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Vol. XXXI No. 9, August 16-31, 2021

Returning to Chennai during a pandemic

by Vallabha Srinivasan

The day had come for my return to India from the US. The trip had been four months in the offing — it took a full month to plan for it and three more to tide over the second covid wave that had hit my city.

The day before I was due to travel, I found myself sneezing and coughing. A swab was duly taken of my nasopharynx or nostril, as it’s commonly called, and handed over to CVS pharmacy for the notorious RTPCR test. My son was not happy and gazed at my other nostril.

“What?” I asked.

“Let’s take another test amma. What if the sample wasn’t enough? What if the lab guy goes on holiday, this being a weekend? What if they don’t mention reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction as required by the airlines?”

And so a second swab was taken. I was thankful I had only two nostrils. Then again, travelling in a pandemic has its own repercussions, no?

The tests successful, I marched to the JFK airport with paraphernalia in hand – the tickets, the vaccine certificates, the RTPCR reports 1 & 2, the Air Suvidha self-declaration form, TN E-pass, two boxes of idli-molaga-podi and of course my passport. The check-in was seamless and I boarded the flight soon enough.

14 hours of near-constant baby wails while struggling with double masks and face shield brought me to Delhi. Things would have been easier for me if covid spread through the ears instead of the nose. I then boarded the connecting flight to Chennai, well-armed with my kavach.

Upon arrival at Chennai, the passengers were split into two groups – those disembarking at Chennai and those going onward to Hyderabad. The rest of us were waiting for our turn after the business class passengers. Suddenly, two airport staff get into the plane and call out, “Vallabha Srinivasan!” I reflexively stood up and stared at them, taken aback.

A lady staff behind me asked, “Ma’am, are these your cabin luggage?” “Uh..uh..yes?” I said, puzzled. My questioning tone went unnoticed, so I decided to dutifully follow my cabin luggage, which was being hoisted away by the staff. As I was escorted out of the flight, one of them said, “Do you have the RTPCR reports? Keep it ready in hand ma’am.” Another suddenly said, “Give me your passport and boarding pass,” and pulled them out of hand. With that, I became quite nervous. I could feel my heart thumping against my ribs as I asked, “Where are we going?” The reply was a rather ominous, “Vangamma. We will take you.”

I wondered if there was anything amiss. Did they find anything suspicious in my check-in baggage? Was I to be interrogated? I remembered scenes from hit movies which featured tough authorities demanding answers. “Lashkar-e-Taiba vaa? Al-Qaeda vaa?” Was I going to face a real-life Balram Naidu?

I tried to remember what I had packed in my check-in bags. It’s usually the thenkuzhal soppu that’s the culprit – Americans tend to make a big fuss about it. They usually hold it up suspiciously and ask, “What is this?” “That, sir.. is a mould that we use to make traditional snacks. See, you put wet flour into this end and one designer snack comes out the other end,” I would explain, like Mouli describing Nadaswaram. Everytime this thenkuzhal soppu only creates a problem. But then, these people in Chennai presumably know what it is. Maybe it’s the Bounty kitchen towel rolls that are alarming them.

All these thoughts ran in my mind as I hurriedly followed the staff through the Chennai airport. We were finally stopped at a desk. “Is she the one?” demanded the man at the desk, grabbing my boarding pass. The situation looked increasingly serious and I was truly nervous. The man took away my boarding pass and I was summarily handed over to another person with instructions to collect the check-in baggage and proceed to immigration. This person carried my cabin luggage, went to the conveyer belt, pulled out my check-in baggage and loaded them on the trolley. To my consternation, he didn’t even allow me to touch them.

The immigration got over in a jiffy. I had my E-pass loaded on my iPad, since I hadn’t taken a print out. The person who had helped me with my luggage was then instructed to help me board the vehicle. Maybe I was to be interrogated at some other facility. My hands and feet were cold. I asked him if I could call my husband.

“Yes, please. He is the one driving the vehicle mentioned in the E-pass, correct?”

“Yes, of course.”

As I replied, I saw my husband outside the glass panel, innocently taking photographs. Suddenly, I felt a deep sense of pity for him. If only he knew the gravity of the situation.

“Where is the vehicle, sir?” asked the man. My husband led him to the car as he brought along my luggage all the way to the parking lot and loaded them in my boot and noted down the license plate number. Having finished his job, he said, “Take care, sir,” and left, leaving me flabbergasted.

Presumably, I was the only traveller received at Chennai airport from the New York JFK – New Delhi – Chennai route. Passengers from various parts of the US like Chicago, San Francisco or New York are all pooled together in Delhi and are sent to their respective final destinations in one flight, with stopovers along the way – in this case, Chennai and then to Hyderabad. The system ensures that the traveller goes through this route and boards only the vehicle specified in the E-pass. This makes it easier to track down a person who tests positive. Isn’t is an excellent system?

Earlier in Delhi, the boarding pass is stamped with instructions to undergo 14 days self-quarantine at home. Quite a few wheelchairs welcomed passengers at Delhi, too. I was wondering what that was all about and upon enquiring, discovered that these services were offered to passengers free of cost considering the complexities involved during travel in a pandemic. It is up to the passengers to pay the staff tips. Indeed, many were dropping their papers and passports in other airports, finding it difficult to hold everything and also carry their luggage.

Kudos to the fantastic service at Chennai airport! I was touched by the help I was offered along the way and the care extended to ensure that I had safely boarded the car. If I had a few more passengers traveling along with me, I wouldn’t have gotten anxious about the process. On my way back home, I couldn’t help singing the classic, “Sorgame endraalum adhu nam oorai pola varuma?”

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