticed that the departures board for our flight was now stridently flashing “Final Call” and so Ravi and I swiftly departed the bar to calls of “Ashi Yatra Ho”; “Jaida nasha na karna” and in Anita’s case “Apna Lunn apni pant ma rakhna.” For those of you not familiar with Hindi, I am assured that these particular phrases roughly translate to “Have a good trip”; “Do/Don’t get drunk” and “Keep your Dunda in your trousers.”

We made it back just in time before the gate closed. As we went through, I could still hear the muffled refrains of what I presumed was the Hindi version of “Four and twenty virgins came down from Chittagong,” drifting from the bar.

Even then, it was a close call as security was, as you would expect, exceptionally tight. We only managed to get through when I drunkenly volunteered Mick for a body cavity search. That was too much even for those hardened security professionals, and they ushered us swiftly past. To this day, I wonder if Mick was secretly disappointed. I know I was. It would have made a great story!

So it was that we belatedly boarded our plane. Somewhat tired and pretty wasted to be honest, but nonetheless, relieved to collapse into our lovely comfortable Business Class seats.

Our Indian adventure had begun.

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